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Interview with Richard Walter, Chair of the UCLA Screenwriting Program

By Patrick A. Horton, PhD
the story coach / wind & thunder productions

I met with Richard Walter, legendary chair of UCLA’s screenwriting program in anticipation of the release of his new book, Essentials of Screenwriting (available in stores now). The notion of interviewing him came up in a telephone conversation about trends in the industry in teaching, creating, and promoting story as well as his impending return as a revered speaker at the Screenwriting Expo in October.  I looked forward to the encounter in its own right, and felt privileged to be able to help promote one of the enduringly influential and important voices in our industry – in part because I very much agree with so much of what he has to say and think it important to be heard.

Anyone who has ever spoken with him knows in advance, it was a wide ranging and occasionally careening conversation with an expansive mind at its peak and a heart so full of passion for what he does. He often speaks with hands raised and gesturing as though conducting a symphony of words and images, a genuine love of story filling the room. I share the following portions of that conversation not so much just to promote a single book (as singularly important as it is), but as a reminder of the importance of the voice behind it and as an additional reminder to heed its timeless and timely dedication to story, craft, and the enduring essentials of narrative. All I can say is, you should have been there. This is truly a man who takes delight in story, our industry, and guiding others through their intertwined personal and professional journeys of life, craft, and creativity.

PH – Some of the things I have long admired about you and that seem most timely with your new book coming out is your ongoing commitment to quality of story, the genuine mastery of craft – especially in an industry that is going through such rapid change.

RW – To some extent, but that is of secondary importance. People often get their priorities mixed up because it is easier to think about industry issues like that than to deal with story. The obsession is with everything except story and I think the reason people avoid story is because it is so difficult to really, really, tell a good story and it is just underappreciated, the challenge that represents.

PH – Yes. And there are so many groups and events that have fed into the notions that you just need to meet the right people and have the right idea, and generally succeed by some kind of magic osmosis in just being in the presence of successful people - with more emphasis on analytic mechanics rather than story.  What were you after or want to bring into relief with this new book?

RW –  My basic principles remain the same. Nothing has changed since Aristotle. Aristotle never talked about three act structure – he talked about beginnings, middles, and ends. What I think I have discovered is the relationship between the fictional narrative and the life narrative. The fictional narrative, be it in a novel or a screenplay or an opera is, with its beginning, middle, and end – if it is good – is an idealized, romanticized model of a human life. I believe that every ideal narrative is a model of the human life and that leads to a third consideration – which is really in the center of my last book and is emphasized and underscored and brought into a more palpable relief  here – and that is that all narratives are really thematically about the same thing: identity. Every work of art is a portrait of the artist who created it.

I remember I was leaning over a water fountain just down the hall here and suddenly it dawned on me what marks the current age is the disappearance of borders and boundaries. There is no more East and West.   You can go to Shanghai and you could be in the Banana Republic, The Gap, and it does not matter where you are. You are in the same place all around the world. Women do what men used to do. Men do what women used to do. There are no longer borders or boundaries, and the implications are sweeping. Increasingly movies are becoming enterprises without borders and boundaries, world phenomena that blend and blur myriad experiences into a common entity.  

PH – What prompted you to write a new book now?

RW – This book vastly updates and revises my previous two books treating screenwriting, folds them into each other, and also presents a whole bunch of new material. I have had a lot of experience since then as a writer, and that experience is leveraged by my very intimate experience working with other writers both here on campus and throughout the industry. I have the experience of many writers. So much new stuff has occurred, I really wanted to address that.

PH – What impact if anything would you like your book to have on writers and perhaps the industry itself or the people they have to deal with?

RW – I want to think that they will be able to write better scripts and to recognize that is the best way to deal with the industry, to write more effectively and to have a script truly ready when you submit it. The simple goal is to allow writers to write stronger material. If writers do that, the business works itself out. I have in this book about seventy-five principles that emerge and one of them is that screenwriting is not about the movie business; the movie business is about screenwriting. Even the town seems to understand. There is the famous statement by Thalberg in the 30’s that writers are the most important people in the business and we producers have to do everything in our power to keep them from knowing that. So, it really is about the writing. Writers have power over what?  They have the power over the quality of their scripts.

PH – And what is the missing element there?

RW –  Time. You’ve got to put in the time. I said to a writer friend the other day "How are you doing?" He said, "Much better now." I said, "What’s up?" He said, "For nine months I sat and struggled with this script and was almost done but just couldn’t finish it. I kept procrastinating and getting distracted and it just haunted me and ate me up and finally I sat down and drew the shade and just buckled down and at long last got through the draft in a single weekend. I finished it up. It works well and my agent likes it and there are already overtures." I said, "That sounds like nothing but joy. What are you bothered about?"  "I’m bothered that I wasted all that time. I should have done that nine months ago and spared myself from all this heartache." I said, "You couldn’t have done that nine months ago. You needed to suffer and struggle and live these nine months in order to become the different person you are now, a writer who is finally able to do that." I like to tell people, time is what your life is made of. It is the currency of life. It means that if you’re serious about writing, you have to give it your life.

PH – Do you think it requires a strict or rigid plan?

RW – Deepok Chopra says it’s a fundamental mistake to attach to any act in your life an expected outcome. That to do otherwise is merely a recipe for frustration, a formula for disappointment. The mistake writers make is they attach to the act of writing the script the expectation of selling it and they don’t understand that from the get-go this will prevent the sale. First of all they don’t understand that when a script does not sell, that is not the end but just the beginning. There’s a whole array of possibilities that comes from an unsold script and there are some certainties that come of it, too. You will be a better writer for having written that script. You are going to have more inventory. Every screenwriter is an entrepreneur, a small business owner. Inventory is a basic element of business. I’ve seen people get development deals based on scripts that did not sell. I’ve seen them win representation.  The hardest part is to stay open to the surprises. And, again, you have to do that not only in your script narrative but also in your life narrative. You don’t want to drag narrative back to some intellectualized analytic notion that you had earlier. You just have to get out of your own way.

PH – And what about following or jumping on trends - the most common advice almost everyone gives new writers?

RW –That is the problem with trends, isn’t it? Trend means two things. One, that it was already in motion with projects being developed before any were successes and helped set the trend. Secondly, trends change as new scripts and projects take years to develop. Trends change. The biggest problem with writing to trend is you cannot write fast enough to cash in on it and are up against everyone else chasing the same trend. I tell people to do the opposite. Write against trends. Start new trends. That way you will stand out.

PH – It is clear that after decades of doing what you are doing, you are still exuberantly passionate about all this. What do you impart to your students facing such a seemingly impossible industry with literally thousands more lined up at the door than could ever break in?

RW –  I tell them that every well established writer, without exception, was once totally, wholly unknown and inexperienced. Regarding the competitive nature of the business, I tell them that they are literally trying to traffic in their own imagination. They’re trying to sell their dreams. We get paid, writers do, for what other people get scolded for, which is daydreaming. So, why wouldn’t you expect a lot of people to compete for that? You’d better be able to compete. Let’s face it, you and I both know that to read the first page of a screenplay and to want to turn that page is rare. And to do that for a hundred to a hundred and five pages? If you can do that you will succeed. But you have to give it the time. The reason not everybody succeeds is they don’t give it the time.

As for what continues to fire me up? I have the best job in the world.

For more information and to buy Richard Walter’s new book, visit www.richardwalter.com.

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