I loved every minute of going to UCLA for my MFA Screenwriting degree, but two years is a very short amount of time compared to undergraduate or even other graduate programs. I wanted to make the most of my short time in film school, and I’m sure you do too! If you are considering graduate school, thinking about your first year, or in the middle of it, here’s a list of five things I’m glad I did and five things I regret (from a screenwriter’s perspective).
*Please note that some of these points will be contradictory!
Five Things that I’m Glad I Did
1. I’m glad that I wrote a lot of scripts.
I didn’t have a lot of film experience or write a lot of scripts pre-UCLA, so one of my goals was to get really good, really fast. I wrote a LOT of scripts while at UCLA - almost two scripts each quarter. It varied between features, one hour pilots, and half hour scripts. They were definitely NOT all great. A few were brilliant rockstars from the get-go - placing in various competitions and winning fellowships and scholarships. Others, I may never work on again… but I learned from each script and every iteration of the various projects. I played with genre, perspective, theme, topic, and storytelling method. Don’t be afraid to explore and figure out what really works for you.
You do not need to write two scripts each term! Plenty of my peers did one a quarter and were absolutely fine with that! One thing I would caution though, is to not put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t write and rewrite the same script for two years straight - your peers will thank you.
2. I’m glad that I took courses outside of my department.
While taking courses in other disciplines such as producing, costume design, and production were optional (we only have to take two total), I’m really glad I took a lot - especially earlier on in my film school career. While becoming a great screenwriter is, of course, the most important part for a screenwriter, it doesn’t hurt to learn about the business side of the entertainment business.
Getting a solid understanding of the major players, learning how to pitch, creating a pitch deck, and figuring out how development, production, and marketing, etc. worked during my first year helped prepare me to take meetings later on during my second year (and beyond).
3. I’m glad that I made friends, not just networked, with my peers.
Film school is hard. They say the most valuable part of film school are the people that you meet. But it’s not your professors or the fancy, inspiring guests that come in for an afternoon or evening. The most valuable part of film school are your peers. You don’t have to become friends with everyone, but find your group. Find a group of people that you can do fun things with like a day at Disneyland or drinks after a hard workshop. Find your people that you can send a very rough script to - and know that they won’t judge you personally for it.
4. I’m glad that I completed multiple internships.
Similar to an earlier point, screenwriting does not exist in a bubble but is part of a huge cycle. Even if it’s only a day or two per week, having an internship can be really insightful! Most of my internships were for development and pre-production, which included reading scripts, answering phones, researching, and assisting with other special projects -- I even pitched my own take for an IP they were developing!
Not only did I read a ton of scripts coming into our office to consider for OWA (open writing assignments), but also different iterations of projects already in development. Reading a lot of scripts not only helps with your screenwriting ability, but it improves your sense of what is good or bad storytelling and -- most importantly -- being able to communicate it clearly and effectively.
Does it get boring? Yes! But that’s okay. You’ll learn what bores you by page ten and what has you hooked until the very end. It’ll show you what it looks like to have a strong opening and then fail the execution. Reading a wide variety of scripts only aids in your development as a writer.
5. I’m glad I had non-writing and non-film related hobbies and friends.
Aren’t you supposed to sleep, eat, and breathe film school?? I pretty much was living film school 24/7 with writing scripts a quarter, internship, taking other classes, and TA’ing for two years -- but what kept me grounded and happy was participating in non-film related activities.
I took full advantage of being a UCLA student and took a variety of martial arts classes. I learned a bit of judo, kali, krav maga, and more. Sometimes, when your script is torn apart in a workshop, it feels REALLY nice to crush the competition. It’s active, social, and if your mind wanders at all, you will lose. It really helps being in the present moment. I also ran a lot and, during the most pressing of times, did short at home workouts via Youtube.
Others may have other hobbies like participating in a game night, gambling, knitting, or volunteering at an animal shelter. All great! It’s important to meet people not in the entertainment industry to stay grounded. Whatever your hobby is, make sure to do it on a regular basis and make some friends while you’re at it.
Five Things I Regret Not Doing
*As I mentioned, some of these points will be contradictory. What path you decide to take is up to you, where you are in your career, and your personality.
1. I regret not going to more networking events outside of my university.
Although I was fairly active within UCLA, I did not take full advantage of living in Los Angeles beyond doing internships, eating great food, and attending a few screenings. If I could change one thing, I would participate with more organizations more often - like going to CAPE events or participating in film festivals around town. Making industry, non-school friends would’ve been nice earlier on.
2. I regret not doing more revisions or rewriting old scripts.
I noted earlier that I wrote a lot of scripts in a very short amount of time. Some of them I managed to get second drafts of, but many of them were left unattended until after I graduated… which is not great! If I could redo it, I would try to have at least two revised and polished scripts each year. Not every script needs to be a homerun, but having a few solid pieces is worth more than a dozen first drafts. It’s definitely a balance.
3. I regret not taking enough breaks, leading to burn out.
One really valuable thing I learned in graduate school is that taking breaks is GOOD and not lazy. I think I have a very high stress level and can shoulder a lot for a long amount of time… but just because I can do something doesn’t mean I have to. During the fall quarter of my second year I was majorly burned out. I didn’t enjoy anything - my workshops, my internship, TA’ing… nothing! I did all of my duties, but if I had taken a break during the summer or even just took it easy for a month or two, the start of my second year would have been much smoother sailing.
4. Not exploring more of LA - even if it’s just one new place a month.
Westwood and UCLA is a great bubble - don’t get me wrong. It’s a really nice area of Los Angeles, but there is so much more to see! It took me months to visit other LA highlights, including the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Koreatown, The Grove, Santa Monica Pier, etc. If you’re going to live in LA for a long time, might as well start finding your favorite locations now.
5. I regret not keeping an idea notebook.
A wise professor of mine told us to keep an idea notebook and write in it everyday. While I do have spaces where I capture ideas, I don’t write in it everyday (or recently, not even every week). While I’m usually never low on ideas, it’s always helpful to keep a running list of ideas just in case you’re placed in a second or third workshop last minute.
I hope you found this list helpful in making the best plan of action for you and your time in film school! Each experience will be unique to you, your situation, your expectations, and your personality. Someone extroverted may want to be on set every weekend while someone with prior experience may not be interested in internships - no big deal. Pick your favorite points or ignore them all - it’s up to you. What has your experience been?
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