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Any lover of film, as well as audiences all over the world, have enjoyed the work of this legendary writer/producer/director. He spoke to a SRO crowd in a stuffy, cramped room; with all of us happy to bear the discomfort in order to hear what he had to say.

Mr. Kasdan’s movie credits include: Body Heat, The Accidental Tourist, The Big Chill, Wyatt Earp, Silverado, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and The Bodyguard. He fought against a Hollywood system early on (that didn’t and still doesn’t understand the ensemble story) in order to make The Big Chill, a movie that MUST be studied if you want to write a script giving equal weight to every character. He helped George Lucas continue the Star Wars saga to become some of the most successful and influential movies ever made. But I suspect most of us were there out of love and respect for Kasdan’s body of work, and how he has kept alive the flame of art within his work throughout the years. I wish I had taken more notes, but here’s what I did scribble down during his wonderful talk. Make sure you attend his panels if you ever get the chance. His insights are consistently provocative and keen.

  1. Seven Samurai (a film by Akira Kurosawa) is the best movie ever made.

If you are not familiar with the films of Kurosawa, watch them, and watch them all. Kasdan considers this Japanese director to be one of the greatest to ever grace the screen with his work, producing perfect classics. If you really want to write good movies, Kurosawa’s body of work is one you absolutely cannot skip. Kasdan deconstructed some of Kurosawa’s stories and characters to give us examples of how they contain every necessary element for masterful storytelling in film. (One of my personal favorite gangster films is Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well).

  1. There are only three kinds of stories: 1). Someone comes to town. 2). Someone goes on a journey, and 3). Someone comes to town and then goes on a journey. He went on to elucidate with examples from well-known classics, and I’m betting you can look at your own favorites and see how his statement bears true.
  2. When writing an ensemble script, give each character a different, predominant personality trait such as reliability, vanity, courage, confusion, etc., in order to create differentiation and range that equates to a full “team” working together to tell your tale.
  3. Hollywood has cut jobs by 25% in recent years due to the suffering economy, making entry harder than ever. He is also of the opinion that the work coming out of Hollywood isn’t anywhere near as good as it used to be.

Writer’s be warned.

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This panel degenerated into a steaming plate of Hollywood arrogance, but I did manage to wrestle a few gems of wisdom, especially those from Lawrence Kasdan, who kept nudging things back on topic.

 

Below are highlights on advice offered:

 

  •  Use what you know to write what you want. In other words, what you know can bring the stories you want to tell alive with the details of experience. This is good advice for all writers.
  • Hate your day job. This interesting POV from Kasdan was based on how he, like myself, started a writing career in advertising. He hated it (more than I did, apparently. But I’ve had worse jobs), and feels that if you can adapt to and tolerate your day job, it won’t give you the impetus you need to keep writing and trying to break into film. Interesting thought…
  • Define what’s important in your story, and defend that at all costs. Like much of the conversation by this panel, this was off-topic, and does not come into play until you’ve sold a screenplay, but it’s a good point that applies to much more than storytelling. We all have to compromise in life and in work. Defining what you’re not willing to compromise on is a strong foundation on which to stand. The rest, as we all know, is negotiable.
  • Stay relaxed in meetings, and don’t say “no” to notes. Again, not about breaking in but applies once you do. All writers get “notes” from executives on their story once their script is sold. The idea is that you never give a flat-out “no” when getting this feedback, but rather, you should stay relaxed, remember how terrified studio people are about betting on any project and the power the writer really has in the process (I heard of this prevailing fear in several panels), and try to figure out the spirit of the feedback received rather than the exact letter of it. One helpful hint was to make changes that YOU feel addresses the issue/s raised, and present those by prefacing with: “Inspired by your notes, I….” (which I think is rather brilliant).
  • Start your 2nd screenplay before marketing your 1st. Tapping into the excitement and inspiration inherent in a new project can help a writer deal with the ensuing “nos” they’re bound to get when starting out. One writer quipped: “You’ve got to be like the T-1000 in Terminator II, so no matter what happens, you morph back into your original shape.” Cute.
  • D.I.Y. Tremendous revolution in Independent film-making. A writer doesn’t have to go through the jaded Hollywood system anymore. They can shoot it themselves or collaborate with others who want to make films. (Good advice for the highly energetic. But be prepared for the real work this means).
  • Balance your writer’s solitude with community. Self explanatory, right? Otherwise, I think one turns into a sort of troll.
  • Write even when you’re afraid to write. The act alone will lead eventually to a momentary lapse of the fear.     Another gem from Kasdan.

