A group of influential screenwriters will converge on Chicago this weekend, including Lucy Alibar (whose script for "Beasts of the Southern Wild" was nominated for an Oscar this year) and Bob Gale (who wrote all three "Back to the Future" films).
They'll be in town Saturday as part of a daylong series of panel discussions — free and open to the public — organized by DePaul University. Other screenwriters on the docket include the writing team of Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan (creators of the "Saw" franchise) and TV writer Lon Zimmet ("Scrubs" and "Happy Endings"), who is a producer on NBC's upcoming Michael J. Fox sitcom.
Chicago has long proved itself a viable city in which playwrights can live and work, but we don't often hear about Chicago-based screenwriters landing big opportunities. Doesn't make much sense. This is a writers' town. Keith Huff (whose credits include "Mad Men" and "House of Cards") is one of the exceptions. So is Steve Conrad ("The Weatherman"), who wrote the screenplay for the upcoming Ben Stiller adaptation of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."
It's not like there isn't work here. According to numbers released by the state last week, $184 million was spent locally by TV and film projects in 2012. That's the highest figure ever. But the writers on all those projects were based elsewhere. Mostly Los Angeles.
You can't blame students from DePaul's screenwriting program (and other schools in town) who see LA as their only option. You're a bit of a lone wolf as a writer, and for those starting out, there is an entire cottage industry looking to take the money of would-be screenwriters. (The seminars offered by Robert McKee are among the most expensive, topping out at nearly $1,000.)
Immense credit goes to DePaul for making Saturday's writing conference free and open to anyone curious enough to show up. Lately there are other resources offering insight, including the weekly Scriptnotes podcast, hosted by John August, a frequent Tim Burton collaborator whose credits also include "Go" and "Charlie's Angels." August happens to be in Chicago through the first half of May, working on the stage adaptation of his film "Big Fish" at the Oriental Theater before it moves to Broadway in the fall.
Scriptnotes is free and is co-hosted by fellow screenwriter Craig Mazin (his resume includes "The Hangover" parts two and three and the recent Melissa McCarthy comedy "Identity Thief"; both moneymakers, despite drubbing from critics). Together they offer an insideperspective on the job. On a recent show they analyzed a transcript that's available online of the brainstorming session between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan for "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
"It occurred to me that this would be great to talk about on the podcast because everybody knows the movie," August told me, "but we never talk about it as a screenplay and why it works."
There's also this: August might be the most accessible Hollywood writer working today. "I think we're at a weird time in culture where, I'm just a screenwriter guy, but because I'm online and on Twitter, I'm more accessible than someone in my position would probably normally be." His email is listed right there on his web site, along with this message:
"Reminder that if you're coming to see 'Big Fish' in Chicago — on any night in the run — Tweet me or email me your date and seat. I will endeavour to come by and say hello." He's not kidding. He really will.
I spoke with August during a recent rehearsal break about the life of a screenwriter. What follows is an edited transcript.
Q: As busy as you've been with "Big Fish," you're still doing your podcast once a week.
A: I had to maintain some kind of regularity! The podcast is a beast that I have to feed, and in a certain way it's like having a weekly therapy appointment. It's nice to have that regularity when everything else is chaotic.
And it doesn't matter that I'm in Chicago right now. It's funny, Craig and I always do it by Skype. We've only been in the same room once or twice to do it.
Q: You give very real-world insight into the job of screenwriting. Aspiring screenwriters don't generally have access to that.
A: Yeah. It comes back to when I was a kid growing up in Boulder, Colo. I was curious about movies, and I was curious about screenwriting, but there was no way for me to find out how it worked. This was all pre-Internet. So I would look through Premiere magazine and would try to pick up what was going on, but I really couldn't.
So now I think, if I were a kid growing up in Colorado now, where would I find information? It would be online — but is it good information, or is it someone trying to sell me something? If Craig and I can be that source for people — the good information — I'm delighted to be that.
Q: That openness feels rare. Do you get the feeling that a lot of people working in Hollywood are like, "I had to work my tail off to figure this stuff out, I'm not going to give it out for free"?
A: Screenwriters are actually fairly generous. I've gotten to know a lot of them. They may not take two hours to read your script and give you extensive notes, but everyone will happily answer questions for you.
And the podcast seemed like good format to have a conversation about not just how to get started, but what it's like to be a screenwriter. That's what we try to focus on. Not just advice, but a real conversation about what it's actually like to do this, because I think there's this fantasy that it's like the lottery — that you're going to sell a script and they're going to make the movie and you're going to be rich, and that's just not the reality at all. It's a tremendous amount of work. It's not just one movie that you need to work on, but a lot — and it's projects that don't go anywhere that sometimes start relationships.
Q: You do something on the podcast called the Three-Page Challenge. What is that?
A: One of the frustrations that Craig and I had originally is that you can't talk about words on a page unless you have words on a page. We didn't just want to use our own stuff, so Craig initially had the idea of, "I can look at the first three or four pages of a script and often tell you if that person knows what they're doing, or doesn't."
So we asked people to send in the first three pages of their script for us to talk about on the air, and we got hundreds in the first few days. It's turned out much better than I would have guessed. You can learn so much by seeing what kinds of things people are doing on the page and recognizing what tends to work or what doesn't. People have been really generous to send us their stuff. I hope we help steer people in good directions. Even when we read something great, we can often find suggestions for how to make it better. If it's bad, we're not going to slash it apart, we're going to talk about what's not working. We do it about once a month now.
