By Brian Segna
Oct. 9, 2006 9:00 p.m.
If you ever have the opportunity to engage in conversation with
Howard Suber, listen very carefully to what he says.
Then go home and forget everything he told you. Seriously, he
would want you to.
After all, that is exactly what the 65-year-old UCLA film and
television professor and author of the recently released book,
“The Power of Film,” tells each of his students to do
as they prepare to walk out of the classroom on the last day of
“I have felt for some time that the job of a professor is
not only to profess, but to provoke,” Suber said. “I
mean, to provoke (my students) to do (their) own thinking, and to
figure it out and to integrate it for (themselves). I want (them)
to integrate it in a way that comes to (them) without trying to
And it was that same goal that Suber sought to accomplish when
he decided to boil down the 8,000 pages of notes he had amassed
from 40 years of teaching into his first book, which was released
“The Power of Film” is an A-to-Z reference book that
captures the most crucial elements and debunks the largest myths of
film storytelling. It does so by noting the major patterns of the
most memorable American films.
“I am talking about films that have this particular power
to last,” Suber said. “And that is an enormous power,
especially in a civilization like ours, where nothing lasts five
years, let alone 10, 20 or 30 years.”
It is these kinds of films ““ films such as “The
Godfather,” “Casablanca” and “Gone with the
Wind” ““ that Suber uses as explanations for over 250
major topics in film, ranging from dialogue to chaos.
“It seems clear to me that the reason that some films do
this and others don’t has to be explainable, not by the
film’s artistic merit ““ I never say these are the best
films ““ but it has to do will how well they resonate with
basic human psychology,” said Suber.
But “The Power of Film,” doesn’t claim to have
the secret recipe to writing successful films that resonate. Suber
only hopes it can be used by screenwriters and film amateurs alike,
in a way that sparks creativity.
“There are so many people who write books, give weekend
seminars, have Web sites, that explicitly or implicitly promise
that they are going to give you everything you need to know without
really working,” Suber said. “I don’t know a more
difficult enterprise than making movies. Anybody who says this is
easy is … ignorant.”
Suber’s teachings may not be the “answer” to a
successful career in Hollywood, but the founder of the UCLA Film
and Television Critical Studies Program, as well as the Film and
Television Archive, must be doing something right.
After a long career of teaching over 65 courses at UCLA (courses
ranging from film structure to directing and producing), Suber has
taught thousands of students, many of whom have gone on to be
leading forces in Hollywood.
Suber’s long list of students include director Francis
Ford Coppola, screenwriter David Koepp (“Spiderman,”
“Jurassic Park” and “Mission: Impossible”),
Sundance Film Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore and Daniel Pyne,
the writer of the 2004 remake of “The Manchurian
Candidate” and “Any Given Sunday.”
And the praise for the book ““ and Suber himself ““ is
“It’s the kind of thing that sparks you creatively,
as opposed to giving you some sort of instruction. It inspires you
to do a similar thing,” Pyne said. “(Suber’s
class) was fundamentally life-changing for me because I came from
prose writing as an undergraduate and I was very resistant to the
kind of applied formula that people were starting to come up with
in terms of screenwriting in the ’80s and late
Pyne recalls the first day of Suber’s class, when he
experienced a lesson that found its way into “The Power of
Film,” under the heading “Acts.” Suber used
several exercises, such as watching a movie from the middle to the
end and then the beginning to the middle, as a means of analyzing
the structure of film. He explained that film does not have to
uphold the three-act structure as many claim.
And that is just one of many myths about film storytelling that
Suber has disproven.
“It sort of blew my mind and encouraged me to continue
writing in the way I was writing, rather than doing what I was
fearing I had to do, which was throw out everything I knew about
writing and try to start from scratch with this new, and supposedly
different, sort of writing that was called screenwriting,”
Thanks to “The Power of Film,” any reader can now be
a student of Suber’s.
Just don’t listen to his comment about forgetting
everything he says.