Episode 10: Marc Weinberg
[Isaac] Hello, and welcome to the OpenBook Podcast. I’m Isaac, one of the Creative Writing Undergraduate Department Representatives at Brandeis University. I got a chance to talk with Professor Marc Weinberg over Zoom a couple weeks ago. We discussed how he got into teaching, his upcoming film project, his creative process with his writing partner who also happens to be his wife, and many other topics. Take a listen.
Professor Marc Weinberg teaches Beginning Screenwriting, Intermediate Screenwriting, and Writing for Television here at Brandeis University. He also teaches at Boston University, Emerson, and was invited to lead a workshop in story structure and plot development for the animators at Disney/Pixar Studios. He began his career working in development for 20th Century Fox and MGM. He’s written feature length scripts for USA and A&E and sold story ideas to Paramount and several other production companies that I’d love to list, but this intro is getting too long, and I’d rather Marc tell us about himself. Professor Marc Weinberg, welcome to the OpenBook Podcast.
[Marc Weinberg] Thank you, pleasure to be here.
[Isaac] Well, I’m super excited for this discussion. I want to start basic and obvious, the questions you ask any writer. I want to know what drew you to writing and why you write now.
[Marc Weinberg] Well, I guess you could say it’s the tale as old as time. I didn’t have many friends growing up. I was really uncoordinated. So, you know, there was very little I could do. So I kept to myself, and I made up stories, and the stories often revolved around my stuffed animals, and ultimately they turned into a kind of Punch and Judy kind of thing. Why do I write now? Well, I guess you could say, I love to tell stories. I really enjoy the process. And I keep thinking that my next screenplay is going to get produced, when in fact, it is! I’m really happy to say that this summer, were shooting a feature based on an original script by my wife and me.
[Isaac] That’s amazing! Is that the script that you were going to shoot the summer the pandemic happened?
[Marc Weinberg] So it got delayed a year, gave me the opportunity to spend more time on the script. I’m actually happier today than I would’ve been if we started last year. So it worked out. Thanks you pandemic!
[Isaac] Did you find the pandemic, were you able to be productive and work? Like when we shut down, I sort of threw myself into writing because it was the only reasonable thing happening in my life, but I know for a lot of people it was a creatively frustrating time.
[Marc Weinberg] Yes; the short answer is yes I was able to write. And I used to play piano when I was a little kid, and I’ve picked it up again.
[Isaac] Do you write your own music or you’re learning, yaknow, jazz standards or pop songs?
[Marc Weinberg] (Laughter) No, no; let’s not go that far. I won’t be writing the score for my film.
[Isaac] That was sort of where I was heading. Would you ever combine those talents?
[Marc Weinberg] I’m not a hyphenate. I can’t tell you how many students I’ve had who are, meaning that they are writer/director/producer/composer. I leave the work to the other people. I know my limitations. Yaknow, when I went to grad school, at UCLA, I actually thought I could do it as a director too, and I learned otherwise. I discovered that I really didn’t like working with actors. (Laughter) Which made it difficult to direct. I’m just strictly a writer.
[Isaac] Do you have someone who you know is directing the film you’re shooting soon?
[Marc Weinberg] The director is a good friend of mine from Emerson College. His name is Peter Flynn. He’s a documentary film maker. So we’re taking a slight leap of faith that he’ll be able to pull it off. But his films always look great. And so we’re gonna be shooting the film in August. I think it’s really important to be able to trust the person directing your film, as opposed to, let’s say, bringing in somebody whose more experienced as a feature director but doesn’t know me and doesn’t know what I’m trying to accomplish. I think that there’s a greater risk of them producing a film that I would not like. You know, going back to the question of, why do I still write? I really do feel like everything that I write has potential to be produced, and we’ve gotten close a number of times. But, unfortunately, the way the industry works is that studios buy a lot of product and make less than 10% of it. So our projects have ended up in turnaround. And Brandeis actually benefited from the fact that my films weren’t produced because I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d be hobnobbing with Spielberg right now.
