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How To Become A Successful Screenwriter - In Just Six Seconds
How Brian Koppelman became our last unsung hero of 2013

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Here's an early Christmas present. Just when you thought that Empire had unwrapped all of our unsung heroes of 2013 - the likes of Katee Sackhoff, Max Martini, Lavell Crawford et al - here's one more for you: Brian Koppelman. One of the complaints regularly levelled at screenwriting gurus is that, for the most part, the people who purport to tell budding writers how to crack the code that will see them finally sell that long-gestating screenplay are utterly unqualified to do so. For they may be able to talk the talk, but they certainly haven’t been able to walk the walk. Even the legendary Robert McKee, the doyen of gurus, has had just one feature film script produced.

It was this thought that was nagging away at Koppelman when he picked up his iPhone one morning in early September and recorded a Vine video railing against such self-appointed gurus. It went down well with his Twitter followers, so he did it again. And again. And again.

112 Vines later (at time of writing; he no doubt has something special lined up for Christmas Day), and Koppelman's #sixsecondscreenwritingtips has become a quiet phenomenon, attracting an ever-growing audience who lap up his bite-sized chunks of advice. And nobody, but nobody, can level the same charges against Koppelman as with the likes of McKee. For Koppelman has long been one of Hollywood's most successful screenwriters, responsible for - with long-term partner David Levien - the likes of Rounders, Solitary Man, Ocean's Thirteen and this year's Runner Runner.

Empire has watched the six-second screenwriting school grow and grow in just three short months, attracting thousands of devoted followers (including fellow writers and directors). So when we were thinking of one more person to add to our list of unsung heroes, Koppelman - a man who's been there, done that, and so whose advice carries an authority, and an accessibility, sorely lacking in others - was a no-brainer. We spoke to Koppelman, as he walked to his office on a cold New York morning, about the ideas behind the Vines and how he's handling becoming - in the kind of irony even Alanis could understand - something of a screenwriting guru himself.


Did you expect this when you started?
No. I just had this thing to say. Once in a while when I was on Twitter I would notice that people would have these questions, and a big stream of the questions were questions that no working writer ever asks another working writer. They were received wisdom from this micro-industry of screenwriting gurus. The day before, I got a question from somebody that asked, ‘is it true that a new screenwriter should only work in certain delineated genres?' That's patently absurd! I thought, God, there are people who are actually listening to these conmen or imbeciles. So I did that first thing. I just did it. It was like, 'fuck it, let me just answer this one question that I get over and over again'. That first day I did a couple of them, and they were basically, 'don't listen to these fucking bullshit artists, don't read bullshit books about screenwriting. Read screenplays and watch movies.' And I saw that when I did it, people understood my intentions and that they understood the distinction. It made the motivations of those other people, those people who held themselves out as experts, it made their motivations more obvious.

A lot of wannabe screenwriters listen to these gurus. The market has become quite saturated, but it's interesting that most writers don't seem to give them any credence. We had Joe Eszterhas on our podcast and he's not a fan of Robert McKee, for example.
Blocked artists are miserable, they're toxic to everyone around them and I know because I was one.
People have taken me to task saying McKee is different. I have had several screenwriters - Billy Ray, Akiva Goldsman, real guys who have written real movies, say that McKee was helpful to them and I'm not going to discount Billy Ray's truth. The guy wrote and directed Shattered Glass. But if I do have a mission, it's partially informed by the notion that I don't care if it's true that you can follow McKee's formula to generate the types of films that Hollywood usually wants to write. I still think that's a worthless goal. I say that as somebody who has written Hollywood movies and who has written movies that turned out to be really good and really bad. I've engaged with Hollywood in that way. But the point is that people always want to talk about why Hollywood movies at times seem like they're targeted for the lowest common denominator audience. And where does that all start? It starts at the screenplay stage. It has to.

