FEATURE: If Only It Was Always This Pleasant: The 2002 Hamptons Screenwriters Conference
by Matthew Ross
(indieWIRE/ 10.16.02) -- For aspiring writers and filmmakers (and even many working ones), quality time is a commodity that ranks just below financial security and creative control in the list of desired assets. What's good about realizing time's scarcity in the face of big- city life is that when an opportunity for focused work presents itself, you jump on it and milk it for all it's worth.
In July, I took a 10-day vacation in Europe. On the way home from the airport, I checked my voice mail and received two unexpected messages: the first was from Ellie Lee, an old friend with whom I had reconnected with at the 2001 Hamptons International Film Festival, where my short film, "Curtis and Clover," had its world premiere in the Golden Starfish competition section. Ellie, whose short "Dog Days" had won the award the previous year, was on the jury. (Despite the connection, my film still didn't win.) Just before I left on my trip, I had given Ellie the second draft of "Complete Control," a script I had just written with Guy Cimbalo. She had called to report that she had recommended that it be included in the second annual Hampton screenwriters conference, which takes place a month before the actual festival.
The next message was from Heather Buchanan, conference director (who is also in charge of hospitality during festival weekend), asking if Guy and I would be interested in submitting "Complete Control." Needless to say, I agreed. Several months later, we were informed that our script was one of six to be selected to the workshop.
The conference took place over a long weekend at the end of September. The other writers who attend the conference, which was based at the Hedges Inn in East Hampton, were Denise Pullen ("Riding Fire"), Chris Romero ("Anika's Room"), Stefan Schaefer ("c-o-n-f-e-s-s.com"), Thomas Simmons ("Rose of Sharon"), and Robert Whitehill ("UXO -- Unexplained Ordinance"). These writers had also been referred by the festival's industry contacts. (Due to the limited time-frame and small staff, workshop organizers had decided to not post a call for submissions.) The Hamptons workshop follows the format employed by other "lab"-type programs, in that the workshop attendees are paired with seasoned veterans who act as mentors. All mentors were decided well in advance of the workshop weekend so that they could have time to read and comment on the screenplays assigned to them. One aspect of the workshop that sets it apart from other similar events is that its primary sponsor, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, requires that at least two of the scripts have scientific themes. (Our "Complete Control," which tells the story of a 12-year-old boy who tries to break up his parent's marriage by finding a better man for his mother, did not qualify.)
Guy and I were fortunate enough to be assigned to two skilled writers, Jim Hart and Belinda Haas, each of whom approached the mentoring process with care and enthusiasm. The styles, however, could not have been more different. Jim is a studio film veteran ("Bram Stoker's Dracula," "Contact," and the recently released "Tuck Everlasting") and a screenwriting professor in Columbia University's graduate film program, and he is a fervent believer in structure. For our first two-hour session, he arrived with a large artist's sketch pad, on which he literally mapped out (in a drawing that resembled an EKG readout) the structure that he uses for all of his own work. We then applied his drawing to our story, which was loosely based on the traditional three-act model. The results were illuminating. Jim's model, as unsexy as it was, allowed us to both discover and remedy some story issues that had previously existed only in vague terms. In addition, Jim's background as a writing teacher was clearly in evidence, as his presentation was quite polished and well-informed.
The next day, we repeated the drill with Belinda, a writer and film editor whose screenwriting efforts have focused mainly on literary adaptations, including the 1995 film "Angels and Insects." If Jim's method was rigorous and clinical, and mostly focused on story structure, Belinda's was more concerned with character and theme. She showed up at the meeting with two pages of typed notes, and we spent the next two hours discussing her ideas. Unlike Jim, Belinda went straight for characterization and theme, and her observations were dead-on.
In the midst of the working sessions, the recreational element to the workshop weekend -- and the hospitality bestowed upon us by the festival staff -- was so pleasurable as to bring about feelings of guilt. Every night, writers and mentors (who also included Maggie Greenwald, Lawrence Lasker, Michael Weller, Kaylie Jones, and Kevin Heisler) were treated to lavish dinners sponsored by a festival board member (Kim Brizzolara, Jeremy Nussbaum, and festival chair Stuart Match Suna, respectively). It also gave us the opportunity to connect in an informal setting with the other mentors and "mentees" (as we soon came to be known). The atmosphere was entirely positive and enthusiastic, and by the third night, it seemed that everyone had agreed to read everyone else's script and stay in touch. The good cheer was not a result of some naive confidence in our imminent success, but because competitiveness and cynicism were conspicuously absent.
There was even a deal made. Just before the conference ended, word had spread that Maggie Greenwald ("Songcatcher") had signed to direct Thomas Simmons' "Rose of Sharon," which she had been assigned to critique. "In the Bedroom" producer Graham Leader, a Hamptons resident who has a long relationship with the festival, will produce.
In addition to getting a forum for discussing our upcoming draft, Guy and I were also given a February 1 deadline for the next draft. At that point, conference organizers will help promote the project (which I hope to direct) to their industry contacts.
Taken as a whole, the workshop was the most pleasant three days I've ever spent that had anything to do with the film business. At the end of the conference, after a Q&A session at the Hunting Inn between the mentors and some guests the festival had invited, I asked Denise Kasell if she had plans to expand the workshop in the coming years. Thankfully, her answer was no. This should remain what it is: a small, fairly well-kept secret that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.
[On Saturday, October 19, at 11:00 a.m. in the Festival Tent, the Hamptons International Film Festival will present a panel on this 2002 Screenwriters Conference. Matthew Ross and Guy Cimbalo are among several of the writers and mentors who will participate.]