Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Reflections on a Screenwriting LifeNote: This essay was first published in the “Alpha Chi Recorder, Alumni Issue,” Vol. 49, No. 3, 2006

As I sit in my back yard next to the glamorous $300 blow-up pool that took us five weeks to get level, I reflect on my life as a screenwriter. Not because I necessarily have a life as a screenwriter, but because I was asked to reflect on my life as one for this article. When asked what I do, I often laugh as I say, “A New Hampshire-based screenwriter; absurd isn’t it?” I’m also a full-time mom of two teens, but rarely do people want to hear tales from that harrowing occupation. And while I have written more than a dozen feature scripts and at least double that in short screenplays, I have yet to support me and mine with my profession that I so aspire to and absolutely adore.

There are more than 55,000 scripts and projects registered with the Writers Guild of America annually. Approximately 250 or so films are produced and distributed by the major studios each year, probably about triple that or so by independents, and there are the direct to cable films that number somewhere within that bubble. You do the math. My particular line of work isn’t looking so lucrative or glamorous now, is it?

Yet I keep at it. A moth to the flame, a giant slug to the salt bowl, a mosquito to one of those new-fangled gas tank contraptions. I’m a writer. A dramatic one. This is who I am. And I love what I do.

I’ve gotten a few bites. Even reeled in a couple all the way. After earning my certificate of completion in the Professional Programs in Screenwriting online at UCLA’s MFA program, I managed to place in a few contests, and the next year won three of them. That’s how we out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere screenwriters become known: win, place, or show in one of the accepted script competitions. After winning its Children/Family script category, the Breckenridge Festival of Film put me up (and I mean way up—I suffered from altitude sickness the entire time) for the duration of the four-day festival. A win at a local film competition resulted in the production of my first narrative fiction short film that later screened at the New Hampshire Film Expo. Placing in the winner’s circle at the Rhode Island International Film Festival (RIIFF) launched my career.

In RIIFF I found a prize more valuable than any other: exposure to producers, agents, and managers. I won a free listing on the popular scriptwriters’ networking website InkTip dot com where I received a flurry of invitations to submit my script. I flew out to California to visit my family and received my first requests to meet with studio execs and with a manager. Being the professional that I am, I brought along my mother and my daughter for emotional support. After all, someone had to witness the security guard welcoming me by name after he consulted a short list of invitees to Ren-Mar Studios where the “I Love Lucy” show was once taped. We were there to tour the set of “Monk” with a producer for the show, a fellow who had become a friend after he read another of my scripts and agreed to help me with the revisions as we sought avenues attempting to get it produced. (It’s still traveling down some of those avenues….)

Our first studio visit was to a small special effects, props, and costume company that had an impressive array of items they had created for various films and television shows. We saw Buffy’s amulet that she wore in her last episode, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze suit from one of the “Batman” movies, and weapons from those epic movies that need them. More impressive was Wharf’s stand-in from “Star Trek,” one of the company’s co-founders. Most impressive was when the studio exec entered the conference room, slammed my script on the table, and said, “I love it! I want it!”

Within two days I had a contract, a week later I had an agent, and months later I had…good memories of a fun ride. Unfortunately this business takes money, lots of it. When the money men pulled out, disappointment descended upon the five writers the small special effects company had signed. I imagine an even greater disappointment fell on the company’s co-founders who were thrilled with their new and fleeting status as a production studio.

That script, “The Princess and the Pirate,” later made its way to an up and coming animation studio, Hatchling Studios, where it presently sits in queue, awaiting time and, you guessed it: money. The CEO of the studio so liked my writing that he asked me to write treatments for several possible animated television series, and he has the rights to another of my feature specs, “Mirror Prophecy,” which happens to be my daughter’s all time favorite of my collection. It’s the story of twin teen girls separated at birth who must reunite in order to save their planet, and ultimately the galaxy. The best part is that the two use their brains to outwit their enemy.

I do manage to squeeze out some income from this profession that taunts me daily. I teach all things screenwriting at the University of New Hampshire, lead scriptwriting and pitching workshops for film festivals, critique client screenplays, write corporate scripts, and—my trophy project to date—I wrote a planetarium show that screens at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord, New Hampshire.

“Breathing Space” is a show Al Gore would approve of, I think. Targeted to the junior high crowd, the show tackles the global warming issue head-on. My research meant I interviewed meteorologists, geologists, glaciologists, earth-scientists, astrophysicists, and a skateboarder. While the scientists provided the information and data I needed to create my script, my son provided the jargon the story needed to connect with its audience.

Connecting with his audience is something Hollywood tough-guy actor Danny Trejo does well. He was kind enough to help out in a staged reading of three winning short screenplays. It was part of the two-day long ScriptBiz Screenwriting Seminar, for which I served as director at the time and now continue on in a consultant role. (The seminar is just one of many spin-off programs of the annual Rhode Island International Film Festival.)

