Write Your Own Adventure

Tuesday, February 26, 2019
By: Jordan Diamond, English Department Spring 2019 Digital Media Intern
Professor Russing teaches a lecture to his "Writing the Movie" class.

A bar mitzvah gone wrong. A thief supporting his family. “Fight Club meets Perks of Being a Wallflower.” These movie premises are just some of the ideas that students are developing into screenplays for Professor Cole Russing’s “Writing the Movie” course, offered as part of both Duke’s English Department and the Arts of the Moving Image Department. The class centers around one large project whose creation spans the semester: writing a full-length, two-hour long, 120-page movie screenplay. After finishing a draft of their script in 10 weeks, students begin editing their work and preparing to pitch their idea to a Hollywood executive.

Russing studied English, Communications, and Film Studies as an undergraduate at NC State University. He took his first screenwriting class at NC State before there was formatting software. During his time in graduate school at the University of Southern California, his first screenwriting class was so difficult as to “make grown men cry.” After graduating, he worked in the film industry gaining experience in film editing, production, sound, directing, organizing props, and every odd job available. He moved back to North Carolina to raise his family, and started teaching. Since teaching his first screenwriting class at NC State in 2003 (“it was an utter disaster,” Russing says), Russing has since moved to Duke, where he has tinkered with the course’s pedagogy so that students can better learn the fundamentals of screenwriting and the film industry while accomplishing the goal of writing a full-length screenplay.

In class, students peer review each other’s work, share ideas with the class, and work through problems they face in formatting or developing the plots of their scripts. Russing also encourages students to closely analyze films he shares, comparing the scenes to screenplay drafts available online. Playing the 1989 Baseball movie “Field of Dreams,” for example, Russing repeatedly pauses the action to question his class on the “logical conclusion” of each plot point until they can correctly predict the movie’s ending. The lesson? A good script resolves its tension at the conclusion.

Despite the course’s creative writing focus, "Writing the Movie" attracts a wide swath of students. The class always has a few creative writers, filmmakers, and English students, in addition to a few science majors that are “terrified” at the prospect of completing so much writing. Russing recalls that one Biology student confessed to calling her mother after her first class in a panic, realizing that the course required her to write 20 pages a week. Her mother convinced her to challenge herself and stay in the class. After a few weeks, the student learned to brag to friends about the 50-page stack she was continually expanding.

Jordan Shapiro, a sophomore studying Computer Science, says that he was attracted to the class because he likes movies and it came highly recommended. His screenplay is “about a dysfunctional family struggling to relate to each other whilst being stranded in the woods.” Shapiro passes on the recommendation he received: “120 pages sounds like a lot, but once you start writing, you get in a groove, and then it's pretty doable to knock out ten or 15 or 20 pages at a time,” he explains.

“Writing the Movie” alumni feel passionate about the work they completed for the class. Russing works with interested students after the semester is over to polish up their scripts. He meets with one student through the Studio Duke program to edit her script about an Artificial Intelligence system that has grown too intelligent. Through an independent study session, another student meets with Russing to work on their script that the professor says “will really go places,” a story about a pregnant woman in an apocalyptical infertile society. Regardless of the script’s theme, Russing assures that what makes any script unique is the storyteller rather than the story. 

What makes the class so special, then, is that students leave with what Russing says is “more than a grade”—not only do they have a physical screenplay with their name attached, but students also learn the skill of leaving behind their “critic’s hat.” For most of a student’s academic career, Professor Russing explains, “The only focus is what someone does wrong.” All of this negativity closes a student’s “creative faucet” until they begin to doubt their own abilities. Instead, he wants students to write without criticizing their own work: “Just write what you want to tell, and tell it how you want to tell it.”