Master Screenwriter to Share How to Map a Story

A guide for writers working in films, television, plays, and literature
James V. Hart will lead Saturday’s master class in screenwriting.

One of the highlights of the Hamptons International Film Festival’s Screenwriters Lab weekend in recent years has been the Saturday night master class, which is open to the public.

This year’s mentor, who is also participating in the one-on-one private sessions of the lab, is James V. Hart. Not only is Mr. Hart a screenwriter of films such as “Hook,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “Tuck Everlasting,” “August Rush,” and “Contact,” he was also on the faculty of Columbia University’s graduate film program and a mentor and advisor to various film festivals and workshops.

Key to his success has been a mapping tool he has devised for storytellers across formats and genres. Called the Hart Chart, it provides a guide for writers working in films, television, plays, and literature. Originally worked out with pen and paper, the tool is now available as an app to map the user’s story digitally. The chart, which Mr. Hart will cover on Saturday, is part of an overall toolkit Mr. Hart now uses to keep storylines on track. The 20-page manual begins with a set of questions to get the process started. 

The origin story of the Hart Chart and toolkit dates back to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and the script Mr. Hart wrote for it. Calling him the most prepared director he has ever worked with, Mr. Hart said Mr. Coppola had every scene mapped out before he even came onto the set, having done storyboards, radio plays, and video rehearsals of the scenes prior to the cameras rolling. 

Yet, even with all of that preparation there was a problem. “It was not an easy shoot,” Mr. Hart recalled. “I got a call at midnight in New York. He says ‘Hart, get on a plane. I hate the movie. I hate the script. I hate everything. I hate that you wrote it.’ ”

In Mr. Coppola’s screening room, Mr. Hart sat down in a big chair with a drink and a cigar with instructions to call Mr. Coppola after the film. “It was the worst piece of shit I’d ever seen,” Mr. Hart recalled. “I couldn’t believe it was the script I wrote. I was drunk, angry, flabbergasted . . . and sorry I ever did this.”

The two of them took apart the footage in the editing room, attempting to identify the scenes or pieces of narrative that were needed and missing. A year after the first filming, they shot those and interwove them with the original footage. “We filled in the narrative as if we were writing the script all over again.” The film went on to a huge opening, becoming an instant classic.

The 90-minute class will contain anecdotes such as these and will be very interactive. “I, like most people, don’t like to be told what to think and do.” He will discuss his chart and how it evolved. “It’s not just the chart, but a series of questions, tests, signposts, plateaus, abysses, and canyons” that make up a script. His approach “is not a formula, but way of organizing a script, so that it is character driven, not plot driven.”

He said anyone can benefit from the class, which will be illustrated by film clips and enriched by stories from his multi-decade career in the business. “Writers of any kind, film buffs, and novelists can all find something in this process.”

The master class will take place on Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Ross School in East Hampton. Tickets are $15 and free for students and educators with ID. Those unable to get to the class can find Mr. Hart’s tools and chart on his website hartchart.com and on an app also accessible through the website.