Michael Lee Simpson
PROFILE OF TV WRITER AND AUTHOR HAL ACKERMAN (PART 1)
Stemming from a love for storytelling as a child, Hal Ackerman’s career has unfolded to be as colorful and unpredictable as a screenplay penned by anyone with a wild imagination. His first produced screenplay in 1976, Second Wind, led to writing for The Love Boat and selling material to major studios before securing a spot in the industry as a well-rounded writer. As Co-Chair of the UCLA screenwriting program, Ackerman’s mastery of the craft has been passed on to his students, many going on to write and produce shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Star Trek Discovery, Gossip Girl, Empire, and Pose. His 2003 book, Write Screenplays That Sell: The Ackerman Way, has become one of the definitive books on the topic in classes across the country. In fact, it’s one I read years ago while in high school and still use periodically as a reference. In an exclusive interview, Hal discusses the business and honing the craft of screenwriting.
How would you recommend aspiring screenwriters break into the business?
Well, I think the most important thing of course is to make sure that you choose your parents wisely. You know, be sure to be born with a mother or father who runs a studio. Short of that—I’m just kidding around. Of course, the first thing is, you have to have inventory. There’s a line from a Dylan song. He says, “But I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” And I think that’s really important. I think people tend to rush, they tend to think back to the first or second thing that they write is going to be the thing that’s going to break them into the industry. Every now and again that happens to be true, but I’m much more of a believer in, um, you know, the, the Malcolm Gladwell idea of ten thousand hours to become good at something. The first thing is that you have to have the material and the script ready so when luck hits and you are able to, for one reason or another, meet that right person, you have the right piece of material to show them. I think these days probably television is a much more accessible place to go. When I first came to Hollywood, there was a real hierarchy and feature writers were on top of it and anything in TV was well below that, but that has changed completely with The Sopranos and The Wire—those kinds of things have changed the whole climate. People who write for television have a much better chance of breaking in and breaking in quickly. Going to film school I think is a good opportunity. It does two things: It helps you learn your craft, which is important, and depending upon where you go, you have the opportunity of meeting a group of people that are like-minded and form a good circle of friends around you. Some might get there before you, but that’s not a bad thing because now you have, you have a contact. The movie business is one where personal contact is so, so important— where I was joking about choosing your parents—but having somebody that will vouch for you. Nobody wants to be the first person to read somebody’s material. They all want some recommendation, so having an agent or having a manager is important—and those are not easy to get because there are so many writers, and those agents and managers are swamped. Usually and often, getting a piece of material that places well in one of the respected contests like the Nicholl Fellowships—because of course all the managers and the agents, they have people, interns, or people who call the results of those contests—they then will call you if the logline of the piece that even a quarterfinalist or an eighth finalist attracts their attention. That puts you in a much better circumstance and much better position if you are being invited to send material rather than having to be a supplicant, so contests are important.
As I said, personal contacts, getting a job as an intern or a reader or PA, or any of those kinds of jobs that put you close to the people that are reading and close to the people that are making those kind of decisions—but before it all comes, learning your craft and becoming good at it.
I read your book, Write Screenplays That Sell at age thirteen and found it to be more useful than Robert McKee’s books in the sense of being more simplistic and direct. How do you connect with the reader on such a simplistic, effective level?
Well, I’m a kind of direct person. I was asked by the publishers to write the book while I was teaching at UCLA at the time and I was doing a series of Monday night lectures for this really effective program that we had there called the Professional Program. I asked the TA there to take notes and to sort of not really record, but to take notes on what I was saying, and the conversational tone really emanated from the fact that I was talking directly to a group of students in front of me. And as a teacher, I feel like I’m effective in that way. I don’t usually work from notes and never from anything pre-recorded. I was just talking conversationally, and so the tone of the book really emanated from that. And I appreciate you saying that because I do make an effort to be accessible. There’s nothing too high-blown about what we’re doing. We’re all craftspeople and I’m very pleased that you’ve found it accessible and conversational because I think that’s the strength of the book. The shorter answer is I was indeed speaking to a crowd of people, and I think that’s how the book got its structure as well, because the lecture series went over two semesters at UCLA, so I was sort of leading the people who were there in the process of working on their screenplays. The book really took on that sort of a guidance, sort of a hand in hand along the way of being with them at all phases of the development of their stories.
