A couple weeks ago I attended the WGA Lake Arrowhead Craft Conference. This is a weekend long retreat at Lake Arrowhead for WGA members (meaning all the attendees have to have sold something or worked for a signatory studio or television company).
The event is built around five speakers giving “master class” workshops over the course of three days. This year the speakers were Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), Jill Soloway (Transparent, Afternoon Delight), Chip Johannessen (Homeland, 24), David Milch (Deadwood, NYPD Blue) and Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy, Grandma). There are also breakout sessions – and, full disclosure, I ran a breakout session on “Crafting the Perfect Pitch.”
I thought today I’d report back on some of the larger insights I took from the master classes.
The first session was Michelle Ashford talking about writing historical pieces. She discussed the importance of honoring the truth of history, but also the necessity to forget the history and get inside the characters and the motivations for their actions. Ms. Ashford does extensive research. I mean she reads everything she can about the subject. This gives her the confidence to make decisions where the historical record is contradictory or missing, because she feels she understands the people and what would be true to them. Though she feels bound to honor the truth in Masters of Sex, she also discussed a major subplot line that was entirely invented. She felt justified in that case because the events could have happened and they stayed true to what she knew about the actual person.
Jill Soloway ran the second session. Much of the focus was on providing opportunities both behind and in front of the camera for diverse types of people – certainly an important issue (and more on that in a moment). But there was also a lot of craft advice in her talk.
Ms. Soloway said that most writers know how important it is to identify what the character wants in a scene, but it’s equally important to identify what they’re doing to get what they want. That’s the action of the scene. She also talked about the moment in the scene where the character realizes what they’re doing isn’t working and they then change tactics and try harder. She advocated choosing character actions that carry emotion. So rather than thinking a character is “walking out of the room,” think that they are “escaping.”
Both Jill Soloway and David Milch talked about doing work that was authentic and personal. As I said, Ms. Soloway made a passionate plea for diverse voices. She said that she used to try to find ways to put bits of herself into other things; but now she works to reveal herself through her writing. Mr. Milch’s master class was focused on letting the truth of the character drive the plot of the story. My favorite quote from his talk was, “In the fullness of time, you’ll outlast your own inauthenticity.”
As somewhat of a contrast, my big takeaway from Chip Johannessen’s master class was his term, WOOS, which means “Writer Out Of the Script.” He talked about the varying levels of realism of the shows he’s worked on, letting character drive story (echoes of Milch), and how for Homeland he polices the scripts for any line of dialogue that sounds “written.” He showed an intensely dramatic clip from Homeland and pointed out how the dialogue was fairly cliché and mundane – but that’s how real people talk. What made the scene work was the subtext – the drama that was set up by the situation and the desires of the characters. Interestingly, that scene also provided and excellent illustration of Soloway’s “they try harder” moment.
On Sunday morning, Paul Weitz spoke. He showed a long scene from his upcoming movie Grandma and went through how the drama was generated by authentic character desire, subtext and changing beats – in many ways bringing together all of the themes of the weekend. He made the point that story is really about why characters are doing things.
Mr. Weitz also talked about the importance of taking the pressure off of the process. My favorite quote: “When I go to work, I’m not sitting down to write well, I’m just sitting down to write.”
There were two bits of directing advice I jotted down as well:
From Jill Soloway: In staging the scene, you must privilege the emotional moment.
From Paul Weitz: Directing is about making decisions, right or wrong. The worst decision is standing around not making a decision.
Overall, the conference was an inspiring experience and has prompted me to look back at some great scenes in movies I love for how they build drama.
In other news: The Hollywood Pitching Bible is now available as an audiobook! It is read by the talented David Simkins (Grimm, Adventures in Babysitting)