Saturday, March 14, 2015

#20. Teaching screenwriting

20.  Teaching screenwriting.

How in the world did I get so lucky?

Here's how: I kept going.

I was the sole operator and caretaker of a wild but mostly mid-range talent in which I found a kind of doggy ecstasy in doing every single day.  This alone separated me from most writers I knew.  So I figured I'd keep going until The Great Unnamed blew taps to drag my sorry ass home.

Screenwriting was fun and paid well and gave me a new definition to and for my life.  Which, despite my then thirty-five birthdays, two degrees, and a smarter-and-funnier-than-me ex-wife, up to that point had not gone all that well.  Until a year had passed with further assignments after Warner Bros. first hired me, I had no idea what to put in the 'occupation' box, filling out forms.

So in the mid-Seventies, when dynamo Gary Shusett asked me to come talk about screenwriting at his Hollywood Blvd. Sherwood Oaks Experimental College, I jumped at the chance.  He was known for getting name guests to come and talk.  It was something I had never been invited to do and the idea that someone, anyone wanted to hear what I had to say about writing was almost more than I could bear.  As I remember, I would be on a panel with Frank Pierson, Dan Teradash, and Joan Tewkesbury, writing shtarkers of the highest order.  They had more Academy Awards than I had ever seen.

I was the New Kid.

So on that dias in the huge, crowded room, I didn't say much.  I was too busy listening to those three screenwriting legends.  But when I first said something, it got a laugh.  Gary asked us to introduce our credits.  Frank, Dan, and Joan were circumspect, even a little shy but out rolled these Academy Award credits.  Christ, you could die and be swept straight into Heaven from just hearing them.

When it came my turn I said, "This won't take long.  'Hooper.'"  Then, I added, "With Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields.  We're the one about stuntmen but no Coors Beer truck."  Laugh.  I sat down.  Frank Pierson was doubled over.  I'd made a friend.

Here is what I learned that night.  I always had a stage-fright bordering on panic.  Until I started speaking about the role of the screenplay in movies and television.  I'm sure I looked like a hippie Raymond Burr but I felt like Fred Astaire up there.  I was totally relaxed because I was talking about something I loved, something I was interested in.  What skills I had were afloat because of the sheer love of that game.  And I hadn't even discovered Syd Field's book...because, as Syd sat there that very night, he hadn't written it yet.

Afterward, he came up to me.  We had known each other from when he worked as a script reader for Fouad Said and, because he was polite and unceasingly friendly, we had always gotten along.  "I'm going to write a book on screenwriting," he said.  "Hurry," I told him.  If I'd only known how much good that book would do for so many, I would have picked him up and shaken it out of him right there.  I later learned that during this time, he was dating my ex-wife Julie.  Or I might have given him an extra shake.

That night, I also met David Franzoni, a young screenwriter from Vermont who was so good-looking, you couldn't believe he was a writer.  We're talking David Benioff Sebastian Junger handsome.  Over the years David and I formed a small but bright friendship.  He told me some of his script ideas, all good, and then he'd work like mad to realize them.

Through the years he took over my apartment on Sycamore when I bought my little house up in Laurel Canyon.  David once fought off a home invasion in that apartment and got shot in hand for his efforts.

He later set up a Roman soldier script, a classy spear-and-sandal epic he'd been working on, which, after even more work and Ridley Scott, became "Gladiator" with Russell Crowe, winning a whole raft of Oscars, including one for David!  I was up dancing in my bathrobe as I watched my boy on TV that night.  Later, I found a script he'd written for Oliver Stone on George Washington that was one of the best screenplays I have ever read.

That night, I also learned a writing/geography trick from Joan Tewkesbury.  Every now and then, she would check into some local hotel to do her writing.  The idea was to get away from the phone calls, partners, kids, pets, the daily habits of Hollywood living.  There was always something around the house to take your mind off the script.  But if you committed to the hotel, it was just you and that room and your typewriter, hammering it out.  Every time I did it, I doubled my output.  And you got room service and lots of puffy clean towels!

