Q&A with UCLA Screenwriting Professor Hal Ackerman

He says that while it’s true that talent cannot be taught, people with talent can be taught. He also says being a writer and making your living as a writer can be two very different things.

Over the last decade, a dozen screenplays written in Hal Ackerman’s UCLA Screenwriting classes have been sold. His teachings have been highly praised by many, including those who have found success with films such as A Walk on the Moon, The Big Tease, and Terminal.

For years, Ackerman’s students encouraged him to write a book on the craft. The result? The esteemed Write Screenplays That Sell: The Ackerman Way (Tallfellow Press), which has been called an intuitive, inspirational “must have” on screenwriting and has been adopted as a new text by university film studies departments around the U.S.

Recently, I asked Ackerman what he feels are the most common mistakes aspiring screenwriters make when pursuing the craft of screenwriting, and what it takes to increase the odds of making it in this difficult industry.

Here’s what he told me.

What are some common misconceptions you feel screenwriters have when they begin to pursue the craft?

I think aspiring screenwriters these days are far more savvy about film, both the business and technology, than I was when I came here in the early 1970s. Film has supplanted theater and literature as the primary form of story telling, the technology is readily available and by comparison far less expensive. It has become deceptively EASY to make a movie. The great misconception that walks hand-in-hand with the technological ease is the notion that whatever gets created is good.

WHAT to film, WHAT to write remains as hard as it ever was: Most notably, once you get past the delight of playing with the toys, what makes a story interesting and compelling? How do you create characters who are interesting beyond the scope of a ten minute skit? In the same way that blogging is not necessarily literature, writing down or filming anything indiscriminately is not art, is not story.

The beauty of a great artist, a great athlete, a great race car driver, is the ability to make something amazingly difficult and complex look easy. The great misconception among new and untested writers is that screenwriting is easy. It’s harder than it looks.

What, in your opinion, are the most common mistakes aspiring screenwriters make when they’re getting started — mistakes that can ultimately lead to their failure?

I’d prefer to replace the word “failure” with “delayed success.” The only
thing that absolutely guarantees failure is quitting, giving up, packing it in… In my book I quote Flannery O’Connor, the brilliant and subversive Southern fiction writer. When asked if she thought university writing programs stifled creative writers, she replied, “Not enough of them.”

The wonderful and horrific truth about the film business is that many of the people who decide what gets made seem to have no ability to distinguish between truth and trash. And equally sad, that is also true about audiences. (Look who they elected president.) Some films are written by people who probably had more aptitude as shoe salesmen. And many brilliant and deserving screenplays are not recognized.

Art is subjective. People like what they like and you’re never going to please everyone.

Your hope is that [what] pleases and delights you will have the same effect on people who read it. Your job, then, is not to change the marketplace. It is to develop your own voice-the product that you are going to take to that marketplace.

Rumplestiltskin turned straw into gold. We have to spin passion into product.

The two mistakes with the highest degree of “fatality” about them are the two opposing sides of the same coin. Quitting and rushing. Lack of stamina and impatience. Among the many things it’s going to take to succeed (ability, luck being high among them) is time. We’ve all heard the urban myths about the 22-year-old writer who came to Hollywood and made a seven figure deal on his/her first script. Can it happen? Yes. Should you count on its happening as your Plan A? Please.

It is more realistic to think of an Olympic gymnast. Before those two minutes on the world stage, that athlete spends six hours every day, six days a week for years in the gym. Writers have to commit to that effort and the development of their craft, too.

You need to commit to the time it is likely to take to start and continue a career, a time of indeterminate length, which will not rise predictably and heartingly (as a corporate career might). And you must commit to giving each individual product the time it takes to reach its potential.

Many mistakes are made in sending a script out too soon or too late. There are twin dragons of destruction on both sides of every narrow strait. Impatience and timidity.

Some of us want to rip the last page out of the printer, make 20 copies and hit the town at first sunrise. Others will write draft after draft, spend years on the same script, sharpening it to the inevitable point of dullness.

There are always two opposite proverbs for every situation. Which defines you-? “Better safe than sorry” or “Nothing ventured nothing gained.”

Whichever it is, you might try to moderate your approach. If you know you’re impetuous, force yourself to sit on a script for three weeks before sending it out. Show it to valued friends, the fewer the better. People who get you, but not who’ll stroke you.

For you who are paralyzed by perfectionism. Flush or get off the pot. He delay is not about the script it’s about your relationship to rejection. Accept that someone whose opinion you value will think this piece sucks. Then die or go on living and see what happens next.

So. Love what you do. Keep a day job. Don’t rush. Don’t be impatient. Get yourself as ready as you can be for when the moment arrives. Don’t try to outguess the industry. Write a movie that you would pay to see.

What are a couple of things new screenwriters need to know–and do–in order to increase their odds of making it in the industry?

