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by Susan Royal

Each year the IFP/west Los Angeles Film Festival (formerly the LA Independent Film Fest) presents a "Craft Series" of panel discussions on the broad subjects of writing, directing, etc. This year, as always, the writing session was sold out and the panel was delayed as extra chairs were brought in to accommodate the standbys.

The format for this session consists of two screenwriters casually interviewing each other before opening the floor for questions from the audience. This year's two screenwriters were both director/writers: Tony Bui (Three Seasons and Green Dragon) and Rodrigo Garcia (Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her).

Both Bui and Garcia are products of the Sundance Labs for writing and directing. Each year some 1700 scripts are submitted to the January Writers Lab. Very few are chosen. Some of those lucky filmmakers are later invited to the June Lab, where professional actors, film editors and producers are brought in to help them develop their projects. Bui and Garcia went on to actually make their films, which were then accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, thereby launching both their careers.

Since this was a seminar about the craft of writing, the audience asked a number of questions about the writing process itself. A recurring theme of Garcia's comments was that the main goal of the first draft is just to reach the last page. He stressed just moving forward and getting it done before editing oneself. He commented that some people make a career out of attending writing seminars, visiting writing websites, reading books about writing and that -- while these things can be informative -- they don't get the first draft completed.

When asked what to do when you find yourself in the middle of the second act and getting lost, both writers said they relied heavily on outlining. "That's when it hits -- all those mistakes you've been sweeping under the carpet accumulate and hit you in the second act," laughed Garcia. "I find having an outline is essential. If things are changing direction while I'm writing, I go back and tweak the outline before continuing writing. You save yourself a lot of pain. Write, tweak outline as needed, and write again. I didn't believe in outlines when I started, I thought it would be all newcomers who want to fly by the seat of their artsy pants."

Tony Bui explained his outlining process: "I use index cards on a big wall. Different colors for each character. I switch them around on the wall, which serves as a moving outline. I spend a lot of time staring at this wall, by the way. But it helps me tremendously to have it up there. I know someone who uses three walls of cards: one for themes, one for plot and one for characters."

Garcia offered this tip for managing all the characters in an ensemble film: "With an ensemble film, it's very helpful to break out each character's story separately and see if it makes sense on its own."

When asked if he wrote differently for studio films than for independent films, Bui said he always writes with budgets in mind. Garcia agreed, adding, "Mexican children say the size of the rock depends upon the size of the frog you're trying to kill."

Both emphasized the importance of writing truly original material. Said Garcia, "If while you're writing it's starting to feel like a movie you've seen before, change gears." Bui said he accomplishes this by trying to write something so personal that he's convinced if he doesn't write it, it will never be written.

Garcia added, "I write shamelessly for actors. I am trying to hook the big fish. I'm not writing for my neighbor. I'm thinking, "Is Robert DeNiro going to want to say this? What would Meryl Streep or Gene Hackman think about this?" They are the big animals you're trying to catch. You have to write big pieces of meat to attract the big lions and tigers."

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