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by Susan Royal

  John Landis spoke at Austin Film Fest's Heart of Screenwriting Conference.

The Austin Film Festival recently presented its fifth annual Heart of Screenwriters Conference, celebrating the writer's contribution to film and television. The festival's mission statement is "to offer the writing community an atmosphere for exchange between professionals and the next, new wave of writing and filmmaking talent." Toward that end, over 70 film and TV professionals served as panelists on some 50 seminars.

Bill Broyles and Rita Hsiao spoke at the seminar entitled "Loquacity vs. Brevity: Keeping it Simple." Broyles, the founding editor of Texas Monthly and once editor-in-chief of Newsweek, co-created China Beach and co-wrote Apollo 13. Hsiao wrote Mulan and Toy Story 2. When asked to discuss their approaches to writing the first draft, Hsiao responded, "I'll write whatever comes to mind then go back later to find more creative ways to say it. I just motor in on the first draft and try not to get hung up on anything. I may leave a blank space with a note: 'Joke to come here.' "

Broyles wisecracked, "I stare at my computer then make a note: 'Brilliant script to come here.' I go away and come back but nothing is ever there. Maybe there are writers who can sit down and write a compelling story with brilliant subtext and tight dialogue in the first draft, but I'm not among them. Sometimes you don't even know the potential depths for your script the first time through."

Broyles went on to say that he considers dialogue to be the least important part of the movie. "It comes last. You have to understand the dramatic forces in each scene and really know your characters before you know what they would say and how. Dialogue is the last thing, but the most dangerous thing because it's so easy to be dull and lengthy."

Hsiao agreed and added, "A character can't go off on a monologue in an animated film. Kids get bored by constant yakking, so I try to do it visually." Broyles felt that also pertained to non-animated films. "Adults are bored by monologues, too, with a few rare exceptions such as Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction." He is proudest of scenes he writes which have little or no dialogue. "If you're a writer who really loves to write dialogue-rich scenes, you should be a playwright or novelist. Some of the most moving moments in film have no dialogue at all. The scene in King Vidor's Big Parade, in which the soldier meets a French girl and tries to communicate with her, always makes me cry and there's not a word in it. In Apollo 13 the lift-off and landing scenes are silent but powerful as we switch back and forth between mission control and the astronaut's home."

Hsiao said it is easier to write dialogue when you know who will speak your lines. "When I knew I'd be writing for Eddie Murphy I watched all his films to get a feel for how he sounded which was really helpful in coming up with his dialogue." And it is also useful to hear them speak the lines. "With animated films, you sit in a recording studio and listen to actors say your words five or six times. Often you realize you don't really need some of the lines. When Harvey Fierstein came into the recording studio I saw that he was a really playful kind of guy, so I re-wrote a scene to show that aspect of him."

Broyles asserted that "the better the actor, the less dialogue you need. Tom Hanks is always cutting his lines down, or giving them away to others."

Both panelists warned against expository dialogue. "Actors like to be saying one thing and actually doing another. It's much more interesting to the audience, too," said Broyles. But he added that sometimes you can make on-the-nose dialogue work, "Such as with Kay, who doesn't speak much at all in The Godfather before she delivers the powerful on-the-nose lines: "It was a boy child, Michael. I killed it."

"The Writer/Director" seminar featured Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, director of Cat People and Affliction) and Gary Ross (writer of Big and Dave and writer/director of Pleasantville, which opened the Austin Film Fest). They spoke about writing, directing and writing/directing.

After working for over two years making Pleasantville, Gary Ross said he was anxious to just be a writer again. "I can't wait to get back to sitting alone in a room writing. I'm dying not to have people following me into the bathroom asking me questions."

He felt it was important to stay focused on the central point or theme of the piece, both as a writer and as a director. "When you write a script you shouldn't be chasing a character or stringing a plot together. You should be saying what you want to say. Outlining is the process that gives you clarity about your point of view before you write the script."

