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Top Highlights from Aspen Shortsfest Screenwriting Panel Featuring Writers of 'Dallas Buyers Club,' 'Elementary' and 'M.A.S.H.'

Photo of Casey Cipriani By Casey Cipriani | Indiewire April 16, 2014 at 9:16AM

Aspen Shortsfest Special Presentation called "Writing for the Screen: How to Create Characters and Keep Your Friends" with Craig Borten, Peter Blake, and David Pollock.
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Peter Blake, Craig Borten, David Pollock and Lisa Kennedy
Casey Cipriani Peter Blake, Craig Borten, David Pollock and Lisa Kennedy

This year's Aspen Shortsfest, an Academy Award qualifying festival for short films, screened 70 shorts from April 8-13 and hosted a variety of panels with filmmakers, screenwriters and actors. A special presentation called "Writing for the Screen: How to Create Characters and Keep Your Friends" featured screenwriters and jury members Craig Borten ("Dallas Buyers Club"), Peter Blake ("House M.D." "Elementary," "Hemlock Grove"), and David Pollock ("M.A.S.H."). The panel was moderated by Denver Post film critic and fellow juror Lisa Kennedy and had the trio discussing their humble beginnings, their writing processes, and anecdotes about their projects.

Here are ten highlights from the panel.

Peter Blake got into the entertainment industry because of his love for "Pulp Fiction."
"I went into it, no reviews had come out yet, and I came out and was just completely blown away by that movie. I came out thinking God what am I doing in law school?! I want to be involved in entertainment in some way. But it took me a while, I didn't have the guts to do it while in law school. Even though I hated law." Blake eventually quit his job and moved to California and took assistant jobs.

A girlfriend lured Craig Borten to Los Angeles, and also introduced him to the story of Ron Woodroof.

"The girl that I had followed out to California sent me an article on Ron Woodroof, who 'Dallas Buyers Club' is based on." When Borten set out to meet Woodroof for the first time, "I didn't even fly to meet him, I had no money, it was the L.A. riots. I had written him a few letters and then I called him at the Dallas Buyers Club a few times and I could never get him on the phone. Back then when I was trying to get an agent I would call the agencies after seven o'clock when the assistants went home and sometimes the agents would pick up the phone. So I called Ron Woodroof at seven and he answered and was like, 'Be here tomorrow you can interview me.' So I drove to Texas, I slept in an AAA park. I honestly didn't know what I was doing, I was like, why am I doing this?"

David Pollock began by submitting some jokes.

"Elias Davis and I met as pages at CBS back in the early 60s. It's the lowest of the low jobs, less than the mail room. There was a huge amount of time to sit and do nothing, which was one of the better parts of the job. So Elias and I would sit and talk about how we would get into the business. We heard that as Johnny Carson was doing 'The Tonight Show,' more networks were getting into the late night game. There was an agent we knew and we submitted some monologue jokes for a conceivable first episode for Joey Bishop. So we submitted them. We had seen Joey over the years, he had filled in for Johnny at 'The Tonight Show.' We were called in for a meeting on March 7, 1967."

Blake enjoys the collaborative process they use on "Hemlock Grove."

Most of Blake's jobs were writing for shows that followed a sort of "Law & Order" model. Writers on staff would pitch ideas to a show runner and write alone. "The first three shows I worked for I wrote for 'The Practice, ' 'House,' and 'Elementary.' And for 'Hemlock Grove' we came up with the stories in the room together, and it was so nice. I realized that for the first 14 years of my career I had spent every day at work, coming into my office, standing in front of a white board and trying to construct a mystery. It was incredibly solitary. So I really liked my last experience working on a story together and getting input from people and then you went off and wrote your script."

"M.A.S.H." aggregated its story lines from real Korean War veterans.

"I got there for the ninth year," said Pollock, "so it had been on for so long that they had just done everything, so it was really hard coming up with stories. But they did a clever thing before Elias and I got there; they interviewed doctors who had been in the Korean War. I guess the Army helped out and gave them some names and they would say, 'Can we call you in a few days and have you think of any incident any occurrence no matter how goofy how crazy?' They were just long, rambling, conversations with old retired colonels going on about the Korean War, and the script secretaries would transcribe everything. Sometimes they would tell a story which they thought was just great, real scary, a bomb went off or something. But in the course of relating it as a sidebar they would mention, 'I remember it was on a day we had eggs for breakfast, and we were so excited we hadn't had eggs in so long.' We ended up doing a whole B-story about eggs arriving having nothing to do with the surgery."

Borten believes that artistic license is necessary, even when doing films inspired by true stories.
"We did a ton of research on AIDS and AZT and the time period of 1985. I met Woodroof for three days and had like over 21 hours of tape. But we made choices, we took artistic license. Rayon wasn't a real character. He was someone I met on Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland at a Yum Yum Donuts who was transgender and a prostitute and a heroin addict and had AIDS and I just based it on that. Ron Woodroof of course was real but film is a visual medium and I really like metaphors and I really liked the metaphor of the rodeo, it speaks to so many things. Life doesn't happen in three acts. You need to create  this engine that moves the movie. 'Dallas Buyers Club' isn't actually a traditional three act structure, we took even more liberties because we really wanted to keep it this small little film about this relationship and this little world. But inspired by stories are incredibly difficult because of those parameters that you have to work within."

Blake then explained that artistic license is even more necessary in television.
"What I do is completely different from what Craig does because instead of trying to make the scripts like our stories, we try to make our scripts unlike real life so we don't get sued. We're doing fiction and unless we pay for the rights to some newspaper article -- well no TV show does that. We take facts and change them enough so there's no problem. Hence the disclaimer at every 'Law & Order' episode. I went to law school and I remember some stuff about what you need to do when you adapt true material, the courts actually give a lot of latitude for adapting true stories. They allow you to make up conversations that never happened as along as its not super slanderous. You have to make stuff up to turn it into a movie. But I'm always disappointed when I'm watching a movie that's a true story and act three is incredible but then I find out act three didn't happen at all."

The purpose of the central character on a television series seems to have changed since Pollock was writing.
"As far as Hawkeye on 'M.A.S.H.,' Hawkeye was a character where you could do conscious jokes because he was consciously funny as opposed to other shows where you always try to keep the comedy within the character. If you ever have to reach out of it it doesn't work, it becomes a cartoon. So those are both very well defined characters. Usually the most adjusted character is the main one to drive the show forward. Mary Tyler Moore is an example. The people around her, Rhoda and Ted and all could be more extreme and you could get away with more exaggeration and bigger jokes." To which Blake replied, 
"That's interesting, because I think now on the best shows the main character is the most crazy and the least grounded. Think of Tony Soprano and Walter White. I wonder if that's the way things are going now."

But as Borten pointed out, loving the crazy character is natural and sometimes intentional.
"
Someone famous had written that you follow the hero but you tend to fall in love with the villain. We don't know why that is but I guess we're all attracted to that. So you root for Jodi Foster but you fall in love with Hannibal Lecter. There's this thing in writing terms called 'saving the cat.' It's a way of creating empathy for anti-heroes. In 'The Godfather,' Marlon Brando is literally petting a cat when he's talking about what he's going to do. It brings his humanity and that created empathy."

This article is related to: Festivals, Short Film, Dallas Buyers Club, Hemlock Grove, House. M.D., David Pollock, Filmmaker Toolkit: Festivals, Television