Sunday, July 6, 2008

Searching for Screenwriters in the South of France

A change of pace from labor unrest – a belated letter from Cannes, originally scheduled for print publication, but cut for space reasons.

CANNES, France – Here at Cannes, almost everybody has a home. Stars and directors are found on the red carpet, and producers and distributors inhabit the Film Market in the basement of the Palais, headquarters of both the Festival and the Market. Directors can also be found at Directors Fortnight, a sidebar to the main festival, and even critics have an event, called Critics Week, another sidebar.

But where are the screenwriters? Unfortunately, they don’t get even a weekend, let alone a fortnight. That’s perhaps not surprising in the country that originated the auteur theory, the idea that the director is the sole author of a film. But if screenwriters don’t garner the glamour, they nonetheless can be found at Cannes with a bit of searching. First stop on my hunt was the International Village, a series of pointy-topped tented pavilions on the beach. Most of the pavilions had no screenwriters on offer, but a few did.

At the Argentine Pavilion, for instance, I sat down with Juan Diaz, writer of the film “Rojored,” playing in the Shorts Corner (yet another sidebar). As we watched the yachts at anchor on the bay, he revealed that he’d made an unusual transition: from production designer to screenwriter. This background allowed him to “write with images,” he explained, which perhaps accounted for the script’s sparse dialog. Interestingly, the director was comfortable with this approach, and Juan told me the film was truly a team effort.

A later stop was the Ukrainian Pavilion, where I met with the charming Tatiana Gnedash, the writer of “Doyarka from Hatspetovka,” recently the number one TV film in Russian territories. Interestingly, although Tatiana lives in Kiev, most Ukrainian screenwriters are based in Moscow. After the Ukrainian first lady discovered that, the president began a program to support the country’s screenwriters.

Visiting the Croatian Pavilion, I found no screenwriters, but did learn an interesting factoid: a film’s screenwriter in that country is generally also the director, or the author of the underlying material if the film is based on a book. In the U.S., of course, the book author seldom gets to write the screenplay.

Off the beach, at the Nespresso café in the Palais, I caught up with Brillante Mendoza, director of the Philippine film “Serbis,” in competition at the Festival. Although the writer, Armando Lau, had departed earlier that day, Brillante helpfully discussed this controversial film, which contains explicit, un-simulated sex of various orientations. The creation of the screenplay was as unusual as the film, if less salacious. It entailed two years of development, followed by a mere five days of writing. Shooting was then completed in only twelve days, during which the actors were handed the script scene by scene, day by day. The script itself consisted mostly of dialog, and very little stage direction.

Leaving the Palais, I made my way down the main street, called the Croisette, which follows the curve of the beach, until I arrived at the screening room for the Critics Week program. There I managed to see a series of shorts called “Ecrire Pour” (“Written For”), sponsored by the French channel Canal+. The premise of the series, now entering its eighth year, was simple: There are a group of eight actors or singers – it was singers this year – and each writer contestant has to choose one of them and write a short intended for that actor or singer. The actors or singers each choose one of those scripts, and those eight chosen scripts (out of about 100 entrants) get produced. I particularly enjoyed “Sheila,” written by Anna Margarita Albelo.

Yet another program, a script workshop, was advertised at the Polish Pavilion. It’s ScripTeast, intended for Eastern and Central European screenwriters.

A different sort of competition is the EON Screenwriters' Workshop. As described at a panel at the UK Pavilion, writers start with a one-page pitch document in a very specific format, then proceed through a one-week intensive workshop, and two six-month development periods, with 80 initial entrants winnowed step by step down to eight who proceed through development. Writers are paid for their work, and the program is open to U.S writers, but you have to reside in London for the duration. A key difference from other screenwriting workshops: the goal is write big-budget, commercial films, not art house pictures.

Also on the beach, I interviewed screenwriter Jerome Soubeyrand, a vice-president of the French writers guild, the Union Guilde des Scenaristes (tiny by U.S. standards, at just 250 members). I learned that French screenwriters get even less respect than Americans. In fact, a few days earlier at Cannes, the cast and crew of the blockbuster “Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis” ascended the red-carpet steps for a photo op – but the writers weren’t invited, said Jerome. Complementing the UGS, and with a pavilion nearby, is the SACD, an organization that collects royalties on behalf of screenwriters (a function performed in the U.S. by the Writers Guild).

Back on the Croisette, at the magnificent Carlton Hotel, I found a surprise lying on a table amongst the special festival issues of Variety and the Hollywood Reporter: a Swiss Army knife, with an imprinted URL, Rather than a fish scaler or wood saw, it had a USB drive nestled between the scissors and the pocket knife. On the drive was a file that explained I had found one of fifty such knives that a pair of filmmakers had left lying around the Festival. The filmmakers, Matthew and Barnaby O’Connor, had made a $10,000 movie last year and were hoping to find distribution – hoping, that is, that a distributor might pick up a knife and then pick up the film to boot.

But the funny thing was, it turned out that the movie, called “A Horse With No Name,” had actually been a film with no script. The brothers concealed that fact from their actors, and furiously wrote scenes day by day, just in time for shooting. That set me thinking. Maybe the O’Connors should collaborate next time with the makers of “Serbis” – who knows, they might even win an award. In the magical city of Cannes, as you might imagine, anything’s possible.

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