From the Desk of Richard Walter: Screenwriting and Schizophrenia


From time to time I have mentioned that my father was a musician. Dad was an acoustic, stand-up bass player who performed primarily in the classical repertoire, but he had a deep conversancy also with jazz and pop. He spent twenty years in his early career with the N.B.C. Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the 20th Century’s pre-eminent classical conductor, maestro Arturo Toscanini.

Upon disestablishment of the orchestra at the end of the radio era in the early ‘50s, he moved on to four decades with the New York City Ballet. Between these two gigs, for several years he was a member of The Tonight Show band when the program was hosted by Steve Allen.

For forty years he also taught bass at Juilliard, the world’s leading music conservatory.

He used to say that for arts educators, working even with musicians of limited talent should be an affirming experience. The teacher would be associating with people who regard creativity as an essential aspect of life. He would enjoy close contact with souls of light eager to reach out, willing to stretch and to take risks, even if it was clear they would never perform at Carnegie Hall.

Every third or fourth year such a teacher might encounter a breakthrough talent. He would nurture and mentor her, and help her establish a career. Better than that, however, Dad would say, “If you’re going to teach artists, you might as well teach the best artists, and that’s what we have at Juilliard.”

Regarding teaching screenwriters at UCLA: ditto.

My dad traveled regularly to Los Angeles to visit family.

We would occasionally have lunch on the UCLA campus. Seated in the sunshine at an al fresco student eatery, regarding the lush landscaping and stunning architecture, he would bemoan Julliard’s tomb of a ‘campus’ at Lincoln Center, a windowless sarcophagus of a structure that seems more appropriate for a Walmart than any arts conservatory.

The UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television is located on the north end of the Westwood campus. It abuts rolling acres of manicured hillocks and knolls that are the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden. Among its eclectic collection are substantial pieces by the likes of Rodin, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Richard Serra, Jacques Lifschitz, Robert Graham, and many others.

The Rodin, a larger-than-life figure called Walking Man, stands just outside Macgowan Hall, which houses my own office. It is a vast bronze casting that weighs several tons. To set it in the Garden surely required an industrial crane.

Even as it stands there as still as a tombstone, looming mightily and motionless at among the other works, it appears at the same time somehow to be mid-stride, gliding with substantial momentum, unstoppably traveling across the campus. Even as it stands stock still, it is characterized by fluidity and motion.

The Serra piece, its near neighbor, sits adjacent to the Garden on a brick-tiled zócolo, a public plaza fronting the Broad Art Center. On first glance, it appears to be a twisted, rusted steel beam that could pass as a fragment of the wreckage from the World Trade Center. It weighs several times as much as the Rodin, yet it, too, seems at the same time to be in motion. Even as it is unmistakably a heavy, immovable hunk of rusting steel, it resembles a carved graceful curl of wood, something whittled on a backwoods country porch by a humble soul seated in a glider and wielding a jackknife. It looks light and loose and fragile, as if it would be blown away in the slightest breeze.

At the other end of the Garden, to the south and the east, stands a hefty piece by Lifschitz called Song of the Vowels. It is another weighty object, one made of iron-and-stone, perched high on a pedestal. Its central shape is something of a sphere, but there are extensions at either end, sort of abstract wings, that make it look not a little like a fledgling bird, a light, feathery creature about to arise in flight.

In other words, each of these works is characterized not by one but by two traits, both of which are not only different from each other but the precise opposite.

Opposites, of course, represent not mere differences but the largest sorts of differences. Impressionistic paintings, for example, appear all at once to be totally abstract and yet, at the same time, somehow also hyper-real.

I say all art—including screenwriting—shares this quality. In a single object there reside countervailing properties.

In film, it is the real versus the reel.

Audiences want movies to appear totally real, even though nothing in the history of civilization is less real than a movie. That may sound like an exaggeration, and exaggeration for effect is a time-honored writing conceit. It is not in the least, however, an exaggeration. What plays faster and looser with our world, what jockeys and juggles time and space more shamelessly, more brazenly than movies? This is an example of what Irwin Panofsky in his Meaning in the Visual Arts calls ‘the spatialization of time and the dynamization of space,’ referring to the way films treat time and space as malleable, moveable, interchangeable entities.

The schizophrenic nature of film is its natural ability to be wholly real and totally unreal at the same time.

I strongly expect this is why so many fine screenwriters are just a little split off from reality and, perhaps, also just a tad separated from sanity. When one’s profession is to traffic in his own imagination, to swap one’s daydreams for dollars, it is easy to understand how reality and illusion can get mixed up.

Thanks to my vantage on campus in Westwood for over 40 years, I came to know, and intimately to work with, armies of writers.

Trust me when I tell you that it is not a bit unusual for any of them, indeed for all of them, to be (at least somewhat) mixed up.


Richard Walter is a screenwriter, author of best-selling fiction and nonfiction, celebrated storytelling educator, entertainment industry expert, and Professor Emeritus and former Interim and Associate Dean at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television where he chaired the graduate program in screenwriting for over forty years. Professor Walter offers an exclusive online 6-week course. Here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train with the world’s most accomplished screenwriting educator. And, he’ll read your script if you complete it within 1 month of the class! Learn more at http://richardwalter.com/workshop/ and sign up for updates by joining Richard Walter’s email newsletter list: contact him at professorrichardwalter@gmail.com.

©Richard Walter 2019