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Should Screenwriters Go to Film School? Part Two

Is it worth it to go to film school? In part two of a series, Screenplay Doctor Susan Kouguell gets an answer from SUNY Purchase's Professor J.D. Zeik. Email screenwriter@newenglandfilm.com to have your screenwriting question answered in an upcoming issue.

By Susan Kouguell

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Professor and Screenwriter J.D. Zeik

One question I repeatedly hear from aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers is this: Is it worth it to go to film school? For my ongoing series about film schools, this month I ask fellow SUNY Purchase alumni J.D. Zeik for his insights.

J.D. Zeik has been a working writer for the last two decades. Among his credits is his original screenplay, Ronin, starring Robert DeNiro. Other projects include The Touch, with Michelle Yeoh, Pistol Whipped, with Steven Seagal, and the TV film (and subsequent series) Witchblade, on which he also served an executive producer. He has worked with artists as varied as James Cameron, Alfonso Cuaron, and 50 Cent. J.D. graduated from SUNY Purchase, where he started his writing career as a playwright. His plays have been produced in both New York and Los Angeles. Since the spring of 2000 he has taught screenwriting in both the Film and the Dramatic Writing programs at Purchase.

Susan Kouguell: Tell me about your experiences in the film industry.

J.D. Zeik: This could take all day. I have worked on big projects (Ronin had a budget of some $65 million, I believe), and much smaller ones (my Steven Seagal epic, Pistol Whipped had, I believe, a budget of around $10 million, though I might be off base on that). I’ve worked with Robert DeNiro, Morgan Freeman, Bruce Beresford, Alfonso Cuaron, 50 Cent, James Cameron, and Steven Seagal, and a good many other producers, directors and actors. I’ve traveled all over the world, from Asia to Europe to Australia, eaten chicken’s blood in a back alley hot pot restaurant in Hong Kong, and quaffed pints of ale with gangsters in a London pub. Perhaps the best writing experiences I’ve had have been with producer Barbara DeFina (Goodfellas, The Grifters, and may be thirty other films). More than any other producer she has the ability to look at my work and give me notes that not only make sense, but that I can put into action. Ironically, though we’ve worked together a number of times, we have yet to see a project get off the ground. Indeed, many of the people I’ve worked with represent projects that didn’t happen. Some of them are projects that “almost” happened but didn’t -- as William Goldman said in Adventures in the Screen Trade, this is a not uncommon occurrence. By the way, for my money, Goldmanʼs book is maybe the best book ever written about the screenwriter’s experience.

SK: How many years have you been teaching at SUNY Purchase and what courses do you currently teach?

Zeik: Just finishing my 13th year. Usually I teach Junior Screenwriting and I also work with a handful of students on Senior Projects (full-length screenplays).

SK: Describe the type of students in your program. For example -- are they looking to continue their education in graduate school in film or are they seeking immediate employment, preferably in the film industry, after completing their degree?

Zeik: Students in Dramatic Writing are either looking to become screenwriters or playwrights (some wish to do both). I’d say that 75% of students are more interested in screenwriting, while 25% wish to focus on theater.

SK: What types of screenwriting and filmmaking programs does SUNY Purchase currently offer?

Zeik: This is a tricky question, as the Dramatic Writing Program has changed in the last few years. It is now a course of study, but it is no longer a program that admits a freshman class that spends four years together, intensively studying. I teach narrative screenwriting, focusing very much on the type of work done in Los Angeles.

SK: Please share some of your former students’ success stories in the film industry.

Zeik: Writing is a little different than acting. There are a lot more jobs for younger actors than there are for younger writers (somebody’s got to play the 20-year-old). So I think the biggest success stories are still to come as people continue to make their careers. But Tejal Desai, one of my very first students, won a Nicholl Fellowship and has done work for Disney. Several students have had plays produced. Justin Kremer, a recent grad, just signed with CAA after putting his script on the new Black List website designed to showcase unknown writers and their work. ( blcklst.com) More than anything, I’ve seen a lot of our grads make solid inroads into having a career. They’re working in a field that has a connection to their art, either as a teacher, or perhaps as an assistant in Los Angeles, or perhaps in some other way; and while they’re doing this work that pays the bills, they’re also continuing to write.

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

Zeik: It’s worth it if you use it. If you’re just here to kill time until you get famous, you’re in the wrong place. This is an incredibly tough field, and you better want to do this, want it so much that you’re willing to work another job to support yourself as you try to make it. If you’re willing to work that hard, then a film or screenwriting program can be an invaluable place that allows you to begin to learn the process of writing.

SK: Any words of wisdom you would like to share to aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers?

Zeik: Don’t quit, and work your ass off. Also, though I never moved there, Los Angeles is the best place to be if you want to work in the film industry. It can be tough, it can be soul killing (so can, by the way, New York, Chicago, and any other place), but it’s where the work is, and where you can make connections. Try and get a job as an assistant in any kind of company connected to the film world. Don’t tell them about yourself. Instead watch, listen, work incredibly hard, and keep working on your own work. That’s how you create your own lucky break – Branch Rickey said, and Vince Lombardi liked to quote: “Luck is the residue of design.” It really is.

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 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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