THE WGA SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL SCREENPLAY COFFEEHOUSE MOVES TO MAIN STREET
At this year's Sundance Film Fest, The Writers Guild of America, west moved its sixth annual Screenplay Coffeehouse from Prospector Square Inn to larger quarters at the Main Street Mall. Festival-goers seeking respite from the movie madness of Main Street could come in from the cold, sit down with a latte and relax or read a script provided by the coffeehouse's script library.
The Screenplay Coffeehouse hosted a daily speaker series which kicked off with screenwriter Naomi Foner (Running On Empty) being interviewed by screenwriter/novelist Howard Rodman (Joe Gould's Secret). Both had just returned from the January Sundance Screenwriters Lab held outside of Park City at the Sundance Institute and were clearly energized by the experience. Said Rodman, "Naomi and I just came down the mountain from the Sundance Screenwriter's Lab, which is the heart and soul of Sundance." They were happy to share some of the advice they had given to the select participants at the Lab.
Since the topic of this session was "Writing the Character-driven Screenplay," Rodman asked Foner how one can continue to write this type of project in an industry that sometimes uses words like "small" or "smart" or "character-driven" as a pejorative. Foner acknowledged that it has become increasingly difficult to get such screenplays made. "A lot of those stories need to be told now on the fringe. You may have to write them on spec or for cable or get independent funding for them. Within Hollywood sometimes those kinds of jobs are given as rewards to writers for having done the successful Hollywood film.
"The real stories that need to be told are about everyday people. The stories that teach us and change our lives are the ones about people like us. We can take something away from stories that somehow embody something larger, even though they seem small. Those are the ones you see at Sundance, that you talk about at the Writers Lab, that keep getting harder to get made, but that I encourage people to write."
Foner likes to compare the screenwriting process to choosing the frameline of a photograph. "As a writer you chose to put your camera somewhere. The frameline concept helps me deal with the fact that screenwriting is as much about what you leave out as what you put in. It's very much about what you look at, but some of the best films and best photographs are kind of asking you to imagine what is slightly outside the frame."
She's also a believer in basing stories on real life. "I'm not good at making things up. I hope that I can consider myself an observer. I strongly suggest that you lean heavily on cribbing from life. For example, in Running On Empty, when the family doesn't have money to buy a new scarf or gloves the father goes to the public library and asks to see the lost and found, because I was told that was one way people managed to survive while living underground. I can't make something up that's better than that specific detail. Make people as real as possible and as specific as possible. I'm always moved when I learn something enormously specific about somebody so I try to know intimate, personal details about the characters before I bring them into the frameline."
Foner doesn't try to outline the whole story before starting. "I think you need to know your first scene and your last scene and a lot of the stuff in the middle is pretty plastic. I usually reach the same ending I originally envisioned but I didn't take the same route I expected. For me, that's a sign that I did good character work, because if I put very specific characters into a real world they will make choices which surprise me.
"I think the first scene is enormously important. It needs to catch your attention. Find a way to embody the world you are going to be in for the story right in the opening moments, or the dilemma your main characters are going to be involved in and if you can do it without saying a word, that's fantastic. You will never forget a scene like that because it's a microcosm of the film and starts you off with some degree of energy and of course energy is extremely important to get you through a movie. But finding the first scene is hard and you shouldn't settle for what it might be."
Rodman asked Foner to discuss the importance of a film's ending. "Your choice about where you stop your story is what forms your story. It's been a big frustration for me that many of the films I see and books I read these days don't really have endings. They just stop telling the story. Without a real ending a story doesn't really have any meaning. I don't think you can start to write without knowing why you are trying to tell the story. For me it's an urgent part of the process. I think it's important to know why you've stopped something somewhere. You need to be sure that you've reached your audience. I don't think everything is a screenplay, by the way. I think there are stories that are better told as short stories or plays or novels and I think each story finds it form. So one of the first things you have to do is figure out if the story you're writing actually is a screenplay. Give some thought to the correct form for the content."
Foner asked Rodman to share his thoughts about structure. "I think when you go to instructors to learn screenwriting you are actually taught screenwriting structure, as if screenwriting were just a structural exercise. When I first came to L.A. I was assigned by Premiere Magazine to write an article about the gurus of the screenplay, such as Truby, McKee and Syd Field. I learned their theories on structure which are interesting to know and useful to have in the back of your head, but it seems to have become supremely useful to the development executive as a tool with which to clobber screenwriters like baby seals....'Where's your plot point? Wham!' Seriously, the job you have when you're writing a screenplay is to come up with a structure that is as inevitable and as astonishing as real life is. Life is infinitely more complex and beautifully structured than the beats we try to put it into when writing. People's lives are always far more amazing than what is sold to us as life in the movies and so part of our job is to see if we can pay respect to that in writing."
Foner said she had never taken any of those courses and never thought about "acts" when writing. "I'm very dubious about this three-act structure. If it helps you, that's great, but if it keeps you from telling your story, throw it out. To me it's like worrying about grammar before you learn a language. My advice is to put your story down on paper then re-read it after a period of time and see if you've effectively told the story. I like to give it to people I trust to let me know what's working and what's missing. And if you hear from three people that the same thing is wrong, it's wrong. And it will still be wrong even if the picture gets made."
Foner stressed the importance of determining the point of view before beginning. "You're never quite sure on how you're going to get the door to crack open on how to tell the story. Sometimes it's a matter of finding out whose story it is. For years I'd wanted to write about what it was like to be politically active in the sixties and seventies. I had very intimate connections to people who had really put their lives on the line back then but it wasn't until Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne found a newspaper article about some young kids whose parents had been arrested in upstate New York that I got the key into this. Instead of telling the parents' story, they wanted to tell the kids' story and I thought it was a brilliant idea."
Both of the writers discussed how they deal with the blank page. Foner said, "Until I know what I'm doing, I don't sit down before the blank page. The blank page can be so daunting. For me it requires that I build up a head of steam so that I know what I want to say before I sit down. I can't just stare at a blank page."
Rodman said, "Sometimes I write something before I'm actually ready to write and when I wake up the next morning and see that it's terrible I throw it out, and I write something else and that might be terrible and I throw it out but after awhile, ultimately, it gets less sucky. You know, good writing is built on mountains of crumpled paper."
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