5 Chayefsky Screenwriting Lessons with Dave Itzkoff
“Stop thinking of writing as art. Start thinking of writing as work.” - Paddy Chayefsky
It would have been a dream come true for Aaron Tracy, host of Yale Podcast Network’s To Live and Dialogue in LA, to interview the late Paddy Chayefsky, writer of Network and Marty. But, of course, it’s kind of hard to be a guest on a podcast when you’ve been dead for over thirty years. So Tracy invited what he considers the next best thing: Dave Itzkoff, culture reporter for The New York Times, who wrote a book — perhaps the book — on Chayefsky and the making of Network: Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies.
That angriest man, Paddy Chayefsky, is also the only person ever to have won three solo Academy Awards for Best Screenplay. He also wrote for TV and, it could be argued, is the reason for the first and second golden ages of television. To say that this dude would be a good person to receive writing advice from would be an understatement. During the episode, Tracy and Itzkoff discussed some of Chayefsky’s style and work habits, fishing out some eternal tips and tricks. Here are five lessons gleaned from the conversation.
1. Earn Your Big, Talky Speeches With Tension-Building
A “recurring characteristic of Chayefsky’s protagonists,” Itzkoff tells Tracy, “Whatever walk of life they’re in, they tend to be these very wound up people and they always get a moment in their movie where they kind of blow up.” His characters get a hefty-sized chunk of dialogue, a go-all-out, here’s-your-Oscar type speech. Itzkoff admits that, “If you look at it on the page, it’s just a long uninterrupted block of text from one person, which is very… unusual.” Indeed, even frowned upon — don’t screenwriting books tell you not to weigh down your tempo with long, drawn-out yapping?
The key is tension. As Itzkoff says, by the time these speeches occur, “the tension has built to such a point that [these characters] have to let it all out.” Chayefsky earns his big block of uninterrupted dialogue because of the tension that he builds. We, as an audience, allow it. Hell, we may even need it — that long speech may act as a respite after a particularly tense back and forth.
2. Research Like Crazy
Chayefsky put in a tremendous amount of research for all of his scripts, particularly Network, for which he visited various newsrooms, not just for a taste and feel of that world, but to study everything. Itzkoff says, “Even though he didn’t consider himself a journalist, I think he sort of felt kind of duty-bound, that if he’s going to write about these places, he has to know for himself and feel satisfied that he truly understood how they worked.”
Chayefsky even made himself learn the floorplans of the place — to him, it all helped him craft the world when writing. “His goal was let me show you as best I can, as it really looks… There’s a lot of lingo he throws in, not always knowing what it means… This was language that he heard in meetings that he attended or physical floor plan layouts that he saw… He had to feel satisfied in his own mind.”
3. Use Self-Doubt To Push Yourself Further
Doubting oneself is pretty much an inevitable side effect of being a writer. If you’re not self-doubting yourself, are you even doing it right? Even Chayefsky, a writer who won three Oscars for his work, had misgivings and felt like giving up on his projects. Of course, there was confidence there, too. But you don’t have to be Chayefsky to find that confidence. As Itzkoff says, “For as much as a self-doubter as he was, I think deep down he did have the confidence in himself.” That self-doubt is what fueled him. Because of that doubt, “He wasn’t going to take something out to market until he felt he perfected it and he really was his own best editor in that sense. He knew really precisely what his script was lacking and how it needed to be revised, he knew when it was ready.”
4. Truly Explore Your Imagination
Be a writer! Avoid the easy way out and really write. Don’t do the half-assed thing or the bare minimum. Try to really explore your character’s backgrounds, what may have been happening before the story. Maybe it’ll feel a bit too much like a creative writing class exercise but just remind yourself: Chayefsky did it.
“Part of the funny way that he wrote screenplays,” Itzkoff says, “[was to] also write these narrative prose almost like mini-novels before he would write a script.” Perhaps that sounds like unnecessary work — but try to look at how fun that could be. If you enjoy the process, if you need to write, consider this method. It could provide depth and it could lower the risk of your first draft being complete garbage, because you’ll get all that garbage out in those little prose pieces! Not a bad way to look at it…
5. 9 to 5 Your Work Ethic
Treat your work ethic like you’re clocking in for a full-time job. That’s what Chayefsky would tell you. Take it from the quote that begins this article: don’t consider yourself an artist. Consider yourself a worker.
“We think about [Chayefsky’s scripts], I think fairly, as these great pieces of artistry but he was somebody who was just like… time to make the donuts, you know,” Itzkoff says. Chayefsky would “get up at the same hour, just put in the time, sit at the typewriter, pound out some words, maybe they’re good, maybe they’re bad, you revise, you rehash, you get a little closer to the thing with each revision… but it’s not this sort of glamorous idea of an artist retreating into his studio and making his masterpiece. It was much more like going into the factory and doing the repetitive task over and over again and clocking out at 5 pm.”
Listen to the full podcast below for more insight and enlightening conversation surrounding Network and Chayefsky’s earlier work.
Travis Maiuro is a screenwriter and freelance film writer whose work has appeared in Cineaste Magazine, among other publications.
Photo credit: MGM
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