WP Instructor Michael Weiss’ unrelenting perseverance translates not only to his success as a screenwriter and former Miramax VP of Production, but also through the unwavering patience he has for his students. It doesn’t take long for them to be won over by his charming demeanor, attentive ear, and extensive mastery of screenplays.
Due to his stellar instruction during the past seven years, Michael was recently honored with the Writers’ Program’s 2015 Outstanding Instructor Award in Screenwriting. As to how he got his start as a screenwriter and how his mentor’s advice changed his mindset, you’ll have to find out by reading the interview below!
Writers’ Program: So tell us, how did you get started here at UCLA Extension?
Michael Weiss: I had been mentoring elementary school children through a program called The Young Storytellers. It was a great experience on so many levels and I found I really enjoyed speaking in front of a group and talking about writing and storytelling. Then, I saw an ad in the Writers’ Guild magazine about teaching in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. It caught my eye and just pulled me in. Honestly, it was like a calling.
WP: Speaking of calling, have you always known you wanted to be a writer?
MW: I was literally one of those kids with a video camera, making movies with my friends and my sister. I still have them. I was pretty obsessed. I wrote a lot in high school, just creative writing. Then some plays and self-produced TV shows and movies in college, that lead me out to Los Angeles when I graduated. So in that sense, I knew I loved to write.
But my start was in movie development and production. I wanted to work in the movie business, in any way. I cold-called people in the Hollywood Reporter and got a job as a production assistant on a movie. It was called Roadside Prophets, you can look it up. It was an unforgettable experience, honestly just magical to me working on a movie set; I was hooked. I spent the first years of my career working my way up that side of the ladder. When I wanted to switch back to writing, I had built a network of people who could help me, and they did. My first jobs were through people I had met as an executive. It’s a great lesson for aspiring writers. “Who you know,” definitely plays just as much a part in your success as your skills. You have to be constantly networking, constantly hustling and self-promoting.
WP: That’s amazing advice that all of our students should hear. And that makes me wonder, what piece of advice did you hear from a mentor that shaped your career or life?
MW: One piece of advice that stands out was given to me by my mentor, Jonathan Hensleigh. (Jonathan, if you’re out there reading this somehow, thanks. You don’t realize how much you inspired me.) He taught me, and showed me, that so much of writing is how you approach it. Meaning, your attitude and your mind frame and your commitment. Talent is a part of it, but really, to be successful, you have to adopt an open mind, where you know it’s going to be hard, you know you are going to get feedback and notes and criticism and get beaten up by people’s thoughts. And you have to embrace that. Not just withstand it, you have to accept all the interactions and opinions as gifts. And that’s the key to my class, the workshop – that all the feedback the other students are giving you are not insults or personal attacks, they are gifts that will help you become a better writer and improve your script. That’s the most important piece of advice, that you can’t be an island and succeed. It’s too hard.
WP: Agreed. I’m sure approaching writing with an open mind to criticism and feedback gave you the upper hand when you were hired to write multiple sequels to popular franchises. How do you personally break a story and come up with interesting concepts that still include a hint of the original movies that movie-goers love?
MW: I break stories the same way I teach them in class, which follows the methods described by several of the other instructors in Cut to the Chase, our UCLA Extension book. I figure out the lead character and his/her problem. Then I block out the big structural moments. As Chrys Balis calls them, the “Pillar Moments.” I really break every story that same way. The characters, the moments, the turns, the ending. For sequels, I look at what’s been done and try to turn it on its head. So, for Scorpion King 4, I had this notion that the hero gets sent out on a peace mission. Which even he says in the movie is ridiculous, he’s not the guy you send to make peace. I figured that would add some irony and fun. Then just take it from there. For all the sequels I’ve written – and yes, there are plenty – I do my best to add some fresh spin on the concept or character.
WP: What is your example of a perfect film? Why?
MW: Good question, I had to think about that one because I use a lot of movies and scripts as examples in class. I love Three Days of the Condor. It’s nearly perfect. The only slip up is that Robert Redford’s girlfriend is killed early in the movie, but while he’s on the run, he has a love scene with Faye Dunaway. I know, she’s Faye and he’s Robert, but the body’s still cold on the girlfriend. As a thriller and mystery, it’s great. It’s a classic story of a CIA desk-jockey analyst who’s forced to go out into the field to save his own neck.
The Fugitive is like that, too. A doctor has to use his skills and determination to prove his innocence. Those are just two; there are plenty of others that I admire. My favorite personal movies tend to be comedies from my childhood – Animal House, Caddyshack, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles – there’s just so many I love. And while it’s not perfect, Jaws is probably my favorite movie of all time. It grabs hold of you and never lets go.
Thanks for all your great insights, Michael! The 2015 award couldn’t have gone to a more deserving instructor.
If you’re interested in taking a class with Michael, he will be teaching the 9-month Master Class in Feature Film Writing starting fall quarter. Applications will be made available July 25, 2016.
Phoebe Lim is the Program Assistant for Creative Writing (Online) and Events. Contact her at 310-825-0107 or firstname.lastname@example.org.