Nov. 3-9, 2000
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Advice for budding screenwriters
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Advice for budding screenwriters

By Rebecca Arrington

The screenwriting process is as unique as the individuals crafting the scripts. Great storytelling, not formulaic scenes, make for the best films. And screenwriters, unlike novelists, playwrights and TV writers, have little control over the final product. These were a few of the points made Oct. 27 by panelists Sam Hamm and John Hancock to a capacity film festival crowd at the screenwriters' panel in Newcomb Hall.

U.Va. drama professor Doug Grissom moderated the talk in a question-and-answer format.

Is there a typical process for writing screenplays?

"I stew over the script as long as possible," said Hamm, a U.Va. alumnus whose writing projects include the first two "Batmanē films. "I get into a zone where the story flows out of me naturally."

Hancock, a director and screenwriter, said his process is different. He works with his wife, screenwriter Dorothy Tristan. "We draft scenes and give them to one another for rewrites. Bad lines tend to disappear without the hurtful discussion process. We've done this on a number of projects," including their most recent film, "A Piece of Eden," released this year.

Is there is a formula for writing screenplays?

"Keep executives' eyes moving down the page," Hamm responded. "The big hook needs to be in the first five pages, because these guys read an enormous number of scripts." He also said to take every criticism seriously. Even if studio executives are not articulate, "try to translate their criticisms."

After the screenplay is sold to a studio, what should a screenwriter expect?

Expect alterations, usually to shorten the script. It's not unusual for the writer to have to cram important dramatic information into one scene rather than the original three or four, Hamm said. If you vehemently oppose what an executive, producer, director or actor wants to do, negotiate, both said. Don't expect to have much control, though. Screenwriters who are unwilling to compromise will be replaced by another writer, he said.

Why don't screenwriters have as much control over their work as novelists, playwrights or TV writers?

The script is not the movie, Hancock explained. "It's the plan for what the film can be, along with the director's instruction, the actors' interpretation, the music, cinematography, etc. It all works to capture the idea in the script."

"In addition to being art, movies are commerce," Hamm added. "You have to prove to backers that you can turn a profit."

Do screenwriters gain more clout after a successful project?

"The screenwriter has the power with the first draft. It's your vision," said Hamm, who said he never shows his rough first draft to anyone. Once the script is sold, that power is gone. "You get more money and more job offers [after a successful project] but not more control. You have to become a director or producer for that."

Should you have box-office talent in mind when you're writing a script?

Yes, they said. "It helps when pitching the story to execs," Hamm said.

Would you approach a TV project different than a movie?

Yes, they said. "For TV, you have to allow for commercials. You need to build in teasers to keep the audience tuned in during breaks," said Hamm. He and Hancock agreed that the upside for TV writers is instant gratification and control over their projects. However, "it's such a demanding product that you don't do your best work because of the time constraints."

In wrapping the panel, both advised screenwriters to write a movie they'd like to see. "Experience life, read and watch films as much as you can," said Hamm, who wrote his first screenplay as an independent study project at U.Va.


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