Monday, October 24, 2011

UCLA Writers’ Program: Far Beyond Kindergarten

My colleague, Ernie Contreras, got off a good one the other day. We were at an instructors’ retreat sponsored by the Writers’ Program, UCLA Extension’s widely acclaimed program for those wanting to study (either in the classroom or over the Internet) the art and craft of writing. All of us who teach screenwriting through the Writers’ Program can share with our students our own hard-earned experience in film and television. And we take our responsibilities seriously. That’s why we’d gathered on a Saturday morning to discuss ways to enhance our teaching skills.

In a session designed to focus on “How to Solve Problems Before They Start,” we moved onto the thorny topic of giving feedback to novice writers. Sometimes, we agreed, the problem was with a hypersensitive student unwilling to hear even the most constructive advice. But there also were students who used the chance to critique their peers as an opportunity for rampant nastiness. I mentioned to the group an example from early in my teaching career. Though I had made it a point at the opening class to discuss the need for courtesy and a positive approach, a young man who’d missed the first session was later discovered to be scrawling all over his classmates’ submissions helpful comments like these: “Boring!” “I nearly fell asleep here!” and the ever-popular “This sucks!” Ironically, I noted to my colleagues, this very opinionated young man showed no particular talent in his own written work. That’s when Ernie quipped, “Sounds like this guy has a great future as a studio executive!”

A knowledge of the industry is one thing that binds us instructors together. Another is a genuine desire to help fledgling writers get their foot in the door. We all have our success stories, of working with student writers who’ve ended up signing with major agencies, joining the staff of established TV shows, or winning prestigious writing contests. (A few of us can boast of having had the ubiquitous James Franco in our classes, which has got to be a victory of some sort.)

One of the issues that arose at our retreat was whether to tell a student writer that his or her screenplay-in-progress lacks commercial appeal. Pragmatic as we are, we feel the need to make clear the basic parameters of what Hollywood is looking for. After all, our students expect practical advise from people who have been there and done that. On the other hand, the last thing we want to do is stifle someone’s creative impulses. And it’s also true that, as screenwriter William Goldman famously said, in Hollywood “nobody knows anything.” Times change, approaches vary, and you never know where that next great movie hit will be coming from.

It so happens that at the gym yesterday, while huffing and puffing on the elliptical trainer, I found myself watching my former governor’s 1990 hit, Kindergarten Cop. This thriller about a cop who goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher in order to track down a drug-dealer has it all: an appealing hero (Ahnold at his best); a pair of scary, complex, picturesque villains; some sparkling featured players; plus kiddie humor, a cute little boy in jeopardy, a tightly-plotted climax, and a classroom pet who helps out when least expected. I’d be proud if any of my students ended up writing a movie on that level. On the other hand, whether their goal is a top-notch commercial flick, a deeply-felt personal story, or a funky experiment, I’m there to help them move from Fade-In to Fade-Out.

Read more about the UCLA Writers’ Program here.


  1. This is one of the best, most enlightening posts I've read here (which is saying a lot). I've written a few scripts, myself. I remember being really excited upon receiving my copyright for the first one I'd written. But upon posting the script to an online script forum (I forget the name), I didn't receive any negative feedback, but did find some scathing remarks from other posters who proclaimed if you didn't do this, or that, they wouldn't read, nor critique what you had written.

    Still, I don't think I have proper page alignment, but I did read some scripts of old that didn't necessarily follow a uniform approach to how a "proper" script should be written. I only wish I had it in me to finish the ambitious (to me, anyway) trilogy I started. Maybe I will someday just for kicks!

    Heck, if I could get a credit in a movie for even a floor sweeper I'd die a happy man, lol. Incidentally, I have contributed to DVD covers, got a quote from me on a book cover and also recently discovered I have a credit on IMDB(!!!!) so I guess that will have to suffice for now!

  2. Well, if you're mentioned in the IMDB, you've really hit the big time. But maybe your floor sweeper's broom still awaits you at Concorde. (Given that there's no longer a Corman studio, I wouldn't bet on it, though.)

  3. Well it's just a 'special thanks' for a documentary that I helped out on.

    I did discover there was a Brian E. Bankston who worked on MONSTER'S BALL, lol.

  4. I would love to have a fondly remembered, oft cable aired, and endlessly quoted ("it's NOT a too-mah!") movie like Kindergarten Cop on my resume! I did get to write some television though - on the CBS series American Gothic a producer asked me to double the scripted verbiage for a talking museum display - if successful, guess whose voice was going to be reading the copy? So, yes, if you watch the episode "Meet the Beetles," with guest star Bruce Campbell - it's my voice reading a big chunk of stuff I wrote on the spot when he steps near the display and it startles him by speaking. A couple of episodes later I helped the same producer with a troublesome line of dialogue on another episode - and one of the villains of the piece now speaks my words at the top of the scene - no reward for that one other than getting to tell that story to anyone I force to watch the episode. That episode was called "Strong Arm of the Law" and the scene takes place with the four bad guys on the front porch of the boarding house. I would have added more, but this is already an epic sized comment - and I'm planning to tell the story in full over at my blog one day!