Terry Curtis Fox: Dramatic Writing Across Mediums and Embracing the Other

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I had the pleasure of sitting down with Terry Curtis Fox, an Arts Professor and Chair of the Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing (DDW) in the Tisch School of the Arts. His play “Cops” was originally produced by the Organic Theatre in Chicago. Subsequent plays have been produced at Playwrights Horizons, the Chicago Theatre Project, and various companies throughout the United States. He is co-author of the feature “Fortress” and the HBO movie “Perfect Witness.” He began his long television career as a Story Editor and writer for “Hill Street Blues” and was the co-show runner for the Showtime series “The Hunger.”

Sitting down in his office at DDW, he shares his vision for the department as well as advise for writers of all mediums.

Did you grow up in a creative family?
I’m a very typical story, which is: my grandparents were immigrants. Yiddish was their first language. My father was a professional and my brother and I are artists, which I think is a very typical progression. The first post-immigrant generation goes into the professions and that gives the security for the kids to go off and be artists.

I had Jewish parents who thought, “They should have culture.” My mother said to me at the end of her life, “We never intended you to make careers out of it! We just wanted you to have some culture!” I started reading at three and I was never without a book. I fell in love with language. There were periods in my life when I tried not to be a writer, but it was impossible. It was what I did and I discovered that very, very early.

You’ve written across mediums. Do they all come from the same creative spine?
90% of the time, the moment I have the idea, I know what medium it belongs in. One of the things I want to do with DDW is to get the idea that we are dramatists. Every kind of drama is available to us and we should be able to wake up one day and say, this is a play. I have once adapted a play of mine into a screenplay.

What was that like?
It was fun, liberating, and play was the right medium for that piece. The film didn’t get made because the star dropped out, so the studio dropped the option. The director and I seriously considered filming the play, which would’ve been the better choice.

There’s a famous story about “A Streetcar Named Desire” where [Elia] Kazan had commissioned a screenplay and Fox greenlit the script. A week before shooting, Kazan came into the studio head’s office and said, “I’ve made a terrible mistake; we should shoot the play.” And that’s exactly what they did.

You’ve had a long career. What is challenging about being a writer?
The stress comes from never knowing where your next job is going to come from. I always say I have two lows: I’ll never work again and I don’t even have time to turn around. Everybody feels this way. I have had a very lucky career. I have never made a dime by doing anything other than writing from the minute I graduated college. That is very, very rare. But there have been lean years and there have been fat years, and you stress out about that.

There’s a different kind of stress, which is the stress when you have to meet a deadline. I think that’s good stress. It’s one of the reasons I like doing this job. Because of my journalism background, I like having a lot thrown at me. It’s why I love television. You run a TV show exactly the way you run a department. You get to exercise every one of your creative muscles every day.

So the stress of multitasking was never an issue.
I love multitasking. I came out of college and was immediately doing criticism and journalism. I was making my living as a freelance journalist and you can’t survive if you say, “Now I’m going to finish this.” You’re out there hustling and selling and writing. The great thing about journalism is the turnover is immediate and the reward of seeing it in print is instantaneous. That was the rhythm I started in so that’s the comfort zone.

What were your initial plans when you first became Chair?
The primary thing I want is a department of dramatists and not one with playwrights over here, screenwriters there and TV writers here. I want people to really think of themselves as dramatic artists who are comfortable across the board. I want to get rid of “this art form is better than the other,” because it’s not.

I was never going to write television. Then something happened and I spent most of my career writing television. I was certainly never going to be an academic. Now I’m sitting as the Chair at DDW. You don’t know what you will be doing in 10 years. On a practical level, when I have never made any money that didn’t involve writing, I had to have a great deal of flexibility. Very few people only do film, television or playwriting anymore.

I hear you’re also mixing concentrates in writing classes.
I’m doing that in my revision class. The art of revision has nothing to do with whether you’re doing a screenplay, play or pilot. The department was moving in that direction already; this was simply my mandate. The faculty already had a plan in place to get rid of concentrations from the graduate program, but I’ve certainly pushed it forward. This year’s graduates will be the last year of concentrates.

The other thing that’s in progress—and maybe what I’m proudest of—is that we have one of the most diverse student bodies in Tisch. We also have one of the most diverse faculties in Tisch. There are many students here who think that minority problems are of minority concerns. That is something I’m actively working to bring down. I’m going to institute a required course on writing “the other” to make sure everyone thinks about what it would be like to be somebody utterly unlike them.

