One of the aspects of the film program that drew me to the University of Michigan is their Gindin visitor series, where they bring in working writers to give guest lectures open to everyone and then workshop specifically with the master screenwriting or TV writing class. Past visitors have included Spike Lee, Nora Ephron, Lawrence Kasden, Jeb Stuart, Kurt Luedtke... I could go on (of course, these are all visitors previous to my years at the university).
So the goal of any student interested in screenwriting here is to get into the master class, 1. because it's small and selective and intensive and 2. because the visitors workshop with you and then you go out to lunch with them to pick their brains nearly one on one.
Our first visitor this semester was Tom McCarthy, actor/writer/director. He recently wrote and directed The Visitor, which got Richard Jenkins an Oscar nomination. It was his first time doing anything like this at a university, and he was excellent, both professionally and personally. When we went out to lunch, I started out a question by addressing him as Mr. McCarthy, and he immediately said, "Please, call me Tom." I may have blushed.
I took about three pages of notes between his lecture and his workshop. He was an incredibly intelligent, talented person to listen to. He has a very distinct character-driven, minimalist approach to writing. I'm sharing what I thought were the highlights. I think they're best understood after reading his scripts, at least The Visitor. He has a very distinct style, and his advice reflects that.
- Make sure your characters are compelling enough to watch in their own right, regardless of what is happening in the plot of the story.
- You can overwrite, but you'll never be done rewriting.
- We overwrite. People don't trust actors and silence and the inner character moments. But you have create authentic characters.
- The Visitor was supposed to end with a quote (from the Statue of Liberty, I think). Tom decided not to include the quote so that the audience could have the liberty of drawing their own conclusions.
- Action lines are for checking in.
- Humor comes from when characters come together and interact, not the plot situation.
- Audiences have seen a lot of movies and know a lot of characters. You might have to give them a different take on a character we already know.
- Stay ahead of the audience. It's difficult. They've seen a lot of movies. Cut dialog to move quickly. You're aiming for the moment when they realize that they'll never get ahead of you - and they're satisfied with that.
- This is not a literary medium. You want the reader to see it and feel it, not to make them marvel about your writing skills.
- You can overwrite in your first draft to explore - then cut it.
- All your answers should be in the first few pages.
The winter term master class usually gets the short end of the stick when it comes to Gindin visitors. Who do you know who wants to come to Michigan in the middle of the winter? If we do get a writer out, it's often a TV writer. However, my master class had the exceptional opportunities of not only having Tom McCarthy but also Pamela Gray. Two accomplished screenwriters.
J. likes to remind us how lucky we are (and I agree). After lunch with Tom McCarthy and dinner with Pamela Gray, he said, "This is what you guys came here for. You guys are very lucky. Only once before in my years of teaching here have we had two Gindin visitors during the winter term."
And I'm very self-centered about this. Every time I want to reply, "Well, J., it's God rewarding me for my faith." But I don't. They already think I'm a crazy religious person.