[Isaac] You’d still teach at Emerson, though? That’s what you’re saying?
[Marc Weinberg] No, no. I always say this, and maybe I shouldn’t be saying this. I always say this. If I was going to teach at any school, it would be Brandeis.
[Isaac] This leads perfectly to my second question, which is, what do you consider your job as a teacher to be? When you walk into a workshop and you’ve got your new group of twelve students, what do you hope they take away from it?
[Marc Weinberg] Well, I mean of course part of it is I want to help my students become better storytellers. But as much as I would say I want that, I also want to help them believe I themselves. I mean a lot of students come in really, I mean this is a crucial time in your life. And you come in kind of insecure and not sure where you wanna go or what you wanna do, and you’re feeling vulnerable, and it’s really easy to beat somebody down at that time of their life. So if I do anything to help them find their way or built them up then that’s what I wanna do.
[Isaac] Do you think that there’s something that every film student should study that isn’t film? Or where do you look outside of this art?
[Marc Weinberg] I read a lot. I’ve been really into Ruth Ware; I don’t know if you’re familiar with her. Mystery writer. A book I really love by her is called the ‘Turn of the Key,’ which is, if you’re familiar with Henry James’ ‘Turn of the Screw’…
[Isaac] I was about to say, is it like ‘Turn of the Screw’?
[Marc Weinberg] Yeah, it is about a young woman who becomes a governess, but it’s a modern version of it, and it’s not what you think it will be.
[Isaac] What’s interesting about ‘Turn of the Screw’: that novella is I feel like every couple years is being adapted into something. I’m curious what it is about some of those stories that just get adapted over and over. Same with Cyrano De Bergerac! Like, every three years there’s a new Cyrano De Bergerac movie under some different name.
[Marc Weinberg] Bergerac I this is really infinitely relatable because we’ve all felt inadequate, that there’s something that’s holding us back. And we admire or long for qualities that another person has. And if that’s what it would take to speak to somebody that we long to be with, I think that’s really relatable. As for ‘Turn of the Screw’, I just think that it’s a terrific set up for a thriller. You know, you have innocent little kids. Of course we’re all past that, but you know the idea at least of how James wrote it is that you have these children who on the surface would seem to be benign, and then because you’re off by yourself, you slowly figure out that things aren’t what they seem to be. There’s something to be said about corrupted innocence.
[Isaac] You’ve taught screenwriting to hundreds, maybe thousands of students?
[Marc Weinberg] So yeah, I’ve worked with more than three thousand, and what has that process taught me?
[Isaac] Yeah. Thank you for reading my question on your end. Makes my job very easy.
[Marc Weinberg] (Laughter) You didn’t know about that talent that I had, did you? I can read your mind. I know what you’re thinking right now. So, obviously in terms of doing your homework, I really stress outlining because it’s key to understanding what your story is about. You don’t necessarily have to figure out everything, but if you don’t have some general sense of what you’re trying to say and where you’re gonna go, you’re gonna write yourself into a corner. But equally important, if not more important, you know the expression that you should “write what you know.” Well the expression should also include, “don’t write what you don’t know.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students just launch into something, and you’re going like, “…okay…set in 1200 BC in Egypt, and these are Jewish slaves, and the Egyptians are just tending to the slaves because you know, you really need to help them out. And they’re bringing them water, and they’re bringing them food…” No, I don’t think that’s how that played out. So that is a real issue. I know we all feel like we’re at a stage in our life where we don’t have a lot of experience and maybe our stories are not that interesting. But to write about something that’s completely alien to you, whether you’re writing about superheroes or you’re writing about drug busts or whatever it is, if you don’t know anything about that subject, you get to the first page and already you’ve lost interest in the story because it’s clear that this person is just winging it. I had a student at Brandeis who has done very well with this one script that he wrote, and the reason it’s done well is because it’s based on his own experience. He’s writing from a point of honesty. You don’t have to fabricate this stuff. That why that exercise that I think we did in your class where I ask student to write about either a moment in their own life or a moment of somebody they know that was really, I don’t want to say traumatic, but difficult. And just write it out exactly as it happened, and I can’t tell you the number of times classmates have just wept over what a student has wrote. Like I had a student last week who told the story of when he was a little boy and his mother was dying, and his father brought him in to say goodbye to his mother. And she was in a coma and they said, talk to her, she can hear you. And this person said that he would’ve never though to write about that experience.
