I am standing at UCSB’s 2007 Word Farm watching Harrison Reiner say, “I’m totally star struck. And I thought I couldn’t get star struck anymore, I am a big fan of your work, big fan,” to a flaming-haired woman. Reiner, a CBS Executive, has worked on such films as academy award winning “My Left Foot” and “Cinema Paradiso.” The woman looks at him with affection and replies, “Oh, thanks honey.” The woman is Allison Anders, one of the reigning queens of independent film who has written and directed films such as “Border Radio” and “Grace of My Heart.” Meanwhile, Michael Miner, the writer of “Robocop” and “Anacodas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid” bursts out of the room next to me. For a moment, it all seems a bit surreal. No, I am not in Los Angeles waiting for a table at Spago. I am not sitting at Santa Barbara’s Barcara Resort and Spa for a cocktail. I am hunched against the wall in UCSB’s Ellison Hall, waiting for my next seminar to begin.
This weekend, I hoed dialogue, planted ideas and sowed some screenplay inspirations all at this year’s Word Farm 2007. For the last four years, highly-acclaimed screenwriters and Hollywood industry professionals have donated their time to take part in the three-day intensive screenwriting seminar, organized by the presidents of UCSB’s Screenwriter’s Co-op, Jordan Harris, Andrew Gayman and J.T. Fagundes, with the aide of Joe Palladino, the advisor of the Film and Media Studies Department.
I began my first day at Word Farm terrified. My morning seminar was with Tom Lazarus (writer of “Stigmata” and “Colombo: How to Dial a Murder”), who I had been warned was the “scariest” of the speakers. “Are you ready to pitch?” the person next to me asked. For a moment I thought I would rather shove a pitch fork through me than spout out my screenplay idea in front of a room full of people including a Hollywood guru. Lazarus charged the room like a pit bull, throwing down all his credentials of what a bad-ass writer he is and pounding out the structural elements of screenwriting. After a break, the first person “pitched” and he was more generous with his insight than I had expected. My confidence grew. When my turn to sit in the fire came, Lazarus was light on the heat. He told me that my idea was “cute” and moved on to the next person. I was shaken – inspired to tremble out words into a screenplay. Later Lazarus confided in me, “I like to come in and assault students in the first class of Word Farm and shout at them and yell and scream at them and hopefully inspire and empower them.” He did just that.
Throughout Word Farm, I felt exposed as a minority – I was not a film major, unlike many of the participants. However, after lunching with the other aspiring writers, I learned we were a diverse group. I talked with a business economics major, met an alumnus who had driven up from L.A. to attend Word Farm and discovered one man’s only affiliation with UCSB was that his wife had gone to the school. The participants were diverse in ages too, with us word geeks ranging from ripe eighteen-year-old freshmen to the more seasoned middle-aged participants. There was a large range in screenwriting experience, with a number of people