Schrader adds that once you start directing a film, things get complicated and you can lose sight of that. "You had a vision when you started the movie, but hundreds of decisions later you hope to have the same vision." He relayed to the group a trick of Richard Linklater, the director of Slacker. He writes his intention for the film on a single piece of paper, folds it up and keeps it in his pocket. When things get complicated on the set, he pulls it out and re-reads it. Ross heartily approved. "So much of directing is holding on to that moment of inspiration that led to you write the script."

Schrader commented that his writing has become more spare. "The more I write, the shorter my scripts get." His last script (for Affliction, which he directed) was only 96 pages. He happened to see some reader's coverage of his script which stated, "At 96 pages this story is too short to be a movie." Of course that's ridiculous. Schrader likes "writing more spare" these days, but not as spare as a Walter Hill script, which he joked reads like this:

"EXT. PRISON - NIGHT
They escape."

And what about the actors' contribution to a script? "Most good actors want to explore the character with you," says Ross. " I like to allow a little creative spontaneity within certain parameters, and as the director you of course set those parameters. But actors have to feel almost as if they're writing the lines even if they don't."

When someone else has directed his scripts (as with Big and Dave), Ross usually stays on the project, rewriting it as he observes the director and actors in rehearsal or even during shooting. However, Schrader, who just wrote his fourth script for Martin Scorsese, doesn't remain past a certain point on Scorsese's projects. "Usually come rehearsal Marty likes the writer to bail, because that's where he begins to assert himself. But he will bring back a writer to play good cop-bad cop. When necessary, I can play the tempermental writer who won't tolerate an actor changing something in my script."

Ross spoke of the difficulty in staying objective during the shooting of a film. Sometimes a director will endlessly tinker with the script, when they actually have a major problem elsewhere such as having cast the wrong actor. Says Ross, "They won't concede the fact that the film is doomed. They keep trying to deal with a 'third act problem' in the script. But how many rivers actually stink upstream?" He gave an example of how easy it is to lose objectivity. He relayed a conversation he'd had with the makers of Howard the Duck who said originally Howard had been an animatronic duck. They had so many problems with it and it looked so terrible that when they decided to go with a guy in a duck suit it was so much better that they thought they had beaten the problem. Explains Ross, "Once your film starts shooting it's easy to be sucked into the fantasy it's working."

Paul Schrader also took part in the seminar entitled "You Looking at Me? Dialogue as Insight Into the Character." He was joined by John Landis (director of Animal House, Trading Places and Coming to America and co-writer/director of The Blues Brothers), Andrew K. Walker (writer of Seven and the upcoming Legend of Sleepy Hollow) and Brian Helgeland (writer of L.A. Confidential).

Helgeland first tackled the topic by indicating that the trick is to get dialogue to sound authentic but not banal as real everyday conversation, to which Walker joked, "Most of what I write is inherently banal."

The panel recounted tales of the challenges they had faced in creating dialogue. Brian Helgeland said he once wrote a script about Vikings and had to figure out how Vikings would talk. He was amazed when people read it and said it really sounded like "authentic Vikings."

This prompted John Landis to relate the famous story of Roy Walston having a fit on the set of My Favorite Martian: "I'm telling you a Martian would not say this!"

Andy Walker talked about the way a good actor can make mediocre dialogue come alive. When watching Seven he was "struck by how badly I'd written that scene where Kevin Spacey rants in the car for twenty minutes. I was stunned and incredibly appreciative that Kevin managed to save it and keep it interesting in spite of my writing."

This panel also shunned the use of expository dialogue but agreed there is sometimes a place for it--such as in James Bond films.

John Landis, who wrote the opening scene of The Spy Who Loved Me in which a skier flies off a mountain and then deploys a parachute, said that he had suggested to the director, Guy Hamilton, that perhaps the film could do without the usual expository prologue. Hamilton explained to him why there had to be one. "The prologue is where we instruct the audience to put their brain under their seats and watch this movie." To which Andy Walker added, "When Bond takes off his wet suit, steps out in a full tuxedo and plants some explosives, we realize we are just being dropped into his life for a couple hours. We can't expect to fully know what's going on, because this guy has his finger in a lot of pies--literally."

