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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Joseph McBride's Writing in Pictures Transcends "Get Rich Quick" Formulas

Posted By on Tue, Feb 28, 2012 at 9:30 AM

  • Ann Weiser Cornell
  • Joseph McBride

"The thing that I objected to the most is that [screenwriting manuals] tend to give you a formula that will sell the script and make you rich. If that were true, everyone would be richer than Bill Gates."

Joseph McBride -- screenwriter, film historian, critic, and associate professor at San Francisco State University -- is talking about the animating impulse behind his new book, Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless, which is released today (Tuesday). The author met with us recently to discuss his career and the book.

Far from being a get-rich-quick scheme for starry-eyed wanna-bes, Writing in Pictures is a pragmatic look at the craft of screenwriting. The book lays out the basic steps of screenwriting and elaborates specific strategies to tell a story using the language of cinema on paper. Those steps are: conception, obtaining material rights, research, synopsis/treatment, step outlining, writing, revising, and registering your work with the Writer's Guild of America.


McBride has spent more than 40 years in and around the art and business of filmmaking. As a student at the University of Wisonsin-Madison in the late 1960s, he taught himself about screenwriting and filmmaking during a time when few film courses of any kind were available to interested students.

"There were only two film courses, and I took them both," McBride recalls. "But there were 35 film societies on campus, and I ran one of them. We were also lucky because we had the United Artists collection at the State Historical Society. They had script files from UA, Warner Bros., and RKO, with all the memos and drafts and source material."

From this archive, McBride located a copy of the then-unpublished screenplay of Citizen Kane. McBride's crash course in screenwriting was to copy Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz's work, page by page. This exercise taught him about the structure, format, and nature of screenplays, and thereafter he went on to write several adaptations and originals of his own.

McBride relocated to in 1973 to Los Angeles, where within days he met Jean Renoir and his idol Orson Welles. McBride had just published an influential critical study on Welles the year before (that book is still in print), and Welles expressed his appreciation by promptly casting McBride in the still-unfinished film The Other Side of the Wind.

McBride (far right) on the set of The Other Side of the Wind with Orson Welles (left) and Peter Bogdanovich
  • McBride (far right) on the set of The Other Side of the Wind with Orson Welles (left) and Peter Bogdanovich

McBride went on to a long career as a screenwriter; his best-known feature is Rock 'n' Roll High School. He was also a film critic for Variety and remains a highly regarded film historian and biographer of John Ford, Frank Capra, and Steven Spielberg. In 1983, he won a WGA Award for his work on The American Film Institute Salute to John Huston.

In Writing in Pictures, as in the classes he teaches at SF State, McBride approaches the screenwriting process via the adaptation of an existing story (his template in the book is Jack London's "To Build a Fire") instead of using an original idea.

"Jean Renoir once said in an interview, talking about originality, 'If I ran the film business in Hollywood or Paris, for one year every director would do the same story. At the end of the year, we'd have many different films because the personality of the director would influence each one.' So the originality of the story is not the point," McBride explains. "It's what you do with it."

He adds that, in a classroom setting, a common frame of reference keeps students focused on the variations that are possible within a single story. For the purposes of writing the book, McBride found adaptation is a good way to look at the craft of screenwriting -- the structure and mechanics -- without simultaneously having to develop a new plot and characters.

"You have a solid story and framework upon which to apply your craft," McBride says. "When I was a student, I didn't know much about stories, so I looked at 'To Build a Fire.' I thought I might want to film it because it's very elemental and appealed to me as a survival story."

In the final portion of Writing in Pictures, McBride talks about the tricky work of selling a screenplay. He told us, "When I moved to Hollywood, nobody had warned me about certain legal pitfalls in terms of protecting your work and your copyright. I had some scripts stolen from me that were filmed. It's hard to protect your work in any case. Idea theft is the dirty secret of Hollywood."

McBride encourages writers to stay true to their own ideas, and to avoid chasing trends or looking for easy formulas. He hastens to emphasize screenwriter William Goldman's famous advice about Hollywood (always presented in caps): "NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING."

Joseph McBride will read from and sign copies of "Writing in Pictures" at noon on Wednesday, Feb. 29, at the San Francisco State University Poetry Center, 1600 Holloway Ave., Room 512 (Humanities).

Follow Casey Burchby and SF Weekly's Exhibitionist blog on Twitter.

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