It’s another 9 a.m. on another Wednesday, and a half-century after he began teaching at Georgetown University, the 75-year-old accidental cult leader is outlining his ideal narrative format to yet another class.
The first essential moment in any script, screenwriting professor John Glavin tells his students, is the “tear” — as in fabric, not ducts. It is the engine of the story, the point at which, as 2005 graduate Brit Marling still tells the writers’ room at Netflix’s “The OA,” “the protagonist cannot return to the status quo.”
If that engine doesn’t hum, all students know to expect the harsh red of disapproval on their scripts. “It has to tear,” Glavin emphasizes to the class, and there are, by now, well-known reasons to trust him.
There is, for instance, comedian Mike Birbiglia, a ’00 graduate, who says, “If I didn’t meet John Glavin, I don’t know if it would have even been worth it for me to go to college.”
There’s comedian John Mulaney, ’04, who says, “Again and again, there are classes I took with Professor John Glavin that I look back on all the time in both writing scripts and in writing jokes.”
Above all, there's "Westworld" co-creator and "Dark Knight" writer Jonathan Nolan, '99, whose back-cover blurb for Glavin's new memoir, "The Good New" (out Tuesday), says, "Everything I know about drama I learned from John Glavin."
Glavin’s script for himself had been different: A 20-year career in the Navy. A comfortable pension. A “retirement” spent as a playwright, his passion from age 12.
He graduated from Georgetown in 1964 and went home to Philadelphia to pursue a graduate degree in English. Three years later, before he could enlist, he got a call, and an unsolicited job offer, from the chairman of his alma mater’s English department.
“This is not the result of a very carefully laid plan that worked itself out stage by stage,” Glavin says of his long teaching career. “Opportunities knocked, and opportunities didn’t knock.”
His girlfriend, Maggie (now his wife), was in Washington. His heart was not in the Navy. It fit.
Fervently sought approval
At first, Glavin specialized in Victorian literature — Dickens and George Eliot and the Brontës — while writing plays on the side. The arrangement proved untenable.
One summer around 1980, a play he’d written was to be staged in Massachusetts, and his agent asked him to travel up for the full run. When he declined to leave campus and his growing family, both the theater and the agent dropped him. “If you don’t want to come,” his agent told him, “then you really don’t want to be a professional.”
Within 12 months, Glavin realized that he really didn’t. A severe throat inflammation put him in the hospital, where he spent weeks with “nothing mitigating,” he says, just a bed, a window and his thoughts. The most powerful was a realization: His two passions needed to combine.
Soon after, he made screen- and script-writing a focus of his classes. He demanded near-exclusive focus in return.
“You work at it every day,” he says. “You go in, you do it, no matter what you feel like.” And if you don’t aspire to be a professional storyteller, he says to find another class.
That’s exactly what many did in 1997, when the class whittled itself by two-thirds two weeks into the semester. The male-dominated remains included Nolan; Birbiglia; Jordon Nardino, co-executive producer on “Star Trek: Discovery”; and Jordan Goldberg, a frequent Nolan collaborator.
Helping bring out their ability, Glavin found, felt “terrific.”
“What coaches do is they say, ‘Show me something, and I’ll tell you how to make it better,’ ” he says. “And that’s sort of my attitude.”
The students added verses to George Gershwin and Cole Porter songs, mimicking rhyme scheme and voice, an exercise that Nardino maintains “captures writing for television” perfectly. They wrote six days a week. They had to nail Glavin’s 11-point structure, tear and all. They learned the importance of subtext, the balance between conflict and connection.
They called themselves, tongue-mostly-in-cheek, “Glavinites.”
“My feeling about it has always been he does what he does, and it’s really specific,” Birbiglia says. “And if you don’t buy into it, you’re not going to like the class.”
If Glavin softened, Nardino recalls, it meant he was giving up on you. The professor was, then as now, toughest on the students he considered most promising.
“He reserved an A for people whose work he thought showed the promise of someone who could make it as a playwright or screenwriter,” Nolan wrote in an email. “I remain prouder of that grade from him than anything I’ve earned since.”
Seldom granted, Glavin’s approval grew to be fervently sought. The cult added new members, including “Neighbors” writer Brendan O’Brien, ’00. All were ambitious, but there was still no alumni track record, no real-world basis for faith.
Their professor, schooled by Jesuits from elementary school through Georgetown, had plenty anyway.
"I remember John Glavin saying to me one day in his office, in private, 'Jonah Nolan is going to be a major screenwriter,' " Birbiglia says. "We're 19, for God's sake! . . . And I remember thinking, he's a little crazy."
‘The gateway to creativity’
And right. Nolan's Hollywood debut, the mystery-thriller "Memento," premiered in 2000, featured a character named "John G." and earned him an Oscar nomination.
It earned his mentor a new regard.
"We couldn't believe that Glavin had had his hand in this and that we were sitting at the feet of this guy now," says Zal Batmanglij, '02, the director and co-
creator, with Marling, of "The OA." "It lit a fire under me, and it was the first time where I went, 'Oh, this is possible.' "
Glavin, who keeps a Nolan-signed copy of the screenplay in his office, felt the same fire.
“For my dad, it was a moment,” says his son, Thad, a 1995 Georgetown graduate, “where he realized there were students that he could develop into really serious writers.”
A wave followed. Birbiglia succeeded in standup. Nardino found a place in television.
On campus, Batmanglij and a growing cohort commandeered golf carts for shooting and screened their movies at the old Visions theater on Florida Avenue, with Glavin a reliable patron. Some members of the group, which at various times included Marling, Mulaney, “Another Earth” director Mike Cahill and a New Yorker by the name of Nick Kroll, looked to Nolan’s kingmaker for feedback and spoke of him like a middle-school crush.
“More so than other professors, it’s a little more of a, ‘Does he like me?’ ” Mulaney says.
Today’s Glavinites are nearly an echo.
“You just want his approval so bad,” says senior Alex Mitchell, head of the Georgetown Improv Association, who calls Glavin “the gateway to creativity at Georgetown.”
Four former Glavin students moved to Hollywood after graduation in May, a possible record. So long as his health is good enough and his classes full enough — they’re currently oversubscribed — Glavin plans to continue coaching.
He’ll also continue, in all likelihood, to express confusion about his cult and deflect credit accordingly. “If I’ve been able to offer anything,” he says, “I think it’s just an incipient basis for professionalism.”
Yet there are more practical lessons. That ideal narrative format, he tells his 9 a.m. class, ends with the protagonist achieving a “modified version of the original goal.” It’s a concept that may, from the back row, evoke the life of the man at the front.
As with so many ideas over the years, Glavin quickly shoots this one down, too. “Plots are not lives,” he says. In his, he adds, there have been “many tears.”