Filmmaking is for Warriors: How to Break a Filmmaker

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Empty white tables. 9 students shuffling in, at least 3 of them super early for class, and at least 3 of them walking in about a minute late. The teacher, a distinguished man with an uncanny resemblance to Tony Stark, sits at the side of a large white board hanging on the wall in front of the pressed-together tables.

The students settle into their normal spots – when you only have to deal with 8 other people, keeping your sacred seat is easy. The majority of these students are graduate students in writing. The rest are split up between undergrads in Communications or English.

I am one of the students that is majoring in Communications, Film Emphasis, and I always feel like everyone else thinks I’m a few dollars short of full-on eccentric weirdo status. I’m the one who wrote the short film about my brother leaving the kitchen cabinets open. I’m the one who dislikes reading aloud in class. I’m the one who did a presentation of the definition of “chick flicks.” (Which is actually an interesting topic that I’d be happy to explore later.)

Let’s be clear: No classmate ever bullied me or said anything malicious in the entire 2 years I attended that school for my Bachelors. Or, if they did, it was done in such a way that I didn’t take it as an insult.

But I was very shy.

And, for the sake of reality, I am a little bit short of normal.

Class starts when Tony Stark begins interacting with the students. He’s fairly informal, but it’s clear that he is in charge, has a plan, and knows what he is talking about. Today is a criticism day, so the format of class is already known to the students. Basically, the first 10 pages of a student’s script are going to be dissected in front of the group, shredded to bits with choice words and “feedback” and then left for dead out on the cold, white tabletop.

How do you break a filmmaker? Enroll them in a screenwriting class and let the games begin.

Here’s the drill: each student has 3 months to finish writing a feature film, a short film script or a TV series script with a full series bible. Since I always worked on a feature screenplay, I won’t waste time explaining the other two concepts in this post.

A feature film is typically between 90 to 120 pages. It must adhere to script guidelines, which are very specific, but if you have Celtx or Final Draft the program has your back on most of that formatting. Script formatting is not something that the teacher devised to ruin your life, though, as opposed to other scholarly guidelines. Script formatting is in place to paint the pictures of your story into the heads of every person on the production crew. By refusing to follow script formatting you are not making a statement about your individuality, you are giving the potential director, cinematographer, set designer and a host of other people a headache.

I wanted to be a professional screenwriter, so I always worked on features (that’s not a commentary on short film writing – generally shorts are harder). I took screenwriting 4 semesters in a row, in addition to other writing classes. The first semester was the easiest, in a way, because I don’t think we actually had to complete a full feature for that one.

Now, imagine this, you have 3 months to write at least a solid 90 pages of workable script. After the first 4-6 weeks you have to have something to be reviewed in class, because your classmates and teacher are there to help you become a better screenwriter. So you write and you write and you write. And those weeks fly by until it’s the night of your work, and everyone has been sent the first 10 pages of your script. As Tony explained, if you haven’t created all the expectations and set-up in the first 10 pages, you better revise.

So me, shy me, introvert me, I bring copies of my script to be read aloud in class. And when the dust settles, all the prose and dialog finished, I stare down at the white pages with black print in horrified anticipation of the reactions.

Tony Stark starts with an opening line like,

“Jessie, I want to like your script…”

(Brace yourselves, he’s about to shoot ¬†me in the heart, and add a double tap to the head for good measure.)

“…But I just don’t get it.”

“Yeah, me neither.”

“Yeah.”

Agreement surrounds me. I wait, patiently, the blood pumping out of my heart, as Tony Stark continues, his words carefully chosen for maximum punch.

The descriptions are falling flat. The characters are too cartoony. Motives are unclear. The environment is difficult to grasp. The plot is too complex.

By the end of the class period I’ve nodded and thanked everyone for their feedback, and I stand awkwardly to gather all of my things. The 9 file out, but I’m waiting til the last, not even a Hobbit in their fellowship. My work of the last month has been reduced to a few lines of a concept, and every bit of my soul that I poured into those 10 pages is withered and gasping, a fish that survived the Pelican, but was dropped on the dry beach to breathe itself to death.

There will always be a time for constructive criticism, but the surest way of breaking a filmmaker is to show them what that really means.

But in the breaking, that filmmaker will be re-made. And the new creation will be far better than the one that was broken.

I left that night, and I contemplated giving it all up. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a screenwriter. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer. Maybe this was my sign to stop killing myself and become an FBI agent instead.

So I went home. And I rewrote that whole script. And I let them tear it apart again. And I signed up for the next semester of direct hits from the man who made billionaire status cool again (or his look-alike anyway).

Because this created better scripts.

And no matter how hard they broke me, this filmmaker never gave up. Because writers write, filmmakers make films, and we do it all the better when we listen to constructive criticism and refuse to give up.