Sports Night, The West Wing, The American President, The Social Network — hardly shameful items to appear on anyone’s résumé. Sure, people disagree about the likes of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom, but we’ve all got to admit that when Aaron Sorkin writes, he hits more than he misses, and even the supposed misses have more of interest about them than many others’ hits. How does this master of the modern American scene — its concerns, its personalities, its conversations, its politics — do it? You can find out in his Screenwriting course on MasterClass, the new platform for online instruction as given by big-name doers of high-profile work.
Back in May, we featured MasterClass’s offering of Werner Herzog on filmmaking, and though most everyone can enjoy hearing the man behind Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, and Grizzly Man talk for five hours, not everyone can summon the will to make movies like those. Sorkin, by contrast, uses his also considerable creative vitality to a different end entirely, writing snappy scripts that bring his own compelling idiosyncrasies to mainstream film and television. But he started, according to MasterClass, by writing his first screenplay on the humble medium of cocktail napkins — cocktail napkins that became A Few Good Men. Since then, he’s come up with “rules of storytelling, dialogue, character development, and what makes a script actually sell,” now ready to share with his online students.
In fact, he gives one away for free in the trailer above: “No one in real life starts a sentence with, ‘Damn it.'” That alone may get you writing your own Oscar-winning screenplay, thus saving you the $90 fee for the whole five-hour course, but Sorkin goes on to tease his methods for breaking through his “constant state of writer’s block” to craft dialogue as he conceives of that process: “Taking something someone has just said, holding them in your hand, and then punching them in the face with it.” He also makes reference to Aristotle’s Poetics, making his own lecturing sound like the very same high-and-low, intellectual and visceral cocktail that his fans so enjoy in the dialogue he writes. “The worst crime you can commit,” he warns, “is telling the audience something they already know,” and it sounds as if, in teacher mode to his audience of aspiring screenwriters, he plans on following his own advice.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.