“About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment.”
These words were expressed by Josh Billings in the last half of the 19th century when Mark Twain and he were the two most famous humor writers and lecturers in the United States. Unfortunately his reputation has not fared as well as Mark Twain’s. Even so, he is well worth looking up on Google and reading some of his many wonderful quotes.
Today’s blog considers the world of the GURU. This person according to the dictionary is “a revered teacher and counselor.” In the world of screenwriting, gurus have flourished since the moment movies were invented. Instead of writing, these gurus have spent the majority of their time in telling (selling, I should say) others how to write for film.
Aristotle’s work Poetics, from Ancient Greece in 335 BC, is the earliest-surviving work of dramatic theory and the first “how to” book which focused on literary theory. In it, Aristotle offers an account of what he calls “poetry”, a term which includes drama, comedy, tragedy as well as lyric and epic poetry. He sets up rules and basic elements for the different genres or categories of artistic works. His breakdown of tragedy is the center of his work. Aristotle’s Poetics is generally thought of as the great-grandfather of the screenwriting business He preached that plot was more important than characters in the drama writing game.
Thus was born the guru in the drama trade. People began trading their “expertise” for bucks and the boom was on. I have in my possession a very nice book copyrighted in 1922 and entitled Palmer Handbook of Scenario Construction. This manual was left to me by my Uncle Homer. He had purchased it as a home study course. It was published by Palmer Photoplay Corporation, Department of Education, Hollywood. Cal. The course has fourteen chapters covering Drama, Visualization, Characterization, Source Material, Heroic values, etc. Actually it’s quite ingenious for its time. In general the course preaches that the cinema is an art and not a science.
Slowly but surely each new set of Hollywood gurus who have engaged themselves in the trade of selling dreams to countless numbers of people have had to build a better “mouse trap”. They couldn’t just keep selling Aristotle in different book coverings. So, they began a journey to change movies from art to science. Art (even up to my uncle’s home study course) considered movie making a form of creative beauty and non-scientific in its conception.
In fact some very beautifully themed films began being made during the 1920s and 1930s. By the end of the 1930s, these films were being heralded as the “Golden Age of Hollywood.” Just look at the films up for an Academy Award in the year 1939. Each one is a classic.
Something snapped though. People lost their confidence in the beauty they could bring to film. They began thinking of money rather than artistic grandeur. Thus in the second half of the 2oth Century, a new breed of greed crept into the motion picture business. A fresh group of gurus began analyzing successful films. They tried to come up with formulas for creating money-makers. They even invented new terminology such as “high concept”, which most people still have no idea what the term means. Thus was born the “cookie cutter” and “write by the numbers” film business
This means that the age of truly talented writers with a natural bent for creativity and beauty were being supplanted by a group of greedy “wanna bes.” Many of these new authors, being rather short in the talent department, wanted gold without working and sweating for it. Everybody began looking for some pattern or formula for success. A group of gurus through their books, seminars and script doctoring willingly obliged everyone from producers to writers with every conceivable recipe for success.
In the late 1940s arrived the father of the modern screen writing gurus—Lajos Egri, a Hungarian immigrant. Egri argues in his book The Art of Dramatic Writing, against Aristotle’s view of plot being more important than characters. According to Egri, well defined characters will drive the plot themselves, and so they should come first. Central to Egri’s argument is his claim that the best stories follow the logical method of good guy, bad guy, and their struggle which is the premise of your screenplay. Together it’s what brings together the theme of your story. (Ex. Cop versus racketeer battle. Their clash is the screenplay. It provides the audience with a theme: Crime doesn’t pay.)
Egri points out in his book that he sees the role of change in all forms of life. This forces people to face overwhelming obstacles one after another. Originally published by Simon and Schuster in 1942 as How to Write a Play, Egri’s treatise was revised and published as The Art of Dramatic Writing in 1946.
He influenced many people, especially Woody Allen. He died in 1967 at age 78 in Los Angeles.
After Lajos Egri, many new gurus emerged to sell their books, seminars and expertise— each in his or her own, new original way. Such names as Syd Field, Robert McKee, Linda Seger, John Truby—and Marilyn Horowitz, who will show you for a price how to write a screenplay in 10 weeks and answer for you The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting.
I must admit that in an earlier blog when I was telling you about that writing job I got in Paris to come and do a screenplay in Hollywood, I had no idea what I was up to. My experience up until that point had been with stage plays and not screenplays. I bought a couple of books on the subject to help me out. One of them was by a screenwriting guru of the time, Syd Field. He did teach me a lot in his book and it did help me get through that first screenplay of mine. So, thanks, Syd.
In 2005 a new screenwriting guru hit the scene with his book Save The Cat. His name was Blake Snyder. He turned the entire movie industry around with his cookie cutting. I knew him when we both were trying to get our toes in the door as screenwriters. He was a warm, witty person and so easy to know. However, we rarely agreed on anything, especially when it came to cookie cutting. I will tell you all about him in my next blog. Unfortunately he died in 2009 at the age of 51. His influence on modern film making is something to behold. More later.