Offering but a smidgeon of interesting tips over the course of a long hour, I did regret the time spent here because there were so many interesting panels I wanted to attend. Yes, consider the WGA a competent and required legal resource for protecting your intellectual property, but if my experience was the norm, don’t expect much from them at conferences.


Of all the sessions I attended during the conference, I have to say that the Creative Roundtables were the most rewarding. Attendees can only sign up for one roundtable, where about twelve panelists sit at various six-chaired tables, speak to conference attendees and answer questions. Time is short, and you change tables three times during the session. Who you sit with is by chance more than choice. I was most fortunate to sit with only five other attendees at a table with Jim Uhls (Fight Club), and Pen Densham (Moll Flanders).

PEN DENSHAM: Founder and Co-Chairman of Trilogy Entertainment Group. Film credits include Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Moll Flanders and Houdini. TV Credits include resurrecting Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. Author of “Riding the Alligator” – on writing screenplays and strategies for a career in Hollywood.

A delightfully humble and helpful panelist, Pen shared his early start, from dropping out of high school in the U.K. and moving to Canada where his career start was funded in part by a government program. He also shared his early lack of confidence in his skills, which he eventually overcame. He advised us to write for ourselves; to write the stories we want to tell because, even if they don’t sell, this form of writing nurtures the writer’s creative spirit, and that approach constantly builds the writer’s confidence and skill. He repeatedly reminded us that he only knew his own story, that each writer must find their own path and methods for understanding what works, but he offered what I thought was a sound strategy for approaching the many drafts needed to complete a screenplay:

FIRST DRAFT: “Write crap.” He said the first draft is about exploration. Let yourself off your self-critical hook and just explore your story, whatever comes. The first draft is not about anything but letting the story unfold until you reach Fade Out. Allowing yourself total freedom is critical, according to Pen. Don’t worry about how “good” it is, rather, have fun and play with the possibilities.

SECOND DRAFT: Check for clear “sign posts.” Pen described this as each element logically leading and building to the next in your story. Are the scenes well chosen to move your story forward? Is your story clear? Do all your scenes make sense within the context of the whole story?

THIRD DRAFT: Cut words. Screenplays are what Pen described as “emotional poetry,” which is what all great screenplays must strive to be. Stories that elicit emotion is something I heard again and again at the conference. Must be something to that, huh?

FOURTH DRAFT: Dialogue. Quicken and tighten. Although soliloquies are occasionally found in the movies we love, most dialogue should be honed with an eye toward how it sounds when spoken. Is it natural? Is it abbreviated, like it is when we speak to each other in real life? Is it relevant? Is it “on the nose,” i.e., revealing too much of what the character really wants? Or does it skirt the issue a bit, like most humans do, reluctant to give away everything they are after?

FIFTH DRAFT: Check your descriptions. Pen said our descriptions should never read like laundry lists, but should imply emotion and conjure the readers imagination. Cut the fluff, and “challenge the reader to pay attention.” I thought that was great advice.

One of my favorite panelists at the conference, I’ll be buying Pen’s book and advise all aspiring screenwriters who want to tell powerful, heart-felt stories to do the same.

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JIM UHLS: Screenwriter (adaptation) Fight Club.

For most film aficionados, the movie Fight Club needs no introduction. In my opinion, it is one of the more important films in recent years, both artistically and socially. The level of craft embodied in the writing, acting and direction (from the Godlike David Fincher) is about as good as Hollywood gets. If you really want to hunker down with this film as a study piece (highly advisable), be sure to watch it with all the fabulous commentary tracks, from which you will learn a great deal.

