#1: Write Rad Shit (On Writing)

See reddit user beardsayswhat’s original list of “unpopular” screenwriting opinions here.

1. Most amateur screenwriters write movies they wouldn’t see. I read a lot of loglines that are poorly written, but even if they were snappy and sharp, they’re for what could be generously described as character dramas and more accurately as tedious faux-deep nonsense. Write rad shit. Write things people want to see.

If there was ever a point where I would have bristled at advice like this, I can’t remember it now. This is just common sense, and frankly, I don’t understand why this would be an unpopular opinion. Maybe some read that and think he’s advocating becoming a sell-out, or to stick to churning out formulaic, commercial fare. But what he’s really saying is don’t be boring. Not to never write something experimental, or that explores real issues, or that says something important. Do any or all of those things. Just don’t be boring while you do it.

As for bit where he seems to shit on character dramas, I don’t think he means you can never write a character drama, or that your high-concept script shouldn’t include strong character drama. Remember, this is advice for non-established screenwriters. Writers who are trying to get noticed. A screenplay about a lovelorn white guy who finds new meaning in life when he meets his manic pixie dream girl isn’t going to raise any eyebrows. (I admit that The Lionshare has surface similarities to some of those cliches, but I think it successfully tells a story with deeper meaning. Plus I made that movie seven years ago, sue me.)

Don’t be boring. That’s a great motto. You know how to tell if you’re writing something boring? If you are bored while you’re writing it. Even if you think you’re writing something with limited appeal, if you have enthusiasm for the material, that enthusiasm will come through. Enthusiasm is infectious. Don’t be boring.

This also doesn’t mean you have to write something that appeals to everybody. If it excites you, there are others out there who will feel the same.

In my last entry I gushed over meeting Ronald D. Moore. You know one of the most important things I learned from him? Not to treat your characters, or your stories, like porcelain dolls. There’s no reason to play it safe when you’re writing a story. You can, and should, take risks. If what you’re writing feels perfunctory, take a step back and re-evaluate. What’s the craziest thing that could happen in your story? How would it change things? What if you, gulp, went ahead and did it?

Go ahead. Kill that character. Jump a year ahead in time. Have the will they/won’t they relationship be consummated between seasons when no one is looking. How did that change things?

Maybe you decide it’s not right. That’s fine. It’s probably not a good idea to shock for shock’s sake. Whatever you do should work within context and should enhance the story you’re trying to tell. But, at the very least, this is a good exercise to challenge yourself and make sure what you’re writing is the best, and most interesting, that it can be.

In short, write rad shit.

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Scotch & Cigarettes (The Time I Met Ronald D. Moore)

The Fall of 2006 was probably the height of my obsession with Ronald D. Moore’s “re-imagining” of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. The third season had just premiered and somehow surpassed, at least for me, the high expectations set by the second season cliffhanger.

I was near the end of my time at Binghamton University when my friend Russ noticed a flyer posted outside of the Cinema Department lounge: Ronald D. Moore was going to be giving a talk at Cornell.

Cornell is an hour away from Binghamton.

Do the math. We were going.

Some set-up: When the first season of BSG first aired on SciFi (still SciFi then, not Syfy), Ron Moore (RDM as he’s referred to online) started doing podcast commentaries for each episode. What was great was that he took the opportunity to give a frank, unvarnished look at the process behind each episode, freely admitting when he didn’t like something and why he thought it didn’t work, and always making clear that, ultimately, the buck always stopped with him. It was an amazingly insightful and, at that time, unique peek behind-the-curtain of a television series. (The only other example I can think of is jms’s Usenet posts chronicling the making of BABYLON 5.)

As both a fan of the show and someone with aspirations of making television, you can imagine how much I enjoyed these podcasts. By the third season, I sometimes looked forward more to the podcast than the episode it was commenting on. RDM had also settled into a ritual of using the podcast to “put each episode to bed,” as it were, over a few glasses of scotch and some cigarettes. (The varieties of which he’d announce at the beginning of every podcast. He smoked my brand, at the time.)

ronald-moore-cci-hdrimg

Ronald D. Moore, Cornell almost-graduate

Knowing there was a Q&A period after his presentation, I had an idea. Instead of asking a question, I would present Mr. Moore with a bottle of scotch and a pack of cigarettes, so the next podcast would me “on me.” I went to my local Binghamton liquor store, asked what a nice bottle of scotch was, and walked out with a bottle of Macallan 12. (Not cheap for a college student.) The cigarettes were no issue because at the time I was a smoker and was buying American Spirit Lights by the carton.

I threw the contraband in a backpack and off we went. There were a fair amount of people in the theater, but no one in the front row. I looked at Russ and Mickey and we sat slightly off-center at the very front. There remained a buffer of two or three empty rows behind us (why, I do not know). Mr. Moore came out and started his presentation, remarking that this was his first time back to his alma-mater since dropping out during his senior year twenty years prior. Hard to argue with his decision on that one.

