How to Sell a Screenplay

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Five years after moving to Beaufort from LA, Haden Yelin is figuring out that if you brush aside a clump of Spanish Moss here you’ll find a writer (who is probably also an artist or a photographer.) Which is why there’s likely to be a good turnout for her Valentine’s Day presentation at the Beaufort International Film Festival: How To Sell Your Screenplay. (it starts at 6pm, just before the screenwriter’s wine-and-cheese table read session)

If you check out H. Haden Yelin’s IMDB page you’ll find dozens of TV movies she’s written. And more importantly sold and produced. You might even remember the big-name stars that have appeared in them, like Louis Gossett Jr. in the CBS movie “A Father for Charlie” which got Haden her Writer’s Guild nomination for long form writing.

But I wanted to meet her because a producer I worked with last year and greatly admire, Sunta Izzicupo, told me Haden is a lovely and talented person. She forgot to tell me how funny, sweet and encouraging she is as well.

Here’s an example. Over a long cup of coffee on a rainy afternoon, this uber-successful writer confesses to Facebook and blogging-phobia, answers just about every screenwriting question I can think of, changes my whole way of envisioning a lead character, makes me laugh a hundred times, gives me a copy of her only screenplay that survived a recent cross-country mass storage drive disaster AND a copy of her first self-published novel and when I get home there’s an email from her hoping she wasn’t too discouraging about breaking into the business.

Even when she’s funny and self-deprecating I recognize the straightforward truth of what she means. TV movies of the week are virtually non-existent anymore and with their demise disappeared a steady stream of work for writers. Cable channels have less mainstream and more fickle tastes, as I found out when Sunta couldn’t close a sale on my true-story drama because Lifetime wanted stories “ripped from the headlines.”

But Haden thinks the pendulum will swing back again. “Ugh those reality shows are shapeless blobs,” she moans. “Scripted but vulgar and vicious. Surely people will become more sophisticated in time and get tired of the Kardashians.”

While she waits for that pendulum to swing back, she’s trying her hand at writing fiction instead. She chose to self-publish “The Conjurer” (set locally, btw) so that “like it or lump it, the only fingerprints on it are mine. I never doubted I would learn from a good editor. But the trick is would I get a good editor?”

She says screenplays are like paintings – very structured and disciplined. Books are like sculpture. “They’re three dimensional. You’re dealing, as a writer, with more than just what is seen or heard on screen. You get to describe feelings and thoughts as well as beats of action.”

She wrote her book in the same amount of time as it takes her to do a draft screenplay: six weeks. “That’s my attention span,” continues the self-deprecating humor of a veteran, disciplined, Hollywood “A-list” screenwriter. And then she grills me about the book I’ve just finished writing (The Byrne Miller rememoir my blog readers know well) as though we’re writers of equal standing.

I have to admit we do share one common trait. I tend to write until I get stuck on a transition or timeline problem. It isn’t until I’ve taken a nap with Rosie purring on my lap that the answer comes to me. Haden has a similar problem-solving ritual.

“I write my characters into a predicament that I don’t know the outcome of, then I go off to play mahjong on the computer and somehow the solution presents itself out of the muddle of my mind.”

Me: “So that’s the secret. Mahjohg is like a Ouija board for writers block?”

Haden: “Let the universe bring you the answers.”

Might be time to give up Facebook and start playing mahjong. I, for one, am grateful that the universe somehow brought H. Haden Yelin to Beaufort and BIFF’s screenwriting community.

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