Another panel, on the current state of film criticism, bemoaned the demise of the film criticism of the sixties and seventies and the rise of today's more shallow reviewing.

Leonard Klady, a film reviewer for Variety, commented that film criticism has become an adjunct of marketing. Paul Schrader placed the blame squarely on Barry Diller's shoulders. "The studios had tried throughout the sixties and seventies to figure out a way to buy good reviews. Diller finally had a brilliant idea. Just create something that looks like film criticism, but is actually self-promotion by the studios. So Paramount created Entertainment Tonight. And that spawned countless other similar shows the public now watches. And we're left with only a dozen good film critics and they no longer have clout."

They discussed the problem of differentiating between the writer's and director's work on screen. Dale Launer, writer of Ruthless People, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and My Cousin Vinny, said that 90% of the time the director gets credit for what he did, but that's okay because 90% of the time they get blamed for what he did, as well.

Debra Hill, writer/producer of Halloween and co-producer of The Fisher King, was dubious that one can judge a screenplay by watching the film. She described the evolution from script to final film: "There's the version written for the studio execs, there's the shooting script version, the version that gets shot and then the version that comes out of the editing room." Paul Schrader added, "Don't forget there's the movie that gets marketed."

Someone else chimed in, "Then there's the special edition director's cut that comes out years later" to which Kirk Honeycutt, reporter at The Hollywood Reporter, quipped, "And now there is the after-death version, in which Orson Welles finally gets his director's cut."

Some panelists said they try to conveniently remember the good reviews; others can't seem to forget the bad. When Debra Hill recounted Pauline Kael's scathing diatribe against Halloween, she said the biting satire really hurt. But Paul Schrader couldn't resist teasing her with "Yeah, but we're really well paid, so that violin won't hunt."

At the seminar entitled "Feature Funnies: Writing Comedy for the Big Screen," John Landis and Dale Launer were joined by Dan Petrie, Jr. (writer of Beverly Hills Cop, The Big Easy, Tomorrow Never Dies and the President of the WGA West).

In response to the question, "How has comedy changed in film?" Dale Launer said his script of Ruthless People was rejected frequently as being "too dark." But when it finally did get produced it made money, enabling other black comedies, such as Robocop, to get made. John Landis didn't think comedy had changed that much: "When I first saw the attention Jim Carrey was getting, I thought, 'Doesn't anybody remember Jerry Lewis?'" He believes that what is acceptable to put in a comedy has changed, however, thanks predominantly to Monty Python. Or more recently, perhaps, to Bill Clinton. Said Landis, "Would anyone have believed a year ago that television would become 'All blow job, all the time'?"

When asked to describe the discipline they employ to write on deadline, Petrie said, "The deadline is looming, then the deadline passes, then I buy a new stereo and need to set it up..." to which Landis interjected, "I just want you to know that this is coming from the president of the WGA."

Petrie responded, "It's the most exquisite and productive form of procrastination. You can avoid your work and feel enobled."

All agreed that you can't rely on a comic actor to make a film funny when the script isn't. Landis recalled that the scripts for the Don Rickles' television show C.P.O. Sharkey used to have places that said "Don funny here." Landis also talked about how John Belushi's basically sweet personality made his character in Animal House likeable. Regarding another famous actor he directed, Landis said, "I was lucky enough to work with Eddie Murphy [in Trading Places and Coming to America] -- back when he still cared. Betty Thomas was brilliant to make him the straight man and the animals funny in Doctor Dolittle."

This is not to say that actors aren't important. Landis speculated, "There's Something About Mary wouldn't have worked without Cameron Diaz, for example."

In addition to the seminars, the Heart of Screenwriting Conference also included several Roundtable Sessions, at which panelists moved from table to table, enabling each group of eight attendees to directly question one panelist for 20 minutes at a time. At one of those roundtables, "Doing What It Takes," producers, agents, managers, and professional screenwriters offered up advice on everything from how to select a literary agent to how to perfect a pitch.

