Students in Emerson’s low-residency MFA in Writing for Film and Television program were treated to a master class in screenwriting from the creator of some of the most off-beat, creative classics of the 1980s and beyond—Repo Man and Sid and Nancy writer Alex Cox.
Here are five pieces of advice and five snippets of insight from Cox, who also directs, acts, and produces.
Alex Cox’s “Writing Notes”:
- “If you’ve written a scene that bores you, kick it out.…Never show the director a scene that bores you. Anything you’re particularly fond of, considering kicking it out, too. If you fall in love with things, you lose your discernment.”
- “[Director] John Ford said, ‘Films are great when they are short on dialogue and long on action,’ which is kind of counterintuitive, because in order to make a good screenplay or in order to sell a good screenplay, we rely on dialogue….[But] it really is a good note. Having written a page of dialogue, you want to think if [you] can do this with description…because if you can show rather than tell, that’s infinitely better.”
- “Things must change. Unless your [film’s] point is stasis.”
- “Drama is the art of conflict. You do need opposing points of view—I wouldn’t say you need to be limited to two opposing points of view. I don’t think I’ve ever made a film that has a simplistic conflict [of good vs. evil]….Most conflicts are more complicated.”
- “When you write that screenplay, when you sell that screenplay, when that film goes into production, don’t be surprised and don’t be upset when they change it. When you’re on set and you see the actors improvising, grin and bear it.”
Alex Cox’s Point of View:
- “The screenwriter is the only person in the crew who is 100 percent free. Everyone else on the film is constrained by actualities and practicalities….The writer is the only crew person who ever looks at a blank page.”
- “When we write feature-length drama…we automatically tend to fall into a three-act structure, whether we know it or not.
The reason there are five acts in Elizabethan theater is a bit like the reasoning in long movies: there’s an intermission to sell you ice creams. In Elizabethan theater, there were four intermissions. They would go around and sell beer and animal parts, making money on the side.”
- According to director Akira Kurosawa, there is a Chinese character that corresponds to each of the three acts in a film: “The first act uses the Chinese character for ‘introduction.’ The character for the second act is called ‘destruction.’ And for the third and final act, ‘haste.’”
- “I can’t think of a bad [Luis] Buñuel film.”
- “Always take the opportunity to work with actors, because they’re our lifeblood. Well, money is our lifeblood, but actors, too.”