Why is there always one really annoying student in every film school class? 3,053 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
At the first meeting of his new seminar, Berger had the nine graduate students introduce themselves and discuss their backgrounds, then he stated his credo.
"I can’t make you a writer," he announced. "For that you’d need a magician, not a screenwriting mentor. But I can make you a better writer. And I can help you think, function, and carry yourself like a professional. Any questions before I go on?"
A woman who looked to be in her mid-forties, which meant nearly twice the age of most of her classmates, and older than Berger as well, raised her hand. "The script each of us will eventually get to write –" she began.
"What about it?"
"What’s the limit on page count?"
"Candace, right?" Berger asked, trying his best not to cringe. When she nodded, he went on. "Why’s that more important to you than character, structure, theme, or tone?"
"It’s the kind of thing I like to know."
"Instead of answering your question, I’m going to ask one. What’s the difference between plot and story?"
"What’s that got to do with page count?"
"And what’s page count got to do with screenwriting? Can you answer my question?"
"Then how about we worry about that kind of stuff later?"
Three years earlier, when approached about teaching at what was considered to be the country’s most prestigious film school, Berger was flattered but uncertain, since his free time was scarce. The appeal increased, however, when his terms and conditions were accepted by the Institute. Within comfortable parameters, he was free to establish both the curriculum and the schedule. If in production on a film, documentary, commercial, or music video, he could relocate his Tuesday morning class to the set or the editing room. Alternatively, he could invite the class to lunch on Saturday in a private area at a local deli.
His first year teaching was a joy, with students who were eager, diligent, and well-steeped in film history. That allowed him to reference Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, Kurosawa, Resnais, Sergio Leone, Cassavetes, and even Savage Steve Holland with few blank looks.
The second year, that kind of film knowledge was less noticeable among the incoming students. Hoping it was an anomaly – a blip involving one particular class rather than a trend – Berger shrugged it off. Sadly, cinema awareness among his third year class was down even more. And the fourth year showed no signs of improvement.
The irony was that when Berger was falling in love with film, to see gems by Welles, Godard, Bertolucci, or Sam Fuller meant hunting for screenings at revival houses, museums, and colleges, then scurrying to distant parts of town. But with the video revolution, which made nearly everything accessible, few aspiring filmmakers made the time to dive into the old, the foreign, or the arcane. It was reminiscent of what was happening with Berger’s other key passions: music and literature. Record stores and bookstores, which had largely become a memory, once held the promise of serendipity – of stumbling upon Bobby "Blue" Bland’s "Two Steps From The Blues," or Frederick Exley’s "A Fan’s Notes." Whereas Amazon, though easier and more convenient, used algorithms that made those discoveries virtually impossible.
As its student body changed, so too did the Institute itself. To secure a higher form of accreditation, new rules were posted on a regular basis, among them one requiring all classes to be held on campus at their scheduled time.
"What do you think about no more juggling class times?" a voice called out as Berger stepped outside for a breath of air midway through the school year’s first three-hour session.
Facing Jon Schechter, the windbag hired to oversee the Screenwriting Faculty, Berger frowned. "Let’s play a vocabulary game."
"What’s that mean?"
"What’s that got to do with anything?"
"A working professional who makes time in his busy schedule in order to give back."
"How come no one else is complaining?"
"Those who can’t do, teach."
"That’s not very nice.”
"Maybe. But incorrect?"
"For our first assignment," Berger stated after returning to the classroom, "I’m going to assign each of you a film to watch – and keep watching – until you know it inside and out. Anyone want to guess why?"
"So that we can pitch it as if we came up with it ourselves," said an attractive young woman named Chrissie Holmes, whose blonde hair was streaked with pink.
"And how’d you know that?" asked Berger.
"Paul from last year prepped me."
"What else did he say?"
"That it was a great exercise," interjected a tattooed young woman named Tina Sanchez.
"The French guy from two years ago said the same."
"I love testimonials," Berger said with a chuckle. "Everybody know what a pitch is?"
He spotted a look of uncertainty on the face of a young woman with expensive torn jeans. "Not sure, Rebecca? It’s where you put on a dog-and-pony show for producers or execs. Let’s say somebody likes a script you wrote and wants to know what you want to do next. Or you’re up for an adaptation of a novel. Or even a re-write. You’ve got to come in and tell the story in a way that’s concise but compelling, all the while giving a feel for the key characters, the genre, and the mood. It’s an important skill in Hollywood. Plus it’s helpful for your own purposes, since it forces you to internalize the movie you hope to write."
"What about the shorts we’re supposed to script?" asked Candace, clearly dismayed.
"What about ’em?" Berger replied.
"Aren’t they supposed to be a priority?"
"Ever hear about careers writing shorts?"
"But aren’t they important here?"
"For directors, you bet. For producers, maybe. But except for getting a chance to hear your words on-screen, which these days you can accomplish on your iPhones, for writers it’s basically a chance to do free labor. Now, as I was saying, when you pitch the film I assign, I want you to focus on the main character, your protagonist."
"Not on the structure?" interrupted Candace.
"Why would you think that?"