Following the reading an impromptu question and answer period ensued. The unscheduled event lasted more than an hour, which was at least a half hour beyond what Danny could really spare before he was expected at his next venue. But he was enjoying himself with the small enthusiastic crowd, a group of fellow filmmakers who knew his career well and wanted to hear more. The candor in which he responded to the numerous inquiries was warm and refreshing, breaking any preconceived notions of “Hollywood types.”

Following his staged reading and Q&A session, I drove Danny and his manager, Director Joe Eckhardt, back to their hotel. Unfortunately, I neglected to tell them that while I served as director of this particular arm of the film festival, it was only my second trip to the confusing city of Providence. I think they knew they were in trouble when I couldn’t find the exit to the parking garage. “Uhh, I think you’re in the wrong place,” Danny pointed to the commuter exit that I had inadvertently entered. Five minutes and many car horns later, I finally managed to shimmy out of queue and cheerily announced, “they don’t have parking garages in New Hampshire, unless you count the one at the airport.” Danny and Joe did not look at all surprised.

Afterward as I let my excellent sense of direction guide me down a road I’d never seen before (or since), Danny asked if I would be attending the premiere of his and Joe’s documentary “Champion,” which was screening the next night. I became very quiet, trying to find the words. Ultimately I decided the truth was best. “I wanted to,” I began, “but my fourteen year old son is having some trouble. He really needs me home right now.”

For the first time on that crazy ride Danny turned and looked me in the eye. “That’s awesome,” he said. He meant it, too. Danny is the kind of person who cares more about people than he does about the business. He devotes himself to helping young men who are having trouble finding their way.

Later that evening, after all the screenings and the parties, as my friends and I headed for our cars, we heard my name yelled from among the outdoor cafĂ© tables. Joe Eckhardt came running. “Wait here a moment,” he asked more than asserted. A few minutes later he returned with a DVD copy of “Champion,” the documentary of Danny’s extraordinary path that led him from prison to helping parolees and young people who find themselves in trouble with the law. Helping one young man avoid the temptation of drugs and alcohol on the job is what led to Danny’s acting career; the job was on a movie set where Danny ultimately was discovered, going on to appear in films like “Con-Air” and “Desperado” to menace stars Nicholas Cage and Antonio Banderas.

“Danny wanted you to have a copy to share with your son,” Joe said as he handed me a copy of the DVD. Six months later I learned “Champion” was still among my son’s top three favorite DVDs, along with “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Rat Race.” Now that’s connecting with your audience.

I teach “write what you know” and begin all my writing seminars and classes with a storytelling exercise that calls on each participant to dig deep within themselves to find a story worthy of sharing with the group. Usually it’s something funny, often it’s about the storyteller, and it is always personal. It’s an exercise designed to open people up to the treasure trove of material within themselves.

When asked a few years ago to write a short script that would showcase the directing talents of my now good friend Mark Constance, a member of the director’s guild and a fellow New Hampshire resident, I dug deep within my store of unwritten family tales. Mark wanted something that would not only show his capabilities as a director and mine as a writer, but he had a specific project in mind at the time: an adaptation of a novel that flirted with the mob.

So one weekend I sat down and contemplated all the brushes with the mob stories my dad had regaled us with over the years. Growing up in inner city Cleveland my father became street wise at a young age and did not hesitate to stand up for himself and his friends against the sons of the mob boss and his cohorts. Though his stories are both amusing and frightening, none stood on their own as a short script.

That’s when I introduced the classic Hollywood “What if?” What if my father had taken that offer upon graduation from Case Western Reserve and joined the mob to run a front for them? What would drive a man of high moral fabric to such a decision when the choice meant he had to make a hit in order to join the family? What would the agony of that choice do to the man? Would he ultimately pull the trigger?

The result was “The Provider,” an 18-page short script that Mark and I have rewritten and tweaked, and which we plan to one day film. The project also opened my mind to my father’s other brush with the mob stories and after several years I have at last penned all three in my trilogy that I hope will one day be committed to film and distributed together.

It also opened me up to the cathartic exercise of writing. Where as before I had often penned entertaining scripts for a younger audience, or danced around the enormous issues in my own life in stories masked in sci-fi or other far-flung worlds, I began writing from my soul. In doing so, I finally began connecting with my first desired audience: producers and directors who can ultimately bring my words to viewers.

A few years ago I lost my father at the too early age of 61 to cancer, and two years later I lost a good college girlfriend who was not yet 40 to the monstrous disease. Others were losing loved ones to it, as well, or fighting it, and soon I learned I had a runaway growth in my uterus. While mine turned out benign, it resulted in a total hysterectomy that almost cost me my life in the recovery room.

