You’re Not Helping

By Randal Stevens · April 18, 2010

Back in college, I took a class called Screenwriting Workshop that, as the title implies, consisted of a small group of film students learning the craft together and constructively criticizing each other’s work. It was a great experience to see the tastes and talents of my fellow students shift and develop throughout the year and it was an edifying experience to hear feedback from constituents who were just as excited and eager to hone the craft as I. Together we learned and helped each other, the proverbial rock to each other’s iron. Except for one douche bag. 

Every week after listening to three hours worth of lessons, three different students would be assigned the task of submitting their ongoing work to both the professor – an established screenwriter – and the rest of the class for the purpose of having a roundtable discussion about their projects. By the end of the semester, some students were at the point with their stories to begin a screenplay whereas others found they had to scrap their ideas and start all over. The idea behind the class structure was not necessarily to have anything completed by the time the class ended, but to lay the groundwork for the knowledge, dedication and confidence essential to follow through with our stories once we graduated and had to rely on ourselves rather than professors and grades to motivate us. To that end, it was incredibly value to hear feedback from such a motley crew of students whose personal preferences and talents shaped the criticisms we would no doubt encounter in future endeavors to shop our screenplays. 

In quintessential undergrad film student fashion, most people worked on thinly-veiled Garden State rip-offs or standard Hollywood fare with “quirky” twists that supposedly gave them indie credibility. Then there was my friend and I – the dark horses of the school’s small film program who made our love for the horror genre well known. I won’t say we were smarter or wiser than anyone else – I was working on zombie script that was an homage (read: blatant rip-off) to every other zombie movie ever and he was working on a directionless David Lynchian mystery with a Silent Hill twist – but we were smart enough and wise enough where we had worthwhile things to say about genres outside of our own; that is to say, everything. For the most part, our classmates respected our genre love even if they didn’t understand it and had worthwhile things to say about the inciting incident, the nuts and bolts of screenwriting where we could incorporate their suggestions into our work. But there was this one guy who seemed to never shut up about his work or anyone else’s until it came time to give suggestions to us, the weirdos. Whenever it came time for discussion on either my or my friend’s screenplay, he would always dish out the same, pretentious bullshit:

“Well, I don’t really have much to say. I don’t like horror movies, but I would see this one if it got made because it’s yours.”

This may not seem so bad to you and in his smug mind it was definitely intended to be a compliment. You see, this guy had an air about him that was equal parts neurotic and arrogant, nervous yet self-important like an early 20’s Chuck Klosterman. I respected this guy’s opinion about as much as I respect a swift kick in the nuts so not only did I find his constant abstaining not complimentary, I found it straight up insulting. I’ll admit that some of the insult came from the fact that I had no respect for this guy (who can respect anyone that makes so asinine a claim as, “Spider Man was the worst thing Sam Raimi could have done?”), but mostly, I was insulted because this guy added absolutely nothing of value to the group dynamic and was counter-productive to the environment our professor was trying to foster. 

You see, in my mind, his explanation was bull shit, a cop out designed to mask that he had nothing valuable to say because there’s a difference between liking movies and understanding movies. Average Joe moviegoer goes to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or The Bounty Hunter not because they want to see a craft executed to its utmost, but because they want to see shit exploding other shit or attractive couples being attractive together. They judge a film based on how it delivers on its archetypes rather than how successful of a story it is. To an extent, film critics do the same thing. For a screenwriter, criticism based on a story’s archetypes are not constructive, especially for a young screenwriter. That’s what this guy was doing. Had he actually known a bit more about the art and science of a screenplay, he would’ve gotten past the “I don’t like genre films” bullshit and been able to provide some worthwhile feedback. Does my inciting incident make sense? Is my protagonist relatable if not likable? Is the choice at the end of Act II truly a choice between the lesser of two evils? He had no idea because he never bothered to come at the screenplay on a story level. A great story, even a good story, can still connect with an audience no matter whether it’s been told through the lens of a horror, science fiction or (God forgive me for saying so) romantic comedy. Good storytellers can transcend those bounds. Bad storytellers not only cannot, but they also cannot appreciate those who can.