Writers Meet Their Mentors

A springtime screenwriters lab run by Hamptons International Film Festival
Participants in this year’s Hamptons International Film Festival’s Screenwriters Lab, clockwise from left, Ben Nabors, Michael Sladek, Evan Schwartz, Michael Tyburski, and Christina Choe, enjoyed the warmth of a spring afternoon at c/o the Maidstone inn in East Hampton. Morgan McGivern

    The Hamptons International Film Festival is known primarily for its annual four-day showcase event held in October. Yet for many years, the festival has spread out its calendar to include summer screenings of documentaries and narrative films, projects in the local schools, and a springtime screenwriters lab. The latter brings established professionals to East Hampton to work with writers early in their careers and bring scripts to fruition, with four in recent years making it to production and, in some cases, winning awards.

    Such a lab was held from April 11 to 13 with the writers of four scripts, chosen out of 220 submitted, meeting with mentors for two all-day intensive sessions. By the end of the first day, the atmosphere at c/o the Maidstone, which was their home base for the weekend, was casual and familial. Participants relaxed with a beer while David Nugent, the festival’s artistic director, played with his baby daughter in the lobby and Anne Chaisson, its executive director,  walked with her husband through the backyard with dog in tow, tired but happy after a pre-dinner workout.

    Susan Stover, a mentor, said the lab and its aims were an extension of the New York independent film community. “Film is a collaborative medium, and to be called upon by the festival to benefit its program and writers is part of giving back,” she said. “I like teaching. It’s a hard industry, a hard business in many aspects. It’s rewarding to help new or young people starting out.”

    Ms. Stover’s credits include producing the films “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon.” She was the mentor for the two writers selected whose scripts did not have a specifically scientific theme, Christina Choe, whose “Nancy” is about a serial imposter, and Michael Sladek, who wrote “Phantom Limbs,” an adaption of a novel by Timothy Schaffert.

    Through the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the lab provides grants for scripts that do incorporate scientific concepts or themes. The two screenplays that made the cut this year were “Televisionaries,” a story from Evan Schwartz about the invention of television, and “Palimpsest,” from an award-winning short film at the Sundance film festival about a designer of optimal living spaces who meets a client whose needs he cannot address, written by Ben Nabors and Michael Tyburski. The other mentors were Jamal Joseph, Lawrence Konner, and Robert Siegel.

    Mr. Nugent said he saw the lab as one way the festival could invest in the future of filmmaking. The mentors, he explained, come from a variety of disciplines — writing, directing, producing — and give the participants a broader view of the industry.

    Ms. Stover, for example, is a producer. “These scripts seem like projects that are going out to be looked at in the next few months,” she said. Such concerns as “is this too big, is this right, would this person be good for it” were the kinds of questions she was addressing.

    For her writers, she had “the script and a set of notes. I was always interested in where the idea came from and where it is going. It was more about the story first, then the script.” She structured her time with them from the broader to the narrower technical aspects, always trying to frame everything, she said, in a constructive way. “Screenplays are hard. There’s no reason to undermine what they’re doing.” In the end, she said they had “nice, sprawling conversations‚” about art, film, archetypes, characters, and allegory, among other things.

    As a writer of books, though not screenplays, Mr. Schwartz said one of the hardest things was to find people to read the script and give constructive feedback. “When you give it to friends, that’s the worst. They will tell you things they think you want to hear and are not skilled in screenwriting. They can’t elevate the script.”

    With the co-writers Mr. Nabors and Mr. Tyburski, he worked with Mr. Konner and Mr. Siegel. Mr. Konner’s film credits include “Jewel of the Nile,” “Mona Lisa Smile,” and “Planet of the Apes,” and, for TV, “The Sopranos‚”­ and “Boardwalk Empire.” Mr. Siegel is both a screenwriter and director who wrote the script for “The Wrestler”; he was for several years editor-in-chief of the satirical publication The Onion.

    The writers worked with one of their mentors in the mornings and the other in the afternoons. “They were two very different sessions,” according to Mr. Nabors. They found themselves dealing with basic concerns such as structure in one session and with character development and “the heart of the film, i.e. what the film is about‚” in the other. And, they were given homework by Mr. Konner.  “We have a two-week deadline on our character development work,” Mr. Tyburski said.

    Mr. Schwartz said his mentors disagreed about the structure of “Televisionaries‚” with one urging him to get inside each scene and make it stronger through its characters. The other said the structure was fine; if he started tinkering with it he would run the danger of ending up with a big mess. But each of them, he said, offered “timeless principles of storytelling,” helping in a way that only teachers can.

    “I’m curious as to how they’re going to handle contradictory advice, as each person will bring something different to it,” Ms. Stover said. “In my experience developing projects, there is always someone who will make a comment on the script, but you have to know when you feel it’s right.” She suggested, laughing, that the process dated back to the classical days of Hollywood, when even “Citizen Kane” came back with notes: “You have to change the ending. What is this fire with the sled? You can’t burn the kid’s sled.”

    With a number of short films to her credit, Ms. Choe may be the farthest along in her script, having spent a week in Venice last year in an intense workshop environment as part of the Biennale College cinema program. She has an M.F.A. in writing and directing from Columbia. Her short films have screened at film festivals including South by Southwest, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the Aspen Shorts Fest.

    She gave her “elevator pitch” for the film “Nancy,” which is her first feature, calling it “a narrative version of ‘The Imposter‚’ which began as a New Yorker article, meets ‘Catfish’ ” — two recent documentaries dealing with people pretending to be others. While acknowledging that she hated making those kinds of pat, distilled plot summaries, “There is some truth to it,” she said.

    The plot comes from her fascination with imposter stories. While there has been a lot of focus on those lately, stemming from the relative ease of assuming an online persona, Ms. Choe said most documentary films have not delved into the psychological motivations the way she can with a narrative film. Her main character is a 40-year-old serial imposter who, out of boredom and a need to escape, creates a fake blog and “catfishes” a lover, to disastrous effect.

    She was grateful to participate in the lab, she said, not just to meet new people in the field, but to have a chance to recreate briefly her graduate school experience. Echoing others, she said, “Now that I’m not in film school, it’s hard to get critical notes.”

    Mr. Sladek, whose work was screened at a previous Hamptons Film Festival, ran into Mr. Nugent at an event and was encouraged by him to turn in whatever he was working on. He has written both original and adapted screenplays and found that bringing an adaptation to this environment was very helpful to what he considers a challenging medium. “Since you can’t make the whole book, you have to pare it down to its essence,” he said. “Time, place, and character have to be simplified for film. You’re dancing away from the text, but you can’t be too far, or too close.” While working with someone else’s story, particularly in a memoir, which is his other project, “at a certain point, it has to become yours.”

    Being sequestered in a room with someone for several hours encouraged straight talk, he said. “It’s hard to get that with colleagues and friends, and it’s a great way to meet folks.” The imprimatur of the film festival is enormously valuable, he added. “That someone took my script and weeded it out of thousands of projects, going on to say ‘it’s worth looking at’ — that’s huge.”

Michael Sladek, left, worked with Jamal Joseph, a professor and former chairman of Columbia University’s graduate film program, as one of his mentors at the Screenwriters Lab. Mr. Joseph’s memoir, “Panther Baby,” was based on his experiences as a youth in the Black Panther Party. David Nugent