Category Archives: Screenwriting

Jonathan Franzen: March 5, 2012

Report by Engram Wilkinson:

Audience members filed into McAlister Auditorium Monday night–most clutching copies of The Corrections or Freedom–eager for Tulane University’s sixth reading in its Great Writer Series. Franzen joins the league of Toni Morrison, Salmon Rushdie, Joan Didion, Carlos Fuentes and Michael Ondaatje as a reader in the series, sponsored by the Department of English’s Creative Writing Fund.

Tulane Professor Zach Lazar introduced Franzen with praise for his recently published novel, Freedom. “Franzen has established himself as leading a new wave of psychological realism, rich with the nuances of individual experiences,” Lazar said. Channeling Walt Whitman, Lazar concluded: “In Freedom, Franzen is no stander above men and women, or apart from them,” beautifully articulating what he called the “sheer energy” Franzen uses to produce such kinetic fiction.

As if reading from Lazar’s introduction, Franzen himself “kinetically”leapt from a stage curtain, skipping–or perhaps hopping–over a wire on his path to the podium. Before reading from a chapter in Freedom titled “Mountaintop Removal,” Franzen described the auditorium as “frighteningly vast.” The audience chuckled, and, despite the space’s size, never broke focus with the novelist as he began reading. Franzen’s voice–and the inflections employed for his character Richard Katz–was more than capable of filling the auditorium’s vastness, and got several genuine laugh-out-loud moments from audience members. In a description of a teenager named Zachary (no relation to Professor Lazar, as discussed in during the post-reading interview), Franzen comically and piercingly writes:

“Rather than thwarting his father’s vicarious rock ambitions by pursuing entomology or interesting himself in financial derivatives, Zachary dutifully aped Jimi Hendrix. Somewhere there had been a failure of imagination.”

Professor Lazar conducted an interview with Franzen on-stage after the reading, which Franzen prefaced by describing what he called a “post-reading remorse.” The two novelists talked about the difficulty of writing about sex and sex scenes in fiction–“There’s only so many things people can do to one another,” Franzen observed–commenting that, like the trust required between reader and writer, good sex relies on trust between two parties. “You can’t be safely ironic,” Franzen stated later in the interview. “I’m committed to closure,” he said, echoing his earlier assertion, “I love structuring novels. I’d be so happy if I could just structure them every day without, you know, writing them.”

In the evening’s final fifteen minutes, audience members were allowed to ask Franzen questions. The first question about Twitter has attracted media attention in Slate and The Guardian but, along with his prompted response to social media, Franzen discussed various topics, including: German literature; readership for contemporary American fiction; the state of American literature (“there’s been something goofy about American literature since Modernism,” he said); the task of adequately developing characters in his own work; his growing-up in the Midwest; Enid, from The Corrections; and the challenges of adapting The Corrections into a screenplay. “We’ve got to make writing friendly,” he concluded. “You’ve got to dare to try to be moving.”

Jonathan Franzen is the author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, including: The Twenty-Seventh CityStrong MotionHow to Be AloneThe Discomfort ZoneThe Corrections, winner of the National Book Award; and, Freedom selected in December as one of the New York Times Ten Best Books of 2010.


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Peter Bogdanovich class visit 01/27/10

Report by Marissa Blake:

You don’t have to read about Peter Bogdanovich’s many accomplishments – both in front of and behind the camera – to understand that he is an entertainer. You only have to listen to him for a few moments to realize it. Bogdanovich visited Tulane’s campus last week, spending the afternoon advising creative writing students (from the Advanced Fiction, Advanced Screenwriting, and Honors Colloquium in Screenwriting classes) and the night hosting an audience in Tulane’s Freeman Auditorium. When sharing tales during both talks, Bogdanovich frequently assumed the accents of famous actors and directors he has worked with during his career. The broad range and devilish accuracy of these voices kept his audiences laughing throughout the talks.

During the class visit, Bogdanovich shared how he began acting and directing. His career started at a young age, beginning with poetry recitals for his parents’ dinner guests to spending Saturday afternoons at the American Academy for Dramatic Art in New York City. His success at the AADA earned him a spot at Summer Stock, and led to classes with Stella Adler. Acting turned into directing one afternoon at Adler’s studio when the teenaged Bogdanovich directed a scene with his fellow actors. Bogdanovich explained how Adler praised his direction with, “Bravo darling, bravo!”

He talked about how he took another step as a director after persuading Clifford Odets to give him the rights to perform an Odets play off-Broadway. Why did the playwright agree to this request from a 20-year-old unknown? “I took a drop in the ocean,” Bogdanovich said in his Odets voice. After work as a film journalist, and an opportunity to write for director Roger Corman, Bogdanovich was able to write and direct his first full length film, Targets, in 1968. His second feature was the classic The Last Picture Show in 1971 and, remembered Bogdanovich, “it was smooth sailing for a while.”

The conversation in the Tulane classroom included discussion of screenplays and on-set habits. Bogdanovich  said that he likes screenplays where the construction is solid, but sometimes likes to change the dialogue while shooting. Furthermore, he always knows where he wants to shoot, especially with close-ups – for example, the famous scene at the water tank in The Last Picture Show. The cloud movement and sudden sunlight while shooting made him worry about the lighting: he wasn’t sure if the scene would be ruined. However, it turned into a “wonderful mistake.” He quotes Orson Welles on the subject, complete with perfect impersonation: “You could even say that an director is a man who presides over mistakes.”

