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Reading books about writing films

Updated

By Wanggo Gallaga

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I’ve been trying to get into the movie industry since as far back as 2004. I never wanted to be in movies when I was in my teens because I was trying to stay away from my father’s shadow. But I grew up with films. I’ve always said I learned how to watch movies before I learned how to read. I knew I wanted to be a writer at 14 and everything I did was geared toward making me a better writer. I even took up Literature as my major and Creative Writing as my minor in college with the hopes of becoming a novelist. But De La Salle University, at the time I was studying there, had more poets than fictionists and I took a turn toward poetry.

When I graduated, I was better trained as a poet than I was as a fictionist and while I jumped from my first job in the academe to writing essays and profiles for magazines and then later in advertising, at the back of my head I was dreaming of movies.

By the time I was 25, I was talking with my dad about films and I started writing scripts for him. I had no real education with regards to film and filmmaking. Everything I knew, I knew from discussions with dad and various scriptwriters. I ended up writing scripts for him and sending them out to producers. None got produced but I was getting better and better at writing screenplays, and I was starting to understand the difference between writing for fiction, poetry, and film.

I got to know more people through the years and one director I was going to write for, Cholo Laurel, lent me the first book I was going to read on scriptwriting, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.

I hated the book. There were one or two things about his process that I’ve kept with me but the rest I was so against. Snyder’s process involved an absolute formula for writing what he calls a “good film.” It was easy to read and gave practical tips but he was very exact in his formula. It went against what I was taught in college about writing. It felt like the work would be reductive and predictable. It resembled an assembly line and it went against my belief that film is art.

A few years later, another friend lent me her book Alternative Scriptwriting by Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush and I found the book riveting. As a scriptwriting manual, it veered away from the classic three act structure and talked about all the alternative narrative structures of films. It talked about the process behind making films that I loved like Run, Lola, Run, Magnolia, and Memento.

It opened up my writing style and I think I got better. I was able to use it when I wrote my first film, Sonata in 2013. I would refer to the book again later on when trying to put together an ensemble film but that movie was never produced.

By the time I wrote T’yanak in 2014, I was already on auto-pilot. I had been writing for a long time now that I was so comfortable in my process that I knew what I needed to do to put a movie together.

This year, I began teaching scriptwriting for the Digital Film Department at the College of St. Benilde and at the SHIFT Film School. I felt that I shouldn’t just rely on my own process, which I developed on my own from lessons I learned talking to my dad and all the directors I’ve worked with. My process might not work for everybody. So I had to go back to basics. I looked at the syllabus of the scriptwriting class and bought the books that were suggested. I got Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee and I also used The 21st Century Screenplay by Linda Aronson, which was suggested to me by Petersen Vargas, my director for the web series Hanging Out, which I co-wrote with other writers.

McKee’s and Aronson’s book had been instrumental in structuring my lesson plans and class discussions. It allowed me to lay-out the process for my students and then build on it with my own personal experience of the craft.

Robert McKee’s book helped define the language needed to explain the ins-and-outs of scriptwriting. Linda Aronson’s book was essential in creating exercises I could assign my class that detailed the step-by-step process of the scriptwriting process.

What was most surprising, though, was realizing what was flawed in my own writing process. I also learned, from reading these books, that some of the techniques I was using had already been laid out by these two writers. Naturally, they had a better grasp and a more refined system and language.

It was such an enlightening experience for me. I had been so confident in my ability to structure a film. I had been doing it professionally for around 10 years already, which has led to two feature films, four short films, and one web series. I had no intention of reading more because I felt like I had known what I was doing.

I only really read these books because I needed help in developing a teaching style for class but I was surprised by how much I got out of them. I learned what needed to be improved in my technique and it pointed out things I was not even conscious of, though I knew it intuitively. I learned new tools to better my craft, and it’s ironic because I only read them to impart the love of craft to my students.

My reading has deteriorated along with my eyesight. I promised myself that the moment I got my eyes checked and fixed, I would start reading again. I’ve been reading biographies and books on theater and poetry the past few years. But once my eye-sight gets better, I have every intention to get back to reading scriptwriting books and catching up on lost time.

At some point, experience will only get you so far. I’ve reached that point where I’ve learned all I can from just doing. I need to read more. Funny enough, now that I’m almost 40, I’m excited to get back to reading textbooks again.

Wanggo Gallaga is a writer, poet, filmmaker, and HIVawareness advocate. He has written the films Sonata and T’yanak and was the dramaturge for the play No Filter by The Sandbox Collective. He is also one of the writers for the web series Hanging Out. He published an e-book of poetry called Remnants, which is available on Kobo and Amazon.

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