In part 1 of his Q&A with Flatiron Hot! News, screenwriter Jacob Krueger discussed the current state of of the art form in movies and on TV. This time, he lays out the vision for screenwriting instruction that informs his prestigious workshops held at New York City Seminar and Conference Center (NYCSCC).
What is your approach to screenwriting instruction?
JK: The first thing I’m trying to teach my students is how to connect to their own material. But I’m also trying to teach them other important skills: how to learn to work with producers, how to incorporate constructive criticism in ways that amplify, rather than compromise the story you want to tell.
Now, you can’t promise a student they’re gonna sell a movie; that’s a hard thing to do. But what I do believe strongly is that the only thing that gives you a chance of selling a movie is your voice as a writer.
So there’s no magic formula for writing a great screenplay?
JK: If you follow the same formulas that everyone else is following, you’re not going to be fulfilled, and you’re also not gonna sell your screenplay. You’re going to be writing the same stuff that everybody else is writing, what you think that Hollywood wants you to write instead of what you want to write.
Why are screenwriters so often taught that the secret to success is following the right formula?
JK: The truth of the matter is, most people who take film classes are not taught by screenwriters, they’re taught by critics or professors who often have never actually written a screenplay. They teach you to analyze finished screenplays, that if you just emulate the same ideas, your movie will be successful.
The problem with this is they’re not looking at the first draft of Chinatown, they’re looking at draft 800 of Chinatown. So oftentimes screenwriters aren’t learning the process that gets you to that final draft.
So there are no basic rules for writing a screenplay?
JK: There are certain things you have to do with a screenplay in order to make it a screenplay. I like to compare screenwriting to poetry. If you write a sonnet and it doesn’t have the right number of lines and it doesn’t have the right rhyme scheme, it’s not a sonnet. But, within the form of a sonnet, there’s so much you can do.
I am trying to teach students to creatively express themselves within the rules of what a movie has to be. I’m not trying to teach them to follow the rules too rigidly, because you can play around with the rules in interesting ways. But I do want to give them a fighting chance at selling their screenplay.
How do you go about selling a screenplay?
JK: Put simply, you need to get somebody so passionate about your script that they’re willing to risk their job to go fight with their boss and say, “I know that he hasn’t written anything before, but you must read this script.” You can’t play it safe, because if you play it safe you’re not going to get anywhere.
Now that doesn’t mean that every movie needs to be dangerous. That means you need to write the movie that you want to see, trusting that there are other people like you who want to see it. It’s about targeting the producers who believe like you do, who want to see the kinds of things you do.
How do you respond to criticism of your screenplay without losing sight of your vision?
JK: You need to be equipped to deal with those notes in a way that’s not going to destroy your film. Producers routinely give notes that writers see as destructive.
Because producers are not writers, their specific fixes rarely work. But oftentimes, their suggestions tell you something legitimate about where your screenplay is lacking.
So one of the things that I really focus on teaching my students is how do you listen to the problem underneath the fix? It’s all about separating the need, which is usually right, from the proposed fix, which is almost always wrong.
In your workshop, you mentioned “building a writing lifestyle.” What does this entail?
JK: Building a writing lifestyle is about getting comfortable with your creative self and learning how to be kind to your inner creative voice. Think of your creative mind as a child. You leave a child alone, and he doesn’t think, he doesn’t second-guess himself, he just acts.
Building a writing lifestyle is about building an infrastructure around yourself that allows that little inner child of yours to have fun, to explore, but also creates an infrastructure for supervision. Being a successful writer is about building a balance between your adult self your inner creative child.
Why are in-class writing exercises integral to your program?
JK: Writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum and teaching can’t happen in a vacuum. I don’t want to teach about concepts of writing, I want to teach the concepts my students need. In order to do that, I must know what they’re writing.
If I send you off to write on your own, you can spend ten hours staring at a screen, you can censor yourself, you can edit yourself, you can try to do it right, you can rewrite.
If I give you ten minutes in class and force you to do it, I’m going to force you to get to the subconscious part of your mind, because you don’t have time to get to the conscious part of your mind.
In ten minutes of in-class writing, I can set you up for a whole week of out-of-class writing.
At what level are your classes taught?
JK: I prefer to teach mixed classes. Oftentimes, my beginner writers break the rules in exciting ways and create stuff that my advanced writers envy. Meanwhile, my advanced writers know all the rules, and the less experienced writers learn from them.
I try to facilitate a supportive community for screenwriters where no one is trying to “solve” anybody else’s script, where instead we’re all working to learn from each other and grow as writers.
How do your workshops compare to others in terms of pricing?
JK: I don’t want to be the McDonald’s of screenwriting. Obviously, the price has to be high enough that I can afford to do this, but my real goal is to set it low enough.
We charge $300 for a class. That’s thousands of dollars less than most screenwriting classes. Plus, all our classes are taught by professionals. We also do payment plans, so for many of our students we spread the cost over a significant period of time.