I came back to Sherwood Oaks as often as they'd have me.  But even I had to 'graduate.'  It happened the day I got a call from my old UCLA mentor Colin Young who had become the first chairman of the National Film and Television School in England.  He wanted to know if I'd be willing to teach a four week writers' workshop in the Spring.  They'd pay me enough to live on in London and I'd be teaching twelve students, five days a week.


And it turned out to be so much fun, I did it every spring for the next four years.  Until Colin Young got politically side-swiped by an Academy Award winning British producer who took over.  Years before, back at UCLA, I had made Colin a desk sign plate, still on his desk, that said "C. Young.  HMFICC."  That stood for Head Motherfucker in Complete Charge.  When that was over, so was I.  Chows are loyal.

That first day of the National workshop #1 was hallucinatory.  I was jet-lagged to the max as I looked around at my students crammed into department head Cherry Potter's office.

They were from England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Iceland, France, Hungary, and South Africa and the way they looked at me with curiosity and amiable suspicion made me nervous.  They appeared to be working class, middle class, and upper class; a week later I discovered I had misread almost all of it.  But, goddamn, that first week was fun.

By this time, Syd had published his book and I bought twenty of them (still have two).  When I got to England, I gave each of my new charges a copy.  "It's short," I said.  "Memorize it."  Then I added, "you'll see."  Eventually, I believe they did.

I broke them up into pairs.  Those who wanted to work together, would.  I assigned the rest.  Then, starting at 9AM, I took them two by two, each pair for an hour while I heard their story ideas.

My method of teaching, such as it is, centers around clawing a strong, clear narrative through an actual story with a beginning, middle, and an end, preferably in that order.  Once we got the 3X5 cards started, my role slid slowly from trail boss to cheerleader.

When you are doing the kind of lonely, creative work that sportswriter Red Smith described as "opening up a vein," it helps to have someone along to tell you how great and brave you are and how well it's all going.  Anything to shut those judgement voices up.  I had named mine Judge Dread and The Boys and had taken to wearing a rubber band on my wrist; every time I heard them start, I'd reach over and snap that band.  Hard.  Mary R., my therapist loved that one.

Back at the National, while we push-pinned Student One's cards up, Student Two and I commented on them to help clear the deck of unnecessary detritus.  At the end of a half hour, One and Two would switch places and we'd go again, this time with Two's cards.  At the end of the day, my head hurt.  Trying to keep one under-construction screenplay in your mind is hard, twelve is crazy making.

But as they caught onto the flow of Syd's so-called paradigm and reconciled it to their own stories, things got easier.  For all of us.  I began to get legitimately excited about their ideas and they started to gain some creative traction from my face.  If not the actual jumping up and down in joy.  I am an excitable pup.

I constantly checked in with them to make sure we were telling their story, not mine.  Every now and then, we'd have to re-box the compass and make a slight course change.  Sometimes I can sound like I know what I'm doing; you know, a man, a woman, and a gun.

Many of my former National Film School students' faces roll around in my memory to this day.  Even the most complex of them.

Niall Leonard from northern Ireland was, as the U.S. Secretary of State once called poet Ezra Pound, "a difficult individual."  And like Pound, one of our most valuable.  Young Niall was intense, suspicious, curious, kind, funny, and very creative.  I never saw him show fear of anything; maybe it was growing up in Newry.  Even though it came with some occasional eye-rolling, everyone loved him.

And finally, one girl LOVVVED him.  A beautiful young woman, Erika Mitchell was the studio managers' assistant at the film school and was as tough-minded and treasured as Niall.  Everyone was relieved and joyous at their union.  And in fact, are together today, thirty years later.  And neither of them will have to go on the dole (British welfare).

See, Erika is also known as E.L. James.  She wrote several books and a movie, a franchise high class stroke-book love story that became a Big Bang zeitgeist: "Fifty Shades of Grey."  Such Power-ball lottery success could not happen to two nicer people.

That first Writers Workshop day, Shawn Slovo's eyes seemed haunted.  She was the daughter of Joe Slovo and Ruth First who were with Nelson Mandela in the early days in South Africa.  Joe and Ruth were Jews, Commies, and not inclined to idle bullshit;  Joe ran the military wing of the Anti-Apartheid African National Congress and was thrown in prison by the ruling Afrikaans over and over.  Finally, Ruth was assassinated with a letter bomb sent by those same right wing assholes.