When asked about favorites among his own movies, Bogdanovich said that What’s Up, Doc? was his favorite to shoot, and that They All Laughed is the film that is most like him. Bogdanovich’s final story about going to see What’s Up, Doc? on opening night at the Radio City Music Hall. He took the advice of Cary Grant, and stood in the back, disguised and alone. He said it was like being in heaven that opening night because “there is nothing better than making people laugh – because you can hear it.”

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An evening with Eric Overmyer

Report by Elizabeth Furey:

The students of Paula Morris’ Intro to Screenwriting class made sacrifices to make it to a dinner on Thursday, October 29th.  Rehearsals had to wait; club meetings were pushed aside.  Professor Morris lifted her boycott of Whole Foods for the occasion.  The reason: Eric Overmyer was kind enough to join the class for a question-and-answer session in Professor Morris’ living room.

The experienced television writer and producer talked openly to the class (as long as what they asked did not violate any terms of the confidentiality contract he has signed with HBO) about the business of writing for the camera as well as for the stage, and on the writing process in general.  Eric Overmyer mentioned the difficulty of joining the writing staff of an already established show.  He says his strategy is to stay quiet and get a feel of the writers’ room before pitching ideas and stories.  Mr. Overmyer talked about the necessity in writing to arrive at a point organically, and not to force something on to a story.  However, in television a certain point must come up in a scene, so it’s up to the writer to make that happen believably.  He also brought up the point that some background in acting could be helpful when writing for either the stage or the screen.

Eric Overmyer began writing because, he claims, he had “no other skills.” After majoring in theater and going to grad school “for five minutes” he began his life as a playwright in New York City, “barely squeaking by” for some time.  A friend who got into television was his point of entry to the business. He admits that, at the time, some part of him felt he was selling out – like Holden Caulfield’s brother, D.B.  But any fears that he had become a sell-out quickly vanished when he realized what hard work and creativity went into being a writer/producer for a television series.

Mr. Overmyer was asked about the day-to-day life of an executive producer, and he assured the students that there is little down time in his average day.  There’s location scouting, story meetings, casting, conversations with directors on changing the location of a scene and the cost implications of doing so, to name a few.

For both teaching and writing for television (and much else in life, one would imagine) “it depends on who’s in the room,” Mr. Overmyer said.  He has taught at Yale’s Drama School and NYU, and has experienced writers’ rooms on several shows, so he has had both positive and negative experiences. Mr. Overmyer is confident about the writing on his latest project, Treme. And is he excited about teaching at Tulane?  Of course.

Eric Overmyer co-created the upcoming HBO show (due sometime at the end of April, beginning of May) Treme with David Simon, creator of The Wire.  Although the show is named after Faubourg Treme, the historical African American neighborhood in New Orleans, it actually takes place all over the city a few months after Hurricane Katrina tore through – set from Thanksgiving 2005 through the first Mardi Gras after the storm.  Treme will be filming around the city for the next six months.  Mr. Overmyer said he would like to take his Advanced Screenwriting class to the set of Treme next semester for an invaluable and unique experience.

The classes Eric Overmyer will be teaching next semester (Spring 2010) are Advanced Screenwriting and Playwriting II.  Both promise to involve a great deal of writing, Mr. Overmyer said.  Placement in either class will be undoubtedly competitive.  (It should be noted that Professor Morris is the proud “gatekeeper” of the Advanced Screenwriting class. You can read course descriptions and requirements for this class here.)

Thanks to the Duren professorship for funding this event.

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Jonathan King visit

Report by Jonathan Magoon:

On Wednesday night, several students from Paula Morris’s screenwriting class, myself included, had dinner at Antoine’s with writer / director Jonathan King. King, known best for his first feature 
Black Sheep
(2006), a sheep zombie (that’s right, sheep zombie) horror film, was passing through after screening his latest film, Under the Mountain, at the Toronto film festival. Paula Morris was able to lure King to New Orleans, en route to another festival in Austin, as she knows King’s sister. Apparently, everyone in New Zealand knows one another. [PM note #1: Rachael King is a well-known New Zealand novelist. Also: both Rachael and Jonathan have numerous connections with Bret and Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords.]

Jonathan King has a great deal of experience with both writing and directing, and he was able to share some helpful insight with us. He talked about his experience directing music videos, television commercials, and short films, all of which helped lead him to his first feature film. He has written numerous scripts, with many never ending up as films. With his writing partner, Matt Grainger, he wrote the screenplay for The Tattooist (2007). This film was originally set in Samoa and New Zealand, but when the producer found Singaporean investors, the screenplay had to be rewritten so part of the film was set in Singapore.

We also talked about the craft of story itself, and the motivating idea that provides a ground for the writer to work in. In Black Sheep, Jonathan found a broad, interesting story which he was able to develop without having to add on anything artificial, and Jonathan talked about this as the most important part of writing for film. The film needs to flow naturally, within itself (within its larger story form), rather than moving from small idea to small idea. We also talked about the challenges of writing an original story compared with adapting a novel, as Jonathan has done with Under the Mountain. [PM note #2: this is a classic New Zealand children’s book, written by the great Maurice Gee.]

The evening ended with a discussion about the current state of the film industry. Jonathan talked about how few distributors are buying much at festivals right now, and how traditional modes of distribution and acquisition of independent films or scripts have changed dramatically since the 1990s. Hollywood, also feeling the recession, is focused on remakes, sequels, and comic book adaptations, because no one wants to take risks on unproven material. As we ate an enormous baked Alaska and felt depressed, Jonathan suggested that this is the perfect time to improve or reinvent old Hollywood (or independent) methods, and that we are in the unique position to create this ourselves.

[PM note #3: this dinner was funded by my Duren Professorship. Many thanks to Newcomb-Tulane College for making this possible.]

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