Brian Herskowitz: A Black Belt in The Film Industry
Besides writing, producing and directing dozens of projects, from low-budget horror films to network sitcoms, Brian is the leading faculty member for the prestigious Boston University in Los Angeles Writer in Hollywood Program. And in case that wasn’t enough, he’s a national judo champion.
Brian discusses his writing career, the screenwriting lessons that can be learned from martial arts, the importance of balancing belief and realism, and how to give and receive notes. This interview has been edited for clarity.
How does a 3rd degree black belt judoka such as yourself find your way into the film and TV industry?
I grew up in Texas wanting to be an actor, and had a love of theater and all things TV and film. But I also started Judo when I was six-years-old, so they have always gone hand in hand for me. I studied judo under Karl Geiss and did theater in high school, then moved out to Los Angeles in 1978, pursuing an acting career and also competing in Judo.
I took part in the 1980s Olympic Judo trials, but busted my knee, so I had to have my knee reconstructed, during which time I couldn’t go on auditions. My father’s a pretty well-known writer in the sports world, writing autobiographies for Mickey Mantle and Gordie Howe, so I turned to writing. I wrote a screenplay, and it was optioned and people were excited about it, but it never went past that.
I still thought that was an exciting path and it was in my genetic makeup, but I didn’t pursue it again until some years later, when I had a low-budget horror film produced that I doubt anyone has seen, hopefully, called Darkroom. After, however, that I took things more seriously, and I thought that if it was a path I was going to take then I had to study. Because I was writing purely on instinct. I had no understanding of structure, and I really didn’t understand story that well.
Yes. I had been kind of making it up as I went along, but discovered very quickly that I would write myself into a corner, with a script that was 70-80 pages long, but with no idea where the story was going or what the character was doing. So I decided to get more education on the craft.
I studied with all the usual suspects. I took Robert McKee’s class, and learned how to create screenplays. I was pretty successful, working on a series as an associate producer, then I got to write for a series, Tour of Duty, based on Vietnam. Through that I ended up getting an agent at William Morris, and had a little bit of a career going there. I was doing fairly well on television; getting quite a few hour episodics and some sitcom stuff. I worked on an episode of a show called Dream On, an HBO show. Finally I got on Blossom during the fifth season, but that quickly finished.
So after that, I sat there thinking OK, now what do I do? Then I heard about Writers Bootcamp. I would see their ads in say, Creative Screenwriting magazine, and I wondered what these guys were like, wondered if they offered anything about sitcom writing. So I called them, and said that I was a writer and looking for the motivation to get back up on my feet in the sitcom world. And they said “Well, coincidentally we’re starting our first sitcom class.” So I went and I took it.
Jeffrey Gordon, who is the founder of Writers Bootcamp, is a terrific guy, a terrific teacher, but he wasn’t teaching the class. Instead he had somebody from Warner Brothers teaching. But although he was a terrifically nice guy, and I loved the program, I didn’t think he was a great teacher.
I mentioned this to Jeffrey, and said, “I can walk in professionally as a sitcom writer, and I understand how to talk to writers, so if you have any interest in my teaching for you I’d be interested.” And he said yes, so I ended up teaching in Writers Bootcamp for about five years. After that, I ended up going to UCLA and teaching there in their extension program for about ten years, and since then, for the last eight years I’ve been working as a lead faculty for the Writer and Hollywood program here at Boston University. That’s kind of my journey as a teacher. And in the meantime I’ve been writing, produced now, for the last six or seven years.
Did you see very many parallels between you training in judo and becoming a writer?
Yes, on several different levels. In fact, one of the best books I utilize for screenwriting is a book on visualization for athletes.
I was a high level competitor at Judo, I was in the Olympic trials, and I was in top three or four in the US for many years. And one thing I started to notice was that when I was really anxious about winning, and focused on that result, on the product rather than on the process, I tended to choke and not do so well. And I think the same is true in all artistic endeavors.
In other words, an actor who goes for an audition is too-often thinking “God, I really hope they like me,” or “I must get this part,” rather than about the actual process, what they are doing in the moment. The people who focus on the end result are the people that then fail. There’s a sense of desperation there, because any time that you have the idea in your head that “I have to win,” or “I have to please,” or “I have to make them happy,” then the opposite idea also arises, which is “oh crap, what happens if I don’t? What happens if I don’t win? What happens if I don’t please? What happens if they don’t like me? What happens if they don’t like my script?”
