Selling the South in 90 Seconds

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I’m a native Oregonian. I gagged the first time I tried boiled peanuts. When I applied for my first TV job, I honestly couldn’t point out South Carolina from Alabama on a map. And yet here I am, wooing Hollywood execs on Southern Charm. At least my take on it, a la “The Wedding Photographer,” the romantic comedy I started pitching at a festival last weekend in LA. My logline (the three sentences you’d read on the Netflix envelope if it gets made) goes like this:

When his own picture-perfect wedding proposal is rejected, a hip Chicago studio photographer tries to cure himself of romance by shooting a season of weddings in the Deep South. Think hair-of-the-dog, but for saps. He doesn’t count on falling for the one bridesmaid who calls his bluff.

What was a blast was explaining how the script makes you fall in love with the South as much as any one character. I told them that it’s a lushly beautiful setting, quirky and inherently romantic. That nothing matters more than family, tradition and love. Of course I let it slip that when the hero hooks up with the girl  –  skinny-dipping in a tidal creek filled with bioluminescence – it’ll do for this movie generation what “Ghost” did for throwing pots or “Dirty Dancing” did for learning to dance on a log in a lake. The reaction was good – of the 33 producers I pitched, all but three asked for my one-sheet (the faux movie poster by Paul Nurnberg starring Jenny Rone and Todd Wood). Seven asked to read the script right off the bat – which sounds great until I realized I have no idea if they have two dimes to rub together.

You get line blur after about three hours

Those of you who follow this blog know these pitch festivals are like speed dating. Only this one, InkTip, is speed group dating. You stumble around a convention ballroom, squinting up at tiny signs indicating which productions companies are looking for your genre. There are usually three or four companies per table, but of course the one you’re really interested in never shows so you end up pitching to companies you’ve never heard of. My favorites, just going by the crazy names, were Bugeater Films, Clownfish Productions and Purple Octopus Inc. I decided against pitching ShoeZart inc, apparently known for the film “Scorpio Men on Prozac” and Weirdsmobile Productions who wanted Sci-fi in the vein of their other film, “Chastity Bites.” Can’t see either of those wanting to shoot a romantic comedy in Beaufort, can you?

I should have handed out coffee, clearly

It’s PG-13 – I swear!

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Photography by Paul Nurnberg

I had the bright idea to fill my Career Day time slot at St. Helena Elementary by having kids stand up and read a few scenes of my latest screenplay, “The Wedding Photographer,” in character. What better way to introduce them to the world of writers? Fourth graders, I figured, have strong enough reading skills and self-confidence that I’d have no trouble finding volunteers to play the roles of Dillon (the protagonist) Sheila (his mother) and Sienna (his girlfriend). They loved it but it turns out they can read faster than I expected. One little girl flipped right past my carefully selected scenes.

“Miss Teresa,” she politely called out, “there’s a bad word at the beginning of the middle part.”

“Must be a typo,” was my lame response as I quickly gathered up the scripts to head to my second session: Mrs. Washington’s second grade class.

I asked the teacher to select the strongest readers since I wasn’t sure if they’d know how to pronounce all the words. They were all excited, except for the girl assigned to play Dillon’s girlfriend. Turns out in real life, she hates the boy picked to read Dillon’s role and was mortified even to stand next to him. But when she realized her scene involved turning down his wedding proposal, out came the hip, the lip and the loudest voice you can imagine.

“I’m sure it (the ring) fits,” she snarked, “It’s just you and I – don’t.”

The whole class howled with laughter. And according to my first official focus group of under-18-year-olds, I’m golden. If only I could take them all with me out to LA this week to help me sell “The Wedding Photographer.”

South African Artist at SCAD deFine Art

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The ultra-modern design of the new art museum at SCAD was reason enough to make a trip to Savannah over the weekend. I had no idea that there was an exhibit by the renowned South African sculptor Jane Alexander; it was just a happy accident.  I haven’t been as unmoved by a museum exhibit since stumbling onto a Thornton Dial retrospective in Indiana last year. I say unmoved, because in both cases I simply stood there, transfixed. With Dial, I instantly recognized a witness to the South’s despair and disparities. When I saw Alexander’s creepy, life-sized “humanimals” my feet felt cemented, weighed down by a deep connection and unease I still don’t really understand.