[Isaac] That was something that I learned when I took a Creative Nonfiction class with Grace Talusan who, for the listeners, is another professor here at Brandeis. I’d only written fiction before then. That was one of the big takeaways from that class: not necessarily that I want to write memoir, I don’t really, but it made me… I felt like before I took that class I was always writing what I thought writing was. Like I was “doing writing now,” and then when I took that class I realizes, oh, I can just talk to express things that I’ve felt. And that had such a huge impact on my fiction writing. I stopped tying to, like, “write stories,” whatever that means.
[Marc Weinberg] Well I know we had discussion about what you were tackling in the screenwriting class.
[Isaac] Yeah. (Laughter)
[Marc Weinberg] And I guess I just wanted you to write about something that was meaningful to you. Writing something that’s actually about something is really important, and it will serve you well as a writer because people will recognize that you know of what you speak, and ultimately the honestly comes through. You know what you tell a story that is really meaningful to you, it can’t help but be affecting–bringing up what had an impact on you as a reader. You can recognize and identify with the protagonist’s dilemma because it’s honest. I went through the same thing as a short story writer. I thought I was gonna be a novelist initially…
[Isaac] I was gonna ask earlier, but then we moved on, if you started writing screenplays originally.
[Marc Weinberg] Oh no, I thought I was gonna be a novelist like everybody. And I moved to Manhattan thinking “oh yeah!” And I found that nobody wanted to publish my stories. I when I was in undergrad–I mean you guys are so far ahead of where I was–I mean every story I wrote was in first person, which I guess is very popular now. But it was always like somebody was dying, somebody was committing suicide. I mean I killed somebody in every story that I wrote, and usually it was the protagonist. I look back on all that stuff, and I think I only have one story that I’m proud of. That’s it. One story. Fortunately, I decided to move on movies because my parents fought a lot, and I would rush out to the movie cinema just to get away from it. And then a realized, “hm, I could do this.” So I channeled my energies into writing screenplays and film criticism, which I think is really helpful in terms of understanding story. That’s how I ended up making the transition. In a way I can thank my parents…
[Isaac] For driving you out of the house?
[Marc Weinberg] Yeah, for driving me out of the house like, “oh god they’re fighting again? I gotta… What’s at the theater? Oh it’s a Jerry Lewis retrospective. I have always wanted to sit through something like that.” There weren’t a lot of options at the movie theater back in the day. You guys have a lot more opportunity to…
[Isaac] Well actually right now at the movie theater there’s far fewer options, but yeah, point taken.
[Marc Weinberg] Yes, yes, yes, Right now, put your money into AMC because they will come back and they will come back strong.
[Isaac] What, are you like a Reddit investor now?
[Marc Weinberg] I thought about it. Actually, before that even happened, I remember saying, because I noticed that AMC was down like a dollar. I said “Vic, yaknow, we really gotta like, even a hundred dollars,” this is probably a good investment. Now, GameStop I would’ve never seen. I don’t think anybody would’ve seen that.
[Isaac] Vic, is that your wife?
[Marc Weinberg] Yup, Victoria.
[Isaac] So she used to, or still does, work in film and entertainment. I’m curious, you said that you wrote the script that you’re about to produce together, what your creative process together looks like. Also, I’m really curious what, since you were both working in entertainment when you met…
[Marc Weinberg] Right.