Jim Uhls spoke at length about writing in general. The one question I wanted answered and asked was: how did you get the job of writing the adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s controversial and ground-breaking novel? His answer was surprising, and one I found most helpful to all aspiring screenwriters.

He said he wrote a spec script that, though never sold, was well-received because it demonstrated his ability to create gritty characters capable of attracting the best actors. According to Uhls,writing a spec script full of characters that actors will fight to play, rather than one geared for more commercial appeal, is one of the best tactics for an unknown writer to get their foot in Hollywood’s proverbial door.

Prior to writing the Fight Club script, Jim had never sold a screenplay. How’s that for hitting a career bulls-eye right out of the gate? I am Jack’s bloated envy…


So, you wanna be a screenwriter?

This was my first year to participate in the AFF. First, as a judge for the screenplay competition, a volunteer service for which all judges had to be seriously vetted, as well as recommended by an existing reader/judge. The AFF received a record-setting number of entries this year (a hair under 6000), and over 100 first-round readers worked hard to narrow down the entries for the semi-finalist and finalist judges. Our work entailed reading over 100 screenplays each, and writing coverage notes on 70 of them, explaining why we were sending the work on or why we passed. These notes covered Concept, Plot, Structure, Characters and Dialogue. It was a lot of work! But resulted in an all-access Producer’s Badge, and a more refined understanding of what works – and what doesn’t – in the highly-specific form of screenplay storytelling.

Interestingly enough, the winner of this year’s AFF screenwriting competition also won the highly esteemed and coveted AIF Nichol award! This says a lot about the work of the winner, as well as the quality of the judges here in Austin. 

New articles will cover some panels I attended, offering highlights of what I considered to be the choice gems of wisdom offered by Hollywood icons and newcomers who write, direct and produce for both film and television, such as:

Michael Arndt (The Incredibles/Little Miss Sunshine), Alec Berg (Seinfeld/Curb Your Enthusiasm), Shane Black (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang/Lethal Weapon), Pen Densham (Moll Flanders/Robin Hood/Twilight Zone), Pamela Gray (Music of the Heart), Elizabeth Hunter (Apollo 13/Twelve Monkeys/Jumping the Broom), Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat/The Big Chill/Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi), Rhett Reese (Monsters, Inc./Zombieland), Alvaro Rodriguez (Machete), Juliet Snowden (Knowing), Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands/Adams Family/Corpse Bride) and Jim Uhls (Fight Club) – to name just a few of their accomplishments.

What are these professionals saying that might be of interest to aspiring screenwriters? What tips can help a writer navigate and break into this highly competitive and rewarding field? This is the information I look to pass on to you, dear reader, within the articles on this page.

There were so many panels offered that attendees were wishing for clones. Some of the panels I chose were more helpful than others, but overall, the presenters seemed to offer both inspiration and a warning (repeated often): If there is any other work you can do in your life (other than writing for Hollywood) – DO IT! Horror stories abounded about precious screenplays gathering dust in the garage due to one political reason or another, and about the constant fight to preserve the spine of their stories from the malingering influence of studio executives who think they understand storytelling because they know on what page something should occur (structure), and what people will go see in the theater. If you’ve read any of the books written by those indoctrinated into the Hollywood system (and you should if you take a screenwriting career seriously), you know what I’m talking about. If you take your efforts seriously, you should also watch every movie to ever be nominated for an Oscar, and know what/who Film Noir, Werner Herzog, Fellini and Kurosawa are – a lacking I noticed in many of the younger conference attendees.

It has been my experience that any and all creative souls will struggle with ignorance and resistance regardless of the medium they pursue. So I offer the other repeated message from the panelists: If this is what you really want to do – DON’T EVER GIVE UP! Keep pushing and writing until something breaks open. It takes fierce determination to succeed as a screenwriter, and a willingness to keep learning and to cultivate the ability to brush off insults, resistance and a myriad of other dream-killers, including self-doubt. If you’re still interested; if you want to write movies no matter what anyone says, well, okay then.

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Brooke Monfort - Find me on Bloggers.com