One thing I’ve learned over the years is a single plan is never enough.
Months had past since my writing partner, Douglas A. Blackmon, and I applied to Sundance Screenwriters Lab with fantasies of sitting by a Utah fire, having witty repartee with the great Quentin Tarrantino while he told us how amazing Slavery by Another Name (SBAN) was.
OK, maybe there wouldn’t be a fire.
As ready as I was to pack my parka for Sundance, they weren’t nearly as anxious. They’re plan was to leave us hanging for four months. That’s right, four long months. We needed a Plan B.
I had heard of the esteemed Stony Brook Southampton Writers Conference, but hadn’t realized they had extended it to screenwriters and playwrights. I could workshop our script and hang on the Southampton beaches for a steamy week in July!
Good-bye parka. Helllooooo bikini and Plan B!
Stony Brook Southampton Writers’ Conference was birthed in 1975, with outstanding instructors and lecturers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Nobel Laureate Derek Wolcott, Poet Laureate Billy Collins, Walter Mosely, Elizabeth Strout and many more. The famed Frank McCourt even taught with them for fifteen years.
Four years ago, screenwriting was added to the program. A past screenwriters’ agent and current Director of the Stony Brook Southampton Screenwriters Conference, Annette Handley Chandler, explains her vision:
“The goal of our conference is to keep the emphasis on writing. We may not be able to control the business of Hollywood, but we can control the strength of our writing – our understanding of the craft, the development of character and theme as well as dialogue. We improve the more we write and read strong screenplays.”
I couldn’t agree with Annette more. Learning is our responsibility as writers.
I submitted an application along with the first 20 pages of SBAN, and was invited to be one of eight screenwriters to participate in Christina Lazaridi’s workshop. Christina is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter as well as a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate Film Division.
I had never workshopped a script before and didn’t know what to expect. The event was astounding and far exceeded my wildest dreams. Each day, Christina generously poured through all eight students’ ideas, even staying late to squeeze the last drops of inspiration from our minds and souls.
When I wasn’t in her class, I took every opportunity to talk about SBAN. With one sheets and business cards in hand, I talked with every instructor I could find. The reality is, you never know whom someone is connected to. It couldn’t hurt to ask, and Lord knows, I’m not shy. When I learned Roots Director, John Erman was giving a lecture, I snuck in early and discussed our script with him. His was ecstatic about the project, advising us, “Never give up.”
I could do that.
But pimping SBAN soon got pushed aside as I became engrossed in all there was to learn.
Actor Peter Riegert held a mini-workshop on Acting for Writers where writers brought scenes in for readings. Peter’s charm and humor made everyone at ease. Thankfully, you cannot see our attempts at acting on YouTube. For the record, I’m sticking to writing.
AMPAS Nicholl Fellowship screenwriter, writing coach, teacher and development executive, Will Chandler, taught a packed-to-the-brim class on The Screenwriter’s Toolbox: Three Tools to Outline Your Story Fast. People’s pens were running dry, copying down all his chalkboard diagrams.
I admit I got so inspired, I started a new comedy script that night.
However, I never let myself get too distracted from my SBAN rewrite goal. One of the most valuable lectures for me was given by Carol Dysinger on Editing and Rewriting. She has an extensive editing career and has been a screenwriter for 20th Century Fox, Disney and HBO, and a tenured Professor of Graduate Film and New Media at NYU film school. She shared her personal tips on how to do the film editor’s job with our words – a much cheaper way to edit.
I typed notes furiously, and in between lectures, I dove into SBAN, marking the script with notes on how we could improve it. My mind was on fire with ideas.
But the real value of the conference wasn’t just in the knowledge of the instructors and lecturers; it was in the generosity of the other participants. Long after the classes ended, you’d find writers huddled together, helping each other, swapping emails, and creating google groups to continue learning long beyond the event’s sunset.
I learned, I made friends, I gathered ideas for improving SBAN, and I even got to drink at the local watering hole, The Tidewater. Funny thing, I never did make it to the beach. But, there was still that fire with Quentin in my sights.
When the conference was over, we had yet to hear from Sundance, but it didn’t matter. We had one hell of a Plan B.
The 2011 Stony Brook Southampton Screenwriting Conference is July 6-10. I’ll be there again. Get your application in and come join me in learning. This year, Emmy award and DGA award-winning writer/producer Mitchell Kriegman leads an immersive, hands-on, ten-day workshop on storytelling utilizing digital media.