Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434: The Industry's Premier Teacher Reveals the Secrets of the Successful Screenplay

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9780399529863: Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434: The Industry's Premier Teacher Reveals the Secrets of the Successful Screenplay

For decades, Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434 class at UCLA has been the premier screenwriting course, launching a generation of the industry's most frequently produced writers. Here, he shares the secrets of his course on the screenwriting process by actually writing an original script, step by step, that appears in the book.

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About the Author:

Lew Hunter has master’s degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and Northwestern University and a doctor of letters from Nebraska Wesleyan University. He has worked for Columbia, Lorimar, Paramount, Disney, NBC, ABC, and CBS as a writer, producer, and executive. Currently he is chair emeritus of the screenwriting department at UCLA, and is the founder of the Lew Hunter Superior Screenwriting Colony in Superior, Nebraska.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Table of Contents

 

Title Page

Copyright Page

Acknowledgements

 

Chapter 1 - IDEAS

Chapter 2 - THE TWO-MINUTE MOVIE

Chapter 3 - BUILDING YOUR CHARACTERS

Chapter 4 - THE OUTLINE FOR YOU AND “THEM”

Chapter 5 - THE ACT ONE SCRIPT (The Situation—to page 17)

Chapter 6 - THE ACT TWO SCRIPT (The Complications-to page, maybe, 85)

Chapter 7 - THE ACT THREE SCRIPT (The Conclusion—to pages 100-110)

Chapter 8 - THE REWRITE(S)

 

FADE OUT

INDEX

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Garlands and potted plants to my beloved students,
Bill Froug, and my wife, Pamela.
All beloved but not in that order.

 

 

 

 

Perigee Books Published by The Berkley Publishing Group A division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 375 Hudson Street New York, New York 10014

 

 

eISBN : 978-1-101-00718-1

 

Visit our website at www.penguin.com

 

Copyright © 1993 by Lew Hunter Productions

 

All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

 

The Library of Congress has cataloged the Perigee trade paperback edition as folows: Hunter, Lew. Lew Hunter’s screenwriting 434 / Lew Hunter. p. cm.

Includes index.

eISBN : 978-1-101-00718-1

1. Motion picture authorship. I. Title. PN1996.H-32927 CIP 808.2’3—dc20

 

 

Most Perigee Books are available at special quantity discounts for bulk purchases for sales promotions, premiums, fund-raising, or educational use. Special books, or book excerpts, can also be created to fit specific needs.

 

For details, write: Special Markets, The Berkley Publishing Group, 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Super Editor, Steve Ross

The World’s Greatest Agent, Richard Curtis

Rubin Carson

Richard Ray Walter

Andrea Rich

Gil Cates

Howard Suber

Robert Rosen

Bob Gray

Ruth Schwartz

John Young

Jorge Preloran

Jerzy Antczak

Alex Ayres

Stephanie Riseley

Edgar Bravo

Tony Caballero

 

Deanne Barkley, Harve Bennett, Dick Berman, John Ray Bernstein, Mel Bloom, Steven Bochco, Ray Bradbury, Richard Brenne, Stan Canter, Bruce Cowgill, James Dalessandro, Ken Dancyger, Lon Diamond, Barry Diller, Walt Disney, Dick Donner, Genevieve Ebsen, Michael Eisner, Jules Epstein, Maggie Field, Christine Foster, Len Goldberg, John Graves, Peter Guber, Bill Haber, Dean Hunter, Esther L. Hunter, Joe Hunter, Ray Lewis Hunter, Scott Hunter, Paul Jensen, Terry Keegan, Robert Lewis, Paul Lucey, John McMahon, Mike Medavoy, Shannon Morris, Steve Mills, Janet Neipris, Richard Newton, Dennis Olson, Jr., Michelle Olson, Michael Ovitz, Alex Petry, Frank Price, Stan Robertson, Stu Robinson, Ed Ropolo, Bill Sackheim, Jeff Sagansky, Bill Self, Michael Severid, Aaron Spelling, Eileen Rae Hunter-Sweeney, Brandon Tartikoff, Sam Thomas, Grant Tinker, Godbrother David Titcher, Card Walker, Lew Weitzman, Larry White, John Wilder, and the UCLA Writers Block.

 

A tremendous merci beaucoup to the above and the names in the index for their inspirational roles in my screen and book writing and professing careers.

Lewis Ray Hunter
Superior, Nebraska

FADE IN REDUX

What is different for screenwriting in the ten years that have rocketed by since the first publication of this book? Give up? OK, the answer is: NOTHING!

