Professor rewrites the book on filmmaking

Since its debut 15 years ago, “Alternative Scriptwriting: Writing Beyond the Rules” has been a highly respected and widely-used text by screenwriters and screenwriting professors alike. Co-author of “Alternative Scriptwriting,” Jeff Rush, just happens to be a member of the university’s film and media arts faculty.

The fourth edition from Focal Press hit bookstores Sept. 15, and if past reviews are any indication, the new edition should be just as groundbreaking as the last three.

Long before he became a teacher, Rush noticed limitations
in the standard three-act screenplay. Dramatic changes in the structure of filmmaking have occurred since he last took stage.

“The relationship between independent and Hollywood films is much closer today than it was in 1990,” Rush said. “I don’t even know if it is a distinction worth making any more.”

Rush and his partner, Ken Dancyger, a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, developed the idea for “Alternative Scriptwriting” after meeting at a conference for the University Film and Video Association in the late 1980s. Both felt equally frustrated with the formulaic approach to screenwriting.

“We found ourselves fighting the dominant Hollywood model, which was so strong back then and was represented by [textbook author] Syd Field,” Rush said. “People responded
to what we were saying so we looked at each other and said, ‘why not?'”

Nine months later, they created a manuscript, focusing on their own personal experiences and research, designed to challenge conventional screenwriting.

“I think the book empowers writers, rather than making them feel silly or inadequate,” Dancyger said. “It gives students permission to take chances.”

Rush and Dancyger receive praise from professors throughout the country for venturing away from traditional screenwriting.

“I think that over the last 20 years, the quality of American filmmaking has suffered obvious losses that stem from risk aversion, and yet risk is what imagination is all about,” said professor Debbie Chapel, a fiction and screenwriting teacher at Harvard University’s Extension School. “‘Alternative Scriptwriting’ is one of the only books that honors that dilemma.”

Professor John Bernstein, director of the graduate program in screenwriting at Boston University, uses “Alternative Scriptwriting” every fall for his graduate-level introductory screenwriting course.

“I admire them both [Dancyger and Rush] for the fresh, in-depth and inspiring approach to writing scripts,” Bernstein said.
Dancyger, who has written seven books thus far, is currently
working on his eighth. “The Greatest: Hollywood in 1959” examines American cinema in 1959, a year which has been coined by some film historians as “the greatest year in film history.” Future plans for Dancyger include writing an extensive book about his favorite cinema topic: the conventions of film genre. As for Rush, a book exploring interactive narrative is in the works.

“The book was always valuable even for those who were not interested in independent scriptwriting,” Rush said.

“The original three chapters on three-acts [in the first edition] were designed to encourage writers to consider strategies other than standard three-act structure. However, even people who want to write in three-acts find it useful.”

Marta Rusek can be reached at

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