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Screenwriting for Harvard

By Mary A. Brazelton, Crimson Staff Writer

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Oscar for the screenplay of “Good Will Hunting” is a classic Hollywood—and Harvard—success story. Damon, an unknown and a Harvard undergrad, writes an astounding script with his pal. A director likes it. They star in it themselves. Fast-forward to the ceremony for Best Original Screenplay.

But what’s often overlooked is that the duo seem to have had only one good script in them, and it took them years to write it.

Passion, adventure, and tragedy encapsulated in three acts, 120 pages of dialogue, and minimal stage direction: most people don’t even try to attempt the exacting art of screenwriting. Those who do try rarely succeed, and even if the script is good, marketing it is a gamble, at best.

But for a large subculture—in fact, two distinct subcultures—of students at Harvard, it’s the best gamble in town.

THE FIRST TEMPTATIONS

William H.D. Frank ’06 was always interested in fiction, but a taste of the “industry” gave him the confidence to start writing screenplays. Mainly because the competition looked so dim-witted.

He took an internship reading scripts at a production company in Los Angeles last summer. “A lot of them were so bad that I thought, ‘Why not try?’” he says.

Frank is one of the two kinds of screenwriter on campus—the kind who truly wants his work to bring him commercial success. For lack of a better term, we can call them “the pre-professionals.”

He is currently completing two scripts to submit to Hollywood producers, an ambitious goal. Most Harvard screenwriters consider it an accomplishment to finish even one screenplay.

Garrett D. Morgan ’08, a sophomore transfer from New York University (NYU), had a more uncommon motivation for getting started—he was born into the industry.

“It was always a prevalent part of my life,” he says of the movie world. He was born in Los Angeles, Calif., and his father is a cinematographer.

But despite the insider connections of Morgan and Frank, both face incredible odds. “If even one of us makes it, that would be awesome,” says Frank of his fellow success-seeking writers.

Yet, still, the pre-professionals can see no other future that would bring them the same satisfaction.

“Being in the creative industry is probably the only thing that would make me happy for the length of a lifetime,” says David W. Ingber ’07. “Maybe it would be really nice to get a job i-banking, make some money, and be happy with the money, but I’d rather really love exactly what I’m doing.”

Catherine L. “Cassie” Fliegel ’06 actually sees screenwriting as the means to a greater showbiz end: success as an actress. Fliegel says she’s hoping to pull off “a girl version of ‘Good Will Hunting.’”

“I’d write my own script, and hopefully star in it,” the budding star says.

ART FOR ART’S SAKE

But some don’t care about the money or fame—their internal drive to write stands on its own.

The curious dichotomy of these two groups has produced a unique screenwriting community at Harvard–one that, though loosely bound together, is built on the very concrete dedication and labor of its students to their craft.

Brighde Mullins, a lecturer in English and American Literatures and Languages who teaches English Clr, “Screenwriting Workshop,” suggests that a basic “desire to connect with people” fuels these authors, without professional ambition, to write their scripts.

“It’s the language that we speak,” she says of screenwriting.

Shana A. Franklin ’06 has always loved movies, but she likes to think realistically.

“I would love to be a professional screenwriter but I also know it’s not the most secure job in the world,” the psychology concentrator writes in an email. However, she says she gets an innate pleasure out of the process, which has led her to her current script, a story about a “supernatural thriller about a boy who can see the future.”

For Matthew S. “Hezzy” Smith ’08, screenwriting was the answer to a crisis of self-confidence.

Although Smith has a passion for creative writing, after two semesters of applications he had yet to be admitted to a fiction class in the English department. “I’d been trying my darndest,” he says ruefully. When he heard about a non-credit screenwriting workshop in Winthrop House, he tried his hand at that.

The seminar, taught by Winthrop tutor Andrew Arthur, proved to be a godsend. Screenwriting provided a path for Smith not to “take [himself] so seriously.”

