In a lecture hall, Tom Pope stands before a projection of a black hole in the space-time continuum grid. What’s he teaching? Screenwriting.
Pope, the author of “Good Scripts, Bad Scripts” — and a professor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design — was a Hollywood screenwriter, working on scripts for numerous films including “Sweet Land,” “Hammett,” “Bad Boys” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
Since his time in Hollywood, Pope has thought of a new way to examine narratives by analyzing a character’s “dramatic mass.”
“If you can stop time and plot you’re infinitely free,” Pope explained to an audience taking notes on the space-time grid. He went on, describing how Norma Desmond from “Sunset Boulevard” is the epitome of a black hole character.
The basic need for a good story began long before Pope’s screenwriting days; it’s a love that traces back to his childhood.
“I was watching ‘It Happened One Night’ when I was 12 years old. I saw that hitchhiking scene and realized that people made that up,” Pope said. “The closest I ever came to a religious experience was the joy I felt with a great story.”
After falling for movies, Pope decided to go to film school to become a cameraman. It wasn’t until he took a narrative film class that he considered a career as a screenwriter.
“We had to write a script. I put it off until the last night and pulled an all-nighter. It was really bad, but my professor read it and asked, ‘Do you want to be a screenwriter?’ I seemed to be able to cause characters to interact in a complex way.”
After that, Pope decided to pursue a master’s degree in screenwriting.
“I skipped all of my classes and became obsessed by just writing,” Pope said of his post-grad.
Looking back, he feels skipping class to write was beneficial.
“I know a lot of Ph.D.s, and they couldn’t find their ass with both hands. They’re all afraid of getting fired and they’ve all read the same books,” Pope said.
In post-grad years, Pope’s dedication to the craft blossomed. He spent the next two years writing scripts.
“They were just awful,” Pope said. “But I realized that after each one they slowly sucked less. Those years from 24 to 25 were my 10,000 hours.”
It wasn’t until age 26 that Pope finally felt like a professional.
“I wrote ‘The Eagle of Broadway’ which … never got made,” Pope said. “An article came out around that time — a writer had gone to the studios and asked about the best movies that never got made. ‘The Eagle of Broadway’ was in the top ten.”
Over the years, Pope has learned to accept the commercial bureaucracy of the Hollywood system.
“Screenwriting is such a marriage between art and commerce. There’s a famous saying for all screenwriters in Hollywood — that their best script never got made. ‘The Eagle of Broadway’ was my audition script. It got me through the door,” Pope said, adding that industry is competitive and capricious.
It was then that Pope became a real Hollywood insider, working with legends like Francis Ford Coppola and Ridley Scott.
Scott, who was originally planning on adapting “Dune” —before David Lynch took the project on — worked with Pope on the screenplay.
“We worked a lot of long days together. A lot of people had a problem with Ridley and said he was a real asshole, but I got along with him,” Pope said, characteristically easy-going.
Pope, who has now written and taught various forms of literature, says the screenplay is a peculiar art form.
“You get more wiggle room with a novel. You can fuck up more and they’ll cut you some slack. With a screenplay, if your mind wanders for ten seconds it feels really long. Screenwriting is closer in a way to a narrative poem. Not one word can lose you,” Pope said. “You can’t have any fat.”
After decades in the industry, Pope has learned at least one pithy truth: “The script I’m writing now — I [don’t] give a shit. I said, ‘I’m just going to write it for fun,’ and — ironically — Hollywood really liked it.”