Posted by Susan Doll on October 11, 2010
It occurred to me recently that I know a lot of talented people, which is one of the blessings in my life. I know or work with artists, filmmakers, musicians, and writers of all types, including my fellow Morlocks whom I learn from every day. I also know two fledgling screenwriters who are both working very hard to land that first big deal. In my day as a gun-for-hire writer, I have penned everything from a how-to book on home hair-cutting to yearly wrap-ups for the housewares industry, but I don’t think I could tackle an original screenplay. I am in awe of their ambition and abilities as well as their optimism that the fruits of their imaginations will be seen and appreciated by audiences.
Film critics continually lament the poor writing in recent Hollywood movies. Action films are so formulaic that the entire genre has gotten tired and old; the current crop of Hollywood screenwriters can’t write roles for women as evidenced by the embarrassing characters and dialogue in romantic comedies. Indie films exhibit sharp writing and complex characterizations, but Hollywood movies continue to decline. I am sure there are many talented screenwriters who could offer fresh voices to a tired industry. For this two-part blog post, I interviewed screenwriters Debbe Goldstein and John Kestner about their backgrounds, their processes, their influences, and their attempts to break into the industry. Coincidentally, both live in the Phoenix area. There must be something in the sunshine that inspires creativity.
Debbe Goldstein has spent her life in the arts, from working at New York’s legendary Kitchen, an exhibition space devoted to video and performance, to teaching at Taliesin West, the Frank Lloyd Wright school for architecture near Phoenix. While living in Hollywood, she served as head of artistic recruitment for Dreamworks SKG and director of recruitment for Klasky Csupo. More recently, she curated an exhibition titled “At Home with Ozzie and Harriet: Mid Century Design” at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Currently living in Scottsdale, Debbe has changed her career course to write screenplays. I have read three of Debbe’s screenplays, including Valland, based on the life of the woman responsible for saving many of the Louvre’s treasures from the Nazis, and I liked them all because they are entertaining stories written for adults with characters who are older than 20. For this week’s blog post, I interviewed Debbe about her craft; next week, I will talk to John Kestner.
Q: How many screenplays have you written and what are they about? Is there a subject or type of character that you like to write about it?
DG: There are three completed: Lot’s Wife: The Story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, A Certain Age, and Valland. Lot’s Wife tells the story of Oppenheimer as he goes from being a national public hero to a disgraced private citizen. His views on the atomic bomb, which he helped to create, ultimately differed dramatically from the government’s, and he was forced out of the discussion. Turns out, his view point was correct. A Certain Age is about four middle-aged women on a road trip across the country on their way to the third wedding of a friend of theirs. Old antagonisms and new experiences bind these women together as they drive across America. Valland tells the story of Rose Valland, a French curator at the Jeu de Paume in Paris during the Nazi occupation in World War II. Overseeing the museum where Hitler and Goering stored the art looted from the Jews, Rose kept a secret diary that was used to help return the work to the surviving families after the war. Valland begins with a Bonnard painting that is being returned to a family in the United States.
I find I like to write about either the 1940s-1950s or completely contemporary. I’m drawn to stories that I think have some subtlety. And, I like delving into weird current/historical events. As for characters, I generally root for and write about the underdog, or the flawed outsider.
Q: What made you want to write that first screenplay?
DG: I had an artist friend who dedicated a series of paintings to the end of the world as the result of the bomb. He had told me about the Bradbury Museum in Los Alamos. I visited twice, and then I started doing some research on my own and, of course, came to the story of Oppenheimer. In 1994, I presented a paper at a popular culture conference in Ohio on the bomb and its affect on popular culture, painting, design, etc. I had some kind of unresolved interest in and ambivalence toward Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. The best way to resolve it for me was to write the script. I did tons and tons of research and one day just sat down and started writing.
Q: What experiences did you have that helped you write that first screenplay?
DG: I had been working in the industry in animation. My educational background in art history and film came to a logical point in animation, because animation is both art and film. As director of recruitment at Klasky Csupo and later head of artistic recruitment at Dreamworks SKG, I was one part of the process of making a film. I was asked to find artists to work on the films as needed. If I didn’t do my part, which was to find and hire ink and paint artists, layout, etc, the movie could come to a halt. Additionally, I was brought in when producers began looking for artists who could provide the look for new films in visual development. So I had some experience with how the story of a film was moved along.
I also read everything I could, and I bought screenwriting software—yay Final Draft. I was always interested in writing, but I think I lacked confidence. Then all of my experiences and professional life came together when I started writing Lot’s Wife. And, then I couldn’t stop. It seemed like the natural next step for my career.
Q: How are you trying to get your screenplays sold? What strategies are you using? What kind of success have you had?
DG: Oh boy. Cold calling; e-mailing production companies and producers; entering screenplay competitions; networking online, with people I know and people I don’t know and people I don’t know who know people; asking friends of friends. Lot’s Wife placed in the finals in two competitions. I am waiting to see how I did with Valland in another competition. I have managed to get the scripts to some impressive filmmakers and producers. I contacted many, many agents, but there aren’t many looking for unsolicited material. I just keep trying to get my stuff out there. I realize it’s challenging right now as an untried writer to make movies… but I believe in my scripts, so I keep thinking someone out there is going to want to make mine.
Q: Are you inspired by topics or subject matter to get started on a new screenplay, or do you think of characters first and write around them? In other words, what’s your writing process?
DG: Sometimes I will read something and think that would make a great movie. Or, hear something on the radio and think that would make a great movie. And, sometimes I just imagine an actor playing a certain type of character, or I imagine a character in some situation that is interesting to me. I do tend to think about art, artists, and situations I am familiar with within my own experience, but I think that is natural—a write what you know kind of thing. I like creative people as characters, because they are interesting, and I am familiar with them. But then I also want to write about things that I am not familiar with, or that have a little more muscle than I am comfortable with.
