Continued: An Interview with Student Writers and Filmmakers

Jenn works with actresses on Jo FM

Jenn works with actresses on Jo FM

Interview, part 2 of 2. Please read part 1 in Flow's May 12th issue (Vol. 4 Issue 5).

Jean Lauer: Okay, let's go to your creative experience. You have all of these time limits, or imperatives to meet, whether meeting a class deadline, or if you want to send your work out you have to meet the deadlines. How does that affect your creativity? Do you find that helpful? Not helpful? Negotiating all of the limits on your work as an author.

Alison Eakle: I'm not sure anymore how I feel about…I mean, I often think that I've taken on too much and that I really came here to have two years to really write and learn that craft. And then here I've gone getting involved in script supervising on film sets, and working, and babysitting. I have friends that I actively want to see, and keep in touch with, and I'm trying to have too much of a life–I should be writing more. But then I realize that that's why I came here too, to Austin, to live in Austin, to work on films sets, and those are experiences I'm also not going to get to do ever again, aside from I'll never have two years to just write again. It's silly to think you're ever going to have a period in your life where all that you'll have to do is write. And if that's the case, then…what kind of a writer are you going to be? If you don't have pressure daily, if you don't have stress, if you don't have interaction with a ton of different kinds of people. You're not going to have a good base to write from. So, I think it's more realistic. I'm readying myself now for what life is going to be like as a working writer. Probably that means being a working something else too, you know, and just trying to balance a lot.

Jeremy Brown: I used to be a newspaper reporter, and so I was sort of used to daily deadlines and could crank pretty easily, and I feel like in the last two years I've actually lost a lot of that discipline.

AE: Well, you're also not doing non-fiction, I mean now it's like, this is my creative gem and it's scary to let go of something, even for just a weekly workshop.

JB: See that doesn't bother me in that way. I guess I'm so accustomed to just shipping things out and having an editor hack through it that I can detach myself from it pretty easily.

AE: So, then why do you think it is that you can't let go as easily, that you can't just throw something out there on a deadline?

JB: I can throw it out there on a deadline, but I think because the deadlines aren't as tight, I've gotten lazy. It's like the marathon runner who starts just being in only 5K's or something.

AE: You and your analogies.

Jenn Garrison: It's interesting because for screenwriting the only hindrance on your deadline is yourself. You know, you're given this deadline, and even if your computer crashes, hopefully you have that backup and you just have to go somewhere else. But you get in that weird place where the only person you can beat up for it is yourself. And you go through this thing of, I'm worthless and I can't just get this thing out, or no, I'm on a roll right now. So, the deadline's there and you're working towards it. I've gone through this weird psychological worthiness, you know, am I creative? Do I really know what I'm doing? Right now I'm working with people on deadlines, and I've got the department giving me pressure on deadlines. No this is the hard thing, deadlines. Things come up that are out of your control. Oh, the film I had processed, there was a light leak; now I have to reshoot. That sets me back. Or my telecine–they bumped me back because I'm paying student rates. So it's very easy for me to go, well, I'm behind because of these things which I had no control over.

It's funny because when I was between graduate school programs, that two and a half years where I was teaching, I was teaching and I focused on my students and that was my job. But I also had this ability to go out and I was on my own timetable. Now I knew, okay, I want to aim for this grant and get this processed and then the Sundance deadline, because that's what all us filmmakers work for. The Sundance deadline, I've got to get this done by January 3rd to go for the Sundance deadline. At the end, that's up to you. Then you go, whoa, okay, now I'll go for the South by Southwest deadline…now I'll go for the Utah film…whatever, and so it's interesting how you play that game with yourself.

But even the program having deadlines, it's very similar to what you're going to go through with a production company or a producer. For example, I was editing on this film that was an ITVS [Independent Television Service] produced and funded film, and there was room with deadlines. You start to realize that. So that's a part of this process even if you're a screenwriter or you're a filmmaker or whatever. Things change, things come up, but you need to actively be going in that route. But I think, as a creator, you always need to be aware of where you are in the process, what's expected of you, whether it's your professor, whether it's your producer, whether it's your funder. Because actually right now, the professors are pretty much well, if they know you're doing the work, you can wiggle a little bit, but when you're out there with the producer, the people who are paying you fifty thousand dollars for a project, and you're like, “Well, you know, my computer crashed” or “I'm just not feeling it” you can get fired.

