Screenwriting Advice, in Six Seconds or Less
The first Oscar for Best Original Screenwriting, awarded during a brisk fifteen-minute ceremony that took place over the clinking sounds of dinner in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 1929, went to Ben Hecht, though he very nearly did not win. Hecht, then thirty-five years old, won for “Underworld,” the first screen story he wrote after arriving in Hollywood from New York. Hecht’s eighteen-page treatment for the silent gangster film was populated with the sort of nefarious, grimy characters he once reported on for the metro desk of the Chicago Daily News. He wrote the story in defiance of traditional Hollywood tropes—his “Underworld” contained no heroes, just villains. If Hecht had learned anything as a newsman, it was that crime and gore sell more papers than virtue. Hecht was appalled, then, to learn that the director, Josef von Sternberg, had injected a dose of sentimentality by showing a mobster give charity to a beggar after robbing a bank. “You poor ham,” Hecht wrote to Sternberg in a telegram. “Take my name off the film.” His name stayed.
Hecht stayed, too, despite his ire at the system, becoming one of the most prolific screenwriters in town—and the highest paid. (His ability to churn out witty, fast-moving scripts in as little as two weeks, and never more than eight, is now legend; he is often called the “Shakespeare of Hollywood.”) But Hecht never really got comfortable. The man who wrote “His Girl Friday,” “Some Like it Hot,” “Scarface,” and “Notorious,” who became a favorite of Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and David O. Selznick, hated Los Angeles. Or, rather, he hated what Los Angeles was doing to his brain. He used his show-business earnings to buy time away from show business—he spent the months he was not beholden to studio moguls in his native New York, writing novels, plays, essays, his serious work.
In 1954, ten years before he died, Hecht published his memoir, “A Child of the Century,” to wide acclaim from the New York literary establishment, a reception that likely meant far more to him than the Academy Award. In it, he savaged the industry that had given him a living. “A movie is never any better than the stupidest man connected with it,” he wrote. “Out of the thousand writers huffing and puffing through movieland there are scarcely fifty men and women of wit and talent … Yet, in a curious way, there is not much difference between the product of a good writer and a bad one. They both have to toe the same mark.”
Hecht recalled that most of his time as a screenwriter was spent sitting in a producer’s office wondering why he had to rewrite his best bits: “Why must I strip the hero of his few semi-intelligent remarks and why must I tack on a corny ending that makes the stomach shudder? Half of all the movie writers argue in this fashion. The other half writhe in silence, and the psychoanalyst’s couch or the liquor bottle claim them both.”
The historian David Thomson wrote that Hecht died, along with his friend and “Citizen Kane” co-writer Herman Mankciewitz, “morose and frustrated. Neither of them had written the great books they believed possible.” Theirs isn’t a unique story, at least in the studio-system era. Hollywood screenwriting was, in its early years, a profession populated by unhappy Eastern writers searching for a big paycheck out West and finding California deprived of intellect—a folly and a punch line.
But things have changed. Screenwriting has become a desirable outlet for artists, detached from the gruelling contract work of the big studios. Being a screenwriter is, today, deeply connected to a love of film and television (in the early days, they didn’t know yet to fully love it), and is no longer an occupation that serious writers merely deign to do. Instead, many dream of doing it, and that dream has become an entire industry. Whereas Hecht paid his fortunes to leave, many pay theirs to learn how to stay.
Ben Hecht is the first person that Brian Koppelman mentions to me when I visit him at his office, right off Central Park on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The office, which he shares with a partner, is on the top floor of a brownstone, above a private bridge club that seems like a remnant of the Gilded Age, with its own dining room and white-napkin service. To get to Koppelman, one must take a rickety elevator with a cage door to the top floor, and climb one more flight of stairs, which open onto a decidedly modern space that could be anywhere in Los Angeles—a big oak conference-room table, framed movie posters, chunky scripts stacked at casual angles.
It’s easy to see why Koppelman cites Hecht as a spiritual writing mentor—he, too, got his start in his thirties (he is now forty-seven), and chooses to stay as far away from the slick Hollywood machine as possible when he’s not in production. He’s a plaid-shirt-and-jeans kind of guy. And, yet, Koppelman does not disdain the act of screenwriting, or feel that it has caused his brain to atrophy. He is proud of what he has done—he has written several studio films, including “Rounders,” “Oceans Thirteen,” and, most recently, the Ben Affleck vehicle “Runner, Runner”—and he does not plan to one day abandon screenwriting for some higher literary goal.
What he hates, he tells me, channelling Hecht’s twilight slash-and-burn attitude toward the business, is the industry that surrounds screenwriting, the world of how-to books and motivational retreats that cinch the craft like a belt. He hates the gurus, the seminars, the “For Dummies” guides that tell aspirants how to churn out popcorn hits. “If Ben Hecht woke up in a screenwriting genre seminar being taught in a conference room at the Radisson, I think he would puke all over everybody,” Koppelman says, with a boyish grin. “I mean, I have friends who do that, and I don’t want to sound like a jerk! But I think that, somehow, screenwriting became this golden cash cow that everyone wants a part of, and then, on top of that, the industry creates the feeling in people that there is some mystery to doing this work, and so in the end it can very easily prey on dreamers.”
Last month, Koppelman allowed these observations to bubble over into a side project, a series of short, forceful videos about screenwriting and the perils of the industry which have quickly gone viral online. He calls them Six-Second Screenwriting Lessons. Koppelman records his thoughts in tiny snippets using Vine, a social-media app that can record six seconds of video that play on a loop. As of this writing, he has made thirty-eight of them, posted almost daily, with thousands of likes, shares, and retweets. Koppelman records his lessons on the fly, usually while walking around New York, the city rushing by in the background. They are not formal or planned. He usually shoots in extreme close-up, with few blinks. His voice has the no-nonsense tone that some might describe as “real talk.”
