Screenwriting Tips from Brian Bird

In honor of the upcoming OCCWF Writer’s Conference [April 12 in Orange County, California], I’m going to be interviewing some of the faculty members over the next couple of weeks. These are all folks that you will get the opportunity to meet if you attend the conference.

First up, we’re going to get some screenwriting tips from Brian Bird.

Not all writing takes place between the pages of a book. Every television show, play and movie needs a script—even radio commercials rely upon scripts. While the basics of good writing still apply, screenwriting is definitely a different format and requires a unique approach.

Brian is a Hollywood writer-producer with film credits that include Saving Sarah Cain, The Last Sin Eater and Jake’s Run. He has also written and/or produced more than 250 episodes of network television, working on such series as Touched By An Angel, Step By Step and The Family Man. On top of this, he has adapted a dozen novels for film and television.

MERRIE: How did you get your start in the movie/television business?

BRIAN: I had gone to journalism school and had been working for about six years as a newspaper reporter in 1984 when my wife’s uncle, Don Ingalls, pulled me aside and suggested I try writing something for television. Don had been a long time television writer-producer dating back to the westerns of the 1950s and at that time was writing and producing the show, Fantasy Island. He liked some of my newspaper work and handed me a bunch of scripts and suggested a few books on screenwriting and said “go for it.” What I did over the next several months is read as many scripts and books as I could get my hands on and basically taught myself the format and boned up on story structure and character. I wrote what is called a “spec” (sample) episode of Fantasy Island . I turned it over to Don and he said I had a real knack for story and dialogue. He said they couldn’t use the spec episode for legal reasons, but offered me the opportunity of writing a freelance episode. They gave me a notion for a story they had been thinking about, signed me to a contract and once again told me to “go for it.” I took a few weeks of vacation and delivered a 44-page script, “Final Adieu,” and it was produced four weeks later. Don told me if Fantasy Island was picked up for an eighth season by ABC, they were going to bring me on as a story editor -- which is an entry-level staff writer. Unfortunately, the show did not come back for another season, and Don went into semi-retirement after that, so that opportunity sort of ended. Over the next few years, I figured that network writing credit might be my “one cup of coffee” in the big leagues, but my appetite for fiction had been whetted and I kept writing spec scripts. A few years later, I had landed on the writing staff of a sitcom, The Family Man, and have been making my living as a writer-producer in Hollywood ever since.

MERRIE: What advice would you give to someone who would like to sell a screenplay in Hollywood ?

BRIAN: For anyone who already has a confidence in their writing skills, my biggest suggestion is to read, read, read as many produced scripts and screenplays as you can get your hands on. Learn and be inspired. Break them down. See how the writer accomplished what they accomplished. There is this concept in the world of art which is called “Copying the Master.” The best way to describe this is to picture a painting class. The students are sitting at their canvass, and the teacher (master) is at the front of the class, doing what? Painting. And what are the students doing? They are copying the teacher. Following his form and style, but bringing themselves to the canvass in order to get better than the teacher. The take way from this for writers is that we need to copy the masters of screenwriting. It doesn’t mean literally copy them. It means learning from their craft and drawing inspiration from how they nailed their stories, and then applying that to your own work. This obviously applies to all forms of writing, whether it be screenwriting or penning novels. There are also several seminal books that every aspiring screenwriter should read. My two favorites are The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Both of these books are considered bibles of the craft among professional screenwriters.

MERRIE: Brian, I love your comment about "Copying the Master." And I agree, this is a method we all should follow as we seek to perfect our art—whether that art is painting or writing. I think novelists can learn a lot by studying the well-defined three-act structure of great screenplays. Thanks for visiting Alien Dream today.


And don’t forget, there are still openings available to attend the OCCWF conference. Visit their site at http://www.occwf.org/ for more information.

1 comment:

Susan said...

I was reading your aricle on how you got started and wanted you to know that Don Ingalls is my Uncle on my Father's side. I've been researching his side and came across your article. Your wifes' uncle is my uncle also. Small world with the internet. If you would like to communicate, please email me at susansthe1@aol.com