[Isaac] How long was it until you were working creatively together? Were you married for years? Or were you talking about ideas on the first date?
[Marc Weinberg] Well I mean I had, I’m very romantic. I had this image in my head that I would marry my writing partner. So when I met Vic, she had just left Disney as a executive in development at the Disney Channel, and she loved to read, and she had tried to write some stories before. She had tried to write a script before. And I said, well let’s write one together. Let’s see what happens. And we did, and the very first thing we wrote together sold. And so it was like, “Okay this will clearly work!” It was to my advantage that I had more experience writing scripts because she, for better or for worse, trusted my judgement. But what we would do is we would outline, and we’d work through the story. We’d beat out the story together. And then we would alternate scenes. She would take some and I would take some, and then we’d trade off. And go through it and yaknow say, well I like that, or I don’t like that. But it made the process a lot easier. One of the things that I find so rewarding about it, I mean I just can’t, they always say, yaknow, “You don’t marry your writing partner.” I completely disagree because one of the charming aspects of it is, if you’ve ever talked, as a writer, if you ever talk to someone about your story, how long does it take you to get them up to speed? Just forever. But I can be like, in the middle of the night, “What if…” and she knows exactly what I’m talking about. It just makes things so much easier. So, yes, right from the start we started to write together, work together. Unquestionably, we took advantage of her contacts. That’s a big part of the industry is having somebody who believes in you. And I’m not just talking about your writing partner. I’m talking about an agent, a manager, a producer. Somebody has to believe in your work. So we did take advantage of that. I mean, I was a real joy working with her at that time. And that, I always think if you wanna marry or get in a relationship with somebody while you’re working your way up in the industry, fine. But having a child is a game changer. And that was certainly that case with us. We were working at the Discovery Channel and making an okay living, but as we looked at it we said, there is no way we’re going to be able to raise a child on this. So that’s when I started to look into teaching. I had always wanted to teach anyway. That’s why I got my masters. But it accelerated the process. So that’s my advice to all of you, anybody that’s listening.
[Isaac] To marry your writing partner?
[Marc Weinberg] Marry your writing partner, and preferably if they’re an executive at Disney.
[Isaac] Okay I’ll write that one down. I’ll put that right in the Jobs folder.
[Marc Weinberg] (Laughter) Worked for me!
[Isaac] I think that’s a very cute note to end on. I wanna end with a few rapid-fire questions. So, and underrated film that you think everyone should watch is…
[Marc Weinberg] Boogie Nights. I love Boogie Nights. Nightcrawler. Loose. I saw a film recently called Loose, with Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts. Terrific. Really, really terrific.
[Isaac] All right, a show or movie that everyone else love that just wasn’t for you, you didn’t think much of?
[Marc Weinberg] How much time to we have?
[Isaac] I mean, there’s no set length to this thing.
[Marc Weinberg] Okay, yeah, I spent a little time thinking about this. I’ll just rattle off a few TV shows. Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Downton Abby, BoJack Horseman, Community, Arrested Development, Stranger Things, Girls, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men.
[Isaac] All right, so all popular television shows. What is the TV show you’re watching right now?
[Marc Weinberg] I’m watching Ramy and the Boys.
[Isaac] Yaknow what, I’m adding a surprise extra one. The last great movie you saw…
[Marc Weinberg] The last great movie I say…
[Isaac] Something new. Something that came out in the last year.
[Marc Weinberg] Well I really loved Judas and the Black Messiah.
[Isaac] That was brilliant. That was a great movie. Well, wonderful! This has been a great interview. I really enjoyed talking to you, Marc.
[Marc Weinberg] Thank you. It was a pleasure to talk to you, Isaac.
[Isaac] Thank you again to Professor Marc Weinberg for joining us. You can learn more about his course offerings on the Brandeis English and Creative Writing websites, and you can learn about upcoming readings and events on our Facebook and Instagram.