So I think deadlines are pretty important. I've edited on a film, and I could have edited on that film for six more months, and at some point you have to say, “This project, I am putting it to bed” because you can keep reworking a script, you can always look at it, there's always going to be something that will bug you. Every film of mine that I watch, my god, [there's something] that drives me crazy every time I see it. And I want to go back in there and dig around. And there's a film of mine, my first feature, they're looking at maybe broadcasting it on KLRU in a year. And so I have these two different versions, and I'm like, okay, now I can go back in and tighten everything up. But then that's not the same film, you know, and so there's this weird notion of when is this project really done? And I think that is a really good thing to look at for yourself and to also talk to your students about. Okay, here's this deadline: end of semester screening. Make it as good as you can for then, and if you want to keep working on it this summer because you want to make it something bigger…. I hate telling my students, “Make this to qualify for your grade.” I really am adamantly against that. I'm like, “Make the best film you can make.” Granted we have this restriction of this three-month semester–and it's impossible to make a good film in three months, it's impossible to write a really good screenplay in three months–get to that requirement. We're jumping through hoops here, you know it, I know it, you enrolled in school, I'm here teaching it. Take it for what it is, but use this time to workshop it. Make it as good as you can, and then keep working on it. Don't think that this is a deadline that means your film is dead, you know, just because there's this requirement on it.

Jenn behind the camera on Checkout

Jenn behind the camera on Checkout

AE: I've never thought about that: deadline has the word dead in it. It's really frightening actually. No wonder I never submit to a festival–I can't kill my baby.

JB: I think one of the problems potentially for screenwriters is that when you're starting out you write spec scripts basically, so there's nobody saying, “You have to have this done by this time.” You're just sort of creating on your own, and hoping somebody will snap it up. And so you can write forever and ever and ever and you'll never feel any repercussions, except for throwing big chunks of your life into a black hole.

AE: A lot of scripts that even get made, people say, “It took us three years to get it to the shape that it's in and then another four years to get it made.” I mean, that makes me feel great.

JG: Really?

AE: Yeah, here you are producing two films a year, three films a year.

JG: And you know what? I'm tired. Me and my friends, we're just like zombies. I was on a shoot with Lisa [a filmmaking friend] yesterday, and we were walking to a school to go interview kids at lunch talking about food. And we were just very lifeless. It's hysterical, because we are just worn out, because we are having to do so much, and then we're also having to teach, and we're also having to grade, and all this other stuff. But it's very interesting how it sucks the creative….

AE: It either sucks the creative right out of you or it just puts you onto such a goofball zany level at times.

JG: That's true.

AE: You know, when you're sick or just worn out, those are some of my best times creatively.

JG: That's why I moved more towards production instead of studies and theory, because I realized, holy shit, I'm going to be grading these long ass papers forever. I'd rather just watch a movie and go, “This is brilliant” or “This sucks.”

JL: Actually I want to get back to something that Jenn said, about students who come in and say, “I've been writing screenplays since I was thirteen,” so why are they in school? So, why are you in school? What are you hoping to learn? Because there are different motivations…

JG: Since you're directing that at me [laughs]…. I've always been very up front and honest about the fact that I'm specifically back to get my MFA because I do enjoy teaching, and for the very reasons I mentioned before, because I do learn something every semester no matter what areas I'm teaching. I've really tried to step back and look at the bigger, larger, kind of visceral experience that I'm having. And the themes that come up, and the questions that hopefully…. You know, I was in a critique session just yesterday with the documentary class that I'm TAing, and I noticed the class and myself doing this: “Oh, well you can do this” and “You can do this,” and really for me it's about asking, “What do you want to do?” “Why?” Really asking the students and myself, “What are you trying to do?” “Why are you trying to do it?” “How can you do that?” versus…because everybody's a filmmaker. That's the worst environment to be in: “You should do this, it'll make your film great” or “You should do this for your screenplay, it'll make it great.”