Panelist Terry Miller was asked about life since winning the Academy's prestigious Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Successfully ensconced at DreamWorks and developing a new TV series with Gary David Goldberg, Miller finds she still needs to spend half of her time hustling. "Screenwriting is a self-run business. You have to promote your own talent and never just rely on your agent for work." Regarding those agents, Miller emphasized finding out who their clients are, how they would market your script and seeing if they really understand your material, before signing with one. "For example, ask who they think would be right for your script."

She suggests trying out your story before committing to writing the script. "I outline everything, then tell a few people the idea and see how they react."

Another panelist, Miller's husband Andrew Marlowe (they met when they both won the Nicholl) had some comments on what one could expect from an agent. The writer of Air Force One said, "The best thing an agent can do for you is put you in a room with somebody who can hire you. The rest is your job."

He had several recommendations as to what to do once in that room: "When you're pitching your screenplay, draw them in like telling a story around a campfire. Don't be too detailed, though. Leave room for them to participate. Once they start asking questions you have them hooked. Be open to their ideas. Part of the pitch is to show that you can establish a working relationship. They are looking at you and thinking, 'Can I spend the next year of my life working with this person?' So never get defensive when they ask questions."

Other panels and seminars yielded the following comments:

On Using Parentheticals and Line Readings
"There's an inherent immorality to it. It's cheating. But I'm all for it because the people reading your script at the studios probably won't get it otherwise."

--Jeremy Pikser

"You must make your script an entertaining read. And not just parentheticals. I go for underlining, italicizing and bold. I can hardly wait until they come out with a software program that lets you use color too."

--Dale Launer


On Writing to Music
"Listening to soundtracks can help me evoke a mood. But no vocals; they're too distracting."

--Rita Hsiao

"The music has to be familiar to me. Nothing new or atonal."

--Bill Broyles


On How Stars Can Change the Script
"On Apollo 13 our view of the Lovells' relationship was that Jim Lovell runs things in space and Marilyn Lovell runs things on Earth. So in one scene we had her driving the two of them in a station wagon. But Tom Hanks isn't going to be driven around in a station wagon by his wife. Instead he drove himself in a macho vette."

--Bill Broyles


On Multiple Writers
"Hollywood has so many writers on one script that producers don't know which one to engage during the shoot."

--Debra Hill

"Hollywood thinks if five writers are good, six are better."

--Paul Schrader


On "Smash Cuts"
"You see a lot of beginners write 'SMASH CUT.'"

--Andrew Kevin Walker

"Yeah. 'Smash cut'. What the hell is that about?"

--John Landis


On Why a Writer Needs an Agent
"I'm a writer. I'm trained to say, 'Yes, please.' I need an agent because at the slightest hint of conflict I take to my bed for four days."

--Steve Harringan


On Influencing Directors
"The director wants your opinion--and that's all he wants by the way--on casting. But if you, through your verbal eloquence and sophistry get him to work with someone he doesn't want to, you're gonna pay for it."

--Paul Schrader


On Jeffrey Katzenberg
"Jeffrey tried to take everything out of Fisher King that made the script special. When he put it into turnaround, we restored the scenes."

--Debra Hill

"When I re-wrote Beverly Hills Cop Katzenberg said, 'Why did you take the good stuff out? Put it back.' And he was right."

--Dan Petrie, Jr.


On Independent Filmmaking
"The indie world is straining the patience of the press by making so damn many movies."

--Paul Schrader

"So damn many inferior movies."

--Dale Launer

"So damn many incoherent, inferior movies."

--Kirk Honeycutt


On Adapting From Another Medium
"I used to have lunch with Hitchcock every week for two and a half years... He loved Animal House... He had a framed cartoon on the wall. There are two goats in a junkyard, they're chewing on reels of film when one says to the other, 'I don't know, I liked the book better.'"

--John Landis


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