Yes, little things that relate to the form—and one piece of craft I am going to tell you about in this new introduction—but in the total overall, I repeat, nothing, without caps so I don’t get too pushy. Gertrude Stein wrote, “A rose is a rose is a rose”; I write, “A story is a story is a story.” We professors are charged by academia and our institutions, UCLA in my case, to “break new ground,” “conquer new horizons,” clichés that relate more to horticulture or astronomy than screenwriting. Every time someone tries something new, it seems as if they end up making a divertissement for the mirror, for the shelf in a lab or, if they are lucky, something direct-to-video/DVD.

Geoff Gilmore, co-director of that wonder of modern film wonders, The Sundance Film Festival, told me they screen more 1200 feature length films each year and pick about sixty for this seminal American event. The Utah hills are alive with the sound of film music and dialogue but the lab and video shelves groan with the work of those filmmakers who eschew Aristotle’s staple of storytelling structure: a beginning, middle, and end. Aristotle did not give us a “formula” in the pejorative sense of that word, but it is a formula that echoes the biological rhythm of The Audience. I cite Aristotle because I still consider his Poetics to be one of the two bibles for performance drama/comedy.

The second Holy Treatise is Lajos Egri’s The Art Of Dramatic Writing. You see, Aristotle did not get much into character as character was devalued in his day. Dramatists as often as not literally covered the actors’ faces with masks, hence the origins of the symbol for drama, the masks of comedy and tragedy. The Greek plays were much about gods and goddesses, not quasi-ordinary people such as you and I. And the amphitheaters in which these dramas were staged were not the intimate theaters of today or the big screen that reveals every pout and pore. It wasn’t until the late 1800s when Strindberg and Ibsen, later to be joined by the likes of Eugene O’Neil, offered up those “slice of life” or “kitchen sink” plays in which character was king.

Enter Lajos Egri, a somewhat failed playwright/screenwriter who distilled his independent teachings into a marvelous essay on “character” in The Art of Dramatic Writing. Of course, in my own teaching and writing, I go on and on about Ari and Egri. And, here in this Redux, I am reinforcing the point that it still doesn’t get better than those two cats. If you are grounded in the Poetics and the character dictates of The Art Of Dramatic Writing, you have the bedrock information. Forget Walter, Seger, Field, McKee, Hague, Downs/Russin, Goldman, Hunter, et al. But, by all means read the self- and publicly acclaimed screenwriting gurus. Our volumes have become like recipe books—recipes to help you build your own personal internal screenwriting structure. When you couple that knowledge with your individual creativity, voila, you become a screenwriter!

Although I still believe that “nothing is new under the sun,” in spite of Ecclesiastes there is a unique element that infuses every screenplay ... if you let it. You are what’s new under the sun. As part of my research for a forthcoming book in which Academy Award-winning screenwriters bare their art, craft, and secrets, I asked Bill Goldman how he writes a screenplay. Bill erupted with: “Oh God, the horror of it all is that we each do it so differently.” “No, no,” I protested. “That’s the glory of it all. I want it to show that writers don’t have to be as good as Bill Goldman. They have to be as good as themselves. Their own uniqueness is the key here. I can’t be as good as you. Ergo, can you be as good as me?”

To prepare for this reissue of Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434, I reread the whole book with the idea of a somewhat gentle updating—maybe some new thoughts or anecdotes, or examples. About halfway through, my memory flashed on Aristotle and Egri and how the syllabus I devised in 1979 for my original Screenplay 434 graduate class at UCLA, is still intact with Ari and Egri as its centerpiece. Getting students back to Aristotle and Egri was my real teaching job because superior storytelling has not changed since the time of the cave people to which I refer in Chapter One. Some of my rich and famous ex-students have come back for a “434” fix and I often catch them lip-syncing to my dialogue: Stay with the basics. Stay with the bedrock of yesteryear’s seminal storytellers. Stay with E Scott Fitzgerald’s last line in The Great Gatsby: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Now, going into the second half of rereading 434, I am still concerned about putting in new stuff. When I wrote the book, my intention was to make it as timeless as Ari or Egri. Both maintain the authority of a true sense of validity I think is still paramount in screenwriting knowledge/education.

My appreciation for Ari and Egri is constant. I consciously tried for two things. First, I wanted to make the book on-the-money for basics and second, to really show how ninety percent of working screenwriters develop scripts. I want to give a boy on a bayou pier in Louisiana or a young woman in a fire station tower in Montana access to professional writing even if they had no other book except Screenwriting 434. To do so would mean that I have to use timeless examples and not pick “flavor of the month” movies or screenwriting tricks.