This applies to writing too. People look to the results, not the process. They think “I want to write the funniest comedy ever,” and they’re shooting at that because they think there’s some commerce to that, but they miss the process of writing, which is: What happened in the moment? What’s happening with the characters? What’s happening with the story? All of those things that make up the end result, the product. But by trying to get straight to the end result they miss this crucial step.
My book, Process to Product, talks about all this. It talks about how the greatest athletes will focus not on the end result but on their technique. For instance, a high jumper might be thinking, “How many steps am I going to take before I push off on my right leg? What angle do I want my body to be at? What kind of lift am I going to get? Where do I want my arms to be?” They are not thinking “Boy, I hope I jump seven feet.”
I talk to my students about that. Students come to me saying, “I’m going to write the best this or that. I want a script that everybody loves. How do I do that?” And I ask them instead the questions they be considering, which are, “Is this the story you want to tell? Are these the people who you want to share with the rest of the world?”
There are other parallels, too. For instance, there’s obviously a certain amount of discipline that goes along with any endeavour, whether it be athletic, martial arts, or writing. Then there is the need to draw inspiration from those around you. A wrestler wrestling by himself is not going to improve. A judo competitor doing judo by herself is not going to improve. You have to have that person who pushes you. And the parallel for the writer is that you have to be open to experiences and input from around you.
Then there is the finding of one’s center. The ability to be confident, within your own body and your own self. To be able to say “This is who I am. I don’t have to prove myself. I have a certain serenity that comes from knowing who I am and where I come from.” This is equally important in both sports, and also in writing, in any artistic endeavor.
But in writing, just as in sport, this should be tempered with realism. For example, when I was a young writer, I would write something, I would do my first draft, and I would say “That’s it! It’s ready! Go shoot it!” And I would hand it off. Then the response would come back that “it’s not so good,” but I would say “I don’t care, I think it’s great. Somebody should pay me to go do it again.”
But then it occurred to me that this wasn’t necessarily the best path. I was not listening to the people who could advise me. I was not taking the notes that they were giving me. And I was not growing as a writer. So at some point I realised that OK, I could take this position that this is it, I’m done, I don’t want to hear it or see it again. And I’d starve as a writer. Or I could return to the draft, and think about what I was being told: what were people telling me about my work that needed to be improved? What was it about these characters that needed to change? What was it about the story that they thought made it poor?”
But, and this is crucial, you still have to have a belief in the core of the story, of the script. Otherwise, you allow those around you to let their opinions destroy what you built. That’s counterproductive as well, you don’t want to do that. So you need to find a balance, to listen honestly to notes you receive and not dismiss them out-of-hand, but also to keep your own belief. To be able to ask “What is it that the notes are telling me? Do I agree with it? Is it something that will improve the story from my perspective?” If the answer is yes, then you move forward, you make those changes.
So if you have that core strength and belief in yourself, tempered with realism, then as a writer you will get to a point where you understand your strengths and weaknesses. You will know, for example, “I’m terrific with dialogue, great with story structure, but I’m not all that good with character.” Or “I’m great with story structure, I’m great with character, but my dialogue is bad.” So when someone comes to you and says “I think you can cut these twelve lines,” or “I think this guy could be this kind of character,” you can listen, but you’re also centred, you’re not desperately trying to please everybody.
For example, one of the first major gigs I got was I was working for Corymore Productions, Angela Lansbury’s production company. They contacted me, they had read a script I had written, and they told me that “we’ve gone through a thousand scripts. Yours is the one that we want, this is the tone, and this is what we want. We want you to write this movie starring Angela.”
So I did a draft, and they responded very favorably, but wanted some re-writes. So I did another draft, but by then we missed the immediate window of opportunity to shoot. Which meant they then had an entire year to think about this script. And suddenly I was getting notes not just from the producer and the director, I was getting notes from the producer, the director, the studio, the network, Judith Crist of the New Yorker. I was getting notes from twenty different people, and instead of going “OK, I’ve listend to you all, and this is the way I want to do this,” as a young and naive writer I tried to please everyone. I tried to adapt the script. But one person would say it’s not funny enough, and the next person would say it’s too comedic, and then the next person would say they thought it was this character who should be the lead, and so on and so forth. And what you ended up with was mashed potatoes.
