Notes from Aaron Sorkin’s Screenwriting MasterClass

MASTERCLASS has been providing incredible opportunities for newcomers to creative industries to learn from the masters. You can learn cooking from Gordon Ramsay to acting from Kevin Spacey to tennis with Serena Williams. One Reddit user chronicled his experience with Aaron Sorkin’s MasterClass on Screenwriting.

Read the full article here: Notes from Aaron Sorkin’s Screenwriting Masterclass

Letters to Screenwriters from Famous Filmmakers

Need some words of encouragement and wisdom? Here is some guidance from prominent filmmakers for you.

14 Famous Filmmakers Writer Letters to Screenwriters

Alumni Interview with Jared Gordon

Jared at Hollins

HU: What brought you to screenwriting? How did your interest develop? 

 

JG: I’ve always loved films. When I was a wee lad, I wore through my VHS copies of The Muppets Take Manhattan, Ghostbusters, and Tim Burton’s Batman in record time. I’ll never forget coming down to breakfast on my 10th birthday and finding the original Star Wars trilogy waiting for me. But even when I was enjoying film after film, I was conscious that I was watching the creative work of other people. And I wanted to tell my own stories that an audience would want to see and enjoy. I had Adele Kamp as a terrific creative writing teacher in seventh grade; and then Richard Leonard in 12th who convinced me that writing couldn’t be just a hobby – it was necessary.

 

HU: What was your first script about?

 

JG: I wrote my first feature script in the year after I completed undergrad. It was a mockumentary called The Prophet of Westchester County, and it was about a young preacher who amassed a 2,000-member cult following in suburban New York over the course of two years and then vanished without a trace. The idea was to interview his friends, family members, former cult members, clergy, and so on – all in an effort to figure out who this fellow was and where he went. I cast friends and family in it and I think it might have been my way of finding out who among them could act! I’ve since made three other features (a romantic comedy, a family drama, and an absurdist comedy) and numerous shorts. I’ve written a total of 18 features and am about to start on number 19. A big reason why I opted for an MFA was because I felt that I was hitting a creative wall and I wanted my work to become even better. I have no doubt that attending the Hollins MFA program has given me that edge. The variety of perspectives that the Hollins teaching faculty bring to the table only strengthens the program and the writing of the students within it.

 

HU: What were one of the highlights of your experience at Hollins University?

 

JG: The people you meet at Hollins will change your life. Whether they’re faculty or students or staff, they’re your colleagues from day one. The emphasis on collaboration was clear and as a de facto six-week writers’ retreat, the atmosphere is social as well as creative. Hollins is a bright, open campus where you can write in the library, a quiet classroom, or in a boisterous writers’ room among your peers. The special guests brought in, such as Peter Riegert (King of the Corner), Susan Arneson (South Park), and Scott Kosar (The Machinist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), are informative, personable, and accessible. You’re encouraged to make friends and connections and to explore in every sense of the word. Hollins is right next to the Appalachian Trail and the city of Roanoke is a hotspot for great restaurants, friendly locals, distinctive specialty stores, and fantastic karaoke. I remember one time when I accompanied some friends from the screenwriting and children’s literature programs on a walk around campus after midnight. We slipped down a path with trees on both sides until it opened into a clearing in which thousands of fireflies blinked from all directions. It wasn’t a writing experience, but it was something I’ll never forget. It felt like I was precisely where I was supposed to be. That is Hollins.

 

HU: How did the MFA program help your growth at Hollins University?

 

JG: It’s funny how when I finished my undergraduate film and TV degree at New York University, I thought that I had a really good handle on what it took to be a good writer. “Conflict!” I thought, “That’s all I need.” And so my subsequent scripts were full of conflict, but they were still lacking something. I tell people that it took going to undergrad for me to think that writing a screenplay was easy, but it took going to grad school for me to realize how difficult it really is. The tenets I learned from Hollins professors such as Tim Albaugh, Kelly Fullerton, Mari Kornhauser, Hal Ackerman, Joe Gilford, Klaus Phillips, Laura Shamas, Stephen Prince, Jon Klein, and Christa Maerker were essential to my development as a creative. I credit Hollins specifically for making me into the writer I am, and it would be the first name I’d thank on the Oscar stage. At the same time, Hollins taught me that education is lifelong and that true mastery is something to always aspire to rather than something hard and fast to achieve. I am a better writer and have a more solid understanding of storytelling, thanks to Hollins. And I will continue to read and learn everything I can about the craft.

