Looking Backward: Fixing Hollywood's Broken Writing System

by Camille Garcia '15

Barbara Nicolosi Harrington is an associate professor in the Honors College and a veteran of Hollywood’s entertainment industry. Nicolosi and her colleague, Vicki Peterson, recently released their new book, Notes to Screenwriters: Advancing Your Story, Screenplay, and Career With Whatever Hollywood Throws at You, which provides writers with insight and guidance on the entire storytelling process. The two share their thoughts on the book here.

How did you become a screenwriter?

Nicolosi: I did a lot of dramatic writing as a young person. I started writing plays in grade school and it just became something I loved. So, I decided to go to Northwestern University and I earned a master's in screenwriting. After that, I moved to Hollywood. It’s been a long road, but it’s all finally coming together. I have a biblical project moving ahead this summer—a movie about the clash of Communism and faith in Portugal in the early part of the 20th century. I’ve just finished a screenplay for a production company about the persecution of Christians under Diocletian, and I’m in the first act of the screenplay adaptation of the memoir, A Severe Mercy. My message to aspiring screenwriters, based on my personal experience is: stay at the table, keep writing, because you can’t lose ’em all!

What made you want to pursue writing as a career?

Nicolosi: Screenwriting is a talent-based field. You have to be a writer. I was good at it. I was the one that the teachers would pick and say, “You write a play or skit because you can do it.” There has to be some natural affinity because screenwriting is such a complex and demanding art form. You have to juggle so many things in your head—characters, plot, leads, structure, sub-plots, dialogue. I used to do crossword puzzles, but I haven’t done any since I became a screenwriter because I don’t need any more mental exercise!

What made you want to write your book? Peterson: Barbara and I have both taught for years, and the book really came out of all of the things we’ve been saying over and over again to our students. For us as writers, these are the tips that we’ve picked up and learned along the way. In a way, this book is the easiest project we’ve ever written. The information just flowed out of us—it’s so ingrained in us by now.

Nicolosi: It’s true!

What are the biggest challenges the movie industry faces in terms of storytelling?

Nicolosi:The system of movie creation is broken, which makes good storytelling difficult or impossible. Today, movies are not stories, but a product. So many people at the table try to change the story and these alterations have everything to do with selling it as a product—marketing the product, making the product more global – and nothing about whether it works as a story. Generally, we moderns lack detailed, focused, rigorous labor in all of the arts. Storytelling is suffering from this too. Our book says the way to move forward is to look backward. Look at what Aristotle said about story and what Aesop did and try to bring those principles into the modern era. Are there any movies that you’ve seen lately that best capture the essence of good storytelling?

Peterson: Honestly, I can’t think of a single movie recently and I watched all of the films nominated for “Best Picture” this year.

Nicolosi: I concur; I sat there watching and thinking, “In a better year, this would not be a Best Picture nominee.”

Peterson: I would say in recent years the movie that probably comes closest to it would be Gravity. Across the board, it employs all of the storytelling skills that were taught thousands of years ago, and yet it maintains a very contemporary light.

Photo courtesy of Barbara Nicolosi Harrington (left)

Nicolosi: If you want to go back a couple of years, most of Pixar's work transcends the rules of classical storytelling. As a rule, they usually are very aware of what an audience needs, what they’re looking for, how to hook and keep them in their seat. They understand the universal and the particular–they really do follow poetic storytelling carefully in their characters, arts, and transformation.

What does an audience need to experience classical storytelling?

Nicolosi: The first thing an audience needs is a reason to care. We watch the opening of every movie basically looking for a reason to care about the main characters presented to us. The mistake that many current films make is thinking, “Well, if Jennifer Aniston plays the lead, then you’ll care, because, you know, we like her.” We know that stars are beautiful and handsome, but that doesn’t do it—it’s not enough. We care when we see a character engaged in a quest that we see as worthy and beyond them.

Do you think that all good stories have already been told?

Nicolosi: I think in terms of plot, there are only so many plots in the world, but in terms of characters, no. It’s what the characters bring and it’s also what the audience brings that makes a story fresh and new. Through film, moviegoers work out the problems in their own lives in a subconscious way. Problems never go away and, therefore, our need for story will never go away. As long as there are people on the earth, a need for story will exist.

How do you breathe life into Hollywood?

Nicolosi:Talented storytellers must dedicate themselves to impact the culture of Hollywood. Hollywood is like any other field—you enter into it and you carve your niche, along with a group of collaborators.

How do you help your students prepare for their career in screen writing?

Nicolosi: Vicki and I created a company, Catharsis to provide mentorship and informed feedback to writers at every level. We help them understand the real-world life of a writer. We really try to de-glamorize what that looks like on a daily basis. The truth is that being a screenwriter means that you’re pretty much sitting in your pajamas at 2 o’clock in the afternoon in your living room. This is a career for self-starters— the producers bring you in, they listen to you, they decide whether you’re going to be able to deliver, then they write you a check and you’re off on your own. If you’re not somebody that can self-start and get your job done on you’re own, you’re probably not going to make it as a professional in this field.

Book Launch Celebration: On April 15 at 6:30 p.m., join Nicolosi and Peterson for their book launch celebration in the Los Angeles Pacific College (LAPC) room at APU’s East Campus. For more information about the event, contact Rachel Hastings at rhastings@apu.edu.