What effect have your tips had? Have people come up to you to say that they're applying your advice
You'll never hear me in any way saying that what I'm doing has any effect on anybody's work. That's for other people to say and it's been a short time. The thing that actually drives this now - and this I have gotten incredible feedback on - is one of the unintended consequences of the screenwriting guru industry is to frighten people into a place where they're paralysed and can't do what they want to do. Whether they feel a sense of failure before they even start, they feel overmatched to the task, they think there's a secret formula they have to unearth, a safe they have to crack and inside that safe is going to be the answers and the way they crack that safe is by paying somebody a bunch of money to teach them how to do it. I was a blocked writer until I was 30 - I talk about it on my blog - and to me the notion is if I can encourage people through my own example and through the things I'm trying to say to them. They do not need permission from the outside, from some expert, from some book to go write what they wanna write, to create the art that they want to create.

Blocked artists are miserable, they're toxic to everyone around them and I know because I was one. That feeling of being unable to express who you are is brutal. We've all felt it at varying times in our lives. So if somehow I can help them to crash through that by just talking to them, if they feel that they can do their thing, that's worthwhile. I've had artists from many disciplines contact me and thank me for that and that means a lot to me. That's really what brings me back to doing it every day, if I picture someone standing there and they bought themselves a set of brushes and oil paints two years ago, and they've been sitting in the corner because they've been scared to do it, and if somehow I'm able to help them try, what a beautiful thing to be able to participate in.

I've read reports where people are looping the tips constantly, which the six-second format allows. Is that why you chose Vine?
I used Vine because it seemed like the easiest thing to do. When I watched the first one, it repeated so I thought that it's so short that if you miss it you'll hear it again. But I didn't think people would loop them and let them keep playing. I have to tell you that none of this was conscious. No part of it had any forethought. I was standing in my bedroom and picked up the fucking iPhone and said this thing and very quickly saw the reaction. I knew when I said it that I'd said something true and when you say something true, people do hear it. They somehow are able to hear that it's genuine.

This isn't your Howard Beale moment.
First of all, I think Howard Beale's motivations are pretty questionable. I think the point of that was the way that Howard Beale's methods were received and his intentions were very different things, and by the way I really hope Ned Beatty never sits me down. I don't think I'm strong enough to resist what he brings. I am no Howard Beale, which I now know is your pull quote and I wish that it wouldn't be. But I do understand. I don't have any delusions about the extent of the impact that this can possibly have. This is all minor key, small-time stuff and I'm not speaking to some giant audience. I'm probably mostly speaking to myself, and I'm probably mostly speaking to the scared artist in me. ‘I know I'll never be Joel and Ethan, I'll never be Woody, I'll never be Spike' - those are the scary thoughts in your head. So how do you make yourself sit down and decide I'm going to write another movie?

How many more can you do?
[Each video] takes six seconds that I would otherwise use to take another fucking bite of a Twix bar.
You know, I'm going to do one a day. If I have something to say, I'm going to say it and I think that if it's in some way useful to people, it takes six seconds of my time. And if I flub my words, twelve seconds of my time! So it's not like you're asking about some marathon. It's six seconds that I would otherwise use to take another fucking bite of a Twix bar

It's not like the production values have rocketed...
There's not much lighting involved. I don't have to pay a crew. This is pretty DIY. I'll probably do them for a while, or maybe I'll stop next week. If I don't have anything to say, I won't say it. So many of my peers - actors, writers, all sorts of people who you would think have no need for this because they're already involved in producing serious work have come up to me and said, 'dude, thanks so much for doing it'. So I'll keep doing it

Do the tips arise from work you're doing now?
Some of them. There was one when I said I have something tricky to write that I don't want to deal with, but I'm going to do it. That was me trying to just not fuck off and go play golf in the rain, but instead go to my office. I was walking to work and I really didn't want to do it. That wasn't a movie. I was writing a piece for Grantland, and I had to figure it out. I just wanted to bail on it. So I thought it's going to be twice as bad tomorrow, and a couple of people said they needed to hear that so much.

You don't have a well of topics. This just comes to you as it comes to you.
Once or twice I've written some things so I have ‘em. But generally I'll be walking around the city and I'll be thinking about it, and then whatever is on my mind - however I'm talking to myself or whatever I'm thinking about. My family and my wife and my kids and [David] Levien have probably got sick of me going, ‘oh, that's a Vine!' and then going off and doing it!

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Follow Brian Koppelman on Twitter for more of his #sixsecondscreenwritingtips Vine videos.

Interview by Chris Hewitt

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