The reason I'm in school is because I specifically want to get to that terminal degree so that I can look at pursuing the academic tenure track down the road. It gives me the chance to work on a portfolio in a really high-pressure environment that I would never put on myself. I would never try to crank out a film a semester, you know, a film every three months on my own. And I think that's a really great, humbling, experience. And really it gives me access to equipment and a challenge, and my peers. I learn so much more from them. My qualifying thesis project is going to be a documentary, but I feel like I've done a lot of documentaries so I'm putting myself in the narrative class because I feel like I've got a lot more to learn in that area and I learn so much from my fellow students–the professors to some degree–but it really is a collaborative creative process. It's just such a great excuse to learn. If I could just stay in school forever I would. Oh no, let me take that back. But this is my third degree I'm working on, so, yeah: learning, and growing, and portfolio.

AE: And unlike my students, I've only been writing screenplays since I was nineteen. I went to an undergraduate program that was fantastic but not necessarily in film and writing. And it's a whole new ballgame for me, screenwriting. I really do think you pay it a disservice to say that it's…you know, I think everyone thinks they can be a screenwriter in their hearts. You know no one would ever say, oh, I can be a fiction novelist, I can be a novelist, but people will say, “I want to try screenwriting” at the drop of a hat. But it's a real craft. You really have to dedicate yourself to just change the way you think and write and visualize and…

JG: When people get into your world and they realize the amount of work it is, because it is so glamorized…

AE: Movie making, that sounds like fun!

JG: …and then they realize how much time is spent on writing, and like, “You work fourteen hours a day doing that?” Yeah, it's a lot of hard work but it's so worth it when you look up there [on the screen] and you're seeing [your film]. I can't even describe that feeling. It's just amazing. I mean, you're spending five or six thousand dollars on a short film, of your own money, or Sallie Mae's money, and…

AE: That you have to pay back….

JB: I didn't start writing screenplays until I came here, actually.

AE: Jeremy's giving away all his secrets in this interview. [laughs] And I hate you for it because you are so good and you've only been writing for such a short time.

JB: I'm in the screenwriting program because I thought it would be a back door to production, and I wanted to do documentaries. But I didn't have access to any film equipment and I'd never used it before, so it was like, well I'll just write a screenplay and then once I'm there I'll take a bunch of documentary classes. And then once I got here I realized how regimented the different tracks were. But I think Alison raises an interesting point when you say you have to train your mind to think that way. I mean, I'd written a lot before but I'd always put the premium by the word choice. I really thought about prose a lot. But I didn't think that much about plot. You know, one reason was I thought screenwriting might be fun was because I was a huge huge fan of Graham Greene's. And so I was like Third Man, whatever.

AE: Third Man, whatever. I was like, Reality Bites, that's about my speed. That's funny, the things that inspire you.

JB: You know, like at the end of this semester, I'm actually reading projects on the basis of their story, rather than on good word choice. And it took two years to get to that point. That was kind of shocking to me.

AE: What always attracted me to being a screenwriter is having these fabulously talented actors saying my words, and then you get here and then you realize, oh no, no, no, the less words the better, please. Save yourself. I really do think that it's so weird that you start with that, under the auspices, of “I can't wait to have people say my lines.”

JG: I think you're not saying something that's at the core: Alison is a really great actress too. She really is. I'm just throwing that out there.

Allison and props on Checkout

Alison and props on Checkout

AE: Everyone comes at it from a different way. So I'm like, I want to write lines I'd be excited to act, and roles that I'd be excited to act. But then you realize, people go to movies to see pictures and visuals, and so you learn to really pull back, and you teach that to your students.

JB: This is making me think about something. You say, “Well I can go to see films” and there are a lot of good reasons why, and the one you choose to run with affects the kind of thing you choose to write.

AE: That's true.

JB: My girlfriend very much is like film is entertainment, film is diversion, and for me it's like film is sort of a moral lesson.

