These are my thoughts after having read Brian Koppelman’s blog post “Con Men, Gurus, and the Screenwriting Instruction Industrial Complex“:
Having been on both sides of this argument at different points in my artistic career, I have to say that while Koppelman says some truths, he also seems to be holding too steadfastly to this purist idea of filmmaking as an artistic expression. Unfortunately, film is a business and there is value to understanding the common language of the industry. You would not go into a job in finance and not know what currency you are trading in. It is important to understand how and why you are breaking, bending or ignoring “the rules”.
Having now taught screenwriting, I also have a deeper appreciation for systems like “Save The Cat,” “The Screenwriter’s Bible” and “Story”. Do I believe any of these books will give the secret method to writing the next Citizen Kane? No. But what they do give is a point of reference, a way to relate what one does in their writing to what others have done before them. Without a point of reference from which to base discussions, there is no way to actually constructively engage in critique.
I often told my students that I can not teach the aspect of writing that is alchemy; that is up to the individual artists. But what I can teach is a way for one to approach the material.
For myself, I think much of what Koppelman suggests is stuff I did on instinct in the past. I genuinely liked to tinker with dramatic situations. I voraciously studied movies that were similar to whatever I was working on. I once poo-poo’d all screenwriting theories and books accusing them of creating uninspired homogenized mass art.
But now that I have gotten older, I find that I really appreciate what these screenwriting “gurus” have done. The hardest part about writing is not the actual writing, it is the rewriting. Going back to the thing and saying, “there’s something wrong here” or “something is not as strong as it could be”. What I like about being armed with resources like McKee, Snyder, August, Field, etc. is that it gives me something to poke the first draft with like a stick. Without the stick, I either have to use my finger and risk it being bitten off or just go in blind and mess with things willy-nilly until the piece is fixed but not in any way that I could recreate come the next project or problem.
In short, my response to this piece is that I subscribe to the Bruce Lee Jeet Kune Do school of screenwriting: draw upon whatever is the most useful technique for any given situation. To deny the merits of any one way limits your ability to be successful.