The students in Debi Ellman’s creative writing elective got some expert advice on screenwriting from Brad Falchuk ’89, an executive producer and co-creator of Glee, one of this year’s most successful new TV shows.
To help them understand how a story makes the leap from the page to the screen, Brad sent the class the script to an episode of Glee (“Preggers”) that aired last fall; the students read it, and then re-watched the episode, taking special note of the directors’ and actors’ choices. The exercise helped the class better understand the differences between screenwriting and storytelling in longer prose forms.
To continue the lesson, the class arranged to Skype with Brad on the morning of April 9. Some of the students donned bathrobes and slippers in recognition that they would be video-conferencing him at 7 AM Los Angeles time. Brad, dressed and alert, was joined on the Skype screen by his six-year-old daughter Isabella, who charmed everyone by holding up a picture she drew of the Beaver students.
After getting some pointers from Brad, the students would be writing scenes for him to read and critique later in the month. They could write about anything, so long as the scene was set in a high school. The assignment sounds simple, but a well-composed scene (about 3 pages) should tell the reader what the whole episode is about. (Easier said than done, the students would later learn.)
Giving a quick Screenwriting 101 lesson, Brad said all scripts must have five basic elements (characters; a setting; a beginning, middle and end; conflict; and a story arc, or lesson learned), but the key to good dramatic writing is to make distinctive choices within each element. And, he said, conflict is crucial, since unless the writer “keeps the stakes high, no one will care about the characters, or what happens to them.”
Having struggled for several years before landing a staff writing position on Nip/Tuck in 2003, Brad said everyone who is successful in Hollywood has a lucky break tale to tell, but, in fact, it was their talent and hard work that positioned them to catch that lucky break.
He was candid about his own career setbacks, starting with being rejected for the director’s program at the film school he attended after college. He has directed several episodes of Glee, having gotten his directorial training on the job.
Despite the long odds against having a freelance script accepted by a studio or getting hired on a show’s writing staff, he stuck with it, working as a personal trainer and scheduling clients early in the morning or in the evening to give himself the whole day free to write.
“Writing was the first thing I did that felt easy and didn’t feel like homework. I never dread sitting down to write or going on a set to direct,” he said.
Along with a high tolerance for rejection, a TV writer needs to be able to write on deadline, with a group. “In the writers’ room, you’re not allowed to get stuck,” he said. “You have to keep brainstorming.”
Admitting that “school and I didn’t always get along so well,” Brad said that in college, he preferred watching movies to reading books, and his GPA showed it. He discovered a natural talent for playwriting and his enjoyment of a film analysis class made him realize that he could be a good student when the subject was one he cared about.
“But don’t follow my example!” he warned the students, promising to read highlights from his own report cards when he delivers Beaver’s Commencement address on June 6.