Late Sunday evening, the phone rang. Which, in and of itself wouldn’t be remarkable except that I had been in the Federal Witness Protection Program for over six months. What was more intriguing was the nature of the call and how it would change my life forever.
“Hello, is this Allen Smith?” It is.
“This is Yolanda Vonnoh and I’m the Dean of Curriculum at John Wilkes Booth Community College. I got your name from one of the articles you wrote for The Morning Sunset and would like to know if you’d be interested in teaching a class for us?”
The Morning Sunset was a throw-away neighborhood newspaper that was made up of mostly advertisements, obituaries and a summary of weekly church services, so they were willing to publish just about anything I pitched them. I didn’t get paid for my writing, but I thought with a circulation of over 300 readers it was a good way to get my name known on my way to becoming famous.
“Mr. Smith, we have an immediate opening to teach our Beginning Screenwriting class. I’ve read some of your articles and thought you’d be perfect.” I’d like to think that I earned the invitation based solely on the merit of my work, but the fact was the new semester started the next day and the professor who taught the class for the past seventeen years ran away to Banff with a ski instructor. The college was in a tight spot.
“Do you have any screenwriting experience?” asked Yolanda. Without actually answering her question, I said “Are you kidding? I lived in Hollywood for over 20 years.” She was so desperate to find a replacement she hired me on the spot. The way I saw it, the only problem was that I’d never actually seen a script. But I didn’t think it was necessary to share that minor detail with her. After all, I am a writer and spend most of my day watching TV, so I should be able to extrapolate between the two and come up with something good enough for beginning writers. “I can be ready to teach on Monday.”
Compared to penning the great American novel, there really isn’t much to writing a screenplay. The class focused on television scripts, so that made it even easier. I spent the evening on-line, gleaning what I needed to teach the class – or at least enough to get me through Monday morning.
Unlike novels that can consist of hundreds of pages of intricate sub-plots and complex characters, the average television screenplay is only 45 pages – about a page a minute, including commercials – so the writer never really has time to get too deep into the story. And whether it’s a comedy or drama, the plot always follows the same format: a description of the problem, gradual building of tension, ending with the central character muddling their way back to normal life.
To make it even easier, there are only six types of television scripts: medical shows (ER, St. Elsewhere and House), police dramas (Law & Order, NYPD Blue and The Andy Griffith Show), life at home (All in the Family, Leave it to Beaver and The Wonder Years), life at work (M*A*S*H, The West Wing and 30 Rock), science fiction (The X-Files, Battlestar Gallactica and Star Trek) and musicals (Glee, Smash and Fame). Everything can be wedged somewhere in those six types of scripts. Some creative screenwriters have attempted to span two or three categories, but it never works. The concept for Seinfeld’s Homicidal Friends never got past the pilot.
I was as surprised as anyone that 5 students showed up for the first class. I didn’t want to blow through my entire curriculum the first day, so I asked each student to introduce themselves, tell the class why they were interested in screenwriting and contrast the premise of The West Wing with the internal conflicts suffered by James Gandolfini of The Sopranos, then come up with at least three similarities the two series shared with Star Trek: The Next Generation. That kept them busy.
For our semester project, I assigned each student the task of writing their own 13-episode screenplay. It could be any one of the six genres, as long as it began with a problem for the central character, highlighted their flaws and compelled the supporting characters to help them resolve their conflicts, while building friendships and a strong love interest. It also had to begin with a powerful title to hook the viewer. Something like Desperate Cougars of Duluth, Seven Days & Nights with One and Half Men, NCIS: Oshkosh or Saginaw SWAT.
The following week Rahul Aditya, Ning Ju and Cletis Edwyn returned with their assignments. Everyone else bailed out.
“Rahul, what genre did you choose for your series?” I said. “Tell the class a little about the basic premise.”
“I chose a gritty military drama titled, ‘My Nanny is a SEAL,’” said Rahul. “It’s about an au pair who decides to join the Navy and compete for a coveted spot on the infamous special warfare unit. She’s the first middle-aged domestic to qualify for the SEAL team. Sort of ‘G.I. Jane’ on Geritol.”
“Where’s the conflict?” I asked. “And how will you write in a love interest?”
“Well, the nanny is an enlisted woman,” said Rahul. “And she falls in love with a fellow candidate who’s an officer, 30 years her junior. They spend all their free time sneaking around, looking for places to be alone together, which as you can imagine, is not easy to do during SEAL training. Ultimately, they get caught “baking cookies” in an explosives dump and she’s sent back to her host family.”
Ning Ju’s screenplay was even more compelling than Rahul’s. “Blind Ambition” followed the tumultuous career of a sightless brain surgeon who struggles to hold onto his position as Chief of Neuro-Surgery at Yair Benesh Memorial Medical Center after losing both his hands in Operation Desert Storm. The screenplay had everything it needed to make a successful television series: internal tension between the surgical staff, sex with the nurses and lots of violence in the operating room. I encouraged Ning to pitch her screenplay to all the major networks – especially HBO, Netflix and the Discovery Channel.
Cletis came to class with “And Baby Makes 80,” a hilarious situation comedy about Dardan Aleksander, a single Albanian sperm donor who immigrates to the United States, single-handedly raising the American family that stemmed from his contributions. The 80 children ranged in age from 6 months to 35 years, so there was a surprise around every corner. Episode one opened with Erskine, 34, surreptitiously teaching his 12-year-old “brother” Séamus how to register on a porn blog while sharing a bedroom with 15 younger brothers and sisters. Sparks fly when Dardan comes home to find Séamus up to his elbows on http://www.steamy-basque-hookers.com.
While all three of the students captured the core elements of the assignment, I excoriated them for failing to include the most important part of any screenplay: the fallibility of the characters.
“Believable characters constantly wrestle with internal weaknesses,” I said, “Everyone in life has to overcome alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling, weird sex, divorce, bankruptcy or health problems. At the very least, a little infidelity. By failing to include those human stains in all your characters, you miss a crucial opportunity to enrich your script.” So, Rahul, Ning and Cletis went back and revised their scripts so that every one of their characters had at least one serious flaw. The results were astounding and led to richer, more compelling story lines.
By the end of the semester, Rahul, Ning and Cletis were able to write screenplays that could compete with some of the best writers in the business. Even though none of them were able to sell their scripts before having to move out of student housing. “Like other forms of writing,” I said, “Screenwriting can be a competitive, depressing and an impossible way to make a living that’s fraught with narcissism and rejection. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.” In fact, several weeks after the conclusion of the class, I was offered an opportunity to work as technical advisor on “Cocaine Mayor: The Rob Ford Story,” a new reality series on A&E Networks. With the money I make, I’ll be able to take a real screenwriting class. And get out of the witness protection program.