Richard Wesley is an Associate Professor in playwriting and screenwriting at NYU’s Department of Dramatic Writing (DDW). He was educated at Howard University in Washington, DC, graduating with a BFA in 1967. During my tenure at DDW, he was the Chair of the department and a great counselor to his students.
What’s your earliest memory about writing?
I’m not 100% sure, though my earliest recollection of my father was of him reading. My mother studied to be a teacher at a North Carolina college in the 1920’s, and she was always emphasizing education. She used to read the newspaper to my brother and I. They both read the comics to us.
As far as my writing was concerned, the earliest recollection would be when I was seven or eight. If my brother Leonard and I didn’t have enough money to buy comic books, we would make them up ourselves. My brother was very good at drawing and later began a career in advertising as a result. He used to draw the pictures and I’d write the words in the balloons.
What was your favorite comic series?
“All American Men of War” was a DC series that I remember. I also enjoyed sci-fi like “Strange Tales.” I was a big TV fan, and Leonard and I would go to the movies at least two or three times a month. Our favorite movies were horror movies and monster pictures.
That was my palette from childhood as well, particularly monster movies.
Those movies involved special effects and we wanted to figure out how they were created. My mother played a role in it because she always talked about trick photography. It left impressions on us. From there, I started breaking down how the story was going to be told. Even though I wasn’t aware of it, I was already being introduced to elements like initiating action, expository information, and the inciting incident.
A movie that had a profound influence on me was “Rodan.” It was an A-film and it was clear there was serious production value brought to the storytelling. The title monster does not appear until nearly half an hour in the film. The meticulousness of the miniatures; the way that whole cities were recreated on a soundstage. Seeing it on the big screen in Cinemascope just blew me away.
What writers influenced you?
I was heavily influenced by Rod Serling. He was the first writer whose name I came to know. Rod Serling, Abby Mann, Reginald Rose. These names meant a great deal to me because they were always associated with work on television that I absolutely loved. I was aware of Arthur Miller but I was not fully aware of his work. The reason he was in the newspapers at the time was because he was married to Marilyn Monroe. [Laughs] Theater, for me, was distant.
What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about writing?
My favorite thing is writing, “lights fade to black,” in my scripts. The hardest thing is getting through page one. Am I getting the best initiating action? Is it engaging enough? Once I get through the first 10 pages, things start rolling.
What do you do if an opening fails to work?
I’d either go back and straighten it out, or try a different beginning. If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t the right place I should begin the script. Then I go into the dialogue. In [the class] Film Story Analysis right now, I’ve been talking about openings. The opening shot of a motion picture has to do so many things. It sets up the world of the story, but somewhere in that opening shot, there should be something about the thematic statement you’re trying to make. There is something in that initiating action that gives you a clue as to what you will experience. It’s not just that the movie starts here. The movie starts here because this is what the story is going to mean.
What are some common themes you explore in your body of work?
[Pause] From play to play, it’s always been about characters who are trying to realize some aspect of themselves they didn’t already understand. They’re about identity and trying to arrive at a certain place in your life.
Having taught so many writers, what are some common challenges we all face?
Theme. Young writers often begin writing a story with only a vague idea what the story is going to be about, and maybe it’ll come together.
They have a scenario, but not the theme.
Yes. In particular with screenwriting, you should have some strong thematic ideas for your story. The theme has to manifest itself in all the key sequences. It’s the glue that holds everything together. So if you’re just writing until the characters reveal something to you, you can be writing forever. The theme is where you start. The story should mean something to you because…
If you’re a professional and writing on a deadline, waiting for something to happen is not going to cut it. Your deadline will come and go, and the people depending on you will move on to another writer, even though you may be a very fine writer. You can take more time if you’re working on something for yourself, or if it’s a collaborative project.
What helps you overcome writing challenges like procrastination or uncertainty?
