So you want to write a movie…
People, maybe inspired by the recent Oscar awards, who have an idea they’d like to turn into a movie script can get an introduction on Sunday, March 5, at a free workshop. Writing Movies 101, sponsored by the Hermes Art Series at the Mark Twain Library in Redding, is a day-long class (9 to 4), that will be taught by Jeff Fligelman, screenwriter, professor and co-founder of Gotham Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan. Designed for adults, the workshop is also open to high school juniors and seniors.
“This is the full class we teach at Gotham,” Fligelman said. “It is like a marathon with a lot of information, interaction and writing exercises. We’ll discuss how to keep an audience interested, how to tell a story well — telling stories versus telling that story — creating characters, technical stuff that puts a story together… that’s the craft.
“We’ll talk about the things an audience doesn’t see — how a story is constructed, how you start, where you start. What it is that makes a character instantly recognizable and memorable. We’ll do an analysis of The Graduate as an example of a great script, so those attending may want to view it again, or for the first time.” Parts of that movie, as well as Wizard of Oz and Chinatown, will screened as examples of what is being taught.
“I love it when I get sucked into a movie rather than watching it as a screenwriter,” he said. “When you think about it, we don’t spend much time — maybe a couple of hours — with these characters that have become cultural icons — Benjamin Braddock and Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, Jake Gittes and Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown, Dorothy and her friends in The Wizard of Oz — yet we think we know them. How do you do that? What is the distilled art?
“People go to the movies to see a story; the characters must sound realistic, yet push ahead the story,” he continued. “There is a difference between talking versus dialogue… characters in movies don’t talk the same way we do in real life; it may seem that way, but there’s no time in movies for how people really speak, always able to come up with a great line. So how do screenwriters create characters that sound realistic when at the same time they are pushing ahead with a story? We’ll talk about that.”
Also included in the workshop will be something not often discussed — the business end of screenwriting, and the discipline needed to do it. “While people often have ideas for a movie, they may have no idea of how to make a screenplay a reality. And it is writing done on speculation — other than those who are well established, no one pays you to write a screenplay; it does take discipline.
“One interesting thing about writing a screenplay,” Fliegelman notes, “is in truth you are writing for a very small audience, for people who make movies… you have to write a story that a producer can envision on the screen — that’s your audience. You need to create an exciting image that producers can see in their mind’s eye.” And one piece of advice to budding screenwriters? “Steal, steal, steal. Look at what has been successful for others and adapt it to your story… and remember that more Best Picture Academy Awards have gone to adaptations than original screenplays.”
Fligelman and his wife Kathryn Zimmerman moved to Redding with their young son about 12 years ago, and immediately became involved with the Mark Twain Library, volunteering lots of time, and Zimmerman even joined the staff. “We’re happy to do it,” Fligelman notes. “The library is the heart of the town.”
The Hermes Art Series was established ten years ago after the late Helen and Allen Hermes donated their Redding property known as Jean’s Farm to the Mark Twain Library. It had belonged to Twain’s daughter Jean and was near where the library on the corner of Route 53 and Diamond Hill Road was established more than 100 years ago, and Mark Twain himself had lived. The library board then sold the property and used the proceeds to fund the library’s endowment, earmarking a portion to fund the art series to honor Helen and Allen.
The Hermes Art Series honors all the arts — performing, visual and written — and sponsors free events at the library. Fligelman has been an arts advisor to the series since its founding, noting, “We try to present arts in ways that include the audiences.”
This is Fligelman’s first workshop for the library and he says, “It is wonderful to be able to teach writing in Mark Twain’s library in our community.” He began teaching playwriting in New York public schools with a program called Writing on Your Feet and became the education director of Young Playwrights, Inc., hiring and teaching playwrights how to teach.
“It was great,” he said. “We used improv to teach writing, gave the students an idea and let them act it out and I’d write it down and hand it back to them later as a scene, show them how they’d written something and you’d see the lightbulb go off. Teaching is very gratifying, and I learn from my students as well, learn from the questions they ask because you have to be able to answer them.”
He co-founding Gotham Writers’ Workshop with David Grea (now a successful television writer and producer) in 1993, and was an adjunct for five years at Vassar, his alma mater. He’s written Off and Off-Off Broadway plays and sold The Bureau to Castle Rock Pictures, as well as optioned other work.
For more information or to sign up for Writing Movies 101, visit the Mark Twain Library at marktwainlibrary.org or call 203-938-2545. The library is at 439 Redding Road (Route 53), Redding.