Although Smith has since earned a place in Visiting Lecturer on African and African American Studies and on English and American Literature and Language Jamaica Kincaid’s English Cvr, “Fiction Writing,” this semester, he has also enrolled in the Winthrop seminar again and is happily working on a self-described “little comedy about a disgruntled photojournalist at a low-budget paper.” He says he doesn’t know where it will go, but doesn’t care much.

Ryan J. “Trini” Abraham ’06 saw his last semester at Harvard as a chance to make strides in a field he’d only dabbled in before now. He has added the Winthrop House screenwriting seminar to his five-class courseload.

“I never intended it to be my number one focus,” he says, “but I’ve always had a growing passion for it.”

Abraham, who plans to become a sports psychologist upon graduation, sees the seminar as his last real chance to receive professional input on his work. “It’s a way do the things I may not necessarily be good at, but which I’ve always wished I could accomplish.”

WRITING THE DAMN THING

“Screenwriting…gives you a personal, intimate space with you and your ideas,” says Morgan. “It’s almost a cathartic experience.” And like all catharsis, the process can be massive and grueling.

The first steps are often the most difficult. Screenwriting lecturer Mullins describes the first task as being “seized” by a subject–what Abraham explains in more concrete terms as the inspiration for “a basic premise and plot summary.”

Luckily for students, friendly environments are present in several classes offered at Harvard.

Pre-professional and amateur students mingle in screenwriting and playwriting seminars offered by the English department, for credit, and the non-credit Winthrop House seminar.

For some, Mullins’s screenwriting class is too selective to keep up with its demand. “The creative writing department here sucks,” mourns James C. Oliver ’06, who was rejected from the seminar this semester.

“I was like, ‘Hi. This is what I do. This is what I want to do. This is gonna be the most relevant class in my entire time at Harvard to take,’” says Oliver of his fallen hopes.

The course received 72 applications this spring, but less than half of them were admitted. Even at that number, Mullins was forced to create two sections of about 15 students each.

Oliver had to find academic inspiration elsewhere. For his current screenplay, a tale about an aimless undergraduate who wins the lottery two weeks before graduation, he drew from exercises he learned in a playwriting class he took last year.

The class also kept the inspiration coming. “I was constantly having to come up with new stuff. Over the course of the year you come up with ten pages of fresh stuff a week, you’re bound to improve a bit,” says Oliver.

At this point in the pre-professionals’ writing process, the English classes have their own limitations.

Many say that the courses emphasize building artistic skills at the expense of pragmatic counsel. “They are more supportive than they are helpful … in terms of actually structuring your story and marketing it,” says Fliegel.

That structure is essential to a script. Frank says that screenwriting is “actually very disciplined.”

“Especially the big studio ones, there are certain formulas they follow: three act structure, like two key turning points, expected to be a certain number of pages,” usually 120, he says. “So all those are sort of limiting factors, so it’s how you work within that space. So you actually have to look at it from a jaded perspective.”

Morgan suggests that these limitations are integral to the writing process. “The restriction of dialogue and the various elements of writing a screenplay can elicit some really great material,” the NYU transfer says.

But restriction can lead to immense frustration. For instance, the perseverant Smith had to scrap his first script. “I started writing this screenplay about a bunch of high school kids’ hot teacher,” he says. “I kept running into road blocks, and I just couldn’t figure a way to engineer it right.”

That process of destruction and rebirth can be immensely time-consuming for terminally busy Harvardians. “I meant to have a lot more of it written by now,” says Oliver of his current work.

But Oliver’s mainly frustrated because he cares so much. “This seemed more pressing [than schoolwork] because I’ve put so much into it.”

Sometimes, an even more primary concern is the terrifying thought that one’s work might be stolen.

“My job this summer wasn’t to look for the best writers,” says Frank of his internship in Hollywood. “It was to look for, literally, ideas I thought could sell or ones that could be made into movies, so you really want to protect what you’re working on.”