 

HU: Tell us a little about your professional life to this point – how did you land the jobs and were they positive experiences?

 

JG: Right out of undergrad, I was hired as a production assistant at Nickelodeon. Within four months, I was promoted to a writer position and for a little while, I penned about half of the on-air promos that aired on the channel. While it was a fun gig, I realized that I was spending my time promoting the creative works of others, and so I left there to start my own production company, Winter Twilight Productions, LLC. The films and web series I’ve made through it have been seen in numerous festivals and dozens of national and international media outlets. I’ve done production work with community media stations in Rye, NY and Cambridge, MA and have taught film production and screenwriting part-time at five Boston-area colleges. I founded and run Cambridge Screenwriters, the largest established screenwriting group in New England. I’ve started my own script consulting business and have been a screenplay judge for the NYC Midnight Competition, the Nashville Film Festival, and the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. I’ve recently been hired for a full-time, tenure-track assistant professor position in screenwriting at DeSales University and I’m looking forward to this next chapter! One thing I’ve learned regarding searching for a job in which I can use my degree is the value of persistence. You hear about overnight successes for the same reason you hear about plane crashes: they’re so rare that when they happen, they’re a big deal. But far less sexy is the story about someone who toiled quietly for years or decades and finally, finally makes it. Persistence opens doors. Period.

 

HU: Where would you like to see your career go from here?

 

JG: My career goal is and always has been to sell my writing. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to support my creativity through related work. When I started out in college, I loved the idea of going into film but feared going into massive debt for an arts degree. But based on my own career and what I’ve seen, if you want to advance, you will find a way to make it happen.

 

HU: What has your life been like after graduation?

 

JG: Hollins has opened doors for me, and the degree has easily paid for itself. The MFA is a terminal degree, so it can secure teaching work. But more than that, it has made me into a more confident storyteller. I’m pleased to begin a professor position that I mean to use to support my students, the school, and my own creative endeavors. And these are not mutually exclusive. Whether at Hollins, an MTV writers’ room, or in a classroom at DeSales, I look forward to being surrounded by creative people. It helps my work, it helps theirs, and when one of us succeeds, we all succeed. I find the time each day to write, as I know that the only way I can call myself a writer is to sit down and make it happen.

 

HU: What is the best movie you’ve seen in the last year or so? Why?

 

JG: My favorite films of last year were The Big Short, Steve Jobs, Anomalisa, Inside Out, Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Room. As for this year, Zootopia might be my favorite thus far (although I have high hopes that Finding Dory will be a home run). I like ironic, imaginative, character-driven stories with flawed protagonists who are challenged to become better than who they are. The best films invariably make us feel and make us care. These are the stories I aspire to write.

 

HU: Who is your favorite screenwriter?

 

JG: Do I have to pick just one? Gosh. I love Aaron Sorkin, Charles Randolph, Emma Thompson, Charlie Kaufman, Alejandro Iñárritu, Alan Ball, Hayao Miyazaki, Stanley Kubrick, Tina Fey, and especially the folks at Pixar like John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Brad Bird, and Michael Arndt. There are so many great storytellers out there, and they all have so much to teach us!

 

HU: Do you have any advice for current Hollins students?

JG: Write and write and write some more. Enjoy your time at school and enjoy life. Between the professors, the staff, the students, the Roanoke Valley, and the central air conditioning, Hollins is a treasure. My professors and my fellow students are my friends. Returning to Hollins feels like coming home. With an emphasis on collaboration rather than competition, we’re constantly reminded that we’re all in this together and when one of us wins, we all win. You have access to world-class professors and facilities at a ridiculously inexpensive price. The Hollins education I received was a kick-start – since graduating in October of 2010, I have written at least two complete features each year. They’ve placed in Austin and Final Draft, and I learn more from each subsequent script. Because of Hollins, when I now watch The Muppets Take Manhattan, Ghostbusters, and Batman, I know why I love them so much, and I love them all the more.

