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Universal Themes, Unique Perspectives

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Linda Seger

What's happening with screenwriters around the world? How are they being trained? What are they writing about? What are their concerns?

In 1988, I began giving seminars abroad, first in Australia and New Zealand, then Rome and England and Moscow and Spain, and, since then, in 18 countries, including such fascinating places as Egypt and Bulgaria. Since about 1990, I began consulting internationally, working on scripts from over 20 countries, including Singapore, Kenya, Brazil, Argentina and Casablanca.

International screenwriters have a kind of love-hate relationship with Hollywood. Actually, I think many American screenwriters feel the same way. On the one hand, they know that Hollywood is the film capital of the world (yes, Bombay, India makes more films, but Hollywood films have a larger market!) Many screenwriters dream of writing the script that will make it big in Hollywood.

On the other hand, they don't want to learn a Hollywood formula, and they often presume that any seminar, taught by someone from Hollywood, is going to tell them how to write a Hollywood script based on some Hollywood rules. It's not unusual for me to get off a plane after an 11-18 hour flight and have my host tell me, 'Your writing students are not at all sure about this class and are resistant to what they think you're going to teach them.' Although this was a bit disconcerting on my first trips, I've now learned to just smile, and tell my host, 'Don't worry, I'm not teaching Hollywood screenwriting. I'm teaching screenwriting!' I explain to the students that the theories of good storytelling, such as the three act structure of beginnings-middles-ends does not come from Hollywood, but from Aristotle, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Aeschylus, and can be found in African folk tales, Japanese novels and Russian fairytales. That's what I try to teach: How to tell a story and how to integrate story, theme, character and style without compromising one's own culture and vision.

Since I usually use a combination of international and American films as examples, I try to lead students into understanding that losing focus causes problems in any film. And focus comes from the structure that supports the story. Recently, we watched the sweet and tender Italian film, 'Il Postino,' in my class in Italy. It's a charming, but uneven film. Within the first hour, there is unclear information, which is particularly problematical for the non-Italian audience. We don't know about fishing and about Italian politics and about sexual mores in the 1950s in Italy. And, the film doesn't help us understand more of the context of this world. Yet, as films seek wider audiences, they need to help clue in the audience about the unique world of the particular story.

The memorable parts of most films are the places where they are focused. I expect that if you think about a film such as 'Cinema Paradiso' you remember the places where it had focus, style, good storytelling techniques and dimensional characters. I expect you treasure the first half of 'Cinema Paradiso' when Toto is a child, and the last act when he returns to his village, more than the scenes of Toto going into the Army or standing under Elaine's window for 100 days. These are tangents which we put up with, but are not what made the film an Academy Award(R) winner. Focus, in any language, is a necessity to create a great film.

The problem of focus is found more in films outside the U. S. than in American films. Often non-U.S. films go around the point and get off on unrelated scenes and subjects. They add scenes that might be artistic and original, but don't advance or further dimensionalize the story. Or, some films become very philosophical, and, therefore, talky, sometimes expressing their ideas in long discussions rather than the use of cinematic metaphors. Although I enjoyed 'Wings of Desire,' and it represents a strong idea, it's not a film I want to sit through again and again because of the tendency in this film, and many other European films, to put the focus on discussion rather than action.

Other films, particularly in Europe, lack movement because their scenes aren't part of an on-going sequence that advances the story. When I taught in Sweden, we studied a film I love, 'My Life As a Dog,' but noticed that many scene sequences were truncated, rather than built and played through to a climax. As a result, the film felt longer than it is (it's only 98 minutes long!)

Some non-American films put their conflict off-screen or diffuse it. Of course, Americans tend to build it to such an extent that it sometimes seems the only way to deal with dramatic conflict is to punch someone or blow them up.

Whereas other countries tend to have deeper themes and sometimes more unique characters than American films, Americans tend to have clearer and better structured stories. Whereas other countries often have more style and charm in their films, (think of such films as 'Strictly Ballroom' or 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert' from Australia or 'Shall We Dance' from Japan), Americans tend to have more drama and conflict. Yet, all of these are necessary.

And, since non-American screenwriters are not beholden to the star system, they are often in a better position to create non-beautiful and sometimes non-sympathetic characters. Think of a film like Australia's 'Muriel's Wedding' or the French 'Day for Night.'

As a screenwriting consultant and seminar leader, I have different dreams and visions for screenwriters when I teach in the United States than I have internationally. With my international seminars, I want to show them how to use structure to shape their unique ideas and to pull us closer to an understanding of what are sometimes unsympathetic characters. With my American audiences, I want to show them how to create deeper themes rather than the usual repetitive ideas of 'the underdog triumph' films or the many films about love that really don't tell us anything more than what we already know. I want to help deepen American films and help focus non-American European films.

I believe that audiences deserve varied entertainment. Although I also enjoy a good Hollywood action-adventure and thriller, we need variety in our films. We miss out if only special effects and explosions have a chance in the international market. We miss out if we don't have an opportunity to see such films as 'Life is Beautiful' or 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert' or 'The Full Monty.' As a result of over ten years of seminars abroad taught by a number of us from the U.S., as well as from other countries, we are seeing a difference. Some international films are being nominated in the U.S. for Best Picture for the Academy Awards. Writers who have gone through training sessions in Rome and England and Denmark, etc. are winning awards at Cannes and other international film festivals. The training programs and the increased access of those outside the U.S. to screenwriting books and screenwriting consultants are giving filmmakers from outside the U.S. a greater opportunity to compete in an international market. And the success of screen training in Europe, Australia and New Zealand is opening up new screen training markets in Eastern Europe and Africa. Within the next two years, I'll be giving a series of seminars in Africa to help them develop their writers and to add a new voice to the art of film.

The success of these international films has a positive effect in the United States as well. It gives encouragement to American filmmakers who are trying to do something new and different and increases the chances of the smaller and/or unique American independent film to find its place in the world.