What can we expect from your new book, Write Screenplays That Sell – The Ackerman Way – 20th Anniversary Edition: Newly Revised and Updated?
Well, the principles guide the writing and it’s still divided into the two main sections, which is the big picture and the small picture. The big picture is about the three-act structure. I have not invented the three-act structure. A lot of people write about it and talk about it. I think my way of approaching it, my way of guiding people and the different use of scene cards and ways of thinking about it. When I came to California, I had been a playwright in New York, and I knew truly nothing about screenwriting. I went to the movies like anybody else. The first time I had any kind of an interview (the first screenplay I wrote I had some interview with an agent), they were saying they liked the dialogue and they liked some of this other stuff, but then they said, “I can’t tell where your first act ended.” And I looked at them and I thought, “Okay, they’re putting me on, you know, like I’m the new guy from New York and they’re pretending like screenplays have a first act.” I knew they didn’t. I’d been to plays. I know when an act ends. The curtain comes down and the lights come out and that never happens in a movie. So, they were joking with me. Well, obviously they were not joking. Clearly, a movie does have a first act. Stanislavsky has a great quote. He says, when you think, you know, everything prepares for the next phase of your education. And that’s what I had to do. I had to learn what movie structure was all about. This was before the days of DVDs or any of that stuff, so I just went to the movies and the matinees because they were cheap. I brought a stopwatch and a penlight and sit in the back of the theater so I wouldn’t disturb anybody. And I would just write each of the narrative events that occurred and the time code and just sort of teach myself what was going on and how a movie was structured. I came to realize just by watching enough of them that at a certain point in the movie, around a half hour, something happened. It was an irrevocable act that happened, then I realized, “Okay, well, that’s the first act.” And then I sort of noticed at a certain point, around seventy to eighty minutes, something terrible almost always happened, whether a comedy or a tragedy. And that’s how I discovered the end of act two. So, I really taught myself my own version of how it was, I think from my understanding of theater and understanding that actors needed to have an objective. That is how I came to understand about character objectives. That’s in the second half of the book, which is all about the small picture and scene writing. Every moment characters have to have something urgent and important to want. If you put two people whose wants are opposite to each other, you have the lifeblood of scenes like two tectonic plates rubbing against each other, closing the earthquakes and volcanoes—that’s what creates conflict in movies. Writing is a very lonely business. If you have a job in television or if your movie gets done, you’re around lots and lots of people, but until that happens, it’s very solitary and very isolating. So, I think it’s good to have litmus tests that you can apply yourself to see if what you think you’re doing you are actually doing. The book has a lot of that, and then what’s new about it is, because television has come to the fore in the last decade, there’s a lot more about TV writing. On the one hand, of course it’s different in a lot of ways, but on the other hand, it’s very similar because once you’re actually writing scenes; a scene in a movie and a scene in a TV show both have the same aspects in them. They both have conflict, they both have characters, they both have dialogue. And while they’re applied in somewhat different ways, the basic things are really still the same. And of course, a lot of the references to particular movies are more up-to-date, although the references to old movies like The Godfather are still relevant. Even though it was made in ’71, the principles in that movie are still relevant. It can be studied and lessons in that movie can definitely be applied to writing today. I did not want to talk about rules, but hope I give writers the confidence to access their own creativity. In writing a movie, there are certain principles, certain levels of structure that have to be learned, if not followed all the time, but I really believe that every writer has a story and a way of looking at the world that nobody else in the universe has. The first movie that gets bought may not be the movie that gets made, but it becomes a calling card to somebody if it establishes who that person is by what their individual voice is. I find that very valuable. I find it very exciting to be in front of a classroom, knowing that ten or twelve weeks later, a bunch of different scripts are going to exist that at the moment don’t exist yet. It’s like in that musical Sunday in the park with George, there’s a great song about making a hat and the idea of making a hat. I think that embodies the spirit of the book and the spirit of the way I try to teach. I really do believe that everyone is different and that everyone has something interesting to say that nobody else in the universe can say in the same way.
-Creative Screenwriting Magazine