As might be expected, Frank declined to elaborate on the content of his script.

Despite his tense exterior, Frank finds relaxation and fun in the collaborative nature of his writing; Frank writes with his roommate, David F. Hill ’06. “It’s an excuse to hang out and just write down all the ideas or funny stories you’ve heard throughout your life, and actually organize them,” he says.

The time devotion and effort is expected for pre-professional students. But even students who don’t hope to get any career advancement out of writing make the choice to give up their minimal free time solely for their art.

Franklin devotes two- and three-hour chunks of her weekends to five-page stretches of screenwriting. Abraham hopes to spend time writing over spring break, when the pressure of his ordinary classwork isn’t as intense.

Abraham says he hasn’t had that much time to write: “This is almost like a sixth class, so I’m not able to put a hundred percent into it.”

But for both groups of students, the major concern of actually completing a script remains the same.

“Finish it,” Fliegel advises her fellow writers. “I’ve had the same story I wanted to tell for so long.”

DREAMS COME TRUE?

Yet the work doesn’t end with the completion of a screenplay. Indeed, many of the writers have no hope that their individual script will ever get made.

Once the work is polished, students with their hopes set on Hollywood must begin a long and arduous process of submitting their work to production companies—not just for the success of an individual film, a near impossible task in a market perpetually saturated with scripts, but in the hopes of getting noticed and getting a regular job.

Oliver just hopes that writing a good script will get his foot in the door at a good company. “My current plan is to just get a job starting at the bottom where everyone starts, as a glorified errand boy,” he says. “Well, actually not even really glorified. You’re just an errand boy, pretty much.”

One Harvard organization does provide support for Oliver and his pre-professional cohorts in their transition from class to career.

Mia E. Riverton ’99 founded “Harvardwood”—a group to fill the gap between students interested in the filmmaking industry and alumni already in the business—in 1999, along with classmates Stacy Cohen ’89 and Adam J. Fratto ’90. The program maintains an e-mail network and holds an annual training session on screenwriting—dubbed “Harvardwood 101”—in L.A. every intersession.

With this support, Harvardians determined to make their mark in Hollywood have been making strides. “Teresa Boteo ’03 did the very first Harvardwood 101 and she is now at the screenwriting program at USC,” says Riverton.

Harvardwood is currently a thriving organization, with 101 paying undergraduate members and 210 non-paying affiliates. “I think [undergraduates] see that careers in Hollywood and the arts are not these ambiguous, exotic, unattainable goals,” says Riverton of her hopes for the program.

Its newest endeavor, a scriptwriting competition, formed jointly with classmate David S. Alpert ’97 and his Circle of Confusion LLC, is accepting submissions of student screenplays throughout March. After a selection process, the winner receives a cash prize and—more importantly—the attention of professional directors and producers.

Many Harvard writers, pre-professional or not, are entering their work.

Since this is the competition’s first year, Riverton doesn’t quite know what to expect, but is hoping for an upper bound of around 50 submissions. “I’m planning on doing some edits with my screenplay and then I hope to enter their competition. You never know what can happen!” says the non-preprofessional Franklin.

So for her and her ilk, is this competition the end? Is screenwriting just a phase, to be put aside for “real” work? The answer is unclear.

Franklin has achieved relative success. She says that industry people, reached through contacts in her Harvard classes, have been examining her work. “I’ve been in talks with a few people, but so far nothing concrete has happened,” she says.

For many, the business is too fickle to depend on any real movement, and they’re just focused on getting their kicks with the writing, itself.

“I definitely know that whatever I end up doing professionally, I will be writing,” Franklin says firmly.

Smith echoes the sentiment. “This is a ‘life’ thing,” he says. “I know I wanna write…. It’s just fun to see the world as a movie.”

—Staff writer Mary A. Brazelton can be reached at mbrazelt@fas.harvard.edu.

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