Beaufort International Film Festival

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.

BIFF die-hard fans

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When you slip into the USCB auditorium next week and look around for seats at the Beaufort International Film Festival, see if you can spot an attractive woman appearing to guard a section with her life. That would be Kate Zalusky – the unofficial bouncer of a group of die-hard BIFF fans who have attended every single screening every single year since the festival started. They get there early and stay until the bitter end. Before BIFF offered concessions they brought their own food and drinks for the duration, unwilling to take a lunch break if it meant missing even a single student film. If they were of the Facebook social media generation, you’d call them BIFF’s BFFs – but these are people whose first-date movies include “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “The Music Man.”

Since I’m a relative newcomer to the film festival, Jan and Ken Bruning, Joan and John Berra and Diane Voge agreed to meet me for coffee this morning to explain their BIFF obsession. The first thing I learned was that they are all transplants to Beaufort from other parts of the country and that they’ve all worked abroad in their professional lives.

“No matter where you go in the world, when you sit in a dark theatre, smell stale popcorn and wait for the big screen to light up you feel like you’re home,” Joan explained. Her husband John can recite the date and year of the first movie he ever took her to: July 20th, 1962, “The Music Man.” He can also recite her favorite line: “You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to make today worth remembering.” Joan says she and John have spent the last 51 years making todays worth remembering, which sums up the zeitgeist of this group of die-hard BIFF fans.

They don’t pick and choose among the films in the program by reading little blurbs before hand or going online to watch trailers. They buy all-day passes and watch them all back to back because they appreciate the work and passion involved in making any film that qualifies as an official selection at BIFF.

Diane: “What’s the point in watching only movies that fit your preconceived view of the world? If you’ve traveled, you’re open to new ideas. If you haven’t traveled, films are your airplane ticket.”
Ken: “When we grew up, big cities had art houses. In this day and age it’s too expensive so film festivals like BIFF are the chance to see up-and-comers.”
John: “There’s more to a great film than just the storyline, which you may or may not agree with. You learn to appreciate the cinematography, the editing, the acting. There’s always something that’ll blow your mind.”
Jan: “Thirty different filmmakers are coming to this year’s BIFF to answer questions about their films. Where else can you get that?”

If past BIFFs are any indication, those thirty filmmakers coming to Beaufort next week are in for some serious audience feedback. John Berra was so taken with one short film by a student a few years ago that he tracked the director down after the screening to ask if he could buy a copy. “I wasn’t sure if that would violate his amateur status but it was just so good I had to have it!” The filmmaker’s proud dad went back to his car and gave John a DVD from a stack he had made just in case his son got discovered. John is now convinced that kid will end up winning an Oscar.

For Jan Bruning, movies are life-changing. She remembers going to see “One Potato, Two Potato” with a bunch of university women. But it was Memphis in 1964 and the mixed race relationship depicted on screen was controversial. “I’ll never forget. One woman never spoke to me again because I defended the film.”

That’s why even though her favorite-ever BIFF film was a sock-puppet animation called “Sebastian’s Voodoo” she applauds the fact that Ron and Rebecca have shown films dealing with everything from homosexuality in the Marine Corps to gang life in LA. The same goes for Joan. Never mind that her tastes lean toward sweet-and-funny standouts like 2010’s “Slice of Pie” and student films. This is an all-in crowd and they’ve got the seat muscles to prove it.

Docs will rock BIFF this year

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 What’s remarkable about this year’s Beaufort International Film Festival isn’t that there are no feature films. It’s that the documentaries are as good as any feature film.

Gary and I are screeners for BIFF, which means we see the good, the bad and the ugly submissions every year. This year the features were in the latter category and I give Ron Tucker and Rebecca Berry enormous credit for not lowering the high standards of the festival just to fill the category.

Luckily for Lowcountry film buffs, the stack of submissions did include some of the best documentaries ever and all our favorites became official selections of the 7th annual Beaufort International Film Festival. Here’s why: they didn’t fall into the trap of passionate insiders. Producing a documentary usually takes longer than a feature because to be any good, the filmmakers have to gain the trust of subjects and earn access. It’s easy for producers to be so grateful to their subjects that they lose the ability to edit any out. Redundancy is the death of so many docs we screen, particularly those that try to document a church or charitable mission to raise awareness for a good cause. When you’re too close you feel bad about leaving any tearful, heartfelt story on the cutting room floor. Even when almost everyone interviewed says the same thing.

None of that happens in the documentaries screening at this year’s festival. And given the incredibly emotional nature of them that’s a real achievement. Take our favorite doc for example: “Besa: The Promise” which will show at 3:30pm on Thursday February 14th. Catch a cold mid-day if you have to take off work to see this. This film has already racked up awards from major film festivals around the world, and accolades from less-than-average Joe’s like this one:

“At a time when conflict between Muslims and Jews attracts the attention of the media, it is heartening to be reminded that mutual aid and friendship also have characterized the relationship. The story told through the photographs of Norman H. Gershman is especially inspiring, because the Muslims who saved Jews in World War II did so at enormous risk to their own lives.”

Jimmy Carter

“Besa: The Promise” follows several Jewish families who were hidden and rescued by Albanian Muslims during the Holocaust. Each family has an amazing story and in some respects they all share the same story. But the producer/editor, our good friend Christine Romero, managed to select only the parts that didn’t overlap or repeat. And in the process of winnowing and editing, she told the one story that is both universal and incredibly personal.

The logline is “An Albanina man must fulfill the promise made to the Jewish family his Muslim father rescued during the Holocaust.” We got sucked into that son’s journey of understanding his own father and a man he barely remembered. By letting that one story breathe and develop, Christine found an actual, dramatic plot that keeps us riveted to the individual while slowly revealing the universal. If you think you’ve seen all the Holocaust-related stories your heart can absorb, make room for a surprise.

If “Besa: The Promise” was the only documentary of this level in the festival it’d be worth buying the pass. But it has stiff competition.

We were also drawn into the incredibly personal story of a woman who finds her long-lost brother after his mental illness caused him to drop out of her life for twenty years. It’s a first-person narrative, told in Rebecca Richmond’s own voice, and usually those make me nervous. In the hands of less talented filmmakers, this technique can feel self-serving and distract from the point of the film. But director Kyle Tekiela found the sweet spot and spooled out the story with as much suspense as any feature.

You’re not sure you even like the sister in the beginning. Her search seems somehow emotionally distant, like she’s not coming completely clean. But when you realize why, “A Sister’s Call” packs an even bigger punch. It plays at 11:50am on Thursday and the director will take questions afterward.

The other blockbuster documentary entry is one that just aired last night on PBS’s Independent Lens. But don’t wait for a rerun to see “As Goes Janesville” when you can watch it on the big screen at 1:45pm on Friday the 15th. Ostensibly, this is about the closing of a GM plant in Wisconsin right and the new governor’s battle to bust unions. Gary’s from Wisconsin. I’m the granddaughter of a labor union rep. We thought we knew this story and couldn’t stomach another kick in the stomach of the middle class. But again, the storytelling lifts it out of the political running-in-circles you might expect.

And one other documentary I want to spotlight isn’t technically competing in the documentary category. That’s because “The Children of Kabul” is technically a student film that plays at 9:20am on Saturday the 16th. I can’t remember any student submission tackling a topic as tough as child labor in Afghanistan, but Jawad Wahabzada uses his nationality to gain access you can’t imagine. The cinematography is as beautiful as the four street kids Jawad follows: Omid, Sanabar, Yasamin and Fayaz. They pick garbage, wash cars and hammer metal to support their families. It’s not an uplifting film and I give Jawad credit for not finding happy endings to a story without one. This is one documentary where I actually would like to know more about the filmmaker – his own story might provide the hope I craved after watching this powerful film.


The Big Power of Short Stories

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Beaufort plays host to another cultural first this weekend – the first annual Short Story America Festival.  You get to hear the award-winning stories from the anthology Short Story America 1 and 2 read aloud – sometimes by fans like me and other times by the authors themselves. Like Ron Tucker has done for the Beaufort International Film Festival, Tim Johnston and his army of volunteers have managed to get many of the authors themselves to come from around the country to share their work. So if you love the Q&A with filmmakers and screenwriters you met at BIFF, here’s your chance to talk to some of the country’s best short story writers. They’re even going to play a short film from BIFF during intermission Saturday evening, the wonderfully scary “Beast”, which I’m betting started out as a short story.

I’ll admit – I’m not a long-time devotee of short stories; I’m more of a recent convert. What converted me were the short stories my poet friends got me reading – Mary Alice Monroe, Rosario Castellanos and Etgar Keret and the like. I began to see how much the literary form has in common with poetry – the concision, the layering of meaning and the musicality of carefully chosen words. So it came as no big surprise to realize that the poet Warren Slesinger (USCB students might know him as professor Slesinger, others as the publisher of Bench Press and the guy he first published, Ron Rash) is also a great short story writer. The stories I’ve heard him read at Otram Slabess gatherings are like mirrors of his heart – they cut right to what pauses him, what haunts him. They are elegant and wistful and they say more in a few pages than some of the great big long mighty famous novels of late did (I’m talking to you – Roberto Bolano and the practically 2666 days of misery you put me through)

You can hear Warren read his work “Box of Light” at an 11am session on Saturday at USCB and “Once Again and Then” during the second half of the evening session of readings. The other must-see event, in my opinion, is Natalie Daise’s reading of Guy Tirondola’s “Israel’s Pig.” Great, I just realized the award winning actress (she’s way more than Gullah Gullah Island, in case you’re in a time warp, Natalie’s latest artistic triumph is her one-woman show as Harriet Tubman) reads right before I do. Talk about a hard act to follow. Luckily, I’ll be reading a great story by a very talented New England writer who unfortunately can’t come – Michele Coppola. I won’t give it away, but anyone who’s ever loved a dog, or a man, will feel this one in the gut.

So – to come – the best deal is to go online and “register” for an all-events pass. IT’s easy…just click this . For $35 you get to go to a reception Friday night in the Old Bay Marketplace Loft where authors will sign copies of Short Story America, plus free entrance to the writing seminars Saturday morning and the readings. Here’s a good wrapup of the schedule from the literary champions at Low Country Weekly. I’m hoping Tim and the writers get a big turnout so the festival stays where it started, right here, instead of moving on to bigger cities.

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.)

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.