Film Festivals

Screenwriting Tips from Oaxaca Film Festival

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Black-nonbackOne reason Movie Magazine ranks the Oaxaca Film Festival so highly is because of the attention the festival pays to writers. In most film festivals, screenwriting is the also-ran category, added more for entry fees than for the advancement of writers. Oaxaca turns that on its head. This year, the festival’s fifth, there were two days of workshops and pitch opportunities, in addition to the (ahem) networking screenwriters do at the after-film parties.

Outside the pitching venue
Outside the pitching venue



The "unofficial" pitching venues -- parties
The “unofficial” pitching venues — parties


Here are a few tips I picked up:

#1 From Dove Sussman (just sold a script for a big Clive Owens film) — dive into the setting. Make the setting a character. Start by imagining its streets, its bars, its scary places. It’ll inform how your characters act and react.

#2 Also from Dove — try speedwriting. To unblock you. To prep for his Oaxaca Film Fest workshop, he and a pal in Puerto Escondito wrote a screenplay. In one night. Mezcal might have been involved but hey, whatever releases the creative juices.

#3 Backed up by screenwriter and writing guru Jacob Krueguer   – if you’ve always been methodical, try blitz writing. If you’ve never worked with a partner, give it a shot. You might be in a rut.

#4 Jacob again — figure out what the main character wants and make him try to get it in every scene. While being tormented, tested and thwarted every step of the way.

#5 Jacob again — make sure you do a “reader’s draft” — checking your “me” draft against what a coverage reader will be thinking about. Make the screenplay easy to skim. Cut down on lengthy exposition.

Heard and understood.



I didn’t get struck by lightning!

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a taping, for BIFF to promote next year's table read

Tables, in Beaufort, South Carolina at least, have better reasons for existence than for actors to sit around them reading. As soon as director Bruce Doneff realized that we were going to have a big audience for last night’s table read of the Beaufort International Film Festival screenplay finalists, he made an executive decision. The microphone-less actors were going to have to stand and project. So he moved the table from the stage to the back of the house, draped it in lovely black fabric and stacked it with bottles of wine. It was one of three great decisions he made.

the actors, standing and delivering

The second was to invite the actor Benjamin Busch down to the front row and get him to explain how table reads usually work — to the players and the audience that quickly filled in from the French film next door, once word of the wine got out. When dozens of film buffs aren’t paying $15 each to hear unpublished screenplays read aloud for the first time, table reads are apparently intimate, intimidating affairs. Usually only the writer, director and producers are in the room with the actors, who’ve never seen the script before. It’s when writers discover that dialog falls flat, directors discover they need more rehearsal time and producers discover that some cast members just aren’t going to click and need to be replaced.

Thankfully, ours was nothing like that. I’ll take a crowded audience of film buffs with glasses of wine in their hands any day. They didn’t seem to mind the tradeoff of conversational delivery for actually being able to hear in the back row. But I was nervous. I’ve sat, mumbling the dialog of my screenplays to myself, in front of my computer, for days. I rarely project. I never use body language. I don’t use high voices for females and my best Johnny Cash for males. So watching the rehearsal was like watching a Shakespearean adaptation of my dark, disturbing drama. It worked brilliantly for the screenplay before mine, about moonshiners and revenuers, but would it ring true on a modern-day drama about a sex offender?

Suzanne cheering on director Bruce Doneff

Which brings me to the third great decision Bruce Doneff, the evening’s director and MC, made. He announced a five-minute intermission before my screenplay and encouraged everyone to get another glass of wine. His hope was that a good buzz would make the adult language in “The Scarlet Registry” easier to swallow. The actress who volunteered to play my protagonist’s wife, the brave and talented Suzanne Larson, had the distinction of dropping the first F-bomb in the festival’s history. Did I mention that the theatre is actually owned by a church, which holds services there every Sunday?

So I had a glass of wine myself, then got up in front of more people than I ever expected and gave the set-up for the excerpt. I didn’t go into a lengthy explanation of how it came to be, or warn the one 14 year-old-in-the-second-row-I-had-never-seen-before! about the subject matter. And because I didn’t muddy the waters, I had the most surprising revelation.

The first scene the actors read from, the one where a young girl sees her father doing something no girl wants to see, was unintentionally funny! If I hadn’t heard a real live audience laughing I wouldn’t have believed it.  I was racing through possibilities – I should give the protagonist a more serious name, change the scene descriptions to avoid slang, definitely eliminate the girl screaming. But afterward, the director of a brilliant short in the festival, Seth Boggess, gave me something else to think about. He liked the fact that the scene came across as funny. He said the other scenes are so dark it needed some comic relief.  And he might be right. It certainly jives with what the up-and-coming production company types told me in LA.

I know the screenplay needs work; all writing is re-writing, right?  And yes, Busch was right. There’s nothing like a reading to show where I’ve given characters too much exposition. But the table read was just the motivation I need to keep going. The audience seemed to “get” my attempt to create nuanced characters and they asked good questions. 

a very relieved me, taking questions

And the best question of all came from one of the filmmakers debuting her film this year at B.I.F.F: Natasha Warloe. She’s always looking for new material, would I let her read the whole script?

