Meet Professor Bill Philips
This term I’m taking Film 33 Writing for the Screen I with Professor William Philips. With dozens of screenwriting credits in film and TV as well as experience directing, Professor Philips has enjoyed a long and successful career. He’s also a Dartmouth graduate as well! Here’s an excerpt of an interview with Professor Philips.
Q: How/why did you decide to pursue screenwriting?
BP: I wrote plays in high school, had a one-act performed at the Massachusetts Student Drama Festival in 1966 in front of 900 people. It was a comedy and they all laughed. It was a great feeling, so I did it again with another play in 1967, and that one worked, too. I mentally filed the experiences away and went to college. There, at Dartmouth, I took an Abnormal Psychology course and convinced Professor Bill Smith to let me write a play instead of a term paper. It was about a primatologist who felt that baboons had the supreme life form.
But this is how I discovered film. You just write it, and someone (like in Hollywood) figures out how to pull it off. So as a storyteller, I discovered that movies give a writer a lot more freedom than plays do.
BP: I like best the freedom to tell any story whatsoever. My friend Peter Ciardelli in the Film Department recently said that Sharknado proves that you can absolutely tell a story about anything. Ha ha. Film gives you much more freedom to cut around in time. I’ve enjoyed writing comedy, romance, Western, police procedural, horror, adventure, true crime, fictional crime… not to mention documentary, medical films, military films, industrials. Screenwriting just gives you the freedom to write about anything. You have a particular discipline, but the subject matter is infinite. For someone who contemplated ten different majors and who has trouble deciding which dessert to order after dinner, screenwriting allows you to stick with one discipline but to apply it in many different directions.
Q: Why do you enjoy about teaching screenwriting?
BP: I love staying in touch with young people, and I think I somehow get to draft off their energy. I can’t imagine living in a world where everyone is just my age. That would be boring. Of course, I also enjoy bringing auditors to my screenwriting classes, whether they’re 15 or 75, because I think it’s really important to expose 18-22-year-olds to other ages, other sensibilities. At the same time, I’ve always felt (even when I was a student) that you learn more from each other than you do from the professor. I can point out clichés, tricks-of-the-trade, format rules and the importance of “less is more,” but only you guys are in touch with today’s Zeitgeist. I feel privileged to look in on it, but your generation is living it, and it’s why producers want young screenwriters: you’re more in touch with what audiences experience and believe today.
The best thing I’ve ever learned about screenwriting I learned from Maury Rapf, who taught screenwriting here for 45 years… and that’s utter honesty. The best thing you can give a student is a close and honest reading of his/her work. You won’t get honesty out in the real world.