"Because in the workshops I’ve taken – workshops that are well-known and respected – it’s always: first and foremost comes structure."
"And those workshops were good?" Berger asked.
"So why are you bothering with this?"
While Candace went uncharacteristically speechless, Berger continued. "To start with structure is like designing a house without knowing if it’s to sit on a hilltop, or beside a lake, or on a busy street. It’s like planning a banquet without knowing what produce and wines are available."
"You’re saying structure’s not important?" asked Candace, having regained some of her aggressiveness.
"I’m saying form should follow content. Those workshops you’re talking about are based upon breaking down other films. But guess what! You can’t reverse-engineer a film the way you can a computer or a carburetor. The great screenwriters – Billy Wilder, Ben Hecht, Budd Schulberg, Jorge Semprun – knew nothing about crap like a reverse on every page with a 0, or turning points. What they knew is that every great film is character-driven."
A black woman named Lola Richardson raised her hand. "Can I say something?"
"By all means."
"I took one of those workshops and hated every minute. Pompous, pretentious, and pushing us to turn out product."
A heavy-set guy named Mark Pollard nodded. "I took one and felt ripped off."
“Moving on," said Berger, facing the other students. "Rebecca, you’ve got McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Tina, a wonderful film called Petulia. Mark, His Girl Friday. Chrissie, Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou. Lola, To Be Or Not To Be – the Lubitsch version, not Mel Brooks’ remake. Candace, Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer." Then on he went, assigning films like Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s A Face In The Crowd, and Savage Steve Holland’s Better Off Dead.
The next week, once Lola finished her pitch of To Be Or Not To Be, with Berger only having to correct her a couple of times for referring to it as a film she watched rather then one she ostensibly wanted to write, he thanked her for kicking things off. "Okay," he then said to the other students, "who’s got questions?" When no one raised a hand, he faced Mark. "Why do you think I assigned this film?"
"Because it’s powerful?"
"Because I want you to see the range and diversity of films that have been made. What kind of comedies are around today? Tina?"
"Guys trying to get laid."
"Whereas," said Berger, "here’s one of the funniest films ever, and what’s it deal with? The Nazi occupation of Poland. So what gives? To quote W.C. Fields, ‘Comedy is tragedy that happens to somebody else.’ And in this case the somebody’s a ham actor in a rag-tag theater group. Okay, Chrissie, what’s another reason we’re doing this?"
"Because we’re going to have to pitch our own projects before we can write ’em."
"See what wisdom comes from speaking to those who’ve survived this class? And it’s not just pitching, but pitching successfully, which means you don’t start scripting until you get approval. Which means you may have to pitch, pitch again, and maybe even a third time. Tina, since you spoke to the French guy, what’s another reason?"
"Everybody gets to be hands-on."
"There you go! This is a workshop where everyone learns not just from their own project, but from being a part of all of ’em. Instead of focusing on the obstacles, conundrums, and, hopefully, solutions in one script, the learning becomes exponential. Which means being part of the development of nine different projects. Which leads to an important rule. What’s said here stays here. That’s not only because, surprising as it may seem, there’s theft in the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood – sometimes inadvertent, sometimes less so. But also because if someone writes a script about eating disorders, drug use, incest, or whatever, I don’t want the gossip mill spreading the word that so-and-so is bulimic, or a druggy, or was molested by an uncle. Clear?"
As he stepped outside at the break to get some air, Berger once again found himself accosted by Schechter. "That girl from Sri Lanka who was in your class last year –"
"How in hell did you let her move on to second year?"
"What’s that mean?"
"The word is she’s a dimwit."
"Who accidentally graduated from Oxford with a First? She’s most likely the smartest student here. And one of the most talented."
"Not per your colleague Olivia."
"Who’s known, if I remember correctly, for a rewrite of a sequel about a shy orangutan."
"That’s a cheap shot."
"But well-deserved. Want to make a bet?"
"That Anjalee winds up winning a national screenwriting competition."
Schechter eyed Berger strangely. "You know something I don’t know?"
"I know lots you don’t know."
After two others successfully pitched the films assigned to them, Candace began. "The script I want to write is set in Italy in the 19th Century and deals with horrible working conditions in Italian textile mills. I want to show how the workers slowly but surely come to realize that there’s strength in numbers, and –"
"Time out," interrupted Berger. "What’s the title of this script you want to write?"
"Then shouldn’t you begin by focusing on the person who’s organizing?"
"Well, I thought –"
"Did you or did you not hear Lola’s pitch? And Chrissie’s? And Mark’s?"
"And my comments about ‘character-driven’?"
"Yes, but –"
"There are no buts. You should be able to begin your pitch with one sentence, which in your case would be: This is a story about a man who –"
When Candace frowned, Berger turned to Rebecca. "Ready to pitch?"
"What about me?" asked Candace.
"You can try again next week."
The following Tuesday, to counter the dread he anticipated from another dose of Candace, Berger arrived not in his Volvo, but in the red and black 1968 Camaro he’d been restoring. Instantly he got a thumbs-up from Gustavo, the parking lot attendant, who removed a cone to give him a premier space.