JG: That depends on every day, though. Some days I put my Netflix in and I'm like, this one has subtitles, I can't do that right now. And then like other nights, I'll rent some really ridiculous Alien vs. Predator. Why? Because I want to see what kind of CG they were using. I want to see what kind of aesthetics they were going for. And as a filmmaker, it's like I want to watch the quote unquote garbage along with…. You know one of the most powerful films I ever saw was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

AE: Isn't that great?

JG: And there were no stylized camera techniques. There they are, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor doing their thing, and I'm just like holy shit, this is great. And so it's interesting. But then there are nights when I'm not going to want to sit through Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

JB: I don't think it has to be this sort of high-end pretentious or five-star film to have that moral lesson. I mean to me, two of my favorite films ever ever ever are Point Break and Zoolander.

JG: Now, Zoolander I can understand, but Point Break? I don't know.

JB: Which I don't claim that those are necessarily critical darlings, but…
JG: You could say that.

JB: …if you look back, even a novel, its origin, in like the late 18th, early 19th Century, that sort of role; part of what it was an epic instruction manual for the bourgeoisie. I think that film still, even in its most popular form, contains a lot of that.

JG: It's interesting to hear you talk about that too, because as a filmmaker sometimes I sit there and think, what kind of device do I want to play with. Do I want to try for less dialogue, and really giving my actor a chance to convey notions? And it's funny, like working with this script that Alison wrote and having to adapt a scene, and working with the actress, and there was half a page of dialogue. And I was with that actress and I said, “Can you do all this, with one word? What is really happening here?” And so we talked about it. That part of the equation is what most fascinates me and is why I'm so interested in pursuing just strictly directing, and taking that which is on paper and seeing how I can link that to visual, and then working with the actors to see what they bring, to find that middle ground between script and acting, and how can we convey this message? You know, because really what's happening [in the scene] is one actor is telling the other, “This relationship isn't working out. You're not here for me. Whatever, whatever, whatever…” And I said, why don't you try, just to stand up and say, “I love you,” and walk away. And it was the exact same sentiment as what that half a page of dialogue was. And that was one of the most rewarding directing experiences I've had so far. And it was like, that notion of taking these entirely different places and bringing them together. So for me there is also this message, and how can I convey that message in a totally different visual way.

JB: I have a student who wrote a script about a star beach volleyball player who becomes a vampire.1 He lives for beach volleyball. He's a total jerk in all other areas of life, but he's a star out there on the sand. Then he gets turned into a vampire. And he can't go out in the sun anymore. And he can't play beach volleyball. He can't do what he loves. What he lives for. So what does he do instead? So you fast-forward, thirteen years later, and he's this fat guy living in a crack house who sucks the blood of pizza delivery boys. And at night he wanders the beach just trying to regain his old times and glory days. Until finally, one night, just randomly, he happens upon this guy with a glow-in-the-dark volleyball. Because evidently there's going to be this nighttime volleyball tournament. And so he has to reconcile his vampire present with his previous reason for living. And so he starts training, he gets in shape, so he can be the best nighttime volleyball vampire ever. It's so campy. Alison, I told this to you the other day and you said it sounded like an early-80s B movie, and yet there's something so ungodly poignant about that.

AE: What's not to love? And let's not forget, I love early-80s B movies.

JB: When I read that, it breaks my heart. It's so campy, so cheesy, but it still…something registers.

JG: I'm going to have to get going, I'm sorry.

JL: That's okay. This has all been freaking fantastic! Can you answer just one more thing?

JG: Sure.

JL: How important to you is this idea of author name, or that people recognize your name with your work?

JG: Well, you're talking about celebrity there, for me, anyway. And that's been a big driving force with most of the work that I've done, is this notion of fandom and celebrity, and this illusion of commodifying authorship. You know, that it becomes worth more, or that you become a persona or something. I think your question was, how important is that?

JL: Well, yeah. Can you sort of discuss authorship and author name and your position on that?

