Other than being outstanding writers, what do the UCLA Extension Screenplay Competition finalists from the past five years have in common? They’ve all taken screenwriting courses with Writers’ Program instructor Paula Cizmar.
Paula’s exceptional instruction of screenwriting won her the prestigious UCLA Extension Outstanding Instructor Award in Screenwriting in 2003.
We asked Paula a few questions about screenwriting and her link to the success of so many competition finalists.
Writers’ Program: Can you talk a bit about your background in screenwriting and the entertainment industry?
Paula Cizmar: My early writing background was in print journalism and playwriting. As a journalist, I learned how to hit a deadline, how to tell a story, how to cover all the research areas, and best of all, how to rewrite. My playwriting taught me how to use language, how to express what a character is feeling–without expositional dialogue. Both were great training for screenwriting. My first screenwriting gig got me into the WGA; it came from a producer who saw one of my plays off-Broadway. Unfortunately, the project never got made. I got assignment after assignment—and they didn’t get made. Eventually, after I submitted a screenplay to a production company, I got a call: They weren’t going to make my movie, but they did offer me a job as a staff writer on a TV show. Finally I was produced. But it wasn’t the way I expected. Almost nothing in my career happened the way I expected.
WP: Students who’ve taken three courses in the past two years are eligible to apply to the Screenplay Competition (deadline March 26!). In the last five years, many of your students have placed high in the competition including Annabel Oakes, who was the winner of the 2008 competition, and Cinthea Stahl who placed second. We’re curious—what is the secret for success?
PC: I don’t think they succeeded because of me—but I do know why they succeeded: Persistence and dedication to excellence in writing. These are people who are never content with writing just any old way or any old thing. They have a desire to write well and they continually try to evolve as writers. The writers who succeed in the workshops and in the competition are people who are devoted to writing well and turning out exceptional scripts that show off their passions and speak truth. They don’t just have dedication, though—they’ve also made a point of studying other good writing. They read books. They go to plays. They study movies. They understand their work will be a unity of technique and intuition. Maybe my one big contribution to their work is this: I tell them to take their time. I allow people to slow down; my feeling is that it’s better to take time up front doing the preparation for a script, to do the research, the plotting, the outlining, the exploration of character and turn out a first draft a little more slowly—a draft you can build on–than it is to turn out a fast, careless draft that is a random mess requiring a page one rewrite—if it’s fixable at all. So the secret for success—it’s just hard work and love of the art and craft.
WP: What do you think are the benefits of competitions to students?
PC: It’s next to impossible for writers to get any attention. There’s a mad scramble for agents, for producers, for any one of the various gatekeepers to take your work seriously. When you place as a finalist in a competition, though, you suddenly have an opportunity to communicate some good news to these gatekeepers; suddenly there’s something to say in your query letter that makes you stand out. Suddenly there’s a reason for someone to actually want to read your script. A lot of the competitions also send out press releases to the trades and to industry professionals, listing the scripts and screenwriters, as well as what the scripts are about. The Writers Program does this. This generates interest, too. A lot of the writers I’ve worked with have gotten calls from agents and producers after they’ve placed as semifinalists in a competition—they didn’t even have to be the winners. Industry people are always looking for new work and the next new, exciting writer—but they don’t want to wade through tons of pages of material to find them. Placing in a competition gives the writer a leg up; agents and producers know the script has been kind of “pre-screened,” vetted by the competition judges. And they want to see what the excitement is about.
WP: The other course you’re teaching this quarter is Building Character From the Inside Out. Character-driven screenplays (Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, Frozen River) fared well at this year’s Academy Awards. How important is character to a successful screenplay?
PC: Screenplays are often thought of as plot-driven, whereas plays are often thought of as character-driven. I think you need both in a successful script. The thing is this: Even the big action pictures need a character people can attach their heart to if they’re going to be huge monster hits. Look at the Bourne franchise. Look at The Dark Knight. When people go to the movies, big or small, they love to watch a story unfold in which a flesh and blood character has to confront his or her demons, whether we’re talking about a literal dragon or the metaphoric ones—the outside powers that threaten us or the inner challenges that keep us from being the best people we can possibly be. Great character development is a sign that the writer is in control and knows what he or she is doing. Whether you’re interested in smaller, character-oriented films or big action pieces, the characters are still one of the most important elements of your screenplay. Stories get recycled and refurbished and retold in various guises—but a fabulous character can make a familiar story seem utterly unique.
For more information about the course Paula is teaching this quarter, or about the UCLA Extension Screenplay Competition, please call (310) 825-9415 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gabrielle Stephens is the Program Representative in Screenwriting (Onsite).