That’s amazing. This is also reflected in your writing. You’re not afraid to mix art with socio-economic issues.
I was brought up by deep-Lefty parents. [Laughs] It’s in the blood.

It’s also true the issues you want to address take effort for some people to confront.
It takes great effort. My daughter is married to an Ecuadorian with a huge immigrant family. He has a niece and a nephew who started college last year, and one went to Sarah Lawrence. When Ferguson happened, she said, “It was really astonishing the only people who were working on Ferguson were minority students.”

The nephew went to Drexel, which has a much less liberal reputation, and he said, “My friends may not look like me but they are my people.” That is the attitude I want to see at DDW. I came in expecting that attitude, but we’ll solve it. The first thing to do is identify the problem, and then you can begin to search for solutions.

What are your favorite and least favorite things about writing?
[Pause] There’s nothing in the world like being in the zone where somehow your brain is just suspended. You don’t really know what you’re doing and everything is flowing out of you. When a really good writing session ends, it’s wonderful. I also love research.

Dealing with stupid executives has got to be the hardest part, and it can happen in theater as well as film and TV. I’ve worked with some wonderful executives, directors and producers, but I’ve worked with terrible executives, directors and producers, and that can be a terrible part of the process.

There was one project that probably produced one of my best scripts. I would come down to my office every morning, stare at the computer screen for three hours and nothing would happen. I would have lunch, stare at the screen for three more hours and nothing would happen. Somewhere between four and five in the afternoon, it would come pouring out of me. And the next day it would happen all over again. When it happened three times in a row, I knew that the entire script would be like this. Those six hours were hell.

This sounds like a different problem than being on the computer for three hours because you’ve been on social media for two and a half.
This is utterly different. Raymond Chandler had this excellent rule which was that he did not have to write during his writing hours, but he was not allowed to do anything else. If you allow yourself to get on social media, you have violated your working time. And it could be an hour or whatever your writing hours are, but this is the only thing I can do during this block of time. I will not beat myself up if it’s not any good, or if I don’t get anything done, but I don’t have the luxury of distracting myself. It’s a great rule. He was a great writer.

What writers have really influenced you?
I’m hugely engaged by people like Richard Foreman, but I couldn’t write that kind of thing in my life. It informs me. The first time I saw a [Harold] Pinter play, alarm bells went off. “That’s what menace is. It’s just lurking below the surface.” That’s great writing.

Like everybody else, I’m enormously influenced by Chekhov. I’m hugely influenced by Shakespeare. I was writing a historical drama and I couldn’t figure out the structure. I bought two corkboards and index cards and started putting up act one, act two and act three. But it was not over; it has five acts. That Shakespeare history play structure had seeped into my subconscious and as soon as I was writing a historical drama, I was writing in five acts. Once I understood that, everything was fine.

What are common mistakes you see young writers make?
Young writers get inordinately attached to what they’re writing and they have a very hard time letting it go and doing real revisions. It’s one of the reasons I insist on an outline, because you’re less attached to it. Once those words are on the page, it’s like they’re right. Very often an actor will give you a look which you’ve given three pages for.

The other thing that Charlie [Rubin] and I talk about all the time is the fanboy problem. Don’t write your spec based on the show you most love. If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll never write it well. Another way I put it is, don’t write the movie you saw Saturday night. You have to write the thing only you can write. You have to write the thing that’s peculiar and difficult, and that’s what will get people’s attention.

So people tend to follow what’s already been successful?
The pejorative is the kid in the class who is hitting all the notes, but there is no soul and no heart. It can also be a person with a passion for Godard and writes the Godard film. Godard didn’t write Hitchcock film; he wrote Godard films. We’ve got to go out and write our stuff. It’s hard because of the influences we just talked about. You’re getting into this because you fell in love with some form of drama, but until you infuse it with something that’s specifically yours, it’s not going to sing.

You were on the board of Writers Guild West. Why do you think there’s a division between Writers Guild East and West?
Originally, television and radio were [on the East Coast] and film was in the West Coast. Then television picked up and moved to the west, but there were these structures in place. Writers Guild East is much smaller than Writers Guild West and there was always a fear that if we merged, they would get lost. Remember that each of these organizations hires an executive director, one of whom would lose their job if they ever merged. I always say the best time for a merger if when we are both looking for a director. This is very technical, but Writers Guild East also has news writers and they feel they would lose their representation because the West really doesn’t. We went through a really hard period but we then had a really unifying moment.

