Tom Robotham had just spent three hours learning about screenwriting from an Oscar-winning screenwriter. But what he really appreciated was that Graham Moore, writer of The Imitation Game and this semester’s Semel Chair in Screenwriting, didn’t just teach the class what he was good at.
A large part of the course was dedicated to “expositional dialogue,”—dialogue that lays out necessary information—or, in Moore’s words, “Everyone’s least favorite part of writing,” and something even he struggles to make interesting.
“They weren’t presenting things that the professionals can shine at easily, they were presenting things that the professionals find difficult,” said Robotham, a cinematographer from the South Shore of Massachusetts and a second-year student in Emerson’s low-residency MFA in Writing for Film and Television.
Students in the low-residency MFA program spend two weeks per year—one at Emerson’s Boston campus in August, and one at Emerson Los Angeles in January—attending seminars, lectures, workshops, and screenings, including master classes and workshops led by Semel Chairs such as Moore. The rest of the 40-credit program is taught online.
Moore won both an Academy Award and a Writers Guild Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2015 for The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, which was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture. The script, also nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe that year, was based on Andrew Hodges’ biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma.
Moore is also a bestselling author and has adapted his second novel, The Last Days of Night (2016), about the rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, into a film slated to star Eddie Redmayne.
At the top of Moore’s master class, held Tuesday afternoon, August 22, he showed first- and second-year students clips from two films: Enigma (2001), a fictionalized story of the breaking of the German Enigma code during World War II, written by renowned playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Stoppard won his own Best Screenplay Oscar in 1998 for Shakespeare in Love), and The Imitation Game.
Using parallel scenes from each movie—the part where the audience learns just how dauntingly difficult breaking this code is going to be—Moore asked the students to analyze the differences in the two scripts’ approaches.
“He guided the students in a comprehensive exploration of how writers choose what to tell an audience and when,” said Jean Stawarz, graduate program director and associate professor in the Visual and Media Arts Department.
The students wasted little time and fewer words dissecting the two screenwriters’ decisions: how we first meet the characters, how much information we get about the players, who we care about, what we learn about the stakes of breaking the code.
As it turns out, they weren’t just practicing academic analysis; they were getting real world experience.
“You guys are articulating things that [Director Morten Tyldum] and I and the producers spent many, many late nights debating,” Moore told them. “What we’re doing in this room, Morten and I did.”
There are many routes to setting a scene, introducing a character, inserting the dreaded exposition—to crafting a good screenplay, Moore said.
“[It’s all] a set of aesthetic decisions, there’s no right or wrong,” Moore said. “Just know what you want to do and why.”
First-year student Tayler Carter, who studied filmmaking and took courses in directing and editing at Northern Kentucky University, knows she wants to focus more on writing, which “wasn’t a huge part of my undergraduate experience.”
She chose Emerson’s low-residency MFA program because, in addition to the classes and professionals she’d have access to, it would allow her to stay in Ohio, where the cost of living is relatively affordable.
Carter said after just two days in the program, she felt like she’d known everyone for weeks. And from Moore, who went to dinner with the students and was “so down to earth,” she said she’s already learned an invaluable piece of advice.
“He’s been saying a lot about ‘Write what you’re passionate about,’” Carter said. “Whenever you write more or talk more about your passion, you’ll find someone in your journey who is equally passionate about the same things.”