The presentation was mainly about how he went about adapting the original series, how it was both a reaction to 9/11 and to his time as a writer/producer on Star Trek, etcetera. Mostly stuff that I had heard in other places. I really just wanted to get to the Q&A.

“Any questions?”

I raised my hand. Glancing behind me, I saw I was the only one with my hand up. After what seemed like a very long silence, he pointed at me.

“Yes?”

What happened next is a blur. I had just been spoken to by someone who, at the time, was the man on the earth I most wanted to emulate. Someone who I was used to listening to only from afar. So, adrenaline happened. Forgive me.

I know I said something similar to what I described above and gave him the bottle and the smokes, leaving him kind of dumbfounded. I don’t think he was expecting anything like that at all, but at the urging of his wife who was sitting off to the right front, he invited me up to join him on stage and shook my hand. And then something unexpected happened. while sharing the stage with one of my idols, the audience erupted with applause. Honest-to-god applause. A lot of it. It went on, at least in my memory, for quite a while.

I remember none of the questions after that. I’d done what I went there to do, and it was awesome. Better than I expected, even.

After the last question and people were getting up to leave, I was stopped by Mr. Moore’s wife, who had been sitting off to the side. She had popped on the podcast before and from time to time would drop in on the Sci-Fi Channel message boards to answer questions under the handle “Mrs. Ron.” After introducing herself to me, she said

“I just want you to know, we’ve done a million appearances and conventions. But no one has ever done that before.”

“I was happy to,” I hope I said.

“What’s your name?”

“Josh. Bernhard.”

“Thank you, Josh. I’ll make sure he remembers to mention you on the next podcast.”

Awesome.

Russ, Mickey and myself strolled outside, past the crowd surrounding RDM for autographs, and coolly smoked a round of victory cigarettes on the sidewalk. As Mickey remembers it, “You could tell he was standing there surrounded by Trekkies just wanting to come smoke with us.” (No knock on those Trekkies, by the way; I can talk Trek with the best of ’em.)

This went on for quite a while. He signed autographs, took pictures, and spoke to everyone in the crowd. I figured I’d had my time, and it was a better move to stay above the fray. I think I was right. As he was being escorted to a waiting SUV, he stopped to say goodbye to us before being whisked away by mrs. ron.

And we headed back to Binghamton, riding high.

I couldn’t wait for the podcast the following week. Was he going to mention me? Did he forget? I eagerly downloaded the podcast commentary to “Torn,” the sixth episode of season three.

And my heart sank. Well, maybe it didn’t sink, but I was disappointed. Cause RDM was a guest lecturer in a film class at Cornell, had shown the class the new episode a couple days early, and did the podcast while they got to ask questions. An interactive podcast. My dream. If I’d only known, I would have gone back and snuck in!

Whatever. I’d get mine.

Hello and welcome to the podcast. I’m Ronald D. Moore, executive producer and developer of the new Battlestar Galactica and I would like to welcome you to the podcast for episode six, “A Measure of Salvation.” I’m at home, for those of you who monitor such things. I’ve returned from my sojourn to Cornell. The Scotch is Macallan 12 and the smokes are American Spirit Lights, both of which were provided to me. A very generous gift from a student at Cornell named Josh, who came up and gave me both after the end of the lecture that I gave at the Willard Straight Hall at Cornell last week. Which is very kind. I like to see that people are still supporting vice in all forms, evil and bad for you, in the Ivy League.

I was never a student at Cornell, but hey.

Some time later, I came across a posting Mrs. Ron made on the SciFi boards announcing an upcoming appearance RDM was making. She ended the post with

“…and please, no more scotch and cigarettes.”

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Class Struggle (On Writing)

The Samuel French Theater & Film Bookshop is a very dangerous place for me. Partly because I can never leave without buying something. But also because of the very extensive section of tempting screenwriting books that are close to the entrance.

I’ve written a fair number of screenplays, and I’ve seen the majority of them realized on screen. That experience is invaluable and has taught me a lot about my craft. But I’ve never written “professionally” in “The Biz,” and the rules are very different. There are gatekeepers. You have to sell somebody in the first five pages. Most of what you write is never going to get made.

So when I see books with titles like How to Write a Movie in 21 Days, Hook ‘Em With Your First Ten Pages, Crafty TV Writing, Successful Television Writing, etcetera etcetera, it’s hard not to wonder “maybe the answer’s in this one…”

How-to gurus.

Screenwriting gurus.

Most are familiar with the likes of Syd Field and Robert McKee, screenwriting gurus who purport to have sure-fire formulas to writing a successful screenplay. (The latter famously lampooned in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation.) Many writers will bristle at the mention of their names, and the notion that their craft can be boiled down to some kind of equation where all you’re required to do is fill in the blanks.