JG: Well, for a director, it definitely is important. It's funny, because then there's the producer, who actually, when you win the Oscar for a film it goes to the producer not the director, there's a different category. But really the director is the central helm, the helm of everything happening. I mean, the director's not necessarily involved in the special effects creation, or the editing, or whatever, but you're there at the hub. So I find it interesting that the director is the driving force behind that film, the person that wants to be interviewed and all that stuff. Which, it's this big team. So I think it's a little misleading for the public, that it's just one person out there making this, you know, body of work. For me personally, I don't think it's that important, but I've had a very different experience with my own recognition of authorship and the things that I've done in life. And in some ways, I have a love/hate relationship with it. It's definitely, you know you get that pseudo-celebrity fame that goes along with it, but nobody really understands what it takes to get that work there. And that's what bothers me about it.

JL: So what is authorship to you, then?

JG: Authorship, to me, is taking that thing, that idea that you have in your head, and taking the steps to deliver it to an audience. And I think that's a very open statement, because it can encompass a lot. But it's really just the idea and the making of that, in whatever immediate form it takes.

AE: I mean for screenwriters, no one knows screenwriters. When you look at a movie like Son of the Mask, which is being made, it's made actually, it's being put out there. It had thirteen writers on it. And you think to yourself, no one's ever going to know who…. But the people who will know you as a screenwriter, are other writers and filmmakers who will care enough to think, “Who wrote that film? That independent film that I saw?” or “Who were the writers on that comedy?” And then they'll seek you out to do other projects, and that's where authorship becomes important, in terms of creating a career for yourself. And as far as the fame thing goes again, the only people who are ever going to know you are people who are really going to care, it's not people who are going to want to know who you're dating in US Weekly. So it's like for me the best kind of…

JG: Unless you're dating Michelle Pfeiffer.

AE: Which is David E. Kelley's prerogative. But I think it's kind of the perfect amount of authorship for me, or potential fame for me because you'll be respected, but you won't be intruded upon most likely.

JG: I do want to take it back to what I did say, though, because if [someone asks], “What do you do?” and you say, “I'm a filmmaker,” nine times out of ten they go, “Whooaa.” So there's that reaction. Or if you say, “I'm a screenwriter,” people are like, “Whooaa,” because there is that…

AE: A good way to get interviews with people during research, you're like, “It's for a movie.” They're like, “Okay.” This is true.

JG: It's a great pickup line [laughs]. They really do go, “Whooaa.” I think in today's society, I think maybe more people are aware of what goes in, for better or worse, through different weird reality TV…I'm not even going to go down that road. But the media really is showing more, with DVDs behind the scenes and what not. But still I watch it and I'm like, they didn't even say how it was made–you know they're not really telling you anything in behind the scenes documentaries in films.

AE: Yeah, it's interviews with the actors about how fun it was to work on the movie.

JG: There's nothing really innovative about how it's made. It's like, “I talked to so-and-so and he came up with this idea, and here it is!” But how did that idea get made? In the end it's glamorized, again.

JB: I think Alison answered the question pretty well as it relates to screenwriting. I haven't experienced that. To me, that's sort of something that's still hypothetical.

AE: I haven't experienced it yet either.

JB: You guys have had your stuff made, though.

AE: By this fabulous director [Jenn].

JB: That's right. I think the only authorship stories I have, or experiences I have were when I was a reporter. I can remember not receiving credit that I thought was my due, or receiving blame that I didn't think was my due, on account of authorship that I thought may have been misattributed. I remember writing stories, turning them in, having my editor rework them in a way that I found so misleading as to be factually inaccurate, and then having to answer for it to my sources, who were like, “What are you doing? That's not what we told you,” and I said look…. But it's my name on the byline.

AE: And I think that happens in screenwriting all the time.

JG: You know, you have to rework it, and then your thing's up there, and even though they had somebody rework it, your name is attached to the screenplay.

JB: And then you're like, “Who wrote that awful, clunky dialogue?”

AE: You know we studied Three Kings, too, and how David O. Russell completely rewrote that movie, but they still gave story credit to the original writer who, I can't think of his name [John Ridley], and that goes to show you nobody knows screenwriters' names. Not even screenwriters.

