Tuesday, October 29, 2013

“Cut to the Chase": The Wit and Wisdom of UCLA Extension Screenwriters

Despite what you might have heard, most screenwriters don’t lead glamorous lives. In Hollywood they’re a lot like Rodney Dangerfield: they get no respect. Even when a writer is lucky enough to sell a screenplay, it often gets rewritten to the point of being unrecognizable. That’s because everybody – the producer, the director, the star, the producer’s girlfriend – wants to have a hand in shaping the final draft. Especially these days, the original ending may wind up being scrapped if it doesn’t test well with a preview audience. And all too many movies bear the stamp of being designed by committee.

Many’s the writer who finds himself (or herself) barred from the set. That was the case with Diane Lake, who wrote the original draft of the Oscar-nominated Frida, the Frida Kahlo biopic (starring Selma Hayek) that won two Oscars and was nominated for four more. Lake also had to survive a messy arbitration process involving her writing credit on the film, along with competing claims from several others who contributed to the shooting script.

Still, creative people continue wanting to write movies. And UCLA Extension’s world-famous Writers’ Program is there to help make it happen. I’ve been fortunate to teach in the Writers’ Program since 1995. That’s where I first met Diane Lake, along with a host of talented screenwriters who are also gifted teachers. We teach in classrooms on the UCLA campus; we teach at satellite campuses spread across the L.A. area. And, more and more, we teach online, educating students all over the world about the art and the craft of screenwriting.

Now the ever-enterprising Linda Venis, director of UCLA Extension’s Department of the Arts, has compiled a new handbook tailor-made for aspiring screenwriters. Its full title is Cut to the Chase: Writing Feature Films with the Pros at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. A number of prize-winning instructors have contributed chapters that nicely demystify the screenwriting process. I read the book with great pleasure, enjoying practical tips on such matters as how to get started, how to use note cards to structure a story, how to shape scenes, and how to know when your work is finally finished. There are plenty of vivid examples, many of them culled from recent films. (The King’s Speech is a particular favorite.) And several chapters offer exercises I wish I’d thought of myself.  Philip Eisner’s contribution, “’Show, Don’t Tell’: Visual Screenwriting,” includes an exercise borrowed from the novelist John Gardner. Eisner habitually asks his students to “write a brief character sketch, using objects, landscape, weather, etc., to intensify the reader’s sense of the character. . . . The students must limit their descriptions to external, objective reality—the kinds of things a camera can film.” Here, says Eisner, is one student’s brief but powerful submission: “She rides in the passenger seat of a dark sedan, her hands tightly clutching the perfectly folded American flag.”

I’m reluctant to single out favorite chapters, but I truly enjoyed my buddy Karl Iglesias’s savvy suggestions about writing great dialogue. (As he notes, you should never underestimate the power of silence.) And Deborah Dean Davis’s blunt and funny essay on how to launch and sustain a screenwriting career is a hoot. (She gives clothing advice, marital advice, and suggestions about how the power of chutzpah can help you navigate the winding byways of Tinseltown.)

Will all this good advice change your life? Hard to say – but screenwriters from Earl W. Wallace (Witness) to Kevin Williamson (Scream) to Melissa Rosenberg (Twilight) have the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program to thank for jumpstarting their stellar Hollywood careers.

Aspiring writers might enjoy my talk at the San Fernando Valley branch of the California Writers Club this coming Saturday, November 2. Here’s the complete info.


  1. Sounds like a dream to this aspiring screenwriter. The book at least can be mine - and it resides in my Amazon Wish List! Thanks for the heads up Ms. G!

  2. The UCLA Extension Writers' Program thanks you, Mr. C!