Thing is, gurus like Field and McKee aren’t not totally wrong. They’re not totally right either, but they’re not totally wrong. Because how-to systems like that are picking up on things that are recurring elements of successful screenplays. The question is whether or not you need a set of codified rules to write something good, or if writing something good will naturally appear to follow some or all of these rules.

It’s a balancing act. As someone who’s picked up his life and moved to Los Angeles to make it as a writer, books and gurus and systems that promise you all the answers, or at least some helpful tips, can be very appealing. I took a class on story structure back in September, where the lecturer made his points, but always with the caveat that his wasn’t the only way to write. It’s not gospel. Use it as a jumping off point or as a system to fall back on when you get stuck.

That’s how I treat how-to classes and books and systems. Good if you’re stuck, and good to take in for other perspectives on the craft. If you find something that works for you, use it. Advice is good advice only if it helps you. But there is no one panacea.

Ronald D. Moore of DS9 and Battlestar fame recently did an AMA on reddit. One of the things he said struck a chord:

I’ve never been a big fan of writing classes, to be honest. I think either you’re a writer or you’re not, just keep doing it, get criticism, listen to it or reject it, and keep writing until someone says “I love that” and then they buy it.

Ronald D. Moore

Of course, he was able to hone his craft on the job at Star Trek TNG and DS9 with Michael Piller and Ira Steven Behr as teachers. But I’d tend to agree.

(By the way, I have a pretty cool story about meeting Ronald D. Moore that I should write about some time.)

The best screenwriting advice I’ve come across recently also happened to come from reddit, in a post in /r/screenwriting:

1. Most amateur screenwriters write movies they wouldn’t see. I read a lot of loglines that are poorly written, but even if they were snappy and sharp, they’re for what could be generously described as character dramas and more accurately as tedious faux-deep nonsense. Write rad shit. Write things people want to see.

 

2. You shouldn’t smoke while you write. You shouldn’t drink while you write. You shouldn’t do anything while you write that you wouldn’t do at your job, because writing IS a job.

 

3. The problem isn’t that Hollywood doesn’t want new voices. The problem is that most scripts are terrible. Every agent, manager, development person, assistant, delivery guy I know is looking desperately for the next great script. The truth is that great scripts are really really few and far between. Most of you guys read shit off the Black List. Those are the well-loved ones. Imagine what the ones that AREN’T well loved are like? And those are the PRO scripts. Write something great. It’ll cut through the noise.

 

4. The Gold Room in Echo Park is the best bar in Los Angeles.

 

5. There is no pro conspiracy to keep amateur writers out. I want your script to be great. I want it to be better than my script. I want movies to be great. I want TV to be great. I want Broadway musicals to be great. It profits me nothing to be better than someone else. I just want rad shit out in the world.

 

6. Way too many scripts about white guys learning to love y’all. Way too many.

 

7. On that note, way too many scripts about white guys period. I get it. I’m white. I’m a dude. I like white dudes. But when EVERY script is white dude does X it’s a little tiring.

 

8. Kale seems made up. It seems like a slow rollout of soylent green.

 

9. Controversy is a poor substitute for craft.

 

10. “Faggot” is not an acceptable insult in the living breathing actual world, and ESPECIALLY not in Hollywood.

 

11. No one owes you anything. Not a thorough read, not a second look, not a phone call, nothing. This is not a charity. This is not about your dreams. In this business you are worth what you can do for other people. Full stop. Don’t pretend any different.

 

12. Don’t mistake watching movies for research. Reading is research. Talking to relevant people is research.

 

13. Final Draft sucks. I hope WriterDuet kills it.

 

14. 1776 was an amazing, underrated musical.

 

15. If you can’t spell your Reddit comments right, I have strong doubts on your ability to write a hundred page document that I’m going to want to read.

 

16. Save The Cat is a great introduction to basic structure and terms. It is not gospel. At all. Please stop treating it as such.

 

17. No one ever wants to steal your script. Ever.

 

18. Also, someone else will come up with the same idea independently of you and it will break your heart. It’s happened to me. It sucks.

 

19. The reason you aren’t Quentin Tarantino is because Quentin Tarantino is Quentin Tarantino. He already did that thing. He owns it. Find your thing. Do that.

 

20. If you want to be a working American screenwriter, you will have to live in LA for several years. After you are a success you can live in NYC or Idaho or Taiwan. But to make your career you gotta be in LA.

 

21. Making a great movie is really really hard. Don’t shit on movies you don’t like. You weren’t there. You don’t know what went wrong. You might have made the same mistakes. Be gracious to the people trying to do the thing you’re trying to do.

 

22. Yasiel Puig is a national treasure and should be celebrated with fireworks and standing ovations.

 

23. The secret to writing is to write more and do everything else less.

 

— user beardsayswhat in /r/screenwriting

Haven’t been to #4 yet, haven’t seen #14 in a while, and had to google #22. Other than that, I find everything said here to be completely on-point and useful. So much so that I may actually use this list as the basis for future On Writing posts.

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