So you wanna be a screenwriter . . .
By Bill Stamets
"Unlike many of you, I don't consider myself an artist," said Ira Deutchman, the keynote speaker opening Script Sessions. "I'm going to get a bit controversial. I don't think there's anything wrong with working with formulas, it's what you do with them that counts." Deutchman, the founder and president of an independent film production company called Redeemable Features, was appearing at a three-day screenwriting workshop put on by CineStory--a screenwriters' conservatory--and Columbia College. He once ran a film society at Northwestern, and now teaches at Columbia University on the side. He bashed the latest batch of independent films at the Sundance festival for their absurdly antiaudience posture. "Look at the career of someone like Jean-Luc Godard. He spent his life deconstructing the pantheon and he never broke through to an audience. He grew tiresome."
Script Sessions drew over a hundred aspiring screenwriters who are on a tireless quest for formulas to Hollywood success. In the clubby environs of the Union League, where 39 brands of cigars are sold from under a glass counter in the lobby, Script Sessions set up shop on the eighth floor. Registration tables carried flyers touting the latest software from FictionMaster and Dramatica ("At the click of a button see which classic stories share the same structural elements as your story"). Collaborator's Version III Plus includes a "Conflict Thesaurus" and "Conflict Arena." There are also reference books for injecting realism: Deadly Doses: A Writer's Guide to Poisons; Cause of Death: A Writer's Guide to Death, Murder & Forensic Medicine; and Malicious Intent: A Writer's Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists and Other Criminals Think.
CineStory cofounder Dona Cooper, who at age 13 got into a screaming match with the boy next door over the faulty dramatic structure of Sartre's Nausea, sold copies of her handbook Writing Great Screenplays for Film and TV. Cooper, a senior vice president of daytime programming at ABC Entertainment, likens screenwriting to erecting a roller coaster with "load-bearing pillars of plot." Anticipate your audience's "emotional ups and downs," she advises in her handbook. "It's almost as if you could hook up EKGs to the bodies of your viewers." You'll hear "the clear beep-beep-beep of an internal Geiger counter" when you connect with your script's "dramatic center." It's a "visceral click," she writes.
Various speakers--including the screenwriters of Groundhog Day, Georgia, and Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead--showed clips from the movies that affected them most. Among the 16 clips were scenes from Around the World in 80 Days and My Brilliant Career, where the heroine announces: "I want to be a writer." Each clip elicited a round of applause that seemed to celebrate the art form and congratulate the tastes of the speakers, with further kudos going to those who got choked up while commenting on their selections.
The oddest choice was a double bill from Ken Kokin, the coproducer of The Usual Suspects. He juxtaposed a scene from Fritz Lang's child-murder thriller M with a Nazi rally scene from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will that ended with a close-up of a monumental swastika. The applause afterward was notably muted. "My thing as an artist is to be very aware of your world and what's going on," he explained.
On Sunday Kokin hosted a session where he detailed the hectic life of a producer. His current roster of 15 production possibilities includes Cleveland Mob and LA Cop. A bit fidgety, he interlaced three pens between the fingers of his right hand and complained that he hadn't gone surfing in over a year.
Afterward he met privately with screenwriters to hear their pitches. (The CineStory brochure cautioned attendees, "Please remember: no pitching allowed except in designated pitch sessions.") Listening to the opening scene of a romantic-comedy caper involving an HIV positive Texan who marries to get health insurance, Kokin counseled one screenwriter: "The line 'Hot pink azalea bushes as tall as basketball players' is good for the reader, but it does nothing for the movie." He dispensed such quasi-Zen one-liners as "Figure out what you want to say, then don't say it" and "Let's see it without saying it."
Kokin's next appointment was with DonnaMarie Vaughan. She pitched her screenplay about a serial killer with terminal ovarian cancer who custom executes her victims in grisly styles inspired by the methods they have used to abuse their children. A mom on cocaine lets her baby get critically sunburned, so the killer irons off the unmindful parent's face and douses her with barbeque starter fluid. There's a love angle, there are bureaucratic obstacles between the child-services department and homicide detectives, there's a sleazy senator who's a copycat killer. "Cut to the chase," prompts Kokin, as plot threads intricately tangle. "How do they figure out it's her?"
Kokin gave Vaughan points for a compelling presentation, but worried about her business acumen when she mentioned a one-page, no-pay option she signed after her script won an honorable mention in a Colorado contest. "Me, I want to write," she said. "I don't want to worry about points in other countries." o