JG: Except Charlie Kaufman, everybody knows him. He's in his own movie.

AE: He made himself the star of the film.

JG: So write yourself into the film; put yourself in the film.

AE: Yeah, there you go. (To Jeremy) I mean you're totally right. It's scary. In some sense, when there's thirteen writers you can kind of diffuse the blame, if something goes terribly wrong, and there's something really attractive about that. You get the money, and then you're like, “Come on! It was ninety writers after me that it became crap.” But it's also scary when you get the story byline and then it bombs. Because it wasn't your script…

JG: But you're associated with the failure.

AE: Yeah.

JG: The thing is don't put it on your resume.

AE: Although I think with IMDB [The Internet Movie Database], now everyone can find out what I've done.

JB: Because film is so cooperative, I think that authorship always entails a certain amount of risk. People are always going to be trying to grab more credit than is their due, and disassociate themselves from flops. You know, I just got done reading, what is it, the Miramax book…

AE: At this point, Jenn stood up and walked away.

JG: I've got to get going, sorry guys.

JL: Thank you so much.

AE: It was great hanging out. I hope your car's still there.

JG: If it's not, I'll be right back.

[Goodbye's around. Back to Jeremy.]

JB:Down and Dirty Pictures. Peter Biskind. And I have to confess, I've read a lot of stuff about Harvey Weinstein and his suite of producers and directors all like, “This is mine. This is mine. I'm responsible for this.” And I mean it's like, who gets the name, who gets the trophy, who gets the money.

AE: Yeah, the fact that arbitration is so huge. It's such a process to figure out, through the WGA, who really does get credit. And so many of the best-paid screenwriters are these script doctors who come in and never get a single bit of credit. You know, how many movies has Carrie Fisher touched, and her name will never be attached. But you think of all the money she's made off of it and how she's known in the industry as that kind of a writer. Do you even care anymore if people know that you wrote that screenplay? At some point, you have a career doing what you love and, you know, it's kind of understood what your role is. I don't know. It remains to be seen. I mean, we're still new at all this.

JL: And are you learning as you go, what you need to survive in that?

AE: Jean, I've been writing screenplays since I was twelve…. I'm kidding.

JL: This process is complex, and nuanced, and you know you may end up uncredited or unemployed. That has to be scary.

AE: I guess, it's actually less scary if you just embrace it. If you're like, I bet I'm going to be screwed over a few times in my career. And knowing that is ten times better than not knowing it, and being all rosy-starry-eyed about it.

JB: I think it shows you just have to learn by doing.

AE: Sure.

JB: I think the hard part, though is that, there is this emphasis on the auteur, it seems like this institutional emphasis at UT.

AE: Oh yeah.

JB: And we're like, Austin, Austin, Austin, this big movie center. And I feel like a certain amount of that is just hype. I mean, even [Richard] Linklater, who's such a big celebrity locally, in the grander scheme of the film industry he's pretty small. And we're so far from L.A. that it's like…. Sometimes I have trouble wrapping my head around the process.

JL: When you're telling your students, “Okay, you may want to write this script but it's not going to work,” do you feel like sometimes you're squishing dreams into what might make them more successful?

AE: Like leveraging their expectations?

JL: Yeah, that's a nicer way of putting it than “dream squishing.”

AE: I'm a dream squisher [laughs].

JL: But do you feel that sometimes you are?

AE: Well, our dreams have been squished, so it's only fair, right?

JB: I don't know what my students' dreams are, really.

AE: Well, I mean, how many of them are really ever going to pursue this beyond this class?

JB: I think for most of them it's just fun, or a fun academic exercise.

AE: Yeah, it's like one of their favorite classes and that's great. Maybe out of this class of eighty, I think twenty will go on to get internships and really push, but I don't know how many more than that really. It takes a lot of work to get an internship that doesn't even pay. It takes a lot of work to be a script reader for nothing, you know. It's scary, and you really have to want it.

