Filmmaking is for Warriors: Teaching


“Do you know any famous people?” the tiny child asks me.

“Famous people?”

I don’t know what else to say. I’ve been a filmmaker for 10 years, but most of the people I know aren’t plastered on the cover of People Magazine. I do know some actors who have been plastered all over the billboards in Kansas City, which is pretty cool. Mostly just because those actors are totally awesome, and it’s nice to see them achieve new things.

Inevitably, it doesn’t matter if I have an answer to her question, because there’s a half dozen more questions flooding my way. I wave my hands at the brood of small people and do my best to change the subject back to the class I’m teaching and away from my filmmaking career.


I started teaching theater and acting when I was 19. I shouldn’t have, really, because I had no idea how to teach. Those first few years my head was under water and the kids drowned with me. I’m sorry, kids, I didn’t know what I was doing.

But like Dory the fish said, “Just keep swimming! Just keep swimming!”

So I kept pushing my way through teaching, class after class after class. I taught basic and advanced acting, improv, film acting, film production, costumes, musical theater (as a sub, ’cause I don’t do music), black box and radio theater. I’ve assisted in directing shows. I’ve subbed for ages that I would never have chosen to teach – 4 year-olds are not my buddies. I’ve taught subjects I knew very little about and had to research – radio.

And then I was burnt out. And I didn’t want to do it anymore.

Kids take a lot of energy. Kids need a lot of attention and help. Kids are SO MUCH FUN TO TEACH.

Plot twist.

I love teaching. I love talking to those kids. I love playing games with them and seeing them grow. I love seeing how kids learn to rely on each other in theater. I love seeing how theater changes lives for the better – confidence, friendship, coordination, memorization, basic theater skills, communication, trust, loyalty, diversity and a host of other things. I’m sure people learn this stuff in sports, too, but I was a theater kid so I can’t speak to that.

I had a screenwriting teacher who loved his job. He really did. He loved interacting with his different students. I had another film teacher who loved her job. She was the most understanding teacher I think I ever had, always open to giving students a second chance to learn.

And I think to myself, why don’t more people teach?

Because every single person who loves teaching, also hates it. At the end of the day you feel wiped out, left for dead and drained. Your job is to push other people into greatness, whether that is in theater, writing, math, science, robotics, music, computer, filmmaking or military training.

People push back.

Sometimes they do it on purpose. Sometimes they’re just too scared, as some of the 8-year-old students in my class the other night.

The better you are at being a teacher, the more you hold yourself accountable to the things you are teaching. Your students are pushing back, and you are learning more than them.

That’s a cliche. I hate that cliche. It’s obnoxious. Obviously if you’re teaching a child multiplication, you already knew how to multiply. Duh. That kid didn’t teach you that.

But while you were teaching multiplication, that kid was teaching you patience, kindness and long-suffering, because that kid’s probably an aggravating little dude with a numbers complex that needs a reality check.

I subbed for a theater class this week and last. I haven’t taught in a very long time. It was hard work corralling all those little people. I was hungry and my throat hurt and I wondered why I would put myself through all this when I was still in my month of recovery.

But when I went back last night to teach, the kids told me I was an awesome teacher. Their words, not mine.

And I thought, I love teaching. Why don’t more people do this?


Screenwriting Again

I said I would expound about Screenwriting, so I will.  Last time I posted about it, I left you hanging about what I learned over Christmas break.  Well…

It was magic.

Really, it was.  I’ve been writing or telling stories ever since I could speak.  Maybe even before then.  Through all these short tales and long tales I honed my art like a carpenter whittles and smooths wood (See that, that was a simile. I know, impressive).  Writing teachers told me to keep going, I had a gift.  Sometimes I didn’t believe them when I saw all those red marks on my papers.

When I took Screenwriting, I knew a bit about how to tell a story.  I just didn’t understand the cardinal rule of screenwriting: write a movie.  What? you say.  Of course screenwriting is writing a movie.

But movies are not books.

My teacher once said something like this, “Books are about internal struggles, movies are about external struggles.”  He said that because we were talking about suicide in movies and how it isn’t very popular.  I asked why, of course, because I was writing a suicide script.  “Suicide,” he said, “is hard to show.  It’s all in your head.”

Movies are about what you can show.

Let’s say your best friend goes blind.  (I don’t know why, maybe he fell into a vat of acid or something.  Yes, he can be a superhero now.)  Okay, so he’s blind and you have him over to watch a movie, because you’re kind of a mean friend.  But to make up for it you describe the entire film.

Writing a screenplay is describing the world and the story to someone who’s blind.

Everything that you write should draw an image into the mind of the reader–who is hopefully a director or producer or actor.  Stay away from backstory.  Stay away from sentences that describe feelings.  Stay away from stories that have to be narrated–it means the images can’t stand on their own.

Movies are about what you can show.

I’m not saying don’t have dialog in your movies.  But I do recommend writing silent films first.  If you can write a film with no dialog and still tell a compelling story, you’re probably a great screenwriter.

The 2nd assignment my teacher gave us in Screenwriting 4 was to make a short film with only about 20 words of dialog.  I made one with no dialog, except when an actress improv-ed some in German.

So the first thing I learned over Christmas break: Movies are what you can show.  I’ll tell ya the second thing in another post.


Here’s a film that needs no narration.


Screenwriting was my favorite class in college.  It was a brutal class, too.  I kept at it, and eventually I made it into a group of writers who were all Master’s students, except one.  This was a big deal for me, who was in the last year of my Bachelor’s degree.

At the start of the semester of screenwriting 3 we pitched a screenplay idea and then spent the next 2 and 1/2 months writing a feature.  Most screenwriters take six months to a year to write a feature.  If they’re fast.  (Christopher Nolan took 10 years writing Inception with his brother.)

A feature is between 90 and 120 pages long.  My teacher was kind and preferred scripts to be about 95 pages.  Mid-way through 2 and 1/2 months, we had to present the first 10 pages.  That meant my teacher read the prose out loud and my classmates read the dialog out loud.

Then everyone had a chance to tear the script to shreds and stomp on it, all with a smile.  Sometimes with great relish.  If you survived this first presentation–in screenwriting 2 we had a student get completely trashed that night–you would return to class a few weeks later with the finished script, modified per suggestions.

Round 2.

This is me after class.

At the end of the semester, I had a screenplay that no one understood except me and a deepening resolve to quit before my last semester of film school.  But over Christmas break something clicked.  Something changed.

I came back.  Screenwriting 4 wasn’t even ready for me.  I tore up that semester with a sci-fi script that succeeded in smashing all my classmates’ expectations.

And it was fun.

Next post I will share some of the things that occurred to me over that break, but until then, keep writing.  Just because you’re the only one who gets it now doesn’t mean it will always be that way.