When I was in graduate film school, different film directors or industry professionals would come to the school to screen a new film and talk about it. I got an answer to something that’s helped me many times with projects from a Q&A we had with director John Badham, who’d come to show us his new movie Short Circuit (1986) starring Ally Sheedy, Steve Guttenberg, Fisher Stevens and an adorable robot.
You may know Badham’s name from movies like Saturday Night Fever (1977) and War Games (1983), the movies we film students had heard of, and according to a quick trip through IMDb he’s directed a lot of television over the last couple decades as well.
The post-screening discussion was a lot of the usual industry and production questions we’d asked visitors, like budgets, locations, working with Ally Sheedy, dealing with the robot, and stuff like that. I asked something a little different, since he’d made a few hits. I raised my hand and asked:
“What is the key to storytelling structure?”
He recommended readIng a book called The Art of Dramatic Writing, by Lajos Egri.
What I got out of reading the book helped me more than what I’d learned in a screenwriting class in undergrad film and another in the grad film program (which I only attended for a year). It’s a basic concept that may be in other courses and books. I don’t know. But its core idea of finding and following an active statement in assembling and structuring a creative piece helped me in the editing room a few times.
The non-linear narrative of the no-budget independent comedy feature I produced and directed in 1989-90, which came together while I was cutting the film, was held together by what I learned and what resonated for me in The Art of Dramatic Writing. It helped me make choices when I editing a 9-minute mini-doc on 28mm film a few years ago, and has even helped me fine tune talks I’ve given.
I probably bought my copy of the book at the Strand in NYC, but it’s excruciatingly findable online.