Another short worth playing hookie for…

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Screening entries for a film festival like Beaufort’s is brutally anonymous. As in, I knew nothing about any of the hundreds of filmmakers who submitted their work this year. Not their back stories, not how many other festivals accepted their films, not their “American Idol”-like tear jerking testimonies of near-death experiences and how much it all means to them. Some entries were hand scribbled on the DVD itself in Sharpie and I couldn’t even read the handwriting. That’s the way it should be. It’s how festival-goers know that the films that made it through to the finals and begin screening on Thursday got to Beaufort strictly on their merits.

Among the ones that sailed through, easily one of the best shorts I’ve ever seen, was a piece called “Left Alone.” Here’s why. Shorts are incredibly hard to pull off. They have to have the clearest of concepts, the tightest screenwriting, to work. They don’t have the luxury of 90 minutes to convince you or to tie up loose ends. Most shorts try to say too much, cram too many stories into too few minutes.

“Left Alone” started with a short story, a smart move. Even smarter, it’s a story by Anton Chekov. About a man dealing with grief that no-one else has any reason to share. Which, when you think about it, is easier to write about than to show, on screen. But the filmmakers who came up with the adaptation “Left Alone,” found the perfect vehicle. Literally. A modern-day taxi cab. And a driver who can’t accept the anonymity of his loss. It’s brilliantly acted, and beautifully shot and scored. It was the only entry of all the hundreds I screened that left me in tears. It’s that universal and yet that personal. By a certain age, we all meet grief. And the world doesn’t stop to let us off. Life around us goes on, whether we like it or not. On the strength of its ability to share that story, “Left Alone” became an instant finalist in best short film category of this year’s festival.

 A couple of hours ago I read Mark Shaffer’s interview with the man who directed “Left Alone:” Seth Boggess. The veil of anonymity was lifted and I saw the context behind the film that so moved me. It turns out there’s no way I couldn’t have liked this film. First, it’s premiering here, at BIFF. Way to make a statement about the value of small festivals! Second, it’s made by a husband-and-wife team, Boggess and producer Natasha Warloe, both of whom are making the trek from Chicago to Beaufort for the entire festival. (Not that I’m prejudiced or anything, but my favorite projects are those I embark upon with my husband and partner.) The lead actor is a Steppenwolf veteran, no wonder he was amazing. And to top it all off, the music that put me right there, in the front seat of the driver’s grief, was composed by the director himself. Creating scores for movies is his day job. If only a screenplay of mine someday is set to music by Boggess.

In the end, film is never anonymous. Or the work of just one person. When we buy a ticket at the Cineplex it’s after a huge marketing blitz that is almost inescapable. But when a film like “Left Alone” can stand alone, without the benefit of any prior assumptions, that is raw talent.

What not to miss at B.I.F.F.

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Screenplays, anyone?

When Mark Shaffer asked if he could interview me for the Lowcountry Weekly, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It sounded innocent enough. One of my screenplays was selected as a finalist in the Beaufort International Film Festival and this year, BIFF is honoring writers by having Shakespeare actors stage a table-read of their work. (Thursday, February 17th, 7:30pm, wine-and-cheese, all at the Lady’s Island Cinema. I can’t wait)

But it turns out publicity comes with a price. I had to get Gary to take a new photo of me, one that actually relates to screenwriting. And Mark roped me into blogging about the film festival for the LCW’s new blog: FilmFix. Actually, it works out great, since many of you have been asking for recommendations about which films to see. There are 34 films this year and Gary and I got to screen them, plus the hundreds that didn’t make the cut. They’re all good, but some might not jump off the printed schedule and grab your attention. When they should. Like the confusingly named “Ich bin eine Terroristin.”

It’s one of my absolute favorites and it premieres right before the table read on Thursday night. So here’s what I wrote about it for LCW:

“It surprised me that I fell so in love with the independent feature “Ich bin eine Terroristin.” Despite the title it’s a French film, with English subtitles. Watching a film so enchanting you can barely stand taking your eyes off the young actress to read clunky words at the bottom of the screen is torture. Especially for someone who loves hearing how words on a page sound when they’re spoken. In a dark theatre. 

I wish I spoke French. I know how hard translation work is. I’ve had to direct the translation of my own commercial films into thirteen languages and trust me, even the experts argue and bash heads over getting it exactly right. Which is why I’m astounded by “Ich bin eine Terroristin.” I didn’t nit pick. I didn’t second guess a single frame. I was there, in the story, mesmerized from word go.
Whoever cast the young heroine of the film, Violetta, deserves much of the credit. She’s a thirteen-year-old free spirit whose pedestrian parents are so self-involved that she creates her own ancestor worship of a famous far-left, Polish anti-war activist named  Rosa Luxemburg.
Because her idol Rosa emigrated to Germany, Violetta decides she needs to run away from her boring French suburban life and head for Germany herself.  By train — a visual thread through the film that gives it a dreamy, lyrical feel. She finds Rosa’s grave, but that’s not enough.  She tracks down the members of The Party – reinvigorating the old Communist codgers with her devoted enthusiasm. It’s the sheer rebellion of adventure that is, to a thirteen-year-old, terrorism. And to viewers, a taste of what film festivals are all about.”