The best strategy for guaranteed success is to choose your parents wisely. Select a mother or father who runs a studio. If you already screwed up on that, here are a few back-up scenarios.

Know what you like, know what you love, hate and fear. As was said 4,000 years ago, “Know thyself.” At UCLA, where I’ve been teaching screenwriting for twenty years, when we look at prospective new students to take into the program, we look for an individual VOICE. Craft can be taught. Technique can be taught. But what makes you sound like YOU! Your sense of humor, your neuroses, your sense of what is fair, your EXPERIENCES and your courage and ability to access them. The individual characters you’ve known. The things that have happened to you and the people around you in your life. Only ONE PERSON in the universe has access to those golden nuggets. That’s you.

Tell your own stories, stories that no one else in the universe can tell. The movie industry likes nothing better than to find that beautiful, fresh individual voice (and to spend the next ten years corrupting it and making it sound like everyone else.)

There’s a very entertaining, informative chapter in the back of the book titled, “Living Your Writer’s Life.” Please describe your own personal writer’s life.

In my book, I describe the moment I decided to take a shot at being a writer for my life. I was twenty. It was 8 AM. I was standing at a busy corner in New York. Thousands of people were coming out of the subway on their way to work. Their expressions were already set. Grim. Worried. Tense. Numb. Resigned. And that was the way they were going to feel for most of the day and the week and their lives. I decided [I] was going to get away with doing what made me happy for a long as I possibly could. I was willing to accept the sacrifices.

I began as an off-0ff Broadway playwright/Bartender-waiter. I had a few dozen plays done, and served many martinis. When I came to L.A. I was a fledgling screenwriter/photographer. I don’t go for extravagances; money is not the most important driving motivation to me. (It may be more so for you. Without putting any judgment on it, you should know its importance to you. It will affect many core decisions about lifestyle, sacrifice, time allotted, BEING A PARENT.)

I’ve had blocks of years where I was steadily employed as a writer and financially well-rewarded. And blocks of years of anonymity. Through it all, as of this very day, I wake up every morning excited at what I’m going to be doing. Since the beginning of this year I’ve written a new screenplay and rewritten a novel about to go into submission. My new one-man play will open later this year. A poem I wrote is appearing in an anthology in a few weeks, I Wanna Be Sedated: 30 Essays on Parenting Teenagers (Seal Press, 2005), in the company of some great writers like Dave Barry, Anna Quindlen, Louise Erdrich. So despite my new little Mini Cooper getting scratched in a parking lot yesterday, and not yet having sold a script for seven figures, I’m happy with the life I’ve chosen and would not trade it for anything except possibly having played major league baseball.

So that’s the writing life in the long sense. Day-to-day, I get up fairly early, get done with the required procrastinations (eating, exercises, life-maintenance errands) by nine-ish and then get into it for the next many hours. Till 4’ish. (With a couple of breaks, of course). I might do a late night session sometimes too, after watching a rerun of The West Wing.

I arrange my teaching schedule at UCLA so that it accommodates my writing schedule.

What motivated you to write this book?

Obviously, when you read it you will see that it renders obsolete all previous intellectual discourse on the subject. But more seriously: I guess I wanted to see if I could. Over the years, people seemed to “get” a lot of classes they took with me and said I ought to write a book. I had not read the other books, so I didn’t know what other people were saying-how they were teaching. Whatever I knew I had learned through my own experiences. People more familiar with other approaches told me mine had an original approach. (Originality is easy. The question is always whether it also has any value). The only way to find that out is to do it. I’m very happy with [it]. I can actually read parts of it and think that’s not too damn bad. (No small accomplishment)

When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer?

I mention above when I decided when I was going to try to make my
living as a writer.

Being a writer and making your living as a writer can be two very different things.

I decided to be a writer after I didn’t make my high school varsity baseball team, and figured that a career in the bigs was probably not going to happen. I could always make people laugh, and enjoyed writing humorous little essay, song parodies. Class clownish type stuff.

In college, two friends of mine were involved in theater and hearing them discuss it got me curious. I fell into freebie tickets to the Broadway show, Camelot. It blew me away and I knew I wanted to do that. I wrote book and lyrics and one of those aforementioned friends wrote an original score. We did a full musical comedy at Queens College (about Robin Hood). It was a transforming experience to hear audiences of 500 people laughing at lines I wrote just the way I thought they would, and to be (Author, Author’ed) on stage and feel all that love and applause.

What do you hope readers of Writing Screenplays That Sell will take from the book?

I make a promise to every writer in every class I work with at UCLA. “Ten
weeks from now you will be a better writer than you are right now.” I hope that will be true of everyone who buys and works this book.

Do you have a favorite writing quote?

“Sweet are the uses of adversity.”
– William Shakespeare

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