Q: You've said there are certain things we don't see people do in the movies anymore, like we don't see people eat. That made me laugh. But it's true. What is that about?
A: Movies tend to be about extraordinary things happening to characters. You don't find a lot of normal life happening in movies. The bigger-than-life moments are what are going into our movies these days. And so simple daily activities? That's television. The once-in-a-lifetime things? That's movies.
I love what we're able to do on television today, but because of that, it's become harder to do certain kinds of movies. We don't do big dramas anymore. There are certain kinds of comedies we can't do anymore because we think of them as being half-hour sitcoms. Look at "New Girl," which is a fantastic show — that is what a movie romantic comedy should be. But because we're doing it on a half-hour series basis, there's not room to do a movie version of that kind of story right now.
Q: You and Tim Burton have worked together a lot. Was "Big Fish" your first film together?
A: It was. I had written the script, and (the producers) went looking for a director, and ultimately Tim signed on to do it. It went really fast, so I didn't work with him very much at all. The first thing I really wrote for him was "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Then I did "Corpse Bride" and then we did "Frankenweenie."
Q: Is it just a melding of the minds with Burton?
A: There's an expectation that Tim and I are best friends, and we talk all the time! That's not the case at all. I'm the guy who writes the scripts, and he goes off and makes the movies. It's about understanding what he likes and needs, so I write for what I think he's going to love to shoot.
Q: You don't have creative sessions where you go out and drink eight bottles of wine and brainstorm?
A: Not at all! A long meeting with Tim Burton is about 20 minutes. There's not a lot of talking through things. He's not a talk-througher.
Q: But he is someone who has earned the right to do weird films, when the stereotype about studio movies is that all the edges have been dulled.
A: I've worked with some other A-list directors too, and it's true, they do have an autonomy that is helpful because they can make the movie that needs to get made, rather than the safest possible movie. They've earned that right. That's why, as a screenwriter, you love working with those people because you're writing for one person, not for a committee.
Q: In the fall you kept a diary of all your pop culture consumption for a week for Vulture and you were really honest about your opinions, which is rare from someone working in Hollywood. Like the fact that "Considering my husband and I are gay dads through surrogacy, we should be in the bull's-eye for 'The New Normal.' But the show drives me crazy, and I stopped watching halfway through the episode. It's like 'Glee' with just Sue Sylvester and no songs."
A: That was a show that didn't land for me. I hope I'm always respectful about hard it is to get anything done. It's just as hard to make something that doesn't work as it is to make a surprise hit. I never want to fault people for their effort. But also, you can't clap for everything. And if something's not working, it can be good to talk about why.
DePaul's Page One Entertainment Writing Conference runs from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday at CDM Theater, 14 E. Jackson, Lower Level. No registration required. Go to cdm.depaul.eduand click on "CDM calendar." For tickets to "Big Fish," go to broadwayinchicago.com. John August's podcast can be found at his website johnaugust.com.
Chicago-based filmmaker Tyler Brinegar is looking to raise $10,000 for his documentary "The Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project," which will center on a small immigrant group in Bolingbrook. "Last week I saw a senior citizen — who has been deported and re-entered (the country) three times — take a bus to the nation's capital and tell her story in front of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol headquarters. Someone convinced her it was worth the risk to do that," says Brinegar, who until recently produced promos for one of the local news stations in town. "Inspired by (her) courage, I quit my job and started making the film." Go to kickstarter.com and do a search with Brinegar's name.
Among the strongest antidotes to crime and poverty is education, and "Girls Rising" (which plays for one week at Regal Cinemas) takes this sentiment to heart. A social issues documentary that also mixes in narrative filmmaking, the stories of nine girls from around the globe (narrated by Meryl Streep, Anne Hathawayand others) "stand as sober reminders of the kind of unforgiving obstacles faced by girls in developing countries and the positive, ripple effects that learning can bring," per the LA Times review. Go to girlrising.com/see-the-film.
Tavi at the movies
Last year 16-year-old Oak Park media mogul Tavi Gevinson loaned her voice to the animated short "Cadaver," which screens Tuesday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, with a post-show discussion by Gevinson and filmmaker Jonah Ansell, who says the film is a whimsical reinterpretation of his sister's experiences in med school — specifically "the day she cut open her first dead body as a med student" at Northwestern University. For more info go to mcachicago.org.
After her 1948 marijuana bust with Robert Mitchum, actress Lila Leeds found her career prospects stalled. The only movie she was offered was the anti-drug film "She Shoulda Said 'No'!" which came out a year later. The semi-autobiographical exploitation film played under a number of titles (including "The Story of Lila Leeds and Her Expose of the Marijuana Racket"), and it screens midnight Saturday at Facets. Go to facets.org.
The movie adaptation of Veronica Roth's three-part dystopian YA series (which began shooting in Chicago last week) has added Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn (who plays Fitz on ABC's "Scandal") to the cast as the parents of the teenage protagonist played by Shailene Woodley. "Divergent," which is being shot entirely in Chicago, will be in town through early summer.
Despite the Washington setting, the second season of the HBO political comedy "Veep" is weighted with former Chicago actors including star Julia Louis-Dreyfus (a Second City alum), Chicago natives Anna Chlumsky, Matt Walsh and new addition Kevin Dunn, Steppenwolf ensemble member Gary Cole (also new this year), as well as a short arc for local improv actor David Pasquesi coming up as the Veep's ex-husband.
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