JB: I took an internship with Austin Film Society for the summer coming up [2005], and they have a training day on May 19th, and you have to be there. And you have to be in town from x date to x date to do your internship. And if you can't make that, then you're out of consideration, and again, Austin Film Society is a big fish locally, but it's a film society, it's not Warner Bros.

JL: So it just takes recognition, of the work that it takes or the dedication that it takes.

AE: Yeah, it's true. This is not for the weak of stomach or the terribly insecure, although we're all insecure in some ways. But you really have to have a thick skin to be an author of anything, you know. I think the scariest part of it, especially when you're writing fiction, I hope to God people don't do what we did in eighth-grade English, which is like, “So, if F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this, this is what his life must have been like.” You know what I mean, and try to kind of connect author with biography.

JB: But I feel like, in a certain sense, you can't separate yourself from that.

AE: Right, I just hope they don't overdo it.

JB: I mean, yeah, there's six of us, in our program, and we've been together for four semesters now, and there are definitely creative themes in all of our work.

AE: What's mine? Let's think of a theme I've got.

JB: I think you're very into relationships, upper-middle-class manners, and media. That's my theory.

AE: That's cool. Upper-middle-class manners.

JB: I think mine is political conspiracy of some kind, maybe.

AE: Yeah, and also different time and place. A lot of it's just kind of a separate time and place. It's almost timeless because of the separation.

JB: Conspiracy's my big thing right now.

JL: So is this what you see right now as your concerns that come out?

JB: I think it's also about competency. I don't think, “Oh, how am I going to write about conspiracy,” but I look back at [my work] and I'm like, oh, yeah.

AE: I'm one of those people that hates the idea that US Weekly exists, and yet I totally find myself reading it, constantly, and I'm like, oh, I'm such a hypocrite. But it's the same thing. I read The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, and I think, god help me, if anyone finds any of my diaries or journals after I die and thinks they're worthy of publishing, I'm going to look like the biggest moron. I mean they would only publish it if it were good, and Sylvia's are, but there are entire passages about her picking out boogers, and putting them under her desks, and all this stuff and that's where I'm like, leave her alone. Can't we be satisfied with her work? But no we can't. I mean the minute you become an author, you open yourself up for analysis, right?

JB: I think so. I mean it's like my students, even them I can feel like I can deduce–rightly or wrongly–certain broad psychologies for them.

AE: I have students who totally write themselves as characters. They're like, “She's gorgeous and exotic-looking.” And then they'll explain or describe her exact ethnic mix, “She's German, Swahili, and Brazilian.” And I'm like [laughing], “Who could they be talking about?” So I'll say in class, “You know, you've created the perfect woman, so we have to make her a little more real right now. Let's flesh her out.” And then they're happy, because they think, “Oh, I'm the perfect woman,” but they're also like, “You're right. We have to make this person a little more acceptable.” So there are definitely ways of dealing with it, when you know, and you're so embarrassed for the person that they've kind of written themselves. Or, like the pathetic guy who's getting great sex.

JB: It's like there's the wish fulfillment version, which are sometimes frustrating and unintentionally funny scripts. There's the wish fulfillment ones, there's the poorly cloaked autobiography…

AE: Which I'm guilty of, too, so I can't laugh too hard.

JB: …and then there's the…the wish fulfillment, the idealized self, and…

AE: Jeremy could write a book.

JB: …there's a thing called the anthropological case studies.

AE: Yes!

JB: I must have had four students write scripts about West Campus and you would think they were dropped off at Easter Island the way they write about it.

AE: You always hear, “I want to make a movie about college life, that's how college life really is. I want to get to how it really works.” And you're like that's funny, because I don't think there's a way really.

JB: And even if there is, I feel like it's been gone over enough times. To me, there's something just kind of boring about college.

AE: College how it really is? I'm not going to pay eight dollars to see a movie about college–I lived it.

JB: The only ones that have really worked have been comedies, like Animal House and Old School.

