Copying the masters…

I’m often asked by new writers how I learned how to write for film and television.  I have to admit that for me it didn’t happen by going to film school — although I wouldn’t discourage anybody from doing that.

I first learned how to write in journalism school, and then as a working journalist for 10 years or so before I morphed into writing for film and TV.  So for me one of the big answers to the question is I learned how write scripts from READING OTHER PEOPLE’S SCRIPTS.  Especially produced scripts.

It is one of the best screenwriting classrooms I know.  Scripts, scripts and more scripts.  It’s actually a concept that dates back to an accepted form of learning how to “do art” for  thousands of years.

It’s called “Copy the Master.”  It doesn’t mean literally to “copy,” but to draw inspiration, style, technique from the experts in the field of art you aspire to.  If you can picture a painting class, all the students are sitting at their canvasses while the Master, or teacher, is at the front of the class doing what?  Painting on his/her canvass. What are the students doing?  They are “copying the master,” mimicking his style and technique. Since the beginning of time, the idea is for the student to copy the master, but bring himself to the canvass (or script page) in order to surpass the master. Even Michelangelo was in his Master’s class in the Medici School.  Make sense?

Before I write any new project, I prime the pump creatively for myself by reading five great screenplays by “master” screenwriters.  That is, the Greats.  The Horton Footes, Robert Bolts and Robert Townes of this world, just to name a few.  I read them to see how they nail scenes, how they escalate the action, how they introduce characters, how they weave character and plot together at act breaks.  And then I try to go and do likewise on the project I am writing.

If you’ll navigate to my READING ROOM page under RESOURCES, you’ll find I have included sub-pages with .pdf files of some of the FILMS and TELEVISION projects I have written over the years.  They are there for your benefit.  I don’t in any way put my own scripts in the category of the above greats. I include them because I hope they will be helpful in some measure, and many of them were in fact produced, so somebody saw merit in them and spend a lot of money on them.  I consider myself a fellow student in art class, so feel free to look over my shoulder and read whatever you like.

I’m also including pages for projects I’m still working on and which are in various stages of COMING to fruition.  And another page for busted projects, a page I’m calling DEVELOPMENT H*LL.  That is, projects I got paid to write, but that ended up not being produced. Every produced writer has some of those in his career quiver.

Just a quick disclaimer.  Maybe it goes without saying, but please don’t try to sell or stage any of these scripts. The networks or studios or production companies that hired me to work on them might frown on that, and their lawyers would send me and you some creepy, annoying letters.

About Brian Bird

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