In 1971, filmmaker Michael Roemer was tasked with writing a film for Paramount Pictures about “young people.” Over 40 years old and out of touch with the younger generation, Roemer looked to the Yale School of Art for guidance.
“If you let me live with you for a while, I’ll help you make your movies,” he recalls telling the art school administration. At the time, Roemer noted, there were no other filmmaking classes being offered at Yale, and any filmmaking on campus was entirely student-initiated.
It would be another few years before the University would allow Roemer to teach filmmaking to undergraduates. But today, alumni and students who have taken his course mark it as a milestone in their development as artists.
Screenwriter Camille Thomasson ’81, who teaches the residential college seminar “The Screenwriter’s Craft,” said that Roemer taught her “to examine my intentions — and assumptions — and to interrogate my work.” Russell Cohen ’17, who is currently in Roemer’s “Introduction to Film Writing & Directing,” described the course’s requirement that students write, direct and produce a different “scene” every week as a challenging but rewarding process.
Since then, filmmaking and screenwriting have been burgeoning interests for Yalies. The craft has grown, and gained recognition and respect from the Yale administration, but many say that the program has outgrown its size, and that its popularity calls for further attention.
Gaining Legitimacy with Time
The film and media studies major was established in 1985, but the program did not offer any screenwriting classes until 1992, when American studies and film professor Charles Musser assumed leadership of the program. Film studies lecturer Lapadula credited Musser as the person who “gave screenwriting its first real chance to expand and come to dimensional life at Yale.”
Musser described the scarcity of screenwriting classes at the time, when students could only take such courses through the residential college seminar program. Students were unhappy with the system because no screenwriting courses were consistently offered, despite being in high demand. Lapadula said he remembered accepting only 12 students for each of his seminars and turning upwards of 90 students away.
In the fall of 1992, then-Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead approved the first-ever Yale College screenwriting class after a group of students petitioned the University to offer such a course. Roemer selected Lapadula to teach the course, which was only available to juniors in the film studies major at the time.
After Lapadula was hired, he and Musser worked to further develop the screenwriting curriculum. Lapadula taught an introductory course open to all undergraduates as well as an advanced senior thesis course and later an intermediate-level course specifically for film studies majors.
Students who have taken Lapadula’s classes include Nick Antosca ’05, who has written for television shows such as MTV’s “Teen Wolf” and NBC’s “Hannibal,” and Jeremy Garelick ’98, who worked on the highest-grossing R-rated comedy film of all time, “The Hangover.”
Over the past several years, Yale’s English department has occasionally offered courses in screenwriting. English professor John Crowley, who teaches a number of English and creative writing courses, has also taught screenwriting classes through his department, including “Writing for Film: Voice and Vision” in Fall 2012.
Screenwriter Brian Price ’85, who teaches a residential college seminar on screenwriting titled “Classical Storytelling and Modern Screenwriting,” said he has noticed that Yale has become more receptive to student interest in screenwriting since he was a student in the 1980s. Price explained that decades ago, the University administration felt that screenwriting “wasn’t deserving of academic study, so we didn’t have those classes.”
Now, he said, screenwriting at Yale is considered as legitimate an art form as other literary media are.
A Demand for Specialization
While the number of screenwriting classes at Yale has increased over the past two decades, several students and faculty said they think the University has not embraced filmmaking and screenwriting to the same extent as other liberal arts universities.
“What makes Yale great, and also frustrating, is that it’s a keeper of historically traditional knowledge,” said screenwriter Dave Tolchinsky ’85, who heads Northwestern University’s Writing for the Screen and Stage program. “Yale certainly wasn’t the first to embrace the film major, and when I was here as a music major, it tended towards the classical.”
Peer institutions such as Princeton and Harvard offer more options in screenwriting classes, Musser said, adding that he believes that one serious shortcoming of Yale’s undergraduate curriculum is the lack of a full-time filmmaking instructor. Harvard has the equivalent of seven and a half full-time filmmaking teachers, he noted.
Demand for screenwriting classes at Yale currently exceeds the number of spots available by a large margin. Thomasson and Price said that they had to turn away many interested and qualified applicants from their residential college seminars. Price noted that he received over 50 applications for just 14 spots.
Students interviewed highlighted the importance of offering screenwriting-specific courses because general film-related classes and extracurricular opportunities do not provide the type of training needed to effectively write screenplays. Otis Blum ’15 and Alexi Sargent ’15, who have written both plays as well as screenplays, said that they have found screenwriting to be formulaic in a way that playwriting and other mediums are not.
“A kid can open up [Microsoft] Word and just get going on a play,” Blum said. “But I don’t think any kid can just open up Final Draft and start writing a screenplay. You need to have someone tell you what the structure and the format is.”
Tolchinsky added that he thinks having instructors with experience in the screenwriting profession is essential, noting that his screenwriting classes teach students how to pitch ideas to companies and engage with film producers in addition to the writing component.
But Tolchinsky added that he thinks the traditional liberal arts educational model that Yale offers contains classes that are at least as valuable as trade-oriented classes on the business or craft of screenwriting.
Several other alumni and students interviewed also highlighted the importance of a liberal arts education for artists such as screenwriters. Daniel Barnz ’92, who wrote and directed the 2011 film “Beastly,” noted that he did not start writing screenplays until after he received a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of California at Los Angeles.
“I think any hyper-intelligent person — and God knows there are a slew of them at Yale — can teach themselves the mechanics of screenwriting,” Barnz said. “And then it’s just about having a story to tell, which doesn’t necessarily come from filmmaking.”
A Business and an Art
Nearly all of the students and faculty interviewed said they believed that screenwriting has gained popularity in recent decades because of its omnipresence in modern society. Lapadula said that he thinks the past few years have proved that screenwriters can make a name for themselves as screenwriters alone, rather than through taking on additional roles as directors or actors.
“Certainly in terms of public usage, there’s an argument to be made that screenwriting is the dominant form of storytelling right now,” Price said.
Faculty and professional screenwriters highlighted the artistic merits of screenwriting, noting its interdisciplinary and collaborative nature. Thomasson said she tells her students that screenwriting is “part poetry, part architecture,” and the Yale English Department’s Director of Creative Writing Richard Deming described the ability of screenplays to transform text into visual imagery as “magic.”
But playwright and screenwriter Doug Wright ’85 said he thinks that many have turned to screenwriting because it is currently a more lucrative field than other writing professions. He highlighted the corporate aspects of screenwriting, explaining that screenwriters do not own the rights to their work, as studios are able to freely alter the scripts that screenwriters produce without the writer’s permission.
“As a screenwriter, you’re a writer for hire,” Wright said. “As a written form, screenplays haven’t entered the national literature and probably never will.”