Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Monday, June 7, 2010

Recommended Reading

People often come up to me and say, "Sean, can you recommend some books to me about screenwriting?"

Actually, that's not true.  No one has ever asked me that, but I'm not afraid to volunteer the information.  And, I do have a blog to fill....  So here goes.

"Screenplay:  The Foundations of Screenwriting" - Syd Field

Syd Field is often sneered at today, but, when I began to write screenplays, his book was the best one currently available.   Much is made of the fact that he never wrote a produced film, but, as they say, those who can't do, do, those who can't, teach.  I would say that a lifetime of movie-going taught me form and structure.  Field taught me the mechanics.  He explained what I had been assimilating.

For a couple years, I bought pretty much every screenplay books that came out.  After a while, it all became redundant.  However, I know people who swear by "How To Write A Movie In 21 Days" by Viki King.  Or "Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting" by Robert McKee.  (Didn't read that book, but someone lent me cassettes of his class.  Interesting.)  One of the hottest books for a while was "The Writer's Journey" by Christopher Vogler.  I bought it.  Started to read it, but decided I didn't want to write that movie.  I have had people recommending "Save The Cat!  The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need" by Blake Snyder too.  I may check it out.

So what book is best?  Whatever one that inspires you to sit behind the computer while everyone else is out having fun.  Nowadays I am more likely to read film criticism and books that compare and contrast good and bad scripts.

"Adventures In The Screen Trade" - William Goldman

Love this book.  And the further I progress in my career, the more valuable I find it.  Ignore the structure of the scripts he includes, but pay attention to the stories.  This is more than simple, behind the scenes Hollywood gossip.  You will learn practical solutions to the political side of the business, i.e., dealing with producers, directors and stars.  I particularly enjoyed his analysis of the difference between writing a scene for an actor and writing a scene for a movie star.  He talks about DeNiro in the basketball scene in the "The Great Santini."  He says a star would never play the scene that way because, more than anything, they want to be loved.  He describes how the scene would have to change to suit a big movie star.  Lots of wisdom in this book from a two time Oscar-winner who certainly knows how to swim in the deep end of the Hollywood pool.  Good read too.

And, although Goldman generally disparages sequels, he produced one himself.  "Which Lie Did I Tell?:  More Adventures in the Screen Trade" picks up his career where his last book left off.  I found the book particularly relevant.  I reread it about a month ago after being removed from a project.  Tim Ratajczak and myself where hired to write a comedy.  Then, about three weeks before the shoot, the production company decided that the film had to be a drama instead.  We were removed and replaced by, of all people, a professional comedy writer.  Oh well.  (Believe me, no hard feelings!)  He was subsequently replaced by two additional writers.  The irony is that the first production Goldman discusses in his second volume was "Memoirs of an Invisible Man," which the original director, Ivan Reitman, envisioned as a special effects driven comedy in the vein of his hit "Ghostbusters."  The star, Chevy Chase, saw it more as a dramatic meditation on the loneliness of invisibility.  Those of you who saw the final film know who won.  It was strangely reassuring to hear how an Oscar-winner fought the same battle we did!

"Writers In Hollywood 1915-1951" - Ian Hamilton

A great history of the screenwriting business.

Nowadays screenwriting is hot.  Everyone wants to write The Great American Screenplay -- or at least a million dollar one.  That wasn't always the case.  Once upon a time, real writers, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, only came to Hollywood out of desperation -- leaving humorous tales in their wake.  It was not a respectable craft.  But some, perhaps against their better judgment, excelled at it, like Ben Hecht, Herman Mankiewicz, Nunnally Johnson, Robert Riskin and Frank S. Nugent.

It is a pity that those names are known to so few, but they are the unknown architects of Hollywood's greatest masterpieces.  Robert Riskin, upon reading an with interview his frequent collaborator, director Frank Capra, about the famous "Capra Touch" handed him 120 blank pages of paper the next day and asked him to give those "The Capra Touch."

The book didn't say whether Capra found that amusing.

"Easy Riders, Raging Bulls:  How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood" - Peter Biskind

This gossipy tell-all book tells the unvarnished history of the 'seventies cinema, which has rightly been called Hollywood's second Golden Era.  It is also a great cautionary tale because, if indeed the filmmaking mavericks profiled in this book did manage to save Hollywood, they mostly managed to destroy themselves through an excess of money, drugs and ego.   It is also a very entertaining read.  You've seen the films.  Experience the ego!

I found Peter Biskind's follow-up "Down and Dirty Pictures:  Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film" sadder because not only does it cover the rise of independent film, it also covers the collapse of the market.  I was a great devotee of independent film during the period covered in the book. I saw practically every film Biskind discusses in the theater.  I certainly didn't like all of them, but there was a certain exhilaration that any vision could find a home.  I don't believe that is true anymore.  When the major studios saw how much money the indy distributors were making, they simply bought them.  None of those courageous little companies are active anymore.

It was also sad to see how little money those filmmakers made.  At least the filmmakers in 'seventies made enough money to buy all the drugs they needed to destroy themselves.

When did Independent Film finally die for me?  I think it was back in 2005, the year the Greg Kinnear/Pierce Brosnan film "The Matador" played Sundance.  I believe it was that year that Robert Redford said in an interview that the average independent film cost $30 million to produce.  No, Bob, sorry.  Come on.  "The Matador" isn't an independent film.  "Eraserhead" is.

I remember going to DC around 2005 to see a screening of Cory McAbee's comedy/musical/sci-fi film "The American Astronaut."  It was a wild and unique and eminently entertaining film.  No one saw it.  Terrible distribution deal.  I couldn't help but think that if the film had been produced and released in 1992, McAbee would be the new David Lynch.

(Then again, I felt the same way about Lee Bonner and "21 Eyes.")

"The Hollywood Economist:  The Hidden Financial Reality Behind The Movies" - Edward Jay Epstein

You always hear about how this movie lost $100 million dollars and that movie lost $150 million dollars.  Ever wonder how the studios manage stay in business?  This book will explain how.  And, after you read it, you won't waste any more tears on those poor studios.

The studios aren't trying to remedy the fact that so many movies are "losing" money.  Paramount, the production company, may be in the red, but Paramount, the distributor, is doing fine.  And they likeit that way.  If the productions made money, they'd have to start paying all of those pesky net points they hand out to nobodys.

Like the writers.

I was already aware of pretty much everything I read in this book, but it did an excellent job of explaining the whys and the hows.

Like how 2001's "Lara Croft:  Tomb Raider," budgeted at $97 million dollars, only cost Paramount about $8 million dollars out of pocket.

Don't worry about the studios.  They're doing okay.

That's the reading list for now.

By the way, be sure to support independent film.  And, if you're not going to buy a copy of "21 Eyes," at least buy a copy of "The American Astronaut."


  1. Here's one more: the best screenwriting book I've ever read, due to all the practical information inside: "The Secrets of Action Screenwriting" by William C. Martell. Martell is a produced screenwriter with nearly 20 produced scripts to his credit. Don't let the title fool you - the tips he gives can be applied to pretty much any genre. The book is out of print but you might be able to find a used copy, or you can go to Martell's site and buy his booklets which contain much of the same info at

  2. Good call, Paul. I have been reading and enjoying Martell's blog for a while.