Alumni Interviews with Amanda Darling

amanda_darling

1. What brought you to screenwriting? How did your interest develop?

Star Trek: The Next Generation was cancelled when I was thirteen. I thought it was because the writers were out of ideas. I knew the producers accepted freelance scripts, so I wrote one and sent it to them with a note that I’d happily help with future ideas and scripts if they’d bring the show back. However, (spoiler alert!) my brilliant plan didn’t work. I wrote several young adult, then adult novels after that, until an agent suggested that my laziness regarding descriptions, interior monologues and complete sentences might actually be an advantage in screenwriting.

2. What was your first script about?

My cousin put me in touch with an indie producer with a grade eight education who made movies in his parents’ garage. I pitched him several ideas, and his favourite was about a teenaged girl who babysits a boy who needs a heart transplant in order to pay for breast implants. We went into production but had to stop due to lack of funds, and by the time we’d raised more cash, the actors looked too old to be the same characters. But the craziness of the cinema hooked me, and I’ve been writing scripts ever since.

3. What were one or two of the highlights of your experience at Hollins?

In my first year, I was in the video production class. I wrote a five-page script and made a short film. It was a small class, so I had lots of one-on-one help from my instructor for editing, and my classmates pitched in on everyone’s projects, so it was lots of fun. It was also a great learning experience to see the production and post-production side of filmmaking. Another highlight were social activities with instructors and students (waffle days, karaoke, ping pong matches, etc.). Hollins is unique among schools, in my experience, with its faculty-student interactions. The instructors are truly available for their students, professionally and personally.

4. How did the MFA program help you in your growth as a writer?

Firstly, consistency. I knew a lot about feature film writing from the various courses I’d taken previously (including the UCLA professional program online), so I knew how to write a good script, I just didn’t know how to do it quickly, efficiently and consistently. I got lots of practice and feedback at Hollins. Secondly, TV. I took two TV classes and wrote two pilots for my thesis. If I’d had this experience when I was thirteen, Star Trek: The Next Generation would still be on the air. Thirdly, professionalism. Nothing says you’re committed to being a writer like an intensive graduate degree. For someone who doesn’t live in LA (or even the US), this was a way to prove my dedication to myself and to the industry.

5. Tell us a little about your professional life to this point – how did you land the jobs and were they positive experiences?

I landed a writing assignment with a company based on a contest I’d won. They read the script I submitted and wanted something with a similar tone for an idea they had. I loved the concept and really enjoyed the experience. They commissioned a second project, which we ended up shelving because the idea they had just wasn’t feasible the way they envisioned it, and they didn’t love my take on it. We’re working on a third project now, and the idea and the script are developing nicely now. My agent in LA heard of a French producer looking for an American-educated, bilingual (English and French), Canadian screenwriter to develop some projects for French public television, and I was pretty much the entire short list. I pitched a bunch of ideas, one of which the producer half-liked. I refined the idea through various iterations and notes. The broadcaster eventually rejected our pitch, but the producer was encouraging, so it was ultimately a positive experience. I got mountains of feedback because the producer was very particular, but it felt really rewarding to be collaborating with someone who pushed me to my creative best.

6. Where would you like to see your career go from this point?

I’d eventually like to create and run my own TV show. Until then, I just want to write as much as possible and have a variety of professional writing experiences.

7. What is your life like now after graduation – where are you working, balancing writing and family, etc.

My husband and I just had a baby, so my daily writing now consists of everything I can type with one hand through a fog of sleep deprivation. I still have my day job, but I’m optimistic that I’ll be a full-time writer within a few years. To any students with families and gainful employment that gets in the way of writing time: remember that life is just fodder for fiction. My best scripts come out of my real life experiences, so I try not to get discouraged when my career doesn’t seem to be taking off as quickly as I’d like.

8. What is the best movie you’ve seen in the last year or so? Why?

Whiplash. It’s brilliant, deeply engaging and gets under your skin. Kudos also to The Lego Movie for awesomeness within its genre.

9. Who is your favorite screenwriter?

Old school: Billy Wilder Current: Aaron Sorkin

10. Do you have any advice for the current Hollins MFA students?

It’s easy to write a lot during the summer term, but you need to keep it up during the rest of the year. I challenged myself to write for at least an hour a day, twenty-five days a month. This is doable even with a family and a day job. I urge current and future students to do the same. Good luck with your studies and achieving your dreams!

The screenwriter, hard at work on her next feature.
The screenwriter, hard at work on her next feature.