I suppose in the case of her “Surveys from the Cape of Good Hope” the connection is the childhood I spent in South Africa. Like Alexander, I grew up a treasured white girl in a country that still embraced Apartheid. Unlike her, I have never found a way to express the myriad of ways that system both shaped and shamed me.

Although Alexander is famously reticent about the “meaning” of her work, I sense this exhibit is her way. There are no pamphlets full of art-speak. The walls have no explanatory paragraphs. Even the titles of the pieces are enigmatic; I didn’t know what “Bom Boys” meant until I scoured the internet. Gary loves this kind of freedom to interpret art (he can’t stand even naming his photographs for exhibitions) but I need context.  So for me the eager student docents positioned like ambassadors at every turn were actually useful. The young man who kindly noticed my inability to just move along had clearly gone through something similar himself. His role, his relief perhaps, was to share everything he had learned about the stories behind each piece.

Before I realized it, my feet were working again. Maybe his enthusiasm was just a factor of the museum’s newness. Maybe he was earning extra credit or fulfilling a work study obligation. But I’d like to think it was transcendent, connective power of art.

What I really won at BIFF

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Me, accepting Best Screenplay at BIFF
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A week ago today I got to hear an excerpt of my latest screenplay on stage for the first time – at the Beaufort International Film Festival screenwriting finalist’s table read. I knew the staged reading of “The Wedding Photographer” would go better than last year’s screenplay when even a scene description got a belly laugh from the audience. I had the crowd at “Interior – Harold’s Country Club – night.”

Part of that is due to the fact that admission included wine – and lots of it. But mostly it’s because we all love to hear a love story about people and places we know. My job for the rewrite is to make the story resonate beyond Beaufort, to audiences with no idea why a wedding at Harold’s Country Club is funny.  And I found fresh inspiration from an honoree much more deserving than me: the academy-award winning film editor Craig McKay.

McKay, accepting Jean Ribaut Award for Film Editing

I thought I knew his work – blockbusters like “Silence of the Lambs,” “Reds” and “Philadelphia.” But it was during the workshop he gave at BIFF that I learned he edited what I consider the best coming-of-age movie ever: “Sin Nombre.” It’s a gritty, low-budget, independent film about immigration that thrusts you into the beauty and pain of life. You’d swear the same person both shot and edited the film – the end result is so rushing, fluid, surprising and lingering. After listening to McKay describe his work, I realized he’s the visual equivalent of a poet. There’s a rhythm to every decision he makes in the edit suite, a conciseness that only appears spontaneous. He simply calls it storytelling.

“Hollywood had its worst year ever last year,” McKay told the audience at USCB when he accepted his Jean Ribaut award for excellence in film editing. “They stopped telling stories.” Luckily for me and countless others starting out in this business, McKay hasn’t. He really believes independent film is the future, that without the scripts and shorts and features competing for audiences at film festivals like Beaufort’s, audiences would stop coming to the movies.

So he told stories during the workshop. He told them during his humble acceptance speech and he told them at after-parties where everyone else was schmoozing or celebrating. He is the kind of guy I felt comfortable asking how and when to break the linear timeline in a script. I asked because so many movies start in the middle or at the end, tumble through out-of-sequence back stories and leave the viewer scrambling to figure out where the story starts. I wasn’t expecting his answer.

 “Most of the time it’s to cover up a bad story,” he said. He was far too gracious and smart to give examples. He still edits two or three movies a year, between producing his own humanitarian documentaries. “But when it is planned it can be brilliant. Be clear about what you’re doing but don’t give away what is still to come.”

I’m still editing that inside my head. 

A film not to miss

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This is a picture of me with Felix Martiz, whose film was so popular at the Oaxaca International Film Festival in November that the organizers had to add three screenings. Four, actually, since Gary and I loved his “Santiago” so much we brought a screening copy back to Beaufort. The dialog and acting in this film is so fresh you feel like there is no script and that the characters are real people. We’ve screened enough independent films to know this is almost impossible to pull off, especially with low budgets. But here again Felix broke the paradigm – he made “Santiago” for $5,000 and a lot of favors. It helps that he just graduated from film school in LA and knew terrific actors just breaking into the industry. But it takes more than luck. Being able to convince people to work for nothing is where being a truly nice guy comes in. Which is another reason why so many filmgoers in Oaxaca lined up to meet Felix and see his film. Still, we weren’t sure Ron Tucker and his panel of screeners would feel the same way – it’s about a world that seems very far from Beaufort: Latin American immigrants and the street life of drugs and prostitution that sometimes proves hard to resist.

