The advice shaped me more than just about any advice I have ever received, but for the life of me I cannot remember what exactly Bob Foshko said. I should remember, right? This was life-defining, career-changing advice, something I can draw a direct link to from the person I am today to the person I was then, and see how my direct line is a very different path from the one I thought I was on. But I don’t remember. Heck, I am having a difficult time even being able to paraphrase it.
I remember standing in the hallway on the 5th floor of the CMA building, the narrow corridor littered with posters advertising student screenings and subculture ballyhoo. There was a tablet desk chair outside the office, the 1950s sort with no give and an Olympic-level degree of difficulty to enter and engage for sitting. I was early but not too early, and as time tapped forward and the hollowness of the hallway was infrequently interrupted by opening doors and clacking heels, my sense of self inflated to fill the space. Bob needed more time with others in the program, I ascertained. The meeting was to look over my writing, the first sample for the M.A. program in conjunction with the James A. Michner Center and the Department of Radio-TV-Film at the University of Texas, writing I knew we would celebrate as accomplishment and then receive marching orders to keep up the good work. After all, Bob had called me six months prior, asking me if he could move my application from the MFA program to the MA program because as
he put it I remembered it, my film & electronic media work made more sense married to the RTF department. I wondered if we even needed to have the meeting at all. I had come to the University of Texas to do what I needed to do to write books and movies. Bob Foshko knew this, he knew it was my aspiration, and he knew that the program was just one part of my Starmaker Plan.
When it was my turn, I remember being surprised at the size of the room — the office was quite small for a head of a program, filled to the brim with books and artifacts from his years as a writer and producer during Television’s Golden Age. He offered me a seat on a rickety stepstool, which was held together with packing tape and had a sign affixed to the top, The Robert Foshko Chair in Screenwriting. I took the standard chair, smiled, and he started the sequence of events that would change my life.
Your sample was fine. We need to talk about your story idea, it is very weak.
For the next thirteen excruciating minutes, Bob Foshko dissected my three-page treatment of a baseball screenplay I had pitched for my first project in the program. It was unrelenting. The protagonist was weak, the antagonist an illusion, the romance tacked on carelessly, the buddy character the only decently developed character and he only had a tertiary role in the part, the authenticity of the baseball was poor, the plot points convenient, the dialogue forced and turgid. The formatting was good, very good, but everything within the format was in need of a major overhaul or even a toss in the dumpster and an exploration of a new idea. The latter was the direction Bob encouraged; there might be something with baseball but everything as presented in this manner was ill-fitted and poorly executed.
I probably sat there mouth agape. I tried to formulate responses to his problems, reasons for what he perceived as weakness, excuses for the work or excuses for his misreading, but his torrent of criticism would not abate and it was impossible to continue to joust his positions. This was not only a disaster, this was doing an excellent job of destroying a long-developed ideology of myself as The Writer, an ideology that until that very moment had not been challenged. I needed to fight back, to defend myself, to convince him he was wrong. I prepared my thoughts, and at the first moment of pause I jumped into the torrent.
But the writing sample, that was good?
My above quotation cannot be done justice sitting out of context. Here I was, 22 year old, half drunk on my own dorkdom, having just been challenged for the first time in my life on my writing. That the words got out was a victory; how they got out was in a warble burdened by heart palpitations and the loss of most vocal cords.
It was fine. So what? You’re writing stories. Or you need to be writing stories, not samples. Whatever samples you wrote for teachers in the past have no bearing on whether your story will get the attention of an agent or a producer.
I remember those words completely (so, for my narrative, this was not the advice!). I remember leaving, I remember the Texas sun beating down on the concrete quad outside the various Communications buildings, I remember taking the meandering walk through the campus towards where I had parked, and I remember going through the stages of grief, and with acceptance came a desire to do better, to be the person I had thought I was, to convince the Bob Foshkos of the world that I could do this, I could write. Because what I remember most is realizing that Bob was right; what I had done to get to where I was had come with a lot of panache and a little effort, and no one had ever thrown a gauntlet until now And I spent the next two years engaged fully in the craft, resisting the urge to pat myself on the back, dedicated to being the person I thought I was rather than pretending to be a person I had not proven to be.
