After about ten years of writing for television, I decided I wanted to learn how to write movies, so I enrolled in a screenwriting class. It’s strange. I never took a television-writing class. I just did it. But, somehow, movie writing, although the arena was hardly alien to me – I had seen a lot of movies – felt like something I needed to be taught.
Why? Maybe it’s the scale of movies – bigger stars, bigger budgets, bigger screen. Maybe it’s because movies are more prestigious than television, and I felt humbled in their presence. Maybe – though I probably couldn’t have articulated this at the time – it’s because television and movie writing are two substantially different animals, springing from the same family – like cats and panthers – but inherently not the same.
It’s badminton versus tennis. At their highest levels, neither format is easier than the other; they simply draw on different muscles. (When I talk about television writing, I’m referring to the more “grounded in theater” comedies I worked on that were filmed in front of a live studio audience. Single-camera comedies, like 30 Rock and The Office, are exactly like movies, only shorter, and you don’t have to pay to get in.
When I decided to take the screenwriting class, what I was looking for – I don’t know what I was looking for. I was afraid of trying something new. I thought some training might make the transition easier. It didn’t. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. Nah, I probably did. But I took the class anyway.
The class was taught by a highly regarded movie-writing teacher and “script doctor.” A “script doctor” either rewrites a movie that needs fixing, or more likely in this guy’s case, suggests strategies for the writer to improve the script themselves.
(Once, while standing outside the building where the class was being held, I saw a car screech to a halt, my teacher raced to the curb, a script was forced into his hands through the window, and the car sped away. I had no idea what was going on. But the arrangement felt creepy and clandestine. A law firm it is best to avoid.)
Our class took place on Saturday mornings, in a structure where the Writers Guild Film Society used to screen movies. If memory serves, it was an eight-week course, but it could have been four or six weeks, and each class was two or three hours long. Memory is great, if you don’t want to recall things precisely. I know I went to that class. That part’s a certainty.
During whatever number of sessions it was – I’m starting to believe it was four – our teacher focused on one movie script – the script of Casablanca, which, incidentally, happens to be one of my favorite movies of all time, that doesn’t involve horses.
Our teacher deconstructed the Casablanca script scene-by-scene, demonstrating how masterfully it was put together, every scene evolving organically from the scene before, the characters distinctly delineated, every plot point carefully established, all of it building to that climactic moment at the foggy airport. There the resolution will take place.
The situation is tense. Will “Ilsa” fly away with the heroic freedom fighter, “Victor Laszlo”? Or will she stay with “Rick”, the emotionally damaged man she truly loves?
If you’ve never seen Casablanca, you should skip this paragraph, because I’ll be giving away the ending. It’s not such a great paragraph anyway; I’ve read it; you’re not missing that much. Those familiar with Casablanca know that Rick makes Ilsa go with Victor, to inspire him in his resistance efforts against the Nazis. The ending is supposed to be surprising, but when you think about it, the options were severely limited. Casablanca was made in 1942, at the height of the war. What other choice did they have? “The war’s not important; you’re staying with me”? They’d have pelted the screen with popcorn.
To be honest, I’ve retained very little of the content of that screenwriting class. What did stay with me, however, was the one lesson our teacher said was the most important lesson of all. And that lesson was this:
If you want your movie script to work, you have to, first, imagine the ending of the story you’re trying to tell, and, keeping that ending in mind, structure things meticulously, from Page One, so that the movie’s payoff will feel satisfying, and, when you look back on it, inevitable.
This was the teacher’s message. This, more than anything, was he wanted us to take away.
Our teacher had put the Casablanca script under a microscope, dissecting it to its minutest components, then reconstituting it to its final perfection. His presentation was remarkable. I realize he wasn’t making it up as he went along; his lectures were painstakingly prepared. But he really made it all sing.
Speaking of singing…
Like a cherry topping an ice cream sundae, at the end of our last class, after explaining how Casablanca’s celebrated accompanying song, As Time Goes By, a song written a decade earlier, was chosen – because it so exquisitely echoed the story being told – our teacher, unaccompanied, began singing that iconic tune, in a not unpleasant voice:
You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by…
It was a nice touch. The “button” to an enjoyable class. But then, unexpectedly, he went on.
And when two lovers woo
They still say “I love you”
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
Time goes by.
Okay. That was great. Thank y…
Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date
It was here where I started biting my lip.
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate
I’m blinking tears away from my eyes.
Woman needs man
And Man must have his mate
That no one can deny
I’m struggling not to laugh. If only he’d stop.
It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die
I am now pinching myself really hard.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
Thank God. It’s over.
Oh, yes, the world will always welcome lovers
I can’t take anymore.
I really can’t.
I’m going to explode!
It was absolutely excruciating. But there was one thing about the class that, in retrospect, was worse. It occurred to me later that it’s commonly known that, when they started shooting Casablanca, the script didn’t have an ending. They came up with one sometime during production.
That being the case, why did the teacher explain how essential having an ending is by taking as an example a movie that notoriously began filming without an ending?
That was the second mystery of the screenwriting class. The first?
Why did he sing