What is your advice for young writers approaching veteran writers for mentorship?
Many young writers think that someone much older and more established will look at my script, see my genius and usher me up into the world. That will not happen. The way you are going to advance is through your peers. One of your peers is going to break through and say in a meeting, “You need to meet my friend.” The most valuable thing that you get from being in DDW is a cohort who will move with you through the industry.

Did you have a good support system of cohorts during college?
Some of my best friends are still people I went to college with. In L.A., a group of us had Thanksgiving together for more than 20 years. Airfare was really expensive so we did a communal Thanksgiving.

Having spent a lot of time in L.A. and New York, what are they like?
I’m born and bred New Yorker but I was in L.A. for a long time. Traffic aside, it is a thrilling city. You have to get out of the west side, which is where the industry is. It was the first city in the United States without a majority. You ate really well in that cultural mix. There is a part of the city called Monterey Park where the only Roman ledgers were the street signs. That part of it is fascinating and fabulous.

What makes you a New Yorker?
I love to walk. My art comes from overhearing conversations. I had one play where I heard a conversation on the street and ducked into a hotel lobby. I wrote down the entire thing I heard and it was the first scene of a play. When I taught introductory screenwriting at USC and in North Carolina, I would actually assign eavesdropping. I live in Fort Green, a neighborhood that is racially and economically mixed. The economics will change, unfortunately, but you don’t have that in L.A. It is a very economically segregated city. I also love theater. There are great theater towns in this country and L.A. is not one of them.

What was your experience like as a journalist?
I don’t do journalism anymore, or very rarely. I was a critic for many years because I wanted to be a dramatist and thought this would be a very good route in, and it was. It’s quick. There’s that sense of juggling four or five things at once. It was very heady being in my 20’s and a critic.

There is a freedom in writing something that is going to be thrown away. The fact that you’re writing so much makes you a better writer. On the non-critic side, you really learn to talk to all kinds of people. I need to know you if I’m going to write about you. I need to observe you and find that telling detail. As dramatists, you need to know that. It’s how I write about a lot of characters who are nothing like me.

What does it feel like when issues from your older work continue to hold relevance, such as “Cops”?
Old work is odd. Sometimes you look at it and go, “Oh God I was bad. Oh God I was good.” But it’s old work; you want to keep moving forward and producing. It can get discouraging when old topics come back, but you also feel like maybe you got something right.

Other stuff actually does feel dated. I looked at “Hill Street Blues” when I started teaching television. We were under very strict standards and practices; we invented language to get away from shit and fuck. It feels straight, though for the time it was great. Also, sometimes what happens is something will look dated, and then 10 or 20 years later it transforms itself again. I don’t know how that happens, but we get past it.

Anything else you want to add as far as upcoming goals as Chair and also as a writer?
We’re going to be hiring five new people. I really want to get people in here who are in fluent in more than one form. We have a huge spike in television, a surprising spike in playwriting right now and we have a drop in screenwriting. But that’s not necessarily going to stay that way.

You mean in terms of applicants?
In terms of where the students are interested. We took away the concentrations so the graduate students are picking where they want to be. We are overenrolled in television and under-enrolled in screen. That will change and we have to be ready for that change.

Personally, there’s a play I really want to get done. That’s the one thing I have not been able to do as chair; the play I started this summer is no further than it was when I sat down in this office. I’ll give myself this year. It’s been a big transition, but I have to get back to writing.

The thing I say to my students is you have an obligation to your classmates when you leave here. When one of them calls you up and says, “I need a read on this script.” You give it to them and they will give it to you. That will carry you through as long as you’re in the profession. I have certain friends for whom I would drop anything and read their work, and they would do the same for me. We didn’t go through a dramatic writing program; we learned on our own how to hold a high standard without being cruel. This is incredibly valuable; do not give this up. A lot of students say, “What am I going to do without a teacher?” You don’t need us.

What’s your advice about competition with your peers?
You gain more from your fellows than you will ever lose in competition. It is not a zero-sum game. You will be hired by people who are your friends. There will be theaters who look at your work because someone said, “Have you seen this?” Yes, we can be competitive and we want top billing, but we really are not in competition. Now, if you’re competing to become better, that’s great. You both win.

I have two friends who write as well as anyone I know and they never broke through. That’s going to happen, but not because you’re in competition with someone else. You can have bad luck. By the way, one of them ended up with a Lifetime Achievement Obie award. He never got rich or famous; he just did good work his whole life. That’s something to be proud of. So sit down and write something.

 

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