"You know that’s priority parking," said Sandra Saunders, the Associate Dean, as she emerged from her Honda Civic.
"Aren’t I a priority?"
"So what’s up with you and Candace?"
"Love at first sight."
"Not the way she sees it."
"My feelings won’t be hurt if she switches to another class."
"And if she wants to stay?"
"Okay, if it’s to learn."
"As opposed to?"
"A pissing contest."
Sandra grimaced. "But I need a favor."
"For you to start showing up at faculty meetings."
"Aside from the fact that my title is Adjunct Professor –"
"You’re expecting me to get to and from Santa Monica on Thursdays at rush hour?"
"Tell you what. My helicopter’s not working, so why not send yours?"
A student named Steve successfully pitched A Face In The Crowd, engendering a conversation about how prescient the film was in anticipating the rise of Trump.
"So what does this say about the possibilities of film?" Berger asked.
"That it can be a potent tool," Tina said.
"Exactly. While there’s nothing wrong with fun for the sake of fun, film, as you see, can be powerful in all sorts of ways. Okay, let’s take a quick break, then we’ll hear once more from Candace."
Ten minutes later, Candace forced herself to pitch the story as more or less a character piece.
"Was that so bad?" Berger asked once she finished.
"Aside from the fact that I hate the film’s politics?"
"You mean you prefer fascism?" blurted Chrissie.
While Candace glared, Berger spoke. "Another example of how film can be far more than just escapism. But to go back to a previous discussion, why don’t you tell us, Candace, the difference between plot and story."
When Candace threw up her hands, Berger nodded to Tina, whose hand was raised.
"Plot," Tina began, "is imposed from the outside."
"Meaning?" asked Berger.
"It’s the screenwriter determining what happens."
"Which makes the characters –"
"Puppets or marionettes."
"Is where the characters drive the action –"
"Based on, Chrissie?"
"Their wants and needs."
"The decisions they make."
"Well said. For those who are students of theater, why is Ibsen’s ‘Hedda Gabler’ a far more important play than ‘A Doll’s House’?"
Berger nodded at Tina, who was nearly jumping out of her seat.
"Because in ‘A Doll’s House’ he’s focused on making a point about women’s place in society at that time."
"Whereas with ‘Hedda Gabler’?"
"He’s creating a multi-dimensional character for the ages."
"Please tell everyone how much I paid you to say that," Berger joked.
Everyone laughed except Candace.
As in years past, Berger was pleased by the variety and range once the students began to pitch their own projects. Though a couple were afflicted with what Berger called "Tarantino syndrome," which meant inspired by – or distilled from – other films, for the most part the stories were unto themselves and promising.
Those that appealed most to Berger were self-evident. Lola’s tale was a long-overlooked piece of history, inspired by the destruction, due to racism and envy, of a prosperous black community in Tulsa in 1921. Rebecca’s, which seemed largely autobiographical, involved a teenage girl’s attempt to break free of the expectations of her family. Mark’s dealt with a son torn between a life of prosperity in his father’s manufacturing business and the dream of being a magician. Chrissie’s explored the plight of a young woman attempting to reenter the world after a traumatic breakdown.
In the discussions following the first couple of pitches, Berger allowed for no diffidence or pat statements of approval. Demanding not just participation from one and all, but specific criticisms that were constructive, Berger pushed those who needed prodding, while praising those whose contributions proved helpful.
Often he himself would repeat something he’d said to Candace during a previous class. "Give me your film in one sentence," he would say. "This is a film about a person who –" Or, after asking where the film was set, he would suggest that the place itself become a character of sorts in the way that Paris serves Breathless, or Manhattan does in so many Woody Allen films, or the changing West in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.
For a couple of people who were struggling in their quest for a coherent story, Berger gave an assignment. "Instead of trying to outline," he said, "write a letter. Make it from one of your characters, telling someone after-the-fact about the events that took place and the way what happened made him or her feel. Let it be stream-of-consciousness, with no worries about structure, act breaks, or anything to do with film jargon." He then turned to Chrissie. "Did Paul tell you about that?"
"He said it really helps."
"Good," said Berger with a chuckle. "Lunch is on me."
Even as some students were given the green light to go to script, and others asked to pitch again when ready, there was a cloud of sorts over the class, with everyone tacitly – or not so tacitly – aware that Candace had not yet volunteered.
"Ready to pitch next week?" Berger finally asked her.
"What if you don’t give me the go-ahead once I do?" she replied.
"Somehow the sun will still come up the next day. Okay? Next week for sure?" Candace’s nod was begrudging at best.
Fortuitously, Berger had several interviews to shoot the next few days for a documentary he was directing about the Latinization of baseball, including one with Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, who was visiting Los Angeles. The hope that the film, once finished, might be accepted at Sundance meant precious little time to dwell on Candace.
Still, when Tuesday arrived, Berger found himself with a knot in his stomach. Arriving at the Institute, he was intercepted by Anjalee, his Sri Lankan student from the year before. "Can I ask a favor?" she whispered.
"Bet you want me to read something. And the answer’s yes."
"How’d you know?"
"What’s more important is I’m on your side."