One of the best days of my life

by on November 10, 2013

in Story structure

Allen Palmer on the final day of AFTRS Grad Cert Screenwriting 2013 - They're called moving pictures. So move me.

Last Saturday I farewelled the outstanding AFTRS Grad Cert Screenwriting cohort of 2013 and I have to say it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Quality. And Quantity.

Typically, a Graduate Certificate program at AFTRS – Australia’s national film school – will have 8 students. Maybe 10. Occasionally 12. After reviewing applications for the 2013 Grad Cert Screenwriting program, we took 19.

On that first night back in February, a lot of them were wishing that AFTRS had lived up to its (outdated) elitist reputation and that the class was about half the size – everybody assuming that, if the class were smaller, they would not have been among the unlucky ones who missed out.

But, I think there’s a vibrancy that you get in a group of this size that you don’t get with smaller classes, and that it’s also easier in a larger cohort to accommodate a diverse range of experiences, ages and personalities. I wanted to lecture to the full class to draw on the energy of the collective and then break into tutorial groups of 6 or 7 to ensure the students received the individual feedback they need to develop their talents. That was the plan. Fortunately, the plan seems to have come off.

This has been an absolutely amazing year, the kind of year that can make being a teacher so satisfying. And that final Saturday was the perfect send-off.

Because Life is hard T shirt

One of the T shirts given to me by the Class of 2013 – my answer to the question, “Why do we need stories?”.

Scenes from upcoming films and TV series

In the morning, we read out scenes from their film and TV projects. This was intensely rewarding because those scenes were the result of a huge amount of work in shaping (and then reshaping) the characterisations and the overall story before they reached the point of actually writing a specific key scene.

They had then workshopped these scenes with professional actors (including the super-talented, and entirely delightful Nigel Turner-Carroll, who’s been with us for 3 years now) a few weeks previously, and the advances they’d made in the subsequent drafts were quite amazing.

I tell students at the start of the year that the focus of the program is on developing craft and that if they emerge with a project they want to continue working on, that is a bonus. But on the basis of these scenes – and Ross Grayson Bell’s reaction to their pitches – I fully expect to see many of these projects make it onto the screen.

The morning was great. But the afternoon, hit another level.

Another of the T Shirt collection - my assessment of how the great films will make you feel (and my summation of the lot of the screenwriter).

Another from the T Shirt gift collection – my assessment of how the great films will make you feel (and my summation of the lot of the screenwriter).

Reflections on their screenwriting year

After lunch, I invited the class to reflect upon their year and respond to these three talking points:

  1. What was the most valuable thing you learned/gained?
  2. What was your toughest moment?
  3. What was your most blissful moment?

1. What was the most valuable thing you learned/gained?

In talking about what they had learned, no-one mentioned anything that you could have read in a screenwriting book. No-one said, “A deeper understanding of the Hero’s Journey”, or “The importance of contradiction in characterisation” or “The value of subtext”.

People talked about how they had gained a greater confidence and belief in their abilities. Or about the bonds they had formed within the group that will help them better deal with the solitary lot of the writer. Or about how they now had a stronger conviction that this was the thing they were going to do for the rest of their lives.

Tears were shed. And some of the students were quite emotional as well.

2. What was your toughest moment?

I had warned them at Orientation that the course would likely trigger an Ordeal for them – a confrontation of their character. But at that early point – before we’ve reviewed my take on the Hero’s Journey – most have no idea what I am talking about or what they are in for. By this point, they know all too clearly.

Pursuing your screenwriting dream isn’t some romantic jaunt in the park. For the most part, it’s a hellish, frustrating, humbling, penurious nightmare and pretty much everyone in the room had faced a crisis of confidence over the course of the year.

They were crap. Their work was crap. They’d never fix it. They’d never make it. They really didn’t really want to be a screenwriter after all.

At these moments, I would point out the connection between story and life. The Ordeal that Campbell and Vogler talk about isn’t some artificial construct that exists only in mythology. It’s a rite of passage in our lives. There’s no point tearing up at Todd taking a stand in Dead Poets Society if, when faced with a similar test of character in reality, you run away. If you want to realise the dream, you’re going to have to call on parts of you that get to leave their feet up if you stay back there in the Ordinary World.

But, they had all responded to their various challenges, deepened in my regard as a result, and we had come back into port with a full complement – though everyone had been altered by the voyage. Here, finally, they were able to release the emotion you feel after you’ve stared down the monster. The box of Kleenex was again in high rotation.

Another of the TV shirts - Joseph Campbell's famous assessment of what people are looking for from story.

Another of the T shirts – Joseph Campbell’s famous assessment of what people are looking for from story.

3. What was your most blissful moment?

After the Ordeal comes the Reward …

The glorious, this-is-what-I-was-born-to-do moment for many of them had been listening to their scenes read out in class for the first time, hearing people laugh, and thinking, wow, that wasn’t so bad. Maybe I can do this after all.

Or of forming a writing team that they believe will endure a lifetime.

Or of working with actors who took their words and actions one step closer to the screen.

Or of having the epiphany about their stories – after it had seemed like it would never come – and then writing like a mad thing in a state where time, meals and personal hygiene cease to have relevance.

Following your bliss often feels like following your blah. But, the rewards are there for the persistent and the feeling is so exquisite it emboldens you to push on, knowing full well that this euphoria will dissipate, but that somewhere up ahead there again there will be another moment like this that will make it all worthwhile.

And so it is with teaching. It has its challenging moments – especially with a class of this size and particularly with the fragile and feisty personalities that are not unknown among screenwriters. But when you get to work with talent like this, and you see the growth that we saw this year, and you feel the love in the room that we felt that day, it seduces you to want to do it all over again.

Thank you, Class of 2013. May the Class of 2014 live up to your lofty standards.

My 10 Parting Words of Advice

To finish the day, I gave the students ten parting words of advice – that I’ll share with you in my next post.

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