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RICHARD WALTER has been chairman of UCLA’s graduate screenwriting program for more than thirty years. A novelist and screenwriter himself, he lectures and offers master classes throughout the nation and the world.
“The prime broker for Hollywood’s hottest commodity: new writing talent.”
—Wall Street Journal
“The Jewish mother of screenwriting.”
“Screenwriting is full of the expertise of someone who knows what makes movies worth writing, making, and seeing . . . [Richard Walter] instructs with wit, common sense, and love for his art and craft.”
—Steven Bach, author of Final Cut
“In the gold rush atmosphere of screenwriting, Richard Walter is a wise guide. A lively and provocative book.”
—Andrew Bergman, writer/director of The Freshman and Honeymoon in Vegas
“Richard Walter, a writer himself, is the only person teaching screenwriting who knows what the f*^% he’s talking about.”
—Joe Eszterhas, writer of Basic Instinct and Flashdance
The Art, Craft, and Business
of Film and Television Writing
Professor and Screenwriting Chairman, UCLA
My experience editing hundreds upon hundreds of screenplays over the decades positions me uniquely well to appreciate the importance of editing and also the qualities characterizing a worthy editor. There is none worthier than Nadia Kashper, wise beyond her years, without whose support this book would constitute not much more than a catalogue of Richie’s Greatest Hits.
I salute also the attention and consideration afforded me by my earlier editors at Plume: Arnold Dolin, Gary Luke, and Peter K. Borland.
For my leonine agent, Peter Miller: roars.
Eternal gratitude to my longtime pal and partner in Westwood Professor Hal Ackerman and also to Lew Hunter and all our UCLA colleagues over many wonderful years.
My writing and teaching continues to be informed and expanded by the spirit of my own teacher, the late and legendary Irwin R. Blacker.
Finally, as always, with love to Pat, for reminding me daily just who I am and what it is that truly matters, and for providing me with more fun and inspiration than any mere movie.
When citing movies and television shows, the names of all credited writers are provided the first time the title appears in the book.
The God Game
In the early 1970s, while I was still nominally a film student but had been writing professionally for a couple of years, the Writers Guild went on strike.
May I confess here and now that I loved the strike?
By that time I’d written half a dozen feature screenplays for the studios and had earned a steady, even a substantial living. At that precise moment, however, I was “between assignments”—Hollywood’s euphemism for out of work—and I did not, therefore, have to abandon any post.
The bright side of unemployment is that you cannot be fired.
It was springtime in Los Angeles and, notwithstanding my still-fresh New York chauvinism, I could not deny the season’s sweetness. I resided in a comfy, cozy cottage with a bright yard and plentiful fruit trees. There were birds, possums, raccoons, and skunks. I even liked the skunks. I noodled around in my head with a notion for a novel, but mainly, from my knotty-pine-paneled, north-light study, I stared serenely at the snowcapped San Gabriel Mountains.
Twice a week Guild members were required to present ourselves at a particular studio—my assignment was Paramount—and walk the picket line for three hours. I eagerly anticipated each round. It got me out of doors and into the sunshine, caused me ever so slightly to utilize my muscles. Best of all, for the first time in my life I met regularly with other writers.
Parading with my colleagues up and back before the studio’s Bronson Gate, conversation was endless. We talked sports. We talked weather. We talked cars. We talked Watergate.
Mainly we talked writing; not the profound, penetrating issues regarding beauty and truth but the hard-bitten nuts/bolts considerations, working writers’ shoptalk: hand-cranked versus electric pencil sharpeners, standard versus legal-size ruled yellow pads, felt-tipped markers versus ballpoint pens, liquid Wite-Out versus cut-rate bulk generic correction fluid available by the half gallon at an office supply outlet on Lake just north of Colorado in Pasadena.
Spoiled brats that we were, as all writers are and have been since the invention of writing in ancient Sumer five thousand years ago, we inventoried the injustices visited upon us by our oppressors: agents, actors, executives, the pal-of-the-producer hack who had rewritten and wrecked our latest draft, the director who had botched and butchered our otherwise flawless triumph, the literary manager who had refused to take or return our calls, the spouse, offspring, parent, pal, pet, or potted plant who had neglected to pay ample homage to our timeless and eternal genius.
Walking that line, talking with my fellows, amid all of the showbiz gossip I discovered a startling, liberating precept. I present it here as the first among many essential principles we’ll underscore from time to time throughout this volume.
Principle 1: All writers hate to write.
It is not I alone who dreads the blank page, who struggles daily to drag himself to his desk, who dawdles and procrastinates and picks lint from the carpet to avoid applying fingers to keys. Those nasty habits belong, I realized, to all writers.
Writers love having written, but we hate to write.
This may appear cynical, but it is simply a statement of observed fact. To sit hour upon hour in an empty room, attempting to fill blank paper—or, these days, glowing LCD screens—with story, character, and dialogue worthy of the time, attention, and consideration of an audience is as lonely as life gets. Writing, like banging your head against the wall, feels terrific mainly when you stop.
On the picket line, putting one foot in front of the other along Melrose, turning the corner at Van Ness, we inventoried the clever and elaborate methods by which the lot of us evade our task. One writer described a technique he had developed whereby he gazed blankly from his window at traffic; as soon as the fourteenth car bearing Nebraska plates drove past, he started writing. Another claimed he would put cool, quiet jazz on the stereo in the background, sharpen all his pencils, lay out neat, fresh stacks of heavy-gauge rag-content bond, test his typewriter ribbon, and then, at long last . . . defrost his refrigerator.
This is not to deny that there are soaring, triumphant moments attendant to writing. Professional screenwriters are paid, after all, for the very same activity that earns civilians reprimand: daydreaming.
To write, however, is far more than merely to dream.
Principle 2: To write is to play God.
As God created the universe, writers create the universe of our screenplays. If we want it to rain, it rains. If we are weary of rain and covet sunshine, out comes the sun. If we get mad at somebody and want to kill him—who has never wanted to kill somebody?—a screenwriter kills him. Afterward, should he...