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by Susan Royal

The ever-popular "Coffee Talk" series at the Los Angeles Film Festival – covering Directing, Acting, Composing and Screenwriting – sold out immediately this year, as usual.

The Screenwriting Coffee Talk was moderated by writer/director Allison Anders (Gas, Food Lodging; Mi Vida Loca, Grace of My Heart). She was joined by writer/director Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams, All of Me, Sneakers) and the writing team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (1408, Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt).

Anders kicked things off by asking how the others pick a project and get started.

Robinson said, "I start with something that obsesses me — a piece of history, a character or book I'm reading. Then I do lots and lots of research. I don't know if it's a movie until I've done the research and get to the point where, 'Gee it smells like a movie.' But I do as many months of research as I can just to avoid starting."

They all agreed avoidance of starting was a common problem, but Karaszewski said it helped a lot having a writing partner. "Because then you can call the other guy's bluff – 'Hey man, we don't need to go to the library again.'

"Of course we research differently. People like Ed Wood and Andy Kaufman don't have a lot of books written about them, so we have to act more like journalists, calling people up, following leads."

The Alexander/Karaszewski team is in fact known for scripts about odd characters. It can be highly beneficial for screenwriters to establish an identity for themselves. Alexander told of a meeting he and his partner had with Jim Bridges about an idea they had for an adventure. Bridges scolded them, "What are you talking about? You guys have established yourselves as the guys who can write about people living in the margins – Ed Wood, Larry Flynt, Andy Kaufman. Do you know how hard it is for writers to establish an identity?"

When Anders asked if the others employed outlines, Robinson replied, "Not an actual outline. More like an assemblage of notes in some sort of order."

Karaszewski began, "We try to do index cards. It's looser than…" and his partner interjected, "Lazier." Karaszewski continued, "Okay, lazier than an outline."

Robinson said he was never able to figure out how to use index cards and asked them to explain their system. "What do you put on a card -- a scene?"

Karaszewski explained, "It tends to be a scene but can be what we call a 'balloon payment.' Like writing 'John goes home' -- which may eventually entail 30 pages of writing."

When Robinson asked him if they use a color code system, he replied, "You give us too much credit."

On the subject of adapted screenplays, Robinson offered that one can't really adapt a book into a movie. When trying to adapt the book Shoeless Joe into the screenplay Field of Dreams he carefully transferred exact scene descriptions and prose from W.P. Kinsella's book. His producer read it and told him, "Congratulations. You have just written Kinsella's first draft of the screenplay. Now go write the movie." Robinson said he realized that "at a certain point you have to write a movie and have to be true to the movie, while trying to achieve what you felt reading the book."

When Anders asked how much of their material comes from personal life, Alexander replied, "Wall-to-wall. My son says something to me – tomorrow it's in the screenplay."

She asked if it was difficult, therefore, to write a period piece. He said, "We don't take on anything before the twenties."

Robinson added, "Actually the forties are the cut-off point for me. Before then, the characters may be fascinating, but if I don't hear how they talk, I just don't get them in the way I need to get them in order to write the movie. You have to have so much confidence to write a movie. I've got to believe that I'm the perfect person to write the film, that there's no one better for this, to get myself started."

"Of course as soon as I start writing I think, 'I'm screwed. This is really hard.' And anybody who doesn't think it's hard is mistaken. Whenever some guy comes up to me, wants me to read his script and says, 'I wrote it in a week. It just wrote itself,' I say, 'Then come back to me in a year because it can't possibly be any good.' You've got to do draft after draft, have lots of people reading it and giving feedback."

Alexander agreed. "My trick is to not put a cover page on it until it's really ready to be read."

Robinson had advice for what to do when you don't agree with a note you're given. "Instead of saying no, it's better to say 'That's interesting,' then find out why they are suggesting the change. Sometimes their rationale is good; it's their idea that sucks. So find out what's behind the note, before rejecting it."

Anders asked the others what they did when they got stuck in their writing. She said, "For me it goes really well until page 60 and then I get stuck. A novelist friend of mine told me to just keep writing. When I told her it would just be crappy, she said, 'So what? It's just paper. Just keep writing through it.' It was good advice."

Karaszewski said, "I find getting out of the house helps. Sometimes Scott and I are working at my home office and someone comes in and sees us both just staring into space. It looks like were doing nothing, so they think why can't we be interrupted?"

Robinson pooh-poohed the notion of writers block. "As long as I know what comes next, I can keep writing. I don't really believe in writers block. Oh that's why I can't write. I have a syndrome."

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