So I learned the very valuable lesson that at a certain point it’s not so much about making people happy, as it is listening to what they are trying to say, and interpreting it in a way that meets your core values and strengths.
Would you say that this has this affected your note-giving process to other writers?
Yes. I always try to talk in such a way that they understand that it is a completely subjective art. I’m simply giving you my opinion, this is what I think, and this is how I feel about what would make your script better.
I also try to avoid telling them how to rewrite the script the way I would rewrite it. You want to help make their script as good as it can be, rather than making their script what you want it to be. It’s a fairly subtle delineation, but it’s important.
The other thing is that you have to be very careful with writers in general, because we all have very fragile egos. Nobody likes to be told that their script is anything but perfect. You need that first validation that you’ve accomplished something. So I always start with this: “You’ve done something that probably eighty percent of the writers that call themselves screenwriters haven’t done and that’s finished a script, written it, done it.” And then go from there.
I see each step that a writer takes as if it is on a ladder, and each rung on that ladder is a level of success. The first is “I came up with a great idea.” The second is “I wrote down my thoughts about it.” The third is “I wrote a screenplay.” The next is, “not only have I written a screenplay, but somebody likes it.” Then “somebody who can do something about it likes it,” and then it’s “somebody said yes, let’s go make it.” And finally, they do make it and you not only have a script that’s made, but hopefully it’s successful and does well. But they’re all successes, every rung. And you have to celebrate and applaud those steps as they come, each one of them.
So, as I said, when I give notes, I always try to explain that they are clearly my opinion, and writers never have any obligation to listen to or accept them. I don’t have any ego involved in it. But of course, conversely it doesn’t change my opinion if they don’t agree with my notes.
Years ago I had a guy come in who said, “I’ve written the best film in the martial arts genre ever written.” So I read it, and of course it was not the best martial arts film ever written. In fact, I thought it was a very derivate script with very little originality. And I sat with the writer for about three and a half hours, and I explained to him in minutia why and how it was derivative, and why and how it didn’t break any new ground, and why and how, as it stood, it wasn’t a film that was going to get made. And each and every turn I was was met with, “Well, you’re wrong.” So after about three and a half hours I said “God bless, good luck, I hope it makes a billion dollars for you.”
Of course the film was never made. And this comes back to the need to have belief tempered with realism about where you are in the industry, and where you are with your work. There are always writers who’ll say “Nope, this is the way it goes.” And by the way, I’m one of those people. But after about the third or fourth time someone said to me it should be black, not white, I force myself to think “Oh, OK.” The first time I said it’s going to be white, the second time I said I think it should be white, the third time I said maybe it should be white, but the fourth time I say maybe it’s gotta be black, maybe you’re right, let me take another look at it. I learned to listen.
Do you think that’s a virtue that isn’t as prevalent in today’s screenwriters as it should be?
The majority of people who fancy themselves as a screenwriter, whether they mean to or not, they love to think that the first screenplay they’ve written is the one somebody’s going to look at and go “Here’s a check for a million five, Brad Pitt is starring in it and we’re shooting in the fall.” I think a lot of people have those false expectations.
Going back to martial arts, how would you feel if Hollywood had a belt system like judo?
I guess the Oscars are your black belt. In other words, when you look at the bigger awards, that is recognizing excellence. Recognizing a height in your career and your abilities. When you win an Oscar for best screenplay, you’re creme de la creme. But I talked earlier about the ladder of success, and the rungs on that ladder. And in some ways, that is like a belt system too. I’m a white belt – I have a great idea. I’m a yellow belt – I have a great idea that I put down on paper. I’m a blue belt now because I’ve gotten my idea into script form. I’m a purple belt – now my script has started to take shape and starting to be improved. I’m a brown belt – my script has come together in a way that other people can read it and give me feedback on. A black belt is I have a film that people want to make. I guess in a sense you could draw a parallel there, and it’s not a bad parallel to make.