Not just the student but two obnoxious colleagues are driving him out the door. 2,098 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Berger girded himself, then entered the classroom. "Okay," he said, "any problems? Questions? Strange or unforeseen developments?"
After dealing with the issues that were presented, then getting progress reports from several students, he turned to Candace. "Any questions before you start?"
"How many pages can my script be?"
"Let’s say 135 max."
"Why a duck?"
"I don’t follow."
"It’s a line from a Marx Brothers movie."
"I still don’t follow."
"This is supposed to be a place where students learn to be members of the professional film community."
"But isn’t that limiting?"
"Only if you’ve got the wherewithal to finance your own films. So, are you pitching, or are you pitching?"
Candace bit her lip. "Imagine a world that’s totally disrupted," she began, "where nothing seems as it used to be, or as it should. Know why? Because you’ve broken your glasses. So you’ve got to figure out how to cope with disorientation, with a handicap, with an inability to see, act, or live in the way you’re accustomed."
Like Berger, the class seemed stunned as Candace continued with a series of disconnected events with no discernible character development, emotional arc, or change in tone. The result was total silence when she finished, until Berger faced the other students.
"Thoughts? Comments? Questions?"
"I hate to say this," said Chrissie, "but ever seen Mr. Magoo?"
The laughter that rang out relaxed everyone but Candace. Then Mark spoke. "Couldn’t your character, whose name I didn’t hear you mention, go to someplace like Lenscrafters and get a new pair of glasses?"
Rebecca next chimed in. "Shouldn’t we know from the beginning what your character wants or needs? Then watch him make choices or decisions?"
With Candace not responding, Berger studied her. "Help me with something," he said. "Why, after the films that were assigned, then the pitches we’ve heard so far, would you come in with the exact opposite?"
"Because you wouldn’t let me start with a structure!"
"So it’s my fault?"
"And how about the fact that I won’t let you write more than 135 pages?"
Candace fumed for a moment, then grabbed her things and stormed out of the classroom.
Berger was not surprised to find Jon Schechter waiting for him in the parking lot when he arrived the following Tuesday. "Why are you giving Candace such a hard time?"
"I’m giving her a hard time?"
"If structure means so much to her, let her steal one from another film then tack her characters onto it."
"I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that."
"Because the day I learn that’s the philosophy here, I’m gone."
Prior to the next week’s class, Berger received an email requesting that he come in fifteen minutes early to have a conversation with Sandra Saunders and Jon Schechter.
"Hope you don’t expect gratitude toward Candace for making me get here earlier than usual," he said upon arriving.
"How do you know this is about her?" Schechter asked.
"Just cut to the chase, will you?"
"Why 135 pages?" said Sandra.
"As opposed to 130? Or 125? Or 217? This is supposed to be a training ground for professionals, not AYSO Soccer, where everyone gets a trophy for participation. Think directors, producers, or studio execs will be kinder?"
"Still –" grumbled Sandra.
"Still, my ass. At Julliard, if the assignment is a piece of chamber music, guess what. That doesn’t mean a symphony. At the Creative Writing program at Irvine or Iowa, a haiku means seventeen syllables, not eighteen, nineteen, or twenty-seven. At Yale Drama, a one-act play means one act, not two, three, or four."
"Why do you take this shit so seriously?" muttered Schechter.
"Because one of us has self-respect."
Charging ahead without waiting on Candace, Berger one by one gave the go-ahead for members of the class to start scripting. All the while, he had a series of clandestine conversations with Anjalee, whose script, rather than being the disappointment suggested by Schechter, proved to be filled with energy, invention, and talent. Nor did his mentoring of past students stop with her, since others called with questions about the movie biz, or for help with projects they were working on.
Then, begrudgingly, Candace pitched again. Though her story was still far from fresh, innovative, or even interesting, at least it conformed to standards sufficiently for Berger to be gentler than he otherwise might have been. And the same was true of her classmates.
"Okay," Berger then announced, "for the weeks ahead, until your scripts are ready, we’ll spend the first half of each class talking about progress, roadblocks, questions, and so forth. If at any point you have pages you want us to discuss, fine. But instead of emailing ’em, hit the printers at the end of the hall and make copies for everyone including me. If they’re in on Tuesday, they must be read carefully for the following week, with no winging it when it comes to constructive criticisms and suggestions. Clear?"
"The second half of class," Berger went on, "will have a different guest each week. I’ll probably bring a producer, a director, an agent, a manager, a studio exec, an actor, a cinematographer, a film editor, maybe even a lawyer if time permits. That way we’ll demystify the business to a large degree, and let you get to know people who may be able to help in the years to come. Sound good?"
Once again everyone nodded.
Arriving on campus the following week, Berger found Jon Schechter and Sandra Saunders again waiting for him in the parking lot.
"To what do I owe the pleasure this time?" he asked.
The administrators exchanged a look, then Sandra spoke. "We understand you’ve got a guest coming to class today."
"Is that courtesy of the FBI, the LAPD, or the CIA?"
"Not funny," Schechter said.
"What exactly is your problem?"
"We consider it highly irregular," Sandra stated.
"’Highly irregular’? Come with me."
Berger led his two inquisitors into the building, then down a corridor lined with photos of movers and shakers in Hollywood. "What do you see?" he asked.
"You tell me," mumbled Schechter.
"Half the photos on the wall were taken of guests in my class the last three years."
"And how’d they get there?" Schechter asked.
"I told Sandra who was coming, and she called a photographer."