It turns out they were as blown away as we were and invited Felix to the Beaufort International Film Festival. Now it’s time to see if he feels the same way about Beaufort. He’s young, Mexican-American, never been to the South, an LA-guy through and through. His film is making the big festival circuit in towns that have multiple venues, late night screenings and even later night after parties. Beaufort will be quite the culture shock – and I’m betting in a great way. It’s an intimate festival, where a big chunk of the audience is retired and watches every single movie over the course of three days. And because it’s all happening in one venue – the USCB Performing Arts Center – filmmakers don’t have to miss each other’s showings to screen their own.

We’re picking Felix up at the airport Thursday and he’ll be at USCB’s Center for the Performing Arts in time to take audience questions after the 4pm screening of “Santiago.” Which should be interesting. The publisher of La Isla, Hilton Head Island’s monthly magazine for Latinos, is bringing a team of supporters and reporters. He’s fascinated by Felix’s film, not just because it deals with immigration, but because the immigrant experience in LA and here in South Carolina seems so very different. Felix’s next screenplay deals with unsafe working conditions of undocumented workers in LA factories. It’s the next generation of the immigrant struggle. In the world Felix writes about, borders have been porous and to some extent integrated, for generations. Here in the rural South, immigrants still live in migrant trailer parks, tucked away on places like St. Helena Island and Ridgeland. They’re isolated and targeted by anti-immigration bills like the South Carolina law La Isla is fighting with all the strength of the mighty pen it can muster.

One of Ron Tucker’s principal goals in organizing a festival every year is to entice filmmakers here to make films. Felix may end up being one of them one day, shining a light on people right in our own state who might otherwise remain invisible.

Screenplays, weddings and wine

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I promise, my annual “don’t miss these films” blog about the Beaufort International Film Festival is coming soon. But in the meantime, I thought I’d whet your appetites for the second annual screenplay table-read event at BIFF. (Thursday, Februrary 16th at 7:30pm)

If you didn’t make it to last year’s event, or have no idea what a table-read is all about, check out this audio podcast my friend Burton Sauls has put together. It’s me, doing a 10-minute play-by-play of the excitement and controversy leading up to the inaugural table-read last year. (Burton is developing a series of these kinds of podcasts from various events and musings of Beaufort’s artists and citizens so potential visitors can “preview” this crazy place and hopefully come and spend lots of money on vacations.)

http://goo.gl/cP0gk

This year I’m lucky enough to have another screenplay in the finals, “The Wedding Photographer.” And although I won’t have to worry about getting struck by lightning in a church, this year’s table-read should be even more exciting. First, it’s going to be at USCB’s big theatre with the actors on stage. Second, there are rumors some movie-star types might read, although if we’re lucky enough to get the same Shakespearean actors as last year I’ll be just as thrilled. They’re that good. Third, the talented director Gary Weeks (an audience favorite two festivals ago with a dark, Georgia-based, post-apocalyptic film you may remember) has two screenplays in the read. And I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only local screenwriter this time – there are Hilton Head finalists I’m looking forward to meeting. Lastly, just like last year, the $15 ticket includes wine and all the questions you care to ask the attending writers (and they’re all attending).

So, about “The Wedding Photographer.” What fun it was to write a comedy instead of my usual, much darker fare. The idea came during our morning walk downtown when I saw an intensely uncomfortable young couple posing for what must have been an engagement announcement shoot. Gary and I both laughed out loud, because the night before we’d talked to our good friend Tom Kwas in Milwaukee. Tom once had a thriving studio photography practice in the Midwest and has made the most treasured photographs of our family through the years. He’s incredibly cynical and teases us mercilessly every time South Carolina or its governors are making headlines, but under all the witty sarcasm he’s the sweetest man on earth. So the thought of Tom, transplanted to the Deep South, making wedding photos of Southern bridezillas, cracked us up. And gave me the idea for a screenplay.