Shawn's early life was tumultuous.

I was told she had wanted to write about her childhood for a long time but had been blocked by the various invisible, catastrophic forces that stop writers now and then.  Yet, here she was with a little nervous smile, ready to try again.  I had paired her with Sally Anderson, a wonderful poet and wandering empath who ended up being the perfect writing partner at this point for Shawn.

So I dove right in.  "Shawn, you don't know me.  But you know Sally and you will be safe with us.  Take one of those 3X5 cards.  Okay, push-pin it to the upper left corner of the bulletin board.  Now, get a Sharpie... good.  Remember, these are just the cards, we can always change them.  So what is your first scene?"

She blurted something out.  I can't remember what it was, only that it was.  And we were off and running.  We stalled lots of times, sure, but by the time the four week workshop was over, she had all her cards, all three acts and plot points in good working order.  Somewhere, I still have a picture of her smiling proudly in front of that cursed bulletin board displaying her cards.

I haven't seen Shawn since those days but I know she wrote her screenplay called "A World Apart" and it was made and won a bunch of awards.  I don't really know how much of it was from those cards but at the very least I figure we helped break through the log-jam she'd had.  Secretly, I think to be of some use to Shawn Slovo might have been one of the reasons I was put on this earth.

I think of  those National students often, of Jo Blatchley, Leslie Manning & Andy Walker.  Also Ashley Pharoah, director Michael Caton-Jones and his then-wife Bev, Nick Harding, Polly Devlin, Gilles MacKinnon.  And a whole raft of others.  God, I loved those guys.

Some odd moments from my showbiz life...              

            Close Encounters of the Kamikaze Kind.

There were once two absurdly talented and wealthy comedy writers.  For a while everything they touched turned to gold...until they unearthed this idea: A shell-shocked L.A. cop, two steps ahead of his own scandalous divorce, is demoted to a vice case about a man who reportedly exposes himself on a freeway overpasses to the million cars streaming below him.

The name of the movie was to be the same name the LAPD calls these perps: "Weenie Wagger."  In the end, convoluted but clever, it turns out that the perp is the desperate cop himself.  I read this script.  It was good.  And very funny.  Their intention was to star no less than Johnny Carson!  And they had the connections to get to him.

The surprising good news was that apparently Johnny Carson read the script and thought it was hilarious.  The bad news was that he reportedly said he would rather have his eyelids ripped off with needle-nose pliers than be photographed even holding a copy of that script.

The  most famous guy in America, Johnny Carson, wagging his dick at a rush hour packed Hollywood Freeway?  I don't think so, Sparkie!

                  The Gas Chamber.
Back when I was in the UCLA film school, HMFICC Colin Young had 'volunteered' five or six of us to the California State Department of Prisons to do a series of short documentaries about life behind bars.  Our first prison visit was to be San Quentin up in the Bay area.

We caught a dawn flight up and spent the longest day any of us could remember in the prison library, the prison chow hall, the prison guard towers, the prison laundry, and finally, even the prison gas chamber.

This is what we'd been waiting for.

The Warden himself led that part of the tour.  It had been years since its use, and yet it was cleaned every single day, its corrugated green steel panels were spotless.  I recall a vague peppermint scent in the actual chamber.  Without asking, I quickly sat in one of the two death seats, ran my hands over the steel arms, the back, the seat itself full of drilled out holes.  For the gas that would belch up when the pellets were dropped in the acid below.  Icily, the Warden asked me to get up, that we were going into the observation room.

Once there, we were shown its features; three rows of chairs, the curtained window into the gas chamber and at the back of the room, two rows of risers, one a little higher than the other.  What's that for, one of us asked.  Then my friend Tim Huntley said, "It's for the choir."

The corrections officers didn't think that was funny at all.  But I saw a little smile on the Warden's face.  So far as I know, no movie was ever made and our prison visit was never referred to again.  Tim went on to become a prolific and well-regarded film editor.  He also wrote a great book on learning to make movies; "Film School, '69," available on Amazon.

                  The Battle of the Blues.

Back in the late Seventies, during my few days of A-listery, I worked on two projects for John Foreman and Paul Newman.  One was a stock car script I had written, an 'original' about two battling brothers, called "Double Zero."

