Scriptwriting heroes, the most perfect screenplay, and a bible
Part two of our Q&A with Michéle Rowe, who designed and runs our ‘How to Write a Screenplay’ course with Richard Beynon. Michéle has followed her passion for story telling from television to film to crime writing. She’s one of the most sought-after story developers in the country with a great deal of experience in writing for film and television.
Who are your scriptwriting heroes and why?
Woody Allen is the consummate genius film writer of the last few decades I would say. He can do anything, and comedy is the hardest thing to pull off. But I think the best writing is happening in television now, where writers are writing fantastic sprawling epics, and really experimenting with the form. Anything goes subject wise, so we are really seeing a revolution of imagination with all sorts of genre bending and stereotype busting content. A great mash up of exciting ideas. Again, I think South Africans are great disrupters, and I think this can translate into great content. But skilled writers are key.
What films or series do you consider to be essential viewing because of their excellent writing?
Study Chinatown. It’s the most perfect screenplay ever written in my opinion. Another film I thought had a fantastic screenplay was Laeta Kalogridis’s adaptation of Shutter Island, from the Dennis Lehane book. But of course both these films had great directors in Polanski and Scorsese. That helps. The Wire and Breaking Bad still stand out in television as groundbreaking. And the great classic films, Vertigo, Bicycle Thieves, Citizen Kane.
Please give us a selection of your favourite or essential reading books for scriptwriters?
I have read just about every screenwriting book written, because I can get very insecure and unsure of what I’m doing. But now I try to stay away from them, I think one can get bogged down with too much information, much of it contradictory. Every writer comes at the process from a unique angle. One wants to encourage that. I think some of these very prescriptive books can make you insecure because you are not fitting into any of the boxes. However, there are rules, and it’s best to know them really well, even if only to challenge or subvert them. Lagos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing is a book I draw on a lot. And for a contrary argument I always go back to Aristotle’s Poetics. You can’t beat the Ancient Greeks! All drama is essentially built around the architectural framework of the three act structure. So that’s what I like to teach– but with lots of passion of course. Passion is always the key.
I also regularly read interviews with screenwriters. It’s heartening and humbling to learn how even great writers struggle with their work. I think it’s essential to read scripts. Watching a movie while referring to the script can be an epiphany. You realize how much a single shot can tell you about a situation, how much we tend to overwrite, how a great editor functions as the final script editor. The secret of screenplay writing is that it functions as a type of shorthand. And that’s a skill you can learn.
Any other little gems you might like to impart?
I must confess to having a bible of sorts. It’s a complete edition of Grimm’s that my son bought for my birthday some years ago. The stories entered me in a very deep way. I think we all have stories like that, stories you loved as a child. I think if you go back and reread them, the kernel of what fascinates you as a writer can be found there.
‘How to Write a Screenplay‘ is a ten module course that will teach you the essential elements that make a screenplay: how to tell a great story, how to develop compelling characters, and the rules of plotting and structure.
The course starts on 1 March 2017 and is run through the All About Writing online network. You’ll receive full written feedback on ten assignments as well as two one-on-one sessions either via Skype or face-to-face in Cape Town or Johannesburg. By the end the course you’ll have a treatment, the blueprint, of your dream screenplay. Read more..
Michele Rowe, designer and facilitator of How to Write a Screenplay, is a South African scriptwriter who has worked primarily as a head writer and story originator for television and film. Projects she has originated, written or directed have been nominated for or won various awards, including an Oscar documentary and International Emmy nomination. What Hidden Lies, her first crime novel, and winner of the 2011 Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award was launched in South Africa in June 2013 (published by Penguin Books). Hour of Darkness was published by Penguin Random House in 2015.