The Philadelphia Writers Conference, offers classes in dramatic writing, alternating from one year to the next between writing for the stage and for the screen. This year, in addition to the workshop we are doing for playwriting we have the additional pleasure of inviting back Susan Lehman to teach a Master Class in Screenwriting. Susan is an assistant professor of TV/Film at DeSales University and has taught the drama writing class at PWC. She is also the author of the book Directors: From Stage to Screen and Back Again
I had a great conversation with Susan. See what we discussed after the break!
Jerry: I’m a narrative nonfiction writer, and yet the first book I read about writing stories was by a screen writer, John McKee, so I was already aware of the crossover between stage writing and narrative story telling. That’s why I took your drama writing workshop at Philadelphia Writers Conference a few years ago. From the class, I learned some great tips about character building, pacing, and scene building. Am I the only one who has done this, or do you find that other types of writers take your courses in order to learn more about the craft of story writing, even if they don’t have a particular ambition to write a screen play.
Susan: As many of the participants, all forms of storytelling enrich what ever form your personal hand seems to take. But many writers come to the masters class to understand writing pictures. I love the explanation that novels are stories told in thoughts, plays are stories told in dialogue, and movies are stories told in pictures. But, the best of all seems to have the right balance of both in their respective medium. And, understanding the different format to writing a screenplay is a fun puzzle to solve.
Jerry: After I took the class, I became curious about your book Directors: From Stage to Screen and Back Again. This fascinated me because I had never thought in any great detail about the differences between the stage and screen. I learned so much from your interviews with these movie directors who had crossed over into theater, or theater directors who made movies. These amazing people have a voracious appetite for exploring human drama in both media, and by reading your interviews with them, you have given me a whole new vocabulary to help me understand the larger project of dramatization. So I have two questions about you writing the book.
What influence did your connection with these fascinating people have on your professional life – in other words how did you grow as a writer and teacher from meeting and interviewing them?
Susan: First, thank you. I am thrilled that you got so much from the book! It was such a joy to work on. As the late Gil Cates said, what’s so bad about talking about what you love for a couple of hours But, with each interview I felt had had my own master class in storytelling. Because whether writer, director, designer, or actor, we all are telling stories.
For my own journey, especially since I also teach directing, each director had such a specific take on what works for them, I now have twelve co-teachers. Their theater background taught them to respect the writer, and how important that vision is, so refreshing in the film world. But each interview gave personal guidelines. Matt Shakman discussing Ed Zwick’s words of wisdom about shots relating to a proscenium stage, Mr. Cates stressing the conflicts of every beat in a work, Oz Scott discussing the relationship to thrust staging and camera angles, and I love Paul Aaron’s analogy of directing to throwing a dinner party.
Jerry: I know there are probably a million technical and commercial differences between screen writing and playwriting. But how about from the point of view of the story writer? Can you give me a tip or synopsis or example of the difference in the stories one ought to construct on the screen and ones to produce on the stage?
Susan: This is why you take the workshop!
As I mentioned before, it is very important to understand that in film, saying it is secondary to showing it. And as all writers know, you always try to save the jokes, but wonderful lines are often sacrificed to a poignant picture. Just keep a file of those great lines.
One of the hardest transitions for writers into screenwriting is not directing and acting. It’s a little like sculpting, you have to take your ideas and whittle them down to only what you can see and hear, no thinking allowed. But, also, no directing allowed or acting allowed. You have to think of the script as the foundation of a house that other people will add to. When done right, there is no question that what is on the page will also be in someone’s imagination.
Format is also amazingly important. Besides the professionalism of the work, think of bad screenplay format as trying to understand someone with a heavy accent, they maybe speaking the language, but understanding the meaning can be very difficult. There are so many scripts out there, if you don’t follow the rules, your pages will be discarded before anyone knows how great the content is.
I love Neil Labute’s description of writing dramatic material. I paraphrase but, if a guy has a problem and stays in the house, it’s a play. If he takes a drive, it’s a movie.
Check out Susan Beth Lehman’s website at susanbethlehman.com.
Take a look at Jerry’s blog at memorywritersnetwork.com/blog
Ready to meet Susan and participate in her screenwriting master class, Register here!