Q: Do you network with other screenwriters either in person or online?
DG: I started doing that for a while, and I was part of a motivational site to write every day. People wanted to meet up. And then I started noticing that the writers couldn’t meet at Starbucks because they had tests for high school… or didn’t have a ride because they didn’t have a license as they were not old enough to pass a driving test!!!! I have friended some writers on Facebook, and it was gratifying. But I think it’s more impressive for me than for them! I was on Variety’s networking page for a good while, but there are a zillion screenwriters with a million ideas. And, I felt that I wasn’t really getting much from it.
Q: How have screenplays or films from the past inspired you? Do you think any specific writers, directors, or films have influenced your work either consciously or unconsciously?
DG: I think my influences constantly change. Right now, I am crazy about Deadwood (yeah.. a little late to that party), but David Milch is particularly inspiring right now. . . and Aaron Sorkin, even though he’s currently trendy. I must say I did like Diablo Cody’s Juno a lot.
I am always interested in old black and white movies. I think work from the past has inspired me because the acting is not apparent, the words are poetic, and the narrative is about something. A classic such as Some Like It Hot always inspires. I also like the auteurs from the seventies, even though I am not interested in directing. I am interested in the writing. Certainly in working for Dreamworks, Spielberg et al is an influence. Robert Benton, Alan Rudolph, Billy Wilder . . . I will see anything written and directed by Alan Rudolph, Billy Wilder, and Robert Benton.
It is an interesting question—about unconsciously being influenced. It reminds me of Jasper Johns, the painter, whose work is all about having seen something somewhere, and then being influenced by it later, somewhere down the line. I am like that. I might think I don’t like a script or a movie, and then I find myself several weeks or months later recalling a particular scene or bit of dialogue and thinking it was brilliant or influential. I also find that the worse a script is, the more I learn what not to do, or how to avoid a particular problem developing a character or the plot.
Q: What kind of movies do you watch, and do you think about the dialogue, narrative structure, etc., while watching them?
DG: Sometimes I think if I notice all of that during the film, it may not be a good thing. However, ever since I was a kid, after seeing a movie, I would go over every scene and then rewrite it in my head before I went to sleep that night. So, I do think about all that.
And, I find that there are so many movies I want to like more than I do. Very rarely do I sit in a theater with a smile on my face and think, “I love this movie.” Once I started writing, my viewpoint changed about many movies: I may have liked them a lot before I started thinking about dialogue, narrative structure, and plot points, but now I realize how slight or flimsy some of them are. Charm goes a long way in making a film, but it’s got to be on the page. I think more now about how a character is developed, if he/she is believable and if the character is carrying the story in an interesting way. I wanted to love The Kids Are Alright, but I didn’t. I liked a lot about it, but I left the theater disappointed. Somehow, there wasn’t enough oomph for me. The acting was good, but the script felt slight to me.
I tend to like movies about relationships. I’m not big on comic book heroes, thrillers, or horror. But I see as much as I can. I like going to local film festivals here [in Phoenix] to see independent films. I will see anything that Ian McShane is in; I will see anything that Patricia Clarkson is in. I think they make really good choices and are unbelievable actors. I love French movies.
Q: How would you critique screenplays/films from today, especially the Hollywood industry? Do you think they compare to those of past eras of filmmaking?
DG: The Hollywood industry is what it is. Right now vampires, comic book heroes, the paranormal and thrillers are what the industry wants—but not necessarily what movie-goers want to see. There are more ways to deliver movies now than ever, but what about quality? Films look better, because special effects, CGI, etc., but I think people realize that you need to have a story, a good story. Otherwise, everything else is eye candy. Eye candy is good sometimes. But good stories are better. Filmgoers are hungry for well made stories, which is why The Hurt Locker won the best film Oscar and Avatar did not.
I do think that Hollywood underestimates its audiences much of the time. I think we live in a time where escapism is rampant in our cultural signs. The suspension of reality is very important right now; hence the preponderance of super heroes, comic book characters, and characters who take weekend trips to Vegas where they remain unscathed as they encounter dangers. I think there are a lot of films that are worse than in previous eras, but there are also some that are better. Take a movie like Superbad. I laughed and laughed. I don’t think I was the right demographic, but it was a good script. A lot of small-scale movies are about big stories and concepts. I go back to Deadwood. I am watching it on a weekly basis, two or three at a time so it feels like watching a film. I never know what to expect. I am constantly surprised, and the character development is stunning, deep, and complex.
I think Hollywood is an institution that changes like geologic eras. Some things are the same as they always have been and some things are different. But how do you get people into the theatres? Or how do you make money when people are watching on their laptops or smart phones? It is the same kind of paradigm shift that occurred when movies went from black and white to color. I know one of the old stories about Hollywood is that when making a film, everyone thinks they are making the next Citizen Kane, and it is hard to admit they are making a stinker of a film. With great software for scripts, and the trend that anyone can be a star on a reality show, many people are writing scripts. I think there is a lot of luck involved in getting a screenplay produced—right time, right producer, right director, right actors—and it has to come together. I hope I will be that lucky.
Q: What are you working on now?
DG: I have a few things that I am working on. I am finishing a story called Supper at Emmaus about an art cop investigating a suspicious theft at the Vatican, and I am working on one about a time traveling family called The New Normal. I have just started to write about the Mitford sisters, which I think would make an amazing series on HBO or cable.
About a year ago I made a list of ten ideas for scripts. I still have that list and have added five more to it. I write a few scenes in each as often as I can, but they are in very early stages. I am doing research for a film that will take place in Pont Aven, France. I am the kind of writer that percolates for a long time. And then it all comes together.
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