This weekend (April 6-8) marks the 18th annual Screenwriters Lab hosted by the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF). Three mentors are paired with three promising screenwriters for one-on-one guidance to further develop their craft and skills. This year’s mentors are Sabrina Dhawan (Monsoon WeddingToy Story, Cheaper by the Dozen, GarfieldHook, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Epic, Contact). This year’s cohort of selected participants is particularly notable as it is the first all-female group with Esra Saydum (The MesopotamianWe StrangersBirthday Suit).
Previous female alumni of HIFF’s annual Screenwriting Lab went on to premiere and earn awards in screenwriting, directing, and acting at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The projects were Nancy by Christina Choe, And Breathe Normally by Ísold Uggadóttir, and Dead Pigs by Cathy Yan.
In addition to serving as a mentor, James V. Hart will teach the screenwriting Master Class that is open to the public on Saturday evening. In a more intensive fashion than usual (Hart typically covers this material over the course of two days), he will discuss the technical writing tool he developed, HartChart, and its application to storytelling in all its forms. Hamptons.com spoke with Hart to learn more about this workshop and glean some insight into the creative yet mechanical process (which Hart has so deftly mastered) of developing an idea into a gripping narrative. If done successfully, the idea will grow into a story that captivates the audience until the final page of the script that reads “The End.”
Unsurprisingly, our conversation included a few stories from the masterful storyteller himself, some of which will be recounted below:
HIFF is underscoring the all-female composition of this year’s screenwriting lab. Have you witnessed a change over the years, a greater diversity, in the filmmaking industry?
JH: I have two female writing partners, my career has been built on strong female characters. I’ve worked with great female producers. I wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for a few female actors like Winona Ryder and Jodie Foster. So I have kind of a different view as I watch my daughter struggle. When she first started writing and went to LA, I watched her struggle with female producers that had female projects that were going with 45-year-old white men to write. These are all cycles. We’ve had great women producers, directors, and writers from the thirties, forties, and fifties and even in television. And it has now become more of a talking point, kind of a nexus or crucible because of all the social upheaval we’re having in our country and I’m thrilled to see more attention towards diversity in our business. Those voices now being heard to the point where people like me are now being pushed to the background, but I’m used to that, it has happened. I think that it is all healthy, that it will go in a cycle and a wave until it works.
A few years ago, there was an outcry over the lack of nominations and awards going to people of color. Now, women are the new kind of flashpoint for the business to react and focus on. I’ve been in this business long enough to see a lot of changes and cycles come back around. I’m just glad my daughter and my son hopefully will both benefit from this new shift. I don’t think it makes any better films or worse films. It doesn’t matter whether your script is written by a man or a woman. If the characters and the story don’t work, you can’t blame it on gender.
Can you talk about the development of the HartChart, when the idea came about, and how it came to fruition?
JH: I started the HartChart 20 years ago as a way of having a story-mapping tool that visually represented and showed your entire script or movie on one page. It followed the heartbeat or the pulse of the characters in the story. I was having a hard time seeing the entire film and measuring the emotional journey of my characters on the page because everything was plot driven. And it started out in my experience with Francis Ford Coppola and Dracula. We had worked very hard on the script. He [Coppola] was incredible with preparation for shooting. We revised and revised the script and it was a really well-prepared production.
In post production, we ran into trouble because we were missing pieces of the narrative. Not scenes that we had to re-shoot, but pieces of the actual narrative that we missed in our preparation. The result of that was we were in the editing room writing new scenes to fill in the pieces we missed. I kept saying to myself, “there has to be a better way of not getting in the editing room and finding out that you’re in trouble.” Is there a way to take the script before you shoot it and really show the emotional journey of the characters to see where they’re missing, where they’re dropping out, where they’re flat-lining, where you have too many depressing scenes, where you’ve lost the character for too long, before you shoot the film. We have scenes in Dracula where close-ups and wide-shots were shot a year apart from each other.
So the chart came out of my need to have a way of analyzing the script in its written form before you put it up in front of the cameras. The app was done by Guy Goldstein, who developed WriterDuet – a great screenwriting program – and we released it in 2016 along with my toolkit. I use it every day, it’s not just something that goes on the shelf that collects dust. It’s an actual working tool that I use every single day in my writing and we’ll talk more about that in the Master Class and I’ll demonstrate it. It came out of a need for me to be able to survive and not face a blank page. It’s designed to jump-start the process and give you a set of tools where you can fix the problems yourself.
You mentioned that there is something inherent in writing, that there are “rules in the universe about storytelling.” What rules do you take to be universal as a writer and a storyteller?
JH: There’s a certain consciousness that exists in the universe. And it’s really hard to undo and take apart. There are certain rules of storytelling that come from the universe. The great storytellers were able to hold your attention for hours and hours, days and days, before we had CGI and binge-watching. You had to tell a story, and the storyteller that can make the audience lean forward in anticipation was always going to get the best seat by the fire, the best food, the key to the city.
There’s the legend of a guy in France who told a story for three days in a village through a thunderstorm, earthquake, and war. People didn’t leave while he told the story and afterwards the mayor gave him everything – his wife, his family, his money, ducks, chickens, whatever he wanted. So word got out that this was a great place for storytellers to go and be rewarded. The next storyteller showed up and told his story in 30 minutes, and the mayor and king stood up and said, “Please cut the tongue out of that man’s mouth so that we may never have to hear another word he speaks.” And he said “Wait, wait, wait, for three days this guy talked about his story and mine was only 30 minutes.” The mayor responds, “Yes, but for the first 25 minutes you only spoke about yourself.” So anticipation, being selfless, being open to the consciousness of the universe and how it speaks to us are some of the things that we feel are universal.
What do you want the general audience to learn and take away from attending Saturday’s Master Class?
JH: There is a toolbox you can use that will take the mystery out of writing. I like to boil it down to a much more mechanical process. There are certain guidelines and tools that you can implement from the idea stage that will enable you to form a narrative story, a screen play, a novel, a TV pilot, a song, a play. These tools are universal to storytelling, it doesn’t matter what format you use if you write as a hobby, if you go to a writing class, if you are trying to break in professionally, or if you’re trying to write your first script or your tenth script. You still need that inspiration. There is talent involved, but what is really involved is craft, and when you know craft you’re not stuck, you’re not without a path.
The Master Class will take place at the Ross School (18 Goodfriend Drive, East Hampton) at 6 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online; students and educators have free admission to Saturday’s class with valid ID presented upon arrival.
The Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) is a not-for-profit organization with events, screenings, film workshops, summer programs, and an annual film festival each October.
For more information please visit www.hamptonsfilmfest.org.