I would take two courses from Bob, and I would also utilize Bob as the chair for my thesis, which was about politics in film. I considered Bob a mentor; I appreciated his honesty and candor, we could talk about foreign films and social issues, and after our first meeting there was never anything beyond honest feedback and conversation, no need to negotiate around something. If something was good it was there, if something needed work we worked it, if something was bad he was the first to say it.
If you are getting the feeling that Bob was cold or uncaring, you could not be further from the truth — an ability to be honest and up-front does not mean someone is not warm, affectionate or kind. Bob was a fun-loving professor whose door was always open for a conversation and who took time and care in his work. I have been through dozens of writing workshops with dozens of professional writers, and Bob provided both the most feedback and was the quickest in turning it around. And his film criticism was a thing of beauty. Foregoing the flipped classroom, Bob would have us watch films during our class period so we could stop, talk, engage, look at topics, and have a direct relationship with the film and the community. Some of my very favorite memories of my time at Texas are of sitting in that tiny classroom on the ground floor of CMA with the horribly uncomfortable chairs and having Bob point out spaces and places a writer or a director or an actor took the work and improved on it, such as what most would consider a throwaway moment in Powell & Pressberger’s The Red Shoes that involves just the slightest hint of a wry smile at a crucial time in the story. Moments were never unnoticed, not in films, not in our writing, not in our classroom.
So when it came time to get final approval on my thesis, I was surprised when Bob said he wanted to talk about my future, and then went four long minutes about why I should not pursue writing books or screenplays as my profession. And this is what I wish I could remember. I do remember two sentences:
You are a good writer. But you are never going to be happy with what you write.
He talked about what he saw as talents in other places, how I should marry my abilities with another field, find ways to help more people than what I could do in a story, really get more out of my degree than some people who jump to Hollywood. But the crux was unavoidable — three weeks before receiving my degree, Bob Foshko was telling me that the Hollywood way (moving to LA, getting a job, putting scripts out there when the time was right, toiling until a potential Eureka moment) was not how he saw my future.
Looking back it is difficult to determine how much of the narrative I have rewritten or how much was prescient, but the end result is that Bob Foshko provided me excellent advice. I did move to Hollywood, I worked in the industry, I got my scripts in the hands of agents and producers. I struggled with Hollywood, I hated my job, and the coverage I received on my scripts was always the same: we pass but wow the formatting of this script is pristine. Meanwhile, I leveraged my credentials into a teaching gig with Duke University’s TIP program, had wild success, turned that into a teaching gig in Los Angeles, turned that into an administrative gig in Los Angeles, enrolled in a doctoral program, and in the end have a pretty phenomenal job at the intersection of teaching, technology and media. Fourteen years after meeting Bob Foshko, the man who I thought was bringing me to a career as a writer, it is difficult to remember I ever thought about being a writer for a living.
Bob passed away last night, 85 years old. He had remained a full-time faculty member in Texas for years after I graduated, and up to his death was involved in the RTF program as well as the Michner Center for Writers. He wrote TV for Ronald Reagan, cavorted with the party crowd in 1950s Hollywood, and sang remixed Shirley Temple songs at the drop of a hat. He only had a B.A., and I know that in today’s world that would mean he would never had been in the position from which I met him, which is a damn shame. I know in our lives we are touched daily by many people and our directions and purposes can change and ebb and flow because of so many factors, but there are few people who made as direct or as positive of an influence in my life as Bob Foshko.
And to end with a coda: when we talked about plot structure in 2002 and how a film could be a tragedy, Bob noted that most tragedies will end not with the tragic, but with a glimmer of hope after the tragic story has been wrapped up. He used Paths of Glory, the 1957 Stanley Kubrick film, to illustrate his point — despite being a tragedy, the movie ends not with the tragic but with a potential hope for humanity, the singing of Der Treue Husar, a German folk song. It is one of the most stirring moments of cinema I have encountered, on par with the final scene in Cinema Paradisio. If you have not seen Paths of Glory it is a true classic, but watching this final scene, from a movie depicting the horrors of World War I, will not spoil the movie but will show the hope we have in humanity. Thank you, Bob.