I also tried to stay away from assaulting readers with a blizzard of film references to carry out my pedagogy so I insist that readers needs to know only five movies intimately, four of which are timeless classics.

And I wanted to write a “How-To ... ” book. Unashamedly. In Southern California, this concept would be called a “process” book. In Nebraska, we call it a “how-to” book. At the time of the original publication of Screenwriting 434, none of the books available told the readers how to write a screenplay. They talk about writing a screenplay, around it, and give copious examples, but none—even to this day—actually take the reader through the steps that ninety percent of my fellow Writers Guild Of America members utilize.

I again hit the memory bank: Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. (Hud, Norma Rae) were having a turn in one of my 434 classes. Some grad student, surely on his twentieth draft of a current love/hate child, eagerly asked about rewriting. He leaned forward as if pleading for empathy with his own struggle. Irving referred with his eyes to Harriet for what appeared to be her approval to speak for both of them. Her nod prompted Irving to reply, “We like to get it right the first time.”

After my second rereading of Screenwriting 434, I questioned whether I had gotten it right the first time. Well, for me, the answer was yes. I teach the same basics that I always have. I still try to take the mystery out of screenwriting. I still ask students for the raison d’etre of the work—the “What’s it about?” I’ll still do anything to get good scripts out of anyone. But, there is one piece of craft I have added to my professing, of late.

When I am teaching in Europe, people ask me when I’m going to start showing them “the Hollywood way”. They question my reference to and reverence for Aristotle and Egri and European films as examples? Surprising, this has not caused me to look west for new material, but to add a layer to the process that that is also as far away from their expectations as Camus. But not Camus, Campbell.

In his landmark Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell espouses that legendary heroes (or heroines) take a three-part journey in their stories: 1. The hero hears the call to adventure. 2. The hero accepts the call to adventure. 3. The hero gives him up for the greater good.

Certainly, the hero hearing “the call to adventure” correlates exactly with my description of what constitutes the end of the first act—the “floating page 17” for those of you who have taken my 434 route. And though the hero giving himself up for the greater good certainly holds true in Casablanca, other watershed movies don’t always follow this course. However, it is the second point in the Campbell paradigm that really works for me in all classic celluloid tales. The hero accepting the call to adventure is a concept that I had not embraced when I wrote Screenwriting 434. The second part of the journey as defined by Mr. Campbell seemed exactly right in describing that moment in seminal film stories when the hero stops being a reactor and actively now takes part in the movie to it’s tragic/bittersweet/fulfilling/happy ending. And this heroic decision occurs near the precise center of our most memorable movies—a “floating page 60.” In Casablanca Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) decides to use the letters of transit. The audience hopes that it is to get passage for him and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Or in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, our heros literally depart for Bolivia. Or, the children in E.T. decide to get E.T. home. Or, with his fallen comrade in his arms, Forrest Gump dedicates his life to Bubba.

Steven Spielberg and I were once mutually expressing admiration for screenwriter Diane Thomas (Romancing The Stone). Steven said that Diane would always say, “It’s the second act. Lemme fix the second act.” And it is a fact: Nearly all troubled scripts have the most problems in Act Two. I believe those problems stem from the writer having a reactive hero predominately or totally throughout. The audience wants the hero to say, “Dammit, I’m going to get Pauline off that railroad track!”

So there you are, gentle reader, my single addition to Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434. I could go on about the “center point” but it would only be elaboration and in my professings, I periodically try to follow my edict for good dialogue—less is more—which I shall do in this redux.

So, we’ll happily keep riding the screenwriting wave. Have we crested? Will the swell build any more? I believe as long as there are dreams, your dreams—and we know who you are—the answer can only be a thundering YES!

FADE IN

I have been teaching the 434 graduate screenwriting classes at UCLA since 1979. Prior to then, I guest lectured at universities across the contiguous United States. Since then, I have molested creative minds with workshops and lectures in Israel, England, China, South America, France, Australia, and oh, literally, around the world. In every university, the cry is consistent. “Our weakest link is writing.” Not so at UCLA. Why? Let me speak just for myself.

My personal teaching bent is not to dispense excessive theory or hypothetical situations and exercises in screenwriting. I like to get with a small group of well-educated, highly motivated people, roll up our figurative sleeves, and start developing screenplays, from idea through story and script to notes for the rewrite. At the end of that creative tunnel is an original creation: a script that will develop that person’s potential many steps closer to being the finest writer he or she can be. Not a “Hollywood” writer but a writer who can apply quality talent to any possible screen around the globe. From Hollywood to Nairobi. From TV to esoteric video experiments.

Out of my lectures and writings have come many thoughts and passions about screenwriting. Some from fellow writers, some from me, some from...

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