Having no first-hand experience in wedding photography, I needed to do some research. Which is where Susan DeLoach came to the rescue. She is one of the most sought-after wedding photographers in the area and she graciously allowed me to tag along to a few shoots as her “assistant.” I was amazed at the skill and talent involved, not all of it technical. Susan is part artist, part big sister and part therapist for stressed out brides and their families. Those shoots were invaluable in helping me learn the terms and process, but utterly useless for character development. You see, Susan could not be a better example of Southern etiquette and grace and my protagonist has to hate the South and turn into a wedding photographer who makes brides cry. Until, of course, he meets the right woman.

I barely finished the first draft of “The Wedding Photographer” in time for the BIFF entry deadline, so I’m sure that other finalist scripts are much more polished and deserving of the Jean Ribaut award. But I love my characters and the lessons the South teaches them all. The best part was setting it entirely in Beaufort and working in references to the people and places that make this place so unique. Harold’s Country Club, for example. If you come to the reading, perhaps you’ll recognize out a few more. And hopefully your presence and support will help convince one of the talented producers, actors or directors in attendance to actually consider making “The Wedding Photographer” happen.

The End of an Era

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ETV of the Lowcountry goes dark today. Without any fanfare or public notice. Two more loyal employees will be filing for unemployment and South Carolinians will lose one more piece of our democracy.

It isn’t surprising that WJWJ got the axe. It, like all PBS stations, has been under fire since the 90s when then Speaker Newt Gingrich launched his Contract on America. The “liberal” viewers of “elitist” shows like “The Local News,” “Steppin’ Out,” “Lowcountry Live,” “Coastline” and “Aerobics with Amy” were somehow draining the economy of private sector jobs. Back then, ETV’s commissioners fought to save the station and held a series of sunset hearings in the 90s. Those hearings at TCL, filled to capacity, turned into a community love-fest and WJWJ was spared.

This time around, ETV knew better than to give the public warning. Unless you consider cancelling the only locally-produced program, our half-hour newscast, due warning. Layoffs began in earnest and the skeletal staff was thinned down to just two people.  ETV’s idea was to make the station “pay for itself” through studio rentals to private companies who need production services. The only problem with that idea is that we the tax payers already paid for ETV and private production service providers have a legitimate beef with that. They couldn’t compete against an entity that already had salaries, equipment and light bills subsidized by the taxpayer. Luckily that program was so ineptly conceived that ETV’s rental rates were higher than local competition so it never did hurt private enterprise. But it could have.

I think Mayor Billy Keyserling knew that, and that’s why he asked me to convene a group of industry types to see what uses we could come up for the station. Public uses. Uses that might build a sense of community again. The resources were just sitting there, a beautiful studio, state-of-the-art cameras, even field equipment and a very talented producer/editor.

We found there was no shortage of people who wanted to use those resources, especially since we the taxpayers were already paying for them. Jane Upshaw invited the ETV head honchos down to USCB to hear our ideas. Essentially we proposed turning WJWJ into a TV-and-independent film incubator – where people with ideas for programs and documentaries could make trailers and seek funding. If those entrepreneurs found an audience, they’d agree to use – and pay for – WJWJ services. You should have seen the blank stares. The ETV management was so set on the idea of making the station “pay for itself” that it wouldn’t even entertain the suggestions of this industry-experienced committee. We didn’t even get a reply.

So it doesn’t really surprise me that they’d quietly kill the station and its last two remaining jobs. What does surprise me is how readily we, as Americans, let things like this happen. We have arguably the strongest democracy in the world, and that democracy is what allows capitalism to prosper. Without that democracy, we get the 1% and the 99%. And yet we are letting the fundamentals of democracy slip through our fingers. Who needs newspapers when we can read like-minded-opinions on Yahoo? Who needs public libraries when those of us who are still employed can just download books? Who needs public education when we can plunder that resource in exchange for a voucher and teach our kids what we already believe? Who needs the postal service when we assume everyone has email? Who needs public transportation when we assume everyone can afford a car? 

I spend a lot of time traveling in Third World Latin American countries (it’s the only place I can afford to travel) and the United States is not far behind. Argentina gave up its railroads. Nicaragua doesn’t have a postal system. You can’t get a phone line in Mexico. Places that have given up on public education rely on missionaries and charity to lift their children out of poverty. Yup – we’re following in their footsteps. Closing WJWJ may be a sign of what’s to come – democracy going out with a whimper.