Surfing the learning curve

Small group, huge enthusiasm. Will Mexico do to TV what it’s been doing to the Oscars?

Small group, huge enthusiasm. Will Mexico do to TV what it’s been doing to the Oscars?

Caméra d’Or winning film director and writer, Michael Rowe, is a fellow Aussie who, like me, departed for foreign shores in his early twenties. Unlike me, he had the good sense to immigrate immediately to Mexico, a smart move that puts him several decades ahead and at the time of writing this post, many degrees warmer. Last year, at the Oaxaca Film Festival over lunch at my favorite fancy Oaxacan restaurant, Los Danzantes, he invited me to teach at his school in Mexico City, La Escuela Itinerante de Cine y Narrativa. I haven’t taught at a film school before, but how could I resist? 

Michael being a busy man, communication over the following weeks was intermittent and details scarce. I had no idea what he was expecting. So, I proposed a class on the difference between writing for film and writing for TV.  He liked it. Just before I left Oaxaca, Michael realized he would be at the Cabo San Lucas film festival during my visit. Apologetically, he handed me over to his assistant Leslie Sandoval, a masterful administrator, but her English is comparable to my Spanish, which—to say politely—is challenged.

Flying solo—from a long runway

On arrival, I discovered not only was I presenting alone, with no introduction from Michael, but my class was four hours long! How many students would attend a class by an unknown teacher in English was anybody’s guess. Regardless, I spent the next few days frantically pulling together a presentation and lesson based on some notes I scribbled down on the bus from Oaxaca. 

An additional test of nerves, my Airbnb apartment was without running water. A predicament, it turned out, shared by millions of CDMX denizens. The city’s troublesome water mains were under repair and the project wasn’t going well—a huge new pipe was inadvertently "displaced" adding days to the drought. More alarmingly, right when I was inserting streaming video links to my presentation, my Internet went down. Maybe I could act out scenes from Breaking Bad like a game of charades? At 2am I went to bed, hoping the Internet was easier to fix than the plumbing.

Think globally, write locally

Seven students showed up for the 10am lesson, a mix of ages, genders and English language proficiency. Their tremendous enthusiasm filled the small classroom. After a brief rundown of how the global TV business is changing in the age of streaming, I focused on a few key takeaways: 

  • Structure— Films have a beginning middle and end vs. TV’s middle, middle, and middle. 

  • Story Engine — How a central irreconcilable conflict can power episode after episode in TV

  • A, B, C Stories— Weaving plots and subplots in episodic storytelling 

We watched the Breaking Bad pilot—witnessing how deftly Walter White’s central conflict between being a family man and drug dealer is set up. Then we tracked the B-story, jumping from scene to scene, in an episode from season two, when Jesse hilariously tries to get his house back after being evicted by his parents. (One of the best things about film school is viewing shows during work hours, and getting credit for it.) 

Can you guess the film this typewriter is from?

Can you guess the film this typewriter is from?

And the winner is…

Even with the help of A-grade TV, keeping people engaged over several hours is challenging. One trick I’ve learned is peppering presentations with questions for the audience. And if you can throw in a quiz with a prize, all the better. Early on, I showed a slide with the typewriter above and asked the students to guess which film it was from. The clue: TV writing is gregarious whereas film can be, well, very, very solitary

Just about every flick with a writer in it was tossed about. However, no one nailed it. We moved on, leaving the prize hanging. But just before the class ended Sebastián Torres, one of the more outspoken class members, named The Shining—and went home with a signed copy of my book, Toyz On Demand!


I’d like to thank…

The four hours really did fly by. And I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with the students afterwards and hearing about their projects. In particular, I’d like to thank Sarah M. Dom, who’s infectious energy helped power the day, and Edith Islas Lopez, who, determined that I see some of the city, took it upon herself to chaperone me about town at night.

I can’t wait to return to La Escuela. Next time, I want to help the students with their own projects. 

Ian Keldoulis