What screenwriting lessons can we draw from the wise, funny, and inspiring words of the late, great Penny Marshall?
Carole “Penny” Marshall was born in New York City on October 15, 1943. She grew up in the Bronx with parents Tony Marshall, a director and producer, and Marjorie Marshall, a dance teacher. Penny had two siblings — older brother Garry and sister Ronny — both of whom she would later follow into show business.
Penny graduated from Walton High School in 1960 and headed west to the University of New Mexico, where she studied math and psychology.
She began dating campus football player Michael Henry. They had a daughter, Tracy, and later married.
Penny soon dropped out of school and went on to work as a tap dancer and secretary to support the family until her marriage ended a few years later.
Looking for a new path, she decided to move to Los Angeles to try to break into film and television. There to help her along the way was her brother Garry (then working as a comedy writer) and her sister Ronny Hallin (then working as a casting director and producer).
After several years in Los Angeles, Penny landed a recurring role as secretary Myrna Turner on The Odd Couple in 1971. Gary was a writer on the show.
She then worked her way into two episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show before securing a more prominent role in another one of her brother’s series, Happy Days. The acting gig would lead to the most iconic acting role of her life.
Penny and actress Cindy Williams played Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney as double dates of Fonzie and his friend. The characters were written and acted so well that Garry Marshall created a spin-off series centered on their characters.
Laverne and Shirley was a hit, running from 1976 to 1983. Penny would go on to direct episodes of the show during that run — her earliest education in what would come to be a highly successful directing career.
Penny had married equally iconic actor and director Rob Reiner in 1971, but the couple divorced in 1979. Few good movie or television followed the Laverne and Shirley after it ended in 1983. But in 1985, her friend Whoopi Goldberg talked her into taking over the helm of Whoopi’s movie Jumpin’ Jack Flash, which launched a successful new chapter in Penny’s career. She was now a Hollywood director.
In 1988, she directed the hit Tom Hanks film Big, becoming the first female director ever to have a film that crossed the coveted $100 million mark.
She would jump from comedy to drama with 1991’s Awakenings, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. The film was nominated for Best Picture.
Penny’s 1992 dramedy A League of Their Own was another hit that crossed the $100 million mark, reuniting her with her Big star Tom Hanks, as well as a star-studded female cast that including Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, and Geena Davis.
She followed that classic up with Rennaissance Man, The Preacher’s Wife, and Riding in Cars with Boys. She then pulled away from directing and turned to a producing career, producing such films as Cinderella Man and Bewitched.
The world lost her due to complications from diabetes on December 17, 2018. She was 75 years old.
Here we feature some of Penny Marshall’s greatest quotes on directing, writing, and cinematic storytelling as a whole — followed by our own elaboration.
“I have a strange combination of fearlessness and massive insecurity.”
Most screenwriters and filmmakers forget that their heroes in screenwriting and filmmaking likely struggle with the same insecurities that every undiscovered talent is feeling today.
They worry. They doubt. They question themselves and their choices.
That’s part of the process. If you find yourself not worrying, not doubting, not questioning your choices, and whatnot, chances are you’re not doing it right. Those internal struggles are nothing more than your creative mind figuring your story and characters out.
You need that fearlessness to go into the process knowing that those insecurities are going to be tearing you up inside. Be fearless. Embrace your insecurities. And remember that those inner battles are nothing more than you and your writing process making discoveries.
“Once I commit to something, I complete it.”
That fearlessness that she mentions is what should be driving you to take on whatever setbacks, conflicts, rejections, or difficulties in your work.
The key is not to waver. The secret is to finish the damn thing. Finish it well and finish it fast so that you don’t lose focus. Set a deadline, commit yourself to it, and complete the thing.
Too many screenwriters — when they first start out — let drafts linger. There’s no outside pressure, so they take as long as they’d like. Most lose interest. They’re minds wander. Other concepts come up. They lose their passion for the original idea they started writing.
You can’t grow as a writer if you can’t finish a script. And how can you possibly expect to get your work out there if you don’t have the material? Beyond that, you need to put yourself in training. You need to train yourself to be ready for success. Thus, you need to learn how to work under tight deadlines.
Be your own producer, give yourself a deadline, and finish the damn script. Then start another one and give yourself an even tougher deadline — and finish the damn script.
“When I’m working, I’m obsessively working.”
You can’t be casual when it comes to writing a screenplay. You have to dive into it and not come up for a breath until you’ve done the work and completed that script.
“I want you to laugh and cry. That’s what I do.”
The best dramas also make us laugh. The best comedies also make us cry.
More screenwriters that write in these genres need to understand that. It can’t all be tears. It can’t all be laughs. We need to be able to laugh between tears and cry between chuckles. That’s what offers the most cathartic response to the material.
“I talked to my crew and said, ‘Just tell me the truth.’ I turned to the crews and asked them for their help.”
You can’t succeed without help. You can’t do it all by yourself. And you certainly can’t be afraid to take feedback and notes. Embrace the fact that film and television are collaborative mediums. As a screenwriter, you have to be ready, willing, and able to ask for help and accept feedback and notes that you may not want to hear at first.
All of this is part of the screenwriting and filmmaking process. When you understand and embrace that truth, you’ll skip a few steps up that learning ladder.
“I have never wanted to grow up and stop playing.”
Make no mistake; when we’re writing screenplays, we’re playing make-believe. And that blank screen is the sandbox where you can create any number of adventures, stories, and characters.
Don’t be afraid to be a kid again. Keep playing.
“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”
You’ll know if screenwriting is for you when it turns from being a want to being a need. And the talent comes from within as a direct byproduct of that need to create stories.
It can’t be taught. Sure, anyone can take a screenwriting class and figure out the odds and ends of the craft. But you can’t teach instincts. You can’t teach passion. You can’t teach vision.
Trust your instincts over your studies. We’ve been telling stories since the dawn of humankind. It’s embedded in your DNA.
“I know nothing about lenses. It’s not my job. Cinematographer’s job. Camera operator’s job… that’s not my job as far as I’m concerned.”
As a screenwriter, you need to know what is your job, and what isn’t.
Don’t worry about camera angles. Don’t describe the details of the production design and wardrobe. Don’t dictate every single punch, kick, and parry in a fight scene. They have directors, production designers, wardrobe designers, and fight choreographers for all of that.
Just write a compelling, engaging, and cinematic story that will warrant the hiring of those people in those fields to bring your screenplay to life.
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“Be careful what you wish for… the grass is always greener.”
Some screenwriters want success fast — and then can’t handle it.
Some screenwriters want to skip the rejection — and then fail to learn what they need to learn from their failures.
Some screenwriters watch their screenwriting idols’ careers and long to be in their place of comfort, ease, and success, only to later see that even those one-percenters struggle.
Take your time. Make your mistakes and learn from them. Pay your dues. There will be plenty of opportunities to check out that grass on the other side when the time is right.
“Don’t be ashamed of your talent.”
Believe it or not, many writers are embarrassed by their passion and talent. They look at their friends and their careers, longing to have some sort of normalcy. Some even think of their talent as a burden, because being successful as a writer is difficult.
Don’t be ashamed of your talent. Treasure it. The rest will work itself out.
“I lived. I didn’t hurt anyone, I don’t believe. And I have a great family.”
You sure did live, Penny. Thank you for that you left behind. What an amazing legacy.
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Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies