Saturday, January 4, 2014

Television vs. Film Writing, an Interview with Don Balluck

When asked whether screenwriters are treated well, Don Balluck said, “No, they’re not. It all begins with acknowledging that the script happens first, and it’s after that the director, actors, and everybody else works at all. Somehow, this simple truth gets lost in our industry. It’s the first thing that’s blocked out. It’s like a child is born, so you drown the mother in order to forget that the little miracle didn’t just happen.

“The next time you read a movie or television review, notice if the writer is even mentioned. It’s crazy. Maybe the best example of this non-mentality is a book put out by a guy named Leonard Maltin. It’s an otherwise excellent, regularly updated edition listing all the theatrical and television movies ever made, complete with synopsis, producer, director, and cast.” But no writers.

His advice to aspiring script and screenwriters was: “First and foremost, be convinced that they’re writers. Nothing less will work. This isn’t a field for dabblers. Resistance to success is enormous, so a person needs total commitment to overcome that resistance. More so today than ever before. . . The worst possible way to start,” he said, “is series work, whether [the programming] is wonderful or awful, it’s the most highly specialized field in television, insulated and impregnable sometimes to the most skilled and experienced practitioners.

"Original screenplays are the most obvious, direct means of breaking into the business. They are always sought after. I don’t mean outlines or formats. I mean full screenplays. That’s not only the place to start, it’s also the place to stay. But before we begin a stampede to the typewriter, let me add that picking the right subject that sells is as important as execution, so a person had better be ready to write half-a-dozen before experiencing a door to open.

The difference between TV and film scripts, he said, is that television has prescribed boundaries and limitations. “We need to shoot for a precise time period and write in acts, like the stage, to allow for commercial interruptions. Motion picture writing has latitude. No acts. No interruptions. A picture can be a half hour to forty-five minutes longer or shorter than others, though it’s desirable to bring it in just a bit less than two hours. A motion picture can explore more and, in many cases, say more than can be done in television, but most films that fail, do so because of all this freedom.  

“Self-indulgence is a constant threat. A lot of movies get made simply because of clout. Like a novelist with a hit book who gets to write his screenplay, even though it’s a first-time effort, just because that’s the deal everyone gets stuck with. Or a producer, or director, successful for doing one type of film, bombs because of trying another type and winds up completely at sea.  Of all the dark criticism we can make of television, just think of all those meandering, boring, tasteless products that we endure in movie houses. I think it’s a shame there isn’t a better bridge between television and motion pictures. I don’t know of any place a movie maker can learn discipline better than by coming from television. Yet in reality this notion is not generally recognized.”

Although Balluck enjoyed the process of writing, he often resisted it. “You know, circle the typewriter. Go make coffee. Read the paper. Take a walk. Go for a swim. . . Anything, in fact, but face the blank page. There’s a resistance. We all get through it in different ways. With me it’s getting the first page exactly right. I mean exactly. Every comma has to be perfect. Once that happens, I start to roll and I don’t know a better experience. The answer is, ultimately, yes, I enjoy the process of writing. It’s almost embarrassing how much I enjoy it.”

(Next week: How and why a boy from Cleveland came to write Western scripts and much more . . .)


  1. Sounds like a tough go. Not the glamorous life of a star like the actors often lead. Nice post but I don't think I want their job.

  2. I agree, Neil. After interviewing five Hollywood screenwriters, I decided that screenwriting is not for me.