John Schimmel is in the middle of an extraordinarily diverse career as a writer/producer. He’s been the President of Furthur Films and Ascendant Pictures, an executive at Douglas-Reuther Productions, Belair Entertainment, and Warner Bros, penned the Tony-nominated musical Pump Boys And Dinettes, published fiction and nonfiction, serves as a consultant to Cloud Imperium Games/Chris Roberts Entertainment, and, this week, published his first book, Screenwriting Behind Enemy Lines: Lessons from Inside the Studio Gates. For the last two years, John has been part of our core screenwriting faculty, providing not just an insight into how to write screenplays, but how to write screenplays that sell.
Not too long ago I took a break from work to get my MFA in creative writing. I’d been a Hollywood studio executive and producer for twenty years and needed a change from everything related to scripts. I needed to remember how much I loved words and the magic that can be done with them. So I chose a low residency program and spent two years of residencies attending readings and master classes and lectures and workshops, and wrote a novel and some creative non-fiction. The first faculty reading I attended was by poet and memoirist Michael Klein and it changed my life. His reading from his book The End of Being Known was breathtaking in the courage it showed to strip so naked, to go straight to the heart of what he had to say even though to expose that must have been terrifying. My first night in an MFA program and I had an entirely new notion of what it means to be a writer – and of what had driven me to seek a break from reading too many mediocre scripts, “mediocre” being defined as scripts written by writers who had not even understood that courage was necessary, who had not even known that they needed to search for and then realize the expression of the heart of their stories.
The MFA program required that I complete a teaching practicum in order to graduate. I got myself hired to teach a screenplay rewrite class at UCLA Extension. And discovered that I loved it. One of the things I found – and continue to find – so gratifying was that teaching allowed me to help students counter the trend that had temporarily driven me from the business. I got to help them uncover their own intent so that they could write to what they really wanted to say. It is easy to come at screenwriting as pure craft – hit the crucial pivot points in the right order and on the right pages and you will have a perfect script. Perfectly empty, I would add, without the magic ingredient called art. Writing is both an art and a craft, and one without the other leads on the one hand to confusion and on the other to blandness and mediocrity. So I teach and write about screenwriting from the perspective of a high level studio executive, trying to give some insight into the kind of scrutiny a student’s work will undergo once it is submitted into the system, but I do so knowing that what makes a great screenplay work is not just that it hits all its craft marks or that it starts from an obviously commercial premise but also that it knows what it is about.
The UC Riverside Low Residency MFA Program in which I teach now is different from the one in which I studied in its strong emphasis on becoming a working writer. The guest speaker slots at the residencies are filled with writers but also with agents and managers and editors, publishers and publicists and producers. Students are encouraged to meet one-on-one with these guests, in part to try to understand the business of becoming a writer. But the manuscripts and scripts that the students bring with them to these meetings are the products of the school’s core curriculum in which having something to say is valued as much as saying something well, and in which a work is not considered finished until its heart has been fully exposed. The journey is not always easy but is, more often than not, wildly gratifying to student and teacher alike.
If you’d like to join John, applications for Spring are due February 1st. If you have any questions, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 760-834-0926