Because of their short length and repetitive looping, his statements can take on the quality of zen koans, little mantras one might chant into belief. In Koppelman’s case, that belief is that the screenwriting-education industry is essentially fraudulent and confining, that good stories are personal and cannot be taught, and that learning how to write a script from a book is like learning how to build a rocket from a V.C.R. manual.
“For starters, what I am doing is not precious,” he says. “Vine allows me to make something disposable for free. I’m not renting out a conference room in some hotel and asking you to pay five grand to hear me speak. I’m not a gatekeeper, I don’t want to sell you anything. I just struggle every day to live in this business without cynicism, and I wanted to share that. And, suddenly, Vine came along, and it felt like a natural thing to do. The first one was an experiment, and then people seemed to really feel a desire for more. So I’m just going to keep at this.”
Koppelman’s statements on Vine are not complex. They are straightforward, simple, and affirmational, like something a quarterback might yell right before breaking the huddle:
Lesson No. 1: “All screenwriting books are bullshit, ALL. Watch movies, read screenplays, let them be your guide.”
Lesson No. 14: “Forget about contests, agents; focus on what you can control. Words, pages, and the intention behind them.”
Lesson No. 25: “When I’m stuck on a first draft, I remind myself that no one gets to see this until I say they can, which gives me permission to finish.”
Lesson No. 37: “Don’t stress about making your main characters likable or relatable. That’s development speak. Just make them fascinating, and we’ll care.”
The irony of Koppelman’s complaint, of course, is that any success that he enjoys with his mantras—and, so far, several celebrities and big-name writers, including Seth Meyers and Ed Norton, have endorsed the videos—spikes interest in Koppelman as a new kind of guru, the very kind of screenwriting-secrets-keeper that he wants to dethrone. “I’ve been asked to do a book of these things,” he says, “Or to write for some industry sites. And why would I do that? It’s hard to say, Don’t listen to anybody in this business, follow your heart and your truth, but in a public way. Because then, of course, you are sort of saying, Listen to me.”
Koppelman is big on the word “truth”—he uses it often on Vine, telling his viewers to focus inward, tell a true story, start from a truthful place. He feels, like many observers of the business, that Hollywood’s shift toward mega-franchises (and an increased reliance on foreign audiences) has led to less authentic storytelling. “And this is what I want people to get out of it,” he says. “That writing is scary, but much less scary when you do it with authentic intentions.”
“I’ve seen so many people sitting at coffee shops in L.A. reading ‘Save the Cat’ or Robert McKee’s ‘Story,’ ” he says, “And those are classic books. But they make you think only one thing is commercial, and commerce creates barriers. They think this writing is about cracking the code. My entire mission here is to say that, if you think there is a code to begin with, then you’ll never really create much of value.”
Screenwriting is a tricky medium. In its early days, writers were contract workers, word monkeys for the studios, and even the highest paid and most independent practitioners felt hamstrung by the churning maw of the studio system. The focus was on fast copy and snappy dialogue, low on intellectual challenge and high on action. Screenwriting, even now, rarely happens in a vacuum—there are producers’ notes, directors’ notes, executive notes, actor contributions. Unless the screenwriter is also the director, their work is the kind of writing over which they have the least possible control; a script is a pie with a hundred thumbs in it. So, naturally, it was not a medium that was initially given high regard by those who took writing seriously. It was a medium to fill the pocketbook. When Herman Mankiewicz lured Hecht to Hollywood, he sent a telegram that said, “Millions are to be grabbed out here and the only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” It got around.
What screenwriting tends to offer the writer who is not an auteur is money, and a great deal of it. Koppelman says that he feels the economics of the profession—the branch of writing that promises riches far greater than fiction or poetry or even journalism—cause challenging, creative ideas to fester, or, worse, never make it to the page. He mentions a handful of writer-directors, like Woody Allen and Nicole Holofcener, who manage to overcome these obstacles, but says that quality screenwriting is a cause that continues to need firebrands.
“Look, if someone decides to sit down at a keyboard and tell the truth using this medium, then we are brothers and sisters. Those are my kindred spirits. But you can’t believe how many people start screenplays with calculations about what they think Hollywood wants, and that makes boring movies. If I can get one person to stop doing that with these Vine lessons, then I think the whole industry will be better for it.”
Koppelman’s Vines (along with wildly popular screenwriting-advice sites like the one by John August) occupy a strange writer-empowerment territory that has grown up on the Web, places where seasoned practitioners of the form try to assert to their followers that there is an art to what they do, and that the art can be gradually decoded. Perhaps discussing the work this way at all, in mantras or books or seminars, zaps the art from it—many independent auteurs already understand that the best way to work around the confines of the studios is simply not to write for them, that trying to learn the secrets of writing a blockbuster is in some way admitting that commerce does, in the end, matter as much as creativity. But Koppelman feels that the need for someone to do what he’s doing on Vine far outweighs the drawbacks. Every video he posts is met with people who are “grateful just to hear that someone else out there struggles, and wants it so bad, and has found a path through.”
“Screenwriting is like any other writing,” he says. “It’s lonely. It’s just you and a page. I am doing this for the people who stare at that page in fear. That was me for so long.” Film scribes don’t have to end up on the psychoanalyst’s couch or defeated by an industry that began by not valuing the writer. Koppelman, unlike Hecht, believes that screenwriting can be a writer’s most serious work. “Times have changed, and writers can run things,” he says. “But only if they are writing something honest and true and present. That’s really all I’m here to say.”
Reposted From The New Yorker