The Teacher's Name is Mr. Franco
By Jesy Odio '15
Published Apr 29, 2014 8:00 AM
The actor-writer-director brings his screenwriting students' work to life by placing their scenes in the eye of the camera.
Screenwriting is a skill that some might say can't be taught but must be learned through trial and error. But one professor in the UCLA English department has found a technique for teaching the craft. Calling on his own experience as a writer, actor and director, he focuses on how to transform screenwriting into filmmaking. But the trick to making it as a student in this class is growing accustomed to thinking of James Franco '08 as your instructor.
I learned about Franco's class last fall during New Student Orientation, when the English department advisor recommended it. I was a transfer student from UC Santa Cruz. The advisor said it was unclear how long the instructor for the class would stick around and if it would ever be taught again after the fall quarter. The course, titled Adaptation, would focus on the practice of adapting novels into screenplays. "If anyone is interested," she said, "I suggest you apply right away."
I submitted my application that night. It is common for creative writing professors to review samples of students' previous writings before admitting them into a course, but unlike other classes, this one required brand new work in the form of a comedic monologue. A couple of weeks after applying, I found myself being interviewed by James Franco, sitting across from the actor-writer-artist turned teacher. Now I've been in the class for three quarters.
Franco's lessons go way beyond the syllabus. His approach is hands-on and proactive. The curriculum includes books that have been adapted into some of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters, such as Jaws, The Exorcist, and The Godfather. These examples aren't meant to intimidate, but to prompt the students to imagine what the process must have been like for the writers who transformed the words on the page into scenes on a screen—a privilege that even professional screenwriters are seldom granted.
In this class, writers morph into directors and film each scene they write, using actors from Studio 4, Franco's acting school. For many of the writers, this is the first opportunity to see their work come to life right in front of them.
"I hate screenwriting classes where you just write the screenplays and then put them away in a drawer," Franco says. "A screenplay is not the final thing. A final thing is the movie."
James Franco is one of the most demanding yet generous teachers I've had in my three-year college career. He welcomes his undergraduate students into his graduate class to watch and learn how a feature film comes together out of thin air. Franco shares with the class his large repertoire--from a hilarious parody of one of Kanye West's music videos to feature films yet to be released. There is a never a dull time in class and with a script due at the end of each week, Franco stresses that the key to being a writer is very simple: always, always, always be writing.
Over these last three quarters, Professor Franco, according to his IMDB page, has worked on 17 films, plus a theatrical interpretation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men on Broadway and numerous art exhibitions around the world. Yet he rarely misses class.
"I'm here because I care," he says, "and because I want to be here."