Instead of looking guilty, Sandra went on the attack. "Think it’s fair only your students get to meet these people?"
"Hell, yeah! A guest sits around a table having a conversation with nine or ten students he or she gets to know, then I take whoever it is out to lunch. But I’m sure it’d be more fun to face a hall filled with forty, fifty, or sixty anonymous faces while missing lunch."
"But what about the other faculty members?" asked Schechter.
"Don’t they have friends?" Berger responded. "Look, if you’re trying to get rid of me, you’re doing an excellent job."
When no response was forthcoming, he headed toward his classroom.
Thanks to the start of post-production on his baseball documentary, further script notes to Anjalee, plus advice to other former students about meetings, agents, and the normal crises in Hollywood, Berger’s next four weeks proved to be intense.
Fortuitously, his screenwriting class was on cruise control. Progress reports on each student’s project, even when coupled with discussions of scenes that were distributed, plus occasional pep talks, generally left time for Berger to supply tips, lore, or observations before the arrival of each Tuesday’s guest.
"Although writers are too often figuratively consigned to the kiddie table," Berger said during one session, "from an existential point of view they’re the ones with power. Without a go movie, what’s there to do for a director, a producer, or an actor? Have lunch? But a writer can wake up with a mission. And who knows? A spec script may wind up the next Citizen Kane, or The Apartment, or Bonnie And Clyde."
Another week Berger laughed when queried about the Auteur Theory. "It made sense," he explained, "during the heyday of the studios, when there were real producers; directors like Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, and John Ford; and screenwriters like Ben Hecht, Frederic Raphael, Robert Benton, and Budd Schulberg. Or with the best of the writer-directors: Orson Welles, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen. But even though I’m a Directors Guild member, for proof that even talented directors are lost without a good script, check out Scorcese’s pilot for Vinyl, or Lumet’s Find Me Guilty, or Jonathan Demme’s Ricki And The Flash. Then let’s talk."
On an uncommonly grizzly Tuesday, at a time when his students’ first drafts were starting to materialize, Berger was surprised by what appeared to be a flashback: Jon Schechter and Sandra Saunders once more waiting for him in the parking lot as he drove in.
"Now what’s your problem?" Berger asked.
"C’mon," said Schechter. "It’s not like we’ve only had problems."
"Sure fooled me."
"We want you to know we appreciate you," interjected Sandra.
"So what’s the catch?"
"It’s not really a catch," stated Schechter.
"Then what, a fish?"
"We’ve learned that another film school is preparing to reach out to you and a couple of other faculty members," said Sandra.
"We’d like to ask for your loyalty," said Schechter.
"And when a certain aspiring screenwriter turns in a script that’s 150 pages long?"
"You really think –" Sandra muttered.
"No doubt in my mind."
As pleased as he was when he read Chrissie’s first draft, which achieved a special kind of resonance due to an insider’s look at a show biz family, then Mark’s, which drew heavily on both the mores and geography of Pittsburgh, there was nonetheless a cloud hanging over him. Then came Rebecca’s, which was awkward in spots, but promising, followed by Tina’s, which was an amusing look at a young woman wrestling with her sexuality while prepping for a Miss East Los Angeles beauty contest. One by one, the others trickled in.
Then at last came Candace’s. "How many pages?" Berger asked as she prepared to hand it to him.
"Does it matter?"
"If it’s over 135 pages, it does."
Candace glared, then turned and stormed out of the classroom.
"Why does it matter so goddamn much?" asked Schechter an hour later as he and Sandra Saunders faced Berger. "Why the need for the rule?"
"As opposed to one stating that all classes must meet at their designated time? And on campus?"
"They’re not the same."
"Right, one’s trying to engender professionalism."
"And the others?"
"Middle school mediocrity."
"Can’t you just read it?" asked Sandra.
"At 163 pages? No."
"You’re being willfully judgmental," protested Schechter.
"I’m being judgmental? Who was it who referred to Anjalee as a dimwit?"
"What’s that got to do with anything?"
"Do you remember that bet I proposed?"
"You’ve heard of the American Express Screenplay Competition?"
"It’s the biggest," stated Sandra.
"Well, guess who’s this year’s winner."
"But Olivia said her script is a disaster," blurted Schechtor.
"Let me quote the late great Little Willie John –"
"Little Willie who?" asked Sandra.
"If Anjalee’s script is a disaster, then grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry, and Mona Lisa was a man!"
"And I suppose you were helping her with it," Schechter muttered, drawing a nod from Berger. Schechter shook his head. "I don’t know what to say."
"Well, I do. I’ll finish out the year with the other students, if you want. But as for Candace and her 163-page masterpiece? They’re your problem."
Flaunting his rebelliousness, Berger rarely came to campus thereafter, holding class – minus Candace – in various places: the editing room, the facility where the mix was done on his film, and on a couple of Saturdays in the private area of the deli he frequented.
The results filled him with pride, plus a fair amount of what he called So there! Chrissie’s won a competition for first-time screenwriters, Tina won an award for LGBT writers, Mark had his optioned by a producer who was the guest one week, and Lola was signed by an agent who guested on a different Tuesday.
But all was not entirely peachy. Despite positive indicators from people at Sundance, his documentary was bounced when another film about baseball – a scripted drama with a much larger budget – was submitted. That meant having to find another – and lesser – launching pad for it, which he ultimately did.
As for Candace, through Sandra she requested a meeting with Berger for, as she put it, "closure."