Cinema professor's book gets back to basics

When Joseph McBride was an aspiring screenwriter, he dragged a typewriter to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin every day for a month to copy the still-unpublished script of "Citizen Kane" word by word.

A photo of SF State Associate Professor of Cinema Joseph McBride

Joseph McBride

Painstaking? Perhaps. But he became intimately acquainted with the masterpiece by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, a valuable exercise in learning the craft of screenwriting. An emphasis on the latter is what McBride, an associate professor of cinema at SF State, found lacking in other books on screenwriting. That led to "Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless," (Vintage Books) his new book coming out Feb. 28.

"When I started teaching screenwriting, I naturally surveyed the field of books in the bookstore," McBride said. "I really was disappointed. Most of them teach you how to write formulaic scripts that the author tells you will sell and make you rich."

Not only is that formula a fallacy, he said -- the average annual salary for members of the Screen Writers Guild is $62,000 -- but it "guarantees trite film writing."

In "Writing in Pictures," McBride writes a new adaptation of Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire," which McBride adapted in 1967 for his first screenplay, and walks readers through the writing process step by step. Along the way, he recommends films for readers to view on their own and asks them to pick a story to adapt while reading the book.

The process models the one he uses in his Screenwriting I class at SF State, where he has taught since 2002. Rather than asking students to come up with an original story -- something he did early in his teaching career that resulted in less writing of genuine quality and an abundance of scripts about murderous college roommates -- McBride has them choose one of two short stories around which to build a screenplay.

"It's too much for a beginner to try to come up with an original story without learning the craft," McBride said. "You've got to learn how to do it first, and then come up with the original."

The cover of the book

Similar to how he structures his screenwriting class, the lessons about how to make it in the movie business are held off until the book's final chapter. "At first I tell students, 'Forget about money, forget about selling it. Write the best screenplay you can,'" McBride said.

McBride said many young screenwriters know a lot about the technical aspects of filmmaking, but not much about the world around them. In the book, he encourages them to read the news, explore history or look to their own lives for inspiration. "You find a lot of stuff and great ideas when you're reading widely and learning about the world," he said.

Screenwriting, McBride said, "isn't the hardest thing in the world, but it requires that you respect the craft."

"Writing in Pictures" is available for pre-order at the SFSU Bookstore and on McBride will appear at book-signing events on Feb. 15 at Moe's Books in Berkeley, Feb. 21 at University Press Books in Berkeley, and Feb. 29 at the SF State Poetry Center, sponsored by the SFSU Bookstore. He will also appear at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael on March 4 to screen and discuss the film "The Apartment." McBride has also written books on Steven Spielberg, John Ford and Orson Welles.

-- Jonathan Morales