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Screenwriting Advice from Award-Winning Screenwriter and Teacher Barry Brodsky

There's no one path to becoming a screenwriter, and Screenplay Doctor Susan Kouguell discusses some of the many options with writer and director of the Emerson College Screenwriting Certificate Program, Barry Brodsky. Email screenwriter@newenglandfilm.com to have your screenwriting question answered in an upcoming issue.

By Susan Kouguell

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Barry Brodsky, writer and director of the Emerson College Screenwriting Certificate Program

In October, I was a guest speaker for Professor Barry Brodsky’s Industry Night at Emerson College, to discuss the business of screenwriting. Professor Brodsky kindly took time out of his busy schedule to be interviewed for this month’s column.

Barry Brodsky teaches screenwriting at Emerson, Boston University and Lesley University, and serves as the Director of the Emerson College Screenwriting Certificate Program. He is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter; his short screenplay I Miss You (directed by Fethi Bendida) is premiering at the Algerian Film Festival next month.

Susan Kouguell: To give readers an overview of the screenwriting educational opportunities in the Boston area, please talk about the programs and enrollment requirements at Emerson College and Boston University.

Barry Brodsky: Emerson and BU have the best known film schools in Boston. Both schools feature internships in Los Angeles and the programs are well respected in the industry. And, of course, it’s expensive as hell to go to either school. I’m not on the admissions end of higher education, but I know both Emerson and BU are highly competitive for prospective undergraduate students coming out of high school and for prospective MFA students coming out of an undergraduate program. For a ‘non-traditional’ student, i.e. someone who’s been out of school for a while, or someone who got an undergraduate degree some years ago and now wants to go to an MFA film program, the process is somewhat different. My advice to people who are thinking of film school is to apply to as many as possible and see what happens, particularly in terms of financial aid. Because you never know. You might get offered a good chunk of financial aid when you least expect it. Internships can also help defray the huge costs. Pay the schools a visit, ask to sit in on a class, ask to talk with recent graduates (you’ll get people who loved the programs of course, but it’s a good way to get some questions answered with more objectivity). Both Emerson and BU afford you the opportunity to learn filmmaking using cutting edge technology. You’ll write, direct, learn all aspects of shooting, and act if you care to. It’s a great experience. Is it necessary in order to succeed? Being a film school grad will open doors more easily early in your career, but the decision about how much that’s worth, or whether going to a film school is the best way to learn the business is a highly personal one. There is no one pat answer and don’t trust anyone who tells you there is.

SK: You run the Industry Night series at Emerson College -- and I was delighted to be your guest. What type of guests do you have and who may attend these events?

Brodsky: As part of the Certificate program, we bring in two or three “industry experts” each semester to talk with past, present, and future students, as well as anyone else who wants to attend the talk. We’ve had screenwriters, agents, producers, managers, directors, seminar leaders, story analysts, actors, TV writers, and people like yourself who fit under multiple categories. One industry night featured graduates of the certificate program who had shot their own films. We showed 10-20 minutes of a film from each and then had a panel discussion. These events are open to the public; to get on the mailing list all you have to do is send me an email at barry_brodsky@emerson.edu and request to be put on the “Industry Night Mailing List” and you’ll be on it for life.

SK: Among the questions students asked me at Industry Night were requests for suggestions on overcoming writer’s block and common mistakes found in scripts. Regarding commonly found screenwriting mistakes, we agreed that students must be particularly mindful of formatting errors, lack of character development and poor structure. I offered a number of suggestions for overcoming writer’s block, including putting the script aside for a period of time (days, weeks even) and not to think about scenes but characters -- and write character bios in their characters’ voices. (This is further detailed in my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays!) I also suggested synopsizing the script in prose, in a short story form. You and I also agreed that writing a script can be daunting (as is the process of getting it out in the world and produced) -- and one must be passionate about your screenplay. What advice do you have about overcoming writer’s block and the screenwriting process?

Brodsky: My MFA is in Theatre (Playwriting) and I once sat in on a talk given by a somewhat successful playwright. He talked about developing a story from the ground up, all the usual things about learning who your characters are, constructing a solid structure for the story blah blah blah. I’d heard it all before (not that I could do it, but I’ve heard it). Then he said something that’s stuck with me for 20 years -- at the end of it all you have to ask yourself a question: “Am I the person to write this story?” It was like a bolt of lightning to me because at the time I was struggling with a story idea and I instantly knew I was not the person to write it. I find that sometimes students get very stubborn trying to make that round peg of an idea fit into the square hole of a story they want to tell. That’s why I allow students to change their minds right up to the time the first writing assignment is due. I want them to spend some time with their story, do a “beat sheet,” write a treatment, do index cards -- I like Blake Snyder’s 40 card system but it doesn’t matter which system you choose as long as you really get that story playing from beginning to end on that theater screen in your head. When students can’t get it to play out, I often encourage them to come up with something else.

SK: What is your opinion of the value of attending film school and choosing screenwriting as a major?

Brodsky: I believe in what Joseph Campbell said: you have to follow your passion. But here in 21st century America, you’re not likely to find too many “Full-Time Screenwriters Wanted -- good pay and health insurance included” ads on the local job boards. But that doesn’t mean you can’t hammer out a living some other way and still write what you want to write. I came to scriptwriting somewhat late in life -- I did freelance writing before that and made my living mostly as a community organizer. After I got an MFA in Theatre, I did clerical work at a local hospital for 13 years. In the course of living your life you’re going to make some mistakes. If your biggest mistake turns out to be that you didn’t major in screenwriting, you’re probably going to have a pretty decent life. You can learn the fundamentals of screenwriting (and this is a shameless case of self-promotion I’m about to make) in many ways, not just majoring in screenwriting at a university. For example... you can come to the Emerson Screenwriting Certificate program, have two semesters of Screenwriting Basics in which you will write a complete first draft, and take either an Advanced Screenwriting class (where you’ll either write a new first draft or rewrite the first draft you’ve already written), the Business of Screenwriting (where you’ll learn how to market yourself and your work to the movie industry), or TV Writing, a class we’re just getting off the ground. To become a screenwriter, for real, the main thing you need to do is write screenplays. Learn how to write a properly formatted screenplay that makes a reader want to keep turning the pages until he/she reads the words FADE OUT, whether you learn that in a university program, an adult ed class, a program like mine at Emerson, by attending seminars, joining a writing group, watching instructional DVDs, networking with other screenwriters at film festivals, reading hundreds of film scripts and trying to imitate the ones you like best, and I could go on and on but you get the idea: carve out your path, follow it, and most likely on the other side you’ll be cranking out screenplays and having a good time doing it.

For more information on Emerson's Screenwriting Certificate Program, visit their website.

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting and film at Tufts University, and is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and film executives worldwide ( www.su-city-pictures.com; su-city-pictures.blogspot.com). Susan wrote The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! (St. Martin’s Griffin) and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises, which is available at $1.00 off by clicking on www.createspace.com/3558862and using DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD. To order the just released Kindle version go to: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009SB8Z7M (discount code does not apply). To read an excerpt go to: https://www.createspace.com/Preview/1089452.

Follow Susan at Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell Twitter page for more Savvy Tips.

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