Talk about a well of stories from which to draw.

I soon penned the story about a man’s emotional ride through the guilt of battling his wife and so much hurt that almost led to divorce…until they both learned of her diagnoses that quickly led to her funeral. The story takes place at a cemetery over the course of a day about a year after his wife’s death. In fifteen pages he manages to navigate the layers of his guilt so he can live his own life again. “The Cartographer” resonated with several producers and directors and has finally landed with Filmmaker Ken Dietiker in Washington State, where it sits in a quasi preproduction awaiting the right timing. That connection has also led to my writing and voicing over corporate films for him, most recently for his General Dynamics customer.

My latest cathartic exercise, “Tin Cat,” has also resonated with three directors and may end up as my next produced short film. In it I hit my professional stride. I entered the short script into a competition, something I rarely do anymore since the competitions have earned me what I originally sought: an agent and a method by which to open many of the doors I needed and still require. During a blind judging a friend e-mailed around midnight. “This must be your script!” he wrote, excited by the story, convinced that it was mine. It was gratifying to learn that he recognized my writing style, for in his discovery I realized that I had found my own unique voice.

I am now working on further developing my voice as a graduate student enrolled in the MFA in Creative Writing low-residency program at Goddard College. My latest attempt is to take some of the most difficult pains in my past and develop them into a thriller. I took the “What if” approach to my own life, and infused psychological thriller nuances as I endeavor to weave my story.

Meanwhile, I sit poised as one of two writers attached to a new television dramatic series that has been picked up three times, the latest in early July. It’s attracted huge bites and looks as promising as any of my projects, maybe more so for the group effort that’s involved and for the high caliber of people attached to the project. I’ve been along for the ride for two years and am looking forward to the possibility of writing for the show, especially since my newly developed unique voice so neatly feathers in with the voice of the show’s creator.

As I daydream about the fat paychecks that will come with a project of that magnitude, I continue to approach my profession with realistic expectations. I am placing the final touches on my non-fiction book proposal, which has already been requested by an editor at a west coast publishing house. The book focuses on the art of penning the short screenplay, a unique art form that can help aspiring writers, directors, and producers launch their careers in this intriguing and enigmatic business.

I think of short scripts and the resulting films as the poetry of the cinematic world, which appears in my title: “Poetry in Motion Pictures.” Their themes are often simple, yet powerful, and because of the brevity, it seems many filmmakers are willing to experiment with the genre. They are also less expensive to produce since their brief length often limits the locations and number of actors. Short films are frequently utilized as a “calling card” for the industry. It’s an opportunity for a director to showcase his talent, for a writer to gain production credits, and for everyone else involved to take that first bold step into filmmaking or into a filmmaking role they’ve never before experienced.

Two years ago at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, after a day of leading screenwriting seminars, my college roommate and I made our way up the Providence City Hall steps to the third floor where an after hours party raged on. At the top of the stairs waiting for the elevator was an actor turned filmmaker I recognized instantly. “Shoot!” I thought. “Now I actually have to do as I preach: I have to pitch to him.”

Andrew McCarthy (ho of 1980s Brat Pack fame) and I chatted for a few minutes about his short film debut as a director and what he might like to direct next. At the end of what became an enjoyable few minutes he asked me to send him one of my feature length spec scripts. It didn’t matter that he didn’t have a business card to share with me, for a couple days later his manager and I were in e-mail contact. Andrew had asked him to read one of my scripts. He and his manager also sent me a copy of his short film “News for the Church” and the script that led to it for use in my class. While we haven’t yet worked together on a project, we’ve stayed in touch since. In this business you never know when the stars will converge and everything will fall into place for a project to come to fruition.

At another workshop I led last fall in Portsmouth, N.H., for the New Hampshire Film Expo, one participant stated that he attended my workshop just to meet me. I recognized the actor from his guest appearance on an episode of “The West Wing,” so I was even more flattered than I might normally have been. He was called out early, but left his business card behind and asked me to phone him.

The weekend festivities long behind us, I pulled out his business card and regarded it carefully. The gold statuette of the Emmy stood boldly, prominently. I realized he was the then governor of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. I was nervous, but none the less did as I was asked: I rang Conrad Bachmann up in his L.A. home. Turns out he leads a similar workshop for members of the Academy and would like me to consider helping out next time I’m in L.A. And he so liked one of my scripts, that he agreed to play the role of the murderous bartender, should the project ever be greenlit.

While the business may not be putting much in the way of fancy food on my family’s table, it does provide rich after dinner discussions and opens my children’s minds to the endless possibilities of stories that lie within them. So, on that pseudo-philosophical note, I think I will jump into my blow-up pool and consider what story I might next commit to paper, with or without the wildcard “What if” thrown into the mix.

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