Screenwriting
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Schooled

by Dara Resnik Creasey

I’ve recently been gifted more responsibility than ever at work. My daughter is reaching an age where she verbally demands more of me, and is disappointed when she doesn’t get it. My free time is limited and valuable these days. So, pop quiz: Why did I accept a position teaching a class for the graduate Peter Stark Producing Program at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts?

Hint: It wasn’t purely altruistic.

Over the 11 years since I received my master’s degree in film and television producing, I have found myself a guest at several courses at USC, UCLA, and UC Riverside. I’m pretty sure it’s less my résumé that makes me a go-to speaker for my friends’ classes than the fact that I never turn down a chance to speak to a room of students unless my schedule doesn’t permit it. I loved guest speakers when was in grad school – hearing the circuitous routes of people like Alan Ball, Miguel Arteta, and Jill Soloway (to name drop a few of my favorites) was inspiring. Listening to them, I learned that everyone found a different road to the same destination of success, that each road was bumpy, and that somehow everyone found their way. I left grad school optimistic that making it was possible. I didn’t yet know my path, but I felt confident I would find it. That feeling was a gift. I started saying “yes” to these opportunities to speak at film schools as a way to pay that gift forward.

What I found, though, was I began to love speaking to these classes because when students ask How Things Work or Why Things Are Done, it forces me to click off the auto pilot and truly consider The Process. I have a chance to break down the business, storytelling, screenwriting, all of it, and it’s made me a stronger writer and a better producer.

So when legendary producer Lawrence Turman, who now runs the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC, asked me to teach the screenwriting class I once took as a grad student, I wanted to say yes. But I had to get a few ducks in a row first. Of primary importance, I needed to ask my bosses at Castle, Andrew W. Marlowe and David Amann, if they could spare me one night a week. They quacked in the affirmative. Not only were they both supportive, but Marlowe, a USC grad himself (and former teacher there as well), had a friend in screenwriting professor Ted Braun, who spoke to me for a few hours about my nascent pedagogical journey. (I love that I just had a chance to use the word “pedagogical,” but I digress).

I also sat down with my former screenwriting professor, Stuart Krieger, who still teaches another section of the class and who is also now a tenured professor in the film program at UC Riverside, and spoke with numerous writer friends in the business about what was most helpful to them when they were first starting out.

Meanwhile, I had to write a syllabus. And, whether ironically or appropriately, I had writer’s block. What was my take on this class? The common thread in all my conversations with Braun, Krieger, and other writers was that students’ early work is too often focused solely on craft. Craft is important. But it’s relatively easy to teach. What’s much harder to impart is how to make stories and scenes visceral. Suddenly, one of my favorite quotes came to mind, something the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl said in his keynote speech at SXSW a few years ago: “What matters most is that it’s your voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it. Scream it until it’s f*cking gone. Because everyone is blessed with at least that. And who knows how long it will last.”

Everyone has a voice. The most important thing each of us brings to our creative work is who we are. Our individual perspectives.

I realized it was my job to help each of my students to find their voice.

I structured the class as a safe place where my students would focus on what was unique to each of their life experiences and emotional points of view first, and I talked about craft and technique second.

It reminded me that for all my focus on story structure, on what TV act break will keep an audience tuned in past those car commercials, what creates a loyal, fervent following are moments that make people truly feel something. It reminded me that when showrunners hire me, they are hiring me not only to fit in with the voice and culture of the show, but also to bring a piece of me to the table.

The refresher course in story breaking has been helpful too. It’s fun to take note of how much I’ve learned since I took this course as a student in the program. I’ve walked my class through breaking a movie and breaking a TV pilot. I’ve discussed teasers, openings, scene work, taking/giving notes, and rewriting. But teaching each student how to find his or her voice has forced me to pay attention to my own.

“Because everyone is blessed with at least that. And who knows how long it will last.”

Pop quiz: Why am I teaching this class?

Answer: Because it makes me a better writer.

Dara Resnik Creasey

About Dara Resnik Creasey

Dara Resnik Creasey is a Jewish former Manhattanite who writes film and television with her goyish Coloradan husband, Chad Gomez Creasey. Among their credits are Sydney White, Pushing Daisies, Mistresses, and Castle. Dara loves John Hughes, couponing, and the New York Giants/Mets/Rangers/Knicks in no particular order of importance. Follow Dara on Twitter @daracreasey

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