Procrastination and uncertainty are outgrowths of not being certain what it is you want to say. Thinking about that before you start writing is always helpful. Also, procrastination can come out of, “‘Why am I working on this when I want to be working on that?” [Laughs] You’re not totally committed to the project in front of you due to a need or desire to be involved in something else. You’ve signed this contract or made this agreement. For me, that’s when some difficulties can arise. There’s the vocation, what you do in order to pay the bills, and then there’s your avocation. Your art, the personal work that best expresses who you really are and what you truly feel.
Do you approach different mediums in different ways?
I must approach them differently because the circumstances that I’m writing in are radically different. With plays, they’re mine and they’re original. I can take as long as I want to ruminate and understand. Film and television are contracted assignments. Once there is a general agreement between the producers and myself about the story and direction, there is a set period of time for a first draft. There is a timeframe you must work within.
So is playwriting more relaxing for you?
[Laughs] It is more relaxing, though no less challenging. They’re mine and I can take my time, but sometimes I can take too much time. I’m embarrassed that it’s been 20 years between my last two plays. I did some one-act plays, television, and teaching. Of course, I was also Chair of the department for eight years.
It’s not like you were on the beach. [Laughs]
In the 70’s, I averaged about one play every two years.
What are some important things students should get out of programs such as DDW?
The discipline of writing, and writing to deadline. Lots of students really don’t have that when they arrive. I’m not sure we always emphasize it enough. There’s a tendency to not want to do that because writing to deadline has implications of being a hack.
Yet you have to engage with writing to make a living.
Precisely. Part of being a professional is sitting down, doing the work, being involved in a collaborative effort. Yet, you have to understand that in that milieu, the person who writes the script, in some ways, is the foundation upon which everything else rests. No one can move ahead without your completed script. That’s why a writer has to be focused and disciplined when they work.
We have a 14-week semester and in our advanced courses we require writers to complete a draft within that timeframe. We tend to smudge that a bit, but if we can hold students to that requirement, the better they’ll be able to respond to pressure in the outside world.
How should writers process feedback?
The feedback you hold onto is information that actually helps you arrive at your destination. You’re getting an avalanche of advice and different opinions from all angles, but how much of it is helping you when you sit down and try to apply them to your script? Those comments that actually help you write better is the information you hold onto. Be aware that you’re constantly absorbing new information, even between scripts, so that means you also have to learn to filter out the information that is meaningless, redundant or overly critical.
I know you care about issues such as advocacy, diversity, and politics. How can writers contribute to this conversation?
Writers contribute every day because we’re the ones who put life on to the stage or screen. We take moments and clarify them, and audiences can react to what they see. In that reaction, we can think about ways to change a negative situation, or enhance a positive one. We can make history come alive. We can weigh the implications of moral dictates. We can make or break politicians. Think of what Tina Fey did with Sarah Palin.
What do you like to do aside from writing that’s helpful to the process?
I go for walks. I wind up watching old Turner Classic movies a lot. If it’s a movie from 1945 or earlier, I’m watching a movie where the most fundamental aspects of storytelling were first being developed.
What advice would you give your 20-something self?
Don’t turn down a job offer. [Laughs] Your art will not suffer because of it. I would also tell him not to be afraid to make mistakes and experiment. But there is a caveat. In the 60’s and 70’s when I was in my 20’s, the burden on being a young person coming out of school is not the same as it is today. I could take chances at 24 that a 24-year-old today dare not. Sometimes, us veteran baby boomers should be very careful about saying, “Go to New York, you’ll make it somehow.”
I would never tell a student to not go for their dreams. I certainly would not have listened to that back in my day. Go for your dream but understand that you have to prepare a plan in terms of the reality you’re living now. That’s why I say, “If you get a job offer, don’t turn it down.” Take the job, then figure out how you’ll work around it in terms of your writing. One thing I did back then was finding collaborators who were starving just like I was, and we found ways to make theater together. The question of pooling together resources and moving to the next level is one part of the answer. You can’t do it alone. Functioning in your own silo is not going to work.