AE: Van Wilder. It's true. I think that, again, I have to really hold back from verging on condescending. Because for all we're laughing I'm only four years separated from all that. And it takes awhile…. It's really good to start out that way, because, you know what you don't want to go back to. And there is something, you have to start with the self when you start writing because you really don't know anything else at 19 or 20, and it's going to take awhile for you to have some more experiences.

AE: You always hear stories, every neighborhood has stories, can't you make your character your next-door neighbor, the dad who lost it all on the stock market, and what happened to their family? Can't you imagine it could happen to them?

JB: I look back on my own childhood which was as cushy as could possibly be, and every one of my friends had some kind of tragedy attached to them. Some on a bigger scale that others and some more public, and openly known than others. But everyone has their issues.

AE: But taking short films out of the living room and taking feature films out of the college campus would be huge steps for every student. Every student could benefit from doing this, don't you think?

JB: Yeah.

AE: Granted, with short films, they're thinking, “What can I produce?” and that's fair. But you know you could probably get permission to film at the “Quickie-Mart.”

Marnie Binfield: Or move from the couch to a bench in the park.

AE: Yeah, think more scenically.

JB: I've also seen the opposite problem, where…

AE: These amazing production pieces.

JB: Like I've got one student, who's been writing since he was thirteen, actually, whose short was a ten-minute post-apocalyptic study. So he has to build a whole burned out shell of a world. The running joke was, if the script doesn't work, add a robot.

AE: I have students wanting to adapt Jason and the Argonauts. I have these students, but actually this semester more than last they're not doing the three types we described. But anyways, they come up, but I also have some students who blow me out of the water with the stuff they come up with–high concept ideas that really could work.

MB: Well, and you [Jeremy] did get the vampire volleyball player.

AE: If I read that I'd be dancing in the streets.

JB: That's right. I'll just mention…last semester when I was anti-screenwriting, the way I reconciled my job with my belief was that even if they weren't going to become screenwriters, I was teaching them to be better storytellers. And so I would say, “Look, I want you guys to be able to go into a job interview and tell a good joke, with a good set-up and a good punch line. I want you to go out on a date and be able to spin your mundane, Saturday morning, into a fantastic story that totally charms the girl or guy.” And that's what I tell them the goal is.

You know, most of them, they're turning in sort of their final scripts right now, and the problem that seems to be the most recurring while I'm reading them is that their characters are really flat. And the way they describe them, will be like, it's all quickly verifiable, “He's 6-foot-2. He has sandy brown hair, and an orange Longhorns t-shirt.” And I'm like, okay, that's great, but that doesn't tell me about his character.

MB: Not anything that matters.

JB: And you can see a guy walking across campus, and if he's hunched over, or if he's skipping along…. I mean people, they seem a certain way and you can tell more about them than that. And so I read them a couple lines from Henderson the Rain King and I prefaced it by saying, “You know, I'm still mourning Saul Bellow's death,” and they all looked at me like, “Who's Saul Bellow?”

AE: But it's good that you introduced it to them. I had to have a screenwriting professor in undergrad introduce me to Henry James, as a way to create tone through words, and create images through words. And it helped. I mean, you have to accept that it's…I don't think it's their fault, that they don't know these things.

MB: I think it's partly their fault because I think they're making choices all along about what they're finding out about. You know, what they're interested in. And they're not making the choice to get interested in literature and have a good sense of who wrote what when.

AE: You're lucky if they know who the Bronte sisters are. But as I said, they outdo me sometimes in their films, I mean they've watched every New Wave film, whereas I've seen three. They haven't just been sampling films; they have levels of expertise now that sort of blows me away. [But they don't know] some of the theorists that I talk about, or authors that I talk about, or artists. But at a certain level in college, it is about finding what your expertise is going to be. And maybe a responsibility to know these people exist, but I've never read Saul Bellow. I know who he is, but I've never read him. And it's just because the stuff I read tends to differ.

JL: Well, that wraps up our time. Thank you so much.

1 This script/premise is copyrighted material belonging to Chad Drakeley. Published with permission.

Image Credits:

1. Jenn works with actresses on Jo FM.

2. Jenn behind the camera on Checkout.

3. Alison and props on Checkout.

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