MY OWN FILM SCHOOL
There are some jobs that bring about as much pain and rejection as they do inspiration and success. Screenwriting might be at the top of that list of professions. For every motivational tale of years spent toiling, hunched over the keyboard finally resulting in a six-figure sale, there are thousands of writers who continue to pound keys in front of just the pale, blue glow, still dreaming of being illuminated by a larger spotlight.
Beginning writers are known to try everything in order to fulfill these dreams. They spend hours scanning the internet for names of agents and managers. They find work on any movie set they can in order to thicken their contact list. They debate shelling out another huge sum of money to go back to class and attend film school.
I had taken all of these roads and always found myself in a similar situation. It wasn’t until almost two years after starting my full-time pursuit of a writing career that I finally stumbled onto something that would change the way I worked. I created a Film School for myself.
Without thousands of dollars in the bank, having already taken too much money from my parents and with no desire to acquire massive student loans, Film School was never a viable option for me. This was an unfortunate fact because I liked school. I enjoyed learning more about my passions and being able to put my newfound knowledge to use.
Yet, I was twenty-six years old, living at home with two degrees in a manila envelope and working catering and production assistant jobs to make money. Which was when the idea for my own private film school finally struck.
As a student, I had been a more effective worker when I was forced to fit into the guidelines of a school setting. Additionally, I had experience writing curriculum and teaching classes when I completed my Masters in Education. So why not create a similar setting in the comfort of my own home? (well, my parents’ home).
Using nothing more than the internet, iTunes, a DVD player and my laptop, I was able to fashion a Film School specifically designed for my own talents and interests and started becoming a more productive writer. All it took was four basic steps.
Step One: Curriculum
From thousands of topics than can be learned, it’s essential to whittle down the list to aspects of writing or filmmaking that are most pressing to you now. I wanted to learn about promoting my movies and trying to secure an agent, but until I had a movie in the can or enough scripts that I felt comfortable selling, I knew those issues could wait. So, I started my first semester with the basics. Even if I felt that I knew enough about screenwriting to create good work, I was aware that learning more would only make me better. There were two main avenues I searched for material: books and podcasts.
Books seem obvious enough. There are hundreds of books written on screenwriting, from writers, producers, directors or teachers. Scouring through reviews and reading previews, I was able to compile a list of a few that I felt would be most beneficial. I started with the “must-haves” on any reading list and added Story by Robert McKee and Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field. From there, I added two books that were highly recommended to me: Save The Cat by Blake Snyder and The Screenwriters Bible by David Trottier. Having so far read each one except for Syd Field’s book, I am most drawn to the format and language of Blake Snyder and found many of his exercises to be extremely helpful.
The less obvious choice for information was podcasts. With the proliferation of podcasts nowadays, it’s easy to find information in an accessible format on almost any topic. Since I was getting most of my “how to” and technical information from books, I turned to the podcasts for intimate knowledge that could only be possible from talking to screenwriters themselves. There are a couple of shows that have regular interviews with writers/directors in which I was able to pick up on tricks and processes that only a seasoned pro would know. Not to mention learning the stories of how these writers got started, which was particularly comforting since there seems to be no “right way.” For me, the two best options to hear such stories are the Creative Screenwriting podcast with Jeff Goldsmith (which has since been discontinued, but can still be found on iTunes) and the aforementioned Mr. Goldsmith’s new podcast Q&A.
Step Two: Research
In addition to learning, it was important that I see how these techniques were put into practice. This was my favorite step as it got me back to what made me want to be a screenwriter in the first place: watching movies.
I compiled a list of movies that I either fell in line with the style that I felt was similar to my own or were written by writers that I looked up to. I was then able to screen these movies for myself, paying special attention to the structural and formulaic elements that the books described as being of major importance in all films. Since I was in the midst of writing what could be categorized as a “Coming of Age” story, I selected movies from similar genres. I re-watched favorites Almost Famous and Garden State and discovered The Wackness and The Last Picture Show.
Taking a recommendation from one of Blake Snyder’s books, I created Beat Sheets for all the films, taking note of when and how acts shift and when the B story line is created, etc. This step gave me a real appreciation for just how important structure is in a screenplay. Even the most unique stories, such as Garden State, hit most of the key structural points for plot twists. It’s an art form.
Step Three: Experience
One of the greatest elements of school is being able to learn a range of skills by doing the work needed to acquire the knowledge. Since reading and listening can only teach you so much, it becomes essential to actually do. For me that meant one thing: getting on set.
Living in New York, this step was easier for me than most. I simply tracked down PA jobs through my previous work contacts or any of a number of helpful online sites (Mandy.com is a personal favorite). As I was always told: in order to be a writer, you need to understand how your words will be brought to life.
I found my first job working on the set of the short-lived CW series The Beautiful Life: TBL where I lost my job in a mid-shoot meeting along with hundreds of other workers when the show was cancelled. I then found subsequent work part-time on Gossip Girl, Damages, Wall Street 2 and many others.
If you haven’t been on set, you can’t have a complete grasp of the process of bringing a movie to life. When you’re able to understand how each shot is lit, blocked, filmed, etc. you are able to craft scenes that make it easier for all of these elements to mesh together in harmony. Thus, you are able to write scripts that will turn into better movies.
Step Four: Write
This seems a little far down for the reason why I created my film school, but I learned that patience is a virtue in writing as well. It’s easy to dive into a document and start typing away. You may think your ideas are fleshed out and your characters are full, but chances are, you’re going to run into some problems along the way, whether you know it or not while writing. By giving yourself the time to research and organize your thoughts before writing, the story comes together in a much clearer and stronger form.
I picked one project that I wanted to focus the majority of my attention on and another project that I would use as a secondary assignment. For me, it’s always important to take a break and step back from a project, but I wanted to still have something to work on. This meant, having one script that was fully outlined and I was ready to begin typing, and having another project that I was still crafting in my head; figuring out the characters, the plot points etc.
My Film School is only one semester old and I don’t have any heart-warming sale to show for it, but the difference in my productivity and overall knowledge of craft is astounding. My brain is working at a faster pace and I’m putting out work that I am more confident in than anything else I had finished prior. Not to mention the fact that my days are fun again. In a grueling quest that frequently leaves me beaten down, that’s not a bad way to spend my time.
Eric Samulski is a writer/filmmaker born and raised in NYC. His writing has been accepted in The MacGuffin and the Gotham Gazette. He is currently working on a web-series and serves as an Associate Producer at Tenth Man Productions.