I have been in The Film School here in Seattle for five days and some undetermined amount of hours. I have lost track of when the sun rises and sets, since all my classes are in a grey walled room with no windows and too many banks of florescent lights. Even though the Seattle Needle is right outside the front door, the Monorail runs overhead and I can smell the waterfront, I only can imagine these things since the four walls of the school are where I will spend every minute of daylight for the next three weeks.
I live by day in a utilitarian room built to show clips of now famous films at the drop of a hat. Lights on. Lights off. We then all scramble to determine the arc of the scene, the intent of the character and the question the protagonist is missing the answer to, but chases for 120 pages. We watch Cassavetes, Newman, Altman and countless directors shape films that will live in us forever.
I am in this room for about 10 hours in a day, with an hour for dinner that starts at 4pm when we should all just be having “happy hour” to drown our sorrows, as we realize we are green writers at best. We crawl out of the womb of film at 9pm. Homework till midnight and by then who gives a crap when you showered last, you flop into bed with all your clothes on, forgetting when the last time you shaved your legs was.
At the end of each day I gather my arsenal of pens, papers, my computer, water bottles, energy bar wrappers that are strewn over the table I share with 19 other shell shocked soldiers of fortune, throw everything into an all too heavy back pack and head for the solace of my hotel. The Mediterranean Inn. When I push through the now very familiar doors, Cory, who is on duty for the late night shift says, “Ms. Maya? How was your day in class? I smile, not having a clue what to say except for, “I found out today I like acting. Who would have thunk it?”. And, did I say I am exhilarated? Did I say that I am exhausted but blissed out to the nth degree? I will next time he asks. And Cory always does.
This school is one of a kind, founded, directed and taught by those who have a burning desire to teach a new wave of screenwriters the ancient craft of story telling, long ago lost on Hollywood. They are reminding us how to craft a story with rich characters and endless tension. The hero at the center the quest is the driving force of the story and write with few words, with ample non-verbal information and with dialogue sparse and too the point. Sound easy? It is grueling. It is yoga with a pen. It is bootcamp.
I am mentored by famous actors like Tom Skerritt of Alien, A River Runs Through It and Mash. I have teachers who have written award winning screenplays, have won Oscars and are clear that “story” is everything to any movie and unless we as writers know how to tell that story we will go the way of thousands of writers every year: into disillusionment and back to our jobs at Starbucks.
And I have one amazing man who is changing my life by the minute. Stewart Stern. Oscar winning screenwriter of Rebel Without a Cause, The Ugly American and the right hand man for decades to Paul Newman and JoAnne Woodward. He wrote Sybil with Sally Field and also won the Oscar. Stewart is 90 years old. He teaches us about the power of words. When he speaks to us, he speaks of how his personal life informed every word he wrote for every movie he made. Every mother was his mother, every troubled teen was his life up on the screen. We all listen to him until the late hours as he shares his journals and his stories of how his life is the movie he writes over and over again. Stewart reads to us complete with cookies and milk,
“ I put the crusty bread and cold slabs of butter in my mouth with a spoonful of hot soup and the mixture of the cold and hot, the melting butter and the edge of bread in my mouth, took me back to another time when I was sick in bed as a child. The combination brought back my mothers care of me when I was sick. I suddenly recalled my entire boyhood room and my mothers steps up the stairs on a winter day. I remembered my mothers foamy egg nog, left by my bed in the sick room and the photo of Johnny Weissmuller I had seen in the barber shop window. Mother had gone out to Columbus Ave., to the shop there and she bought it for me. Her face was cold and her nose was running when she arrived back to our house and I made her tape his photo to my window pane so I could look at it from my bed. I suddenly knew why I had wanted to be sick as a child; so my father could find stature as the doctor in our house and my mother could show me love that was so hard for her to show most every day of my life.”
Stewart makes every story a tasty morsel that no screenplay can do without and that each of these stories are universal. When he finally wears out and needs to pack up the dozen photos of him in WWII or the pictures of him with Paul Newman or winning an Oscar one after the other, I float home. A dozen hours a day with Stewart would simply not ever be enough for me.
But, I am told that to be a writer, a real and deeply meaningful writer, I have to understand the story as the actor and the director would. So, yesterday acting classes were followed by classes on direction. What do I know about such things? Well, apparently more than I thought. And I am thrilled with the opportunity.
At the beginning of the day yesterday I was handed a surprise script. I had to ACT! The first of the day. Piece of cake I thought as I shook, knowing I had never acted a day in my life. Maybe I would play a pensive housewife, or maybe a political figure with wisdom like Meryl or Helen Mirren and with something poignant to say. I hoped for a meaty roll to test my true metal as an actor. But, that is not what happened.
I got the part of a 16 year old girl siting in the back seat of a Subaru with my 34 year old leach of a professor, played by the hottest young guy in the class. Not only did I have to be 16, but a sexually molested messed up teen, one that had never done drugs before and I had, in the end, to come on to my professor with a out of the box line that went something like this: “I know you want to fuck me, so just go on and do it!”. I fell out of my chair hoping that someone much more qualified would jump at the chance for a juicy part like this, but NO. The job fell to me. And this was the first scene of the class.
Me, Hot Guy and Tom Skerritt directing. Oh and did I say I had to jump my co-star in that cramped back seat and have a long passionate kiss? This new married guy with a 20 month old boy? Yep! That’s right. Me the grandmother of the group and Hotty Boy. I knocked it out of the park, to my own surprise. Who knew there was an actor lurking in the depths of my screenwriting? And tomorrow I get to direct another students scene that looks something like The English Patient.
But, before the day was over a surprise guest walked into the classroom. This woman was so unassuming that I thought that she was a secretary at the school or maybe she was someones mother in class. Thelma Shoonmaker. Three Oscars, 22 nominations, and the editor for all of Scorsese’s films. She just sat in a chair and talked about 40 years as an editor for films that will go down in history. This is a daily occurrence. And I am only on day…5. 16 to go. Pinch me now!
So, it is midnight and I think I will wash my hair, wash out a pair of underwear in the sink, put some hot water to boil on my one hot plate and go to bed. All I can say is that I am nearly 62 years old and finally finding out the truth about following my heart and doing what I deeply love. This choice leads to more of the same. More of what I love, things with more heart and inspiration and way more joy. I wonder why it has taken me so long to simply do what I love? Now I will get to find out if the money will follow. It is certain to. Or maybe I just won’t even care. This adventure is already worth its “wait” in gold.