In April, 2009, on recommendation of Ivan Schwarz, Cleveland’s Film Commissioner, I attended an invitation-only screenwriting retreat just outside of Los Angeles. Below are notes from the event.
Idyllwild, California is ~ 2 1/2 hours east and up the mountain from L.A. It was an amazing drive and I carpooled with another writer, who flew in from Toronto. (Thank G-d for GPS!) There were only 13 writers at the event, which turned out to be an Alumni retreat, thus while only 3 of us weren’t from L.A., only ~ 3 of us (not overlapping, necessarily) were there for the first time. The Bed & Breakfast location greeted us warmly (even though the writers had to sleep in an an off the road “bunk” motel like place that felt like a rural dorm room). Regardless, the land – tall trees in tall mountains – was nothing short of amazing. The woman who heads up the whole program is very maternal and funny and brilliant. Most of my “peers” were film school grads and between the writers and mentors, Northwestern University was highly represented. A few of the writers have written and directed their own films, some have their own production companies and, overall, the caliber of people is something else. All but perhaps 2 of us had a New York and/or L.A. geography in their life path. I had a flashback to my first quarter of b-school – how did I get here?
The Mentors & Sessions
Seven mentors, none of whom get paid to do this (no one is selling any books, either) comprised of professional screenplay writers, agents, directors and producers. Our 50 or so hours at the event were comprised of organized activities – great food, sleep, one-on-one mentor sessions and group mentor sessions, with very specific topics (not necessarily in this order). Additionally, at the beginning of the retreat, the mentors showed clips of their favorite “sans dialogue” scenes of their favorite films and then discussed what about these scenes they loved. At the end of the retreat, the writers did the same thing. I brought There Will Be Blood with me and showed/discussed the first 5 or so opening minutes. Some of the group discussions included “The Art of the Meeting,” “The Pitch” and a third session discussing the common theme analysis of our own individual 3 favorite movies. (Felt like excellent group therapy – who knew my 3 choices – Goodfellas, Trading Places and The Royal Tennebaums – have common themes?) Our last evening, we walked to the local theater and watched Disfigured, a film written, directed and produced by Glenn Gers, one of our mentors. This was followed by a mentor -recommended viewing of Harold and Kumar Go to Guantanemo. (“one of the best political commentaries of our time”) Again, how did I get here?
My One-on-One Mentors and the Cleveland Script
The two people assigned to work one-on-one with me, Barri Evans and Amy Salko Robertson, are both talented industry producers. Amy produced a film here in Cleveland, The O in Ohio. (The crew lived at the Statler at the time. Coincidence?) From the get go, I asked each one of them to be frank with me, so that no time would be lost. They appreciated this and went right for the core. The good news is that I get to keep my characters. The new news is that I now need to deconstruct the script, strip it down, pare down all the subplots and rebuild the story into a cleaner, more structured and grittier tale. There is something compelling about what I have, but, as they both said to me “You’re not following the story you should be following.”
I came into the retreat with an open mind, so now have so much to do. The best news in all this is that once I do the homework, the script will go from idea to a professional screenplay. I have also asked Jacob, my editor, to up the ante and challenge me on the next draft. Since the retreat both he and my mom have provided terrific input and guidance as to where next to take the story.
The bar is now raised. I’m not in Skokie, anymore.