This year, I took John Warren’s Advanced Feature Writing class. It was 14 people at a table, each of us coming up with an idea for a movie script. The first semester was outlining, spitballing. The second semester was writing. We’d present our scripts to the class every 35 pages by way of table reads, and afterwards we’d give each other notes.
I decided to write a werewolf movie. I was in the first group presenting, so I wrote my first 35 pages over winter break. First week back to school, I presented my work. And holy hell, did it have problems. The character’s goal, the stakes, the urgency— all unclear, all muddy. Oh dear. John ended that class by telling me, ’Don’t worry about rewriting your opening just yet. You’ll get back to it. Keep moving forward.’ Which I was okay with. My premise was perfect, dammit! They’ll see! They’ll all see!
Except, no. In an email the next day, John said ‘Forget what I said. You gotta fix this. See me.’
That led to a fun week (and by fun, I mean stressful) of rethinking my act 1, searching for a new character goal, bouncing ideas off friends and family. I felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall (‘My first act is perfect as is, dammit!’) until finally I realized that my first act was, in fact, the opposite of perfect, and needed to be torn apart. I reworked my outline around a new premise, which introduced higher stakes and greater urgency, which led to a new ending, which led to a new theme. The story got tighter.
I wouldn’t have thought to rework my premise on my own— that’s all on the class.
Once I was done with the whole script, I decided to submit it to the Black List. The Black List, run by Franklin Leonard, is a website that assigns readers to evaluate your script (for a fee) and rate it from 1 to 10, all in an effort to uncover worthwhile material. An 8 or higher nets you a free evaluation and gets your logline sent out to industry professionals. I figured, eh, what the hell. I’d submitted work in the past, generally receiving 5s. The evaluations always included constructive criticism, and I had nothing to lose, so why not. Maybe, I thought, they’ll highlight story flaws I didn’t notice and give my rewrite somewhere specific to go. Maybe it’ll lead to me blowing up my premise again. Alright. I paid the fee and waited a month.
I got an 8.
The evaluation said that my script has “a solid premise, terrific action and pacing, and well-drawn characters.” “A smart, original story like this could be a big success at the box office.” They’re giving me two free evaluations and they’re sending my logline out to professionals.
God damn. Imagine if John and co hadn’t made me change my first act.
There’s probably a moral here.
Avishai Weinberger is a student in the NYU/Tisch Undergraduate Film and TV Department from the class of 2017.