The other was a rewrite on a script they owned called "Hillman."  It was an odd but interesting story about an off-the-grid guy who lived and worked in a city dump, happily surviving on the stuff that people throw out.  For a while I had a lock on two of Newman's loves: car racing and recycling.  Paul took to calling me "Hotrod," probably because he had forgotten my name.  I was like the four millionth writer he'd worked with in his long career.

They sent me to Tucson where Paul was shooting a Terry Malick script called "Pocket Money" in which he was co-staring with Lee Marvin.  When I got down there, I met Paul for lunch.  I was totally shocked.  He had the bluest eyes I had ever seen on a human, bluer than back in L.A.  I kind of remembered them from his early movies, but this was ridiculous.

We talked about both scripts, I took notes, he signed for the lunch tab.  This was when I noticed that he bit his fingernails down to the quick.  I also met his brother Art who looked just like Paul but was cue ball bald.  However, Art's hands and fingernails were perfect.  I was told that he did Paul's hand close-ups.

The next day, I met Newman on the set of the movie and there was Lee Marvin.  They were in the middle of a scene.  I believe you know by now, I LOVE Lee Marvin; I mean, "Point Blank?!"  And "Cat Ballou?"  And even "M-Squad?"

And there he was...with the laser bluest eyes I had ever seen.  Then Paul turned and, Jesus McCravey, his eyes were now even bluer!  No one else seemed to be paying any attention but I couldn't get my jaw off the floor.

Later that night I got the skinny.  Paul, a high-functioning practical joker, had gone to a local optometrist, and gotten a series of bluer and bluer contact lenses.  But, unknown to anyone, so had Lee Marvin!  And it was now the unspoken war of the baby blues.

I heard later that Lee Marvin finally had to surrender; he couldn't see anymore, and was running into the furniture and grip stands on set.  But apparently no one said anything, no victory laps, nothing. Just that in the end, one Blue Eyes remained on that picture.  It was enough that the two of them knew.

                     "Well, I'll tell you, Phillll..."
I first met Phil Mishkin back at U.C.L.A. in the Theatre Arts Department.  He was an actor, a good one, and very funny.  His best buddy in those days was Rob Reiner.  This was before Meat Head and his brilliant directing career.  They were just Rob and Philly.

So some years later I was glad to see them again when I got my first gig at Warner Bros.  They were there on a writing-producing deal for TV development, a show called "The Super" which actually got on the air.

One afternoon we were having lunch in the commissary when Phil told me the following story.  Earlier that week he had been out running on the UCLA track off Sunset Blvd, famously open to the public.  He came upon a familiar figure, pounding laps out on the inner lane.  Phil slowed down: it was Burt Lancaster, then in his early sixties, still magnificent.  Wow, I'm running with Burt Lancaster.  Phil, stride for stride, introduced himself.  "Mr. Lancaster, my name is Phil Mishkin and I'd just like to know how you stay in such great shape?!"

Burt Lancaster looked over at him and then uncorked one of those smiles, you remember that smile, don't you?  Phil almost had a seizure.  "Well, I'll tell you, Phillll," said Lancaster.  "Two glasses of hot watah when I get up in the morning, I shit like clockwork!"

Seconds later, Mr. Lancaster was twenty yards ahead.  And never looked back.


  1. I was on that prison tour with you, Bill. Years later I was back in Quentin working on a film on the death of George Jackson I co-produced for the BBC. And I was outside filming the protests during the last execution in the Quentin gas chamber as well. I grew up in Marin City & Sausalito down the road and the place always haunted me...

  2. Wow. E. L. James? I feel bad because I kind of dissed her in my comments on an earlier post. Not her, but the extent of her fame. (I haven't read her, but in her interviews she seems like a lovely person.)

    Man, I can't believe you sat in one of the death seats. That's doing your research as a writer. Good work! And creepy.

    That blue-eye story is HILARIOUS!

    You sure have rubbed some famous elbows.

  3. Wow! I lived on Sycamore for more than thirty years. Ah, yes, rent control was good. Allowed me to write in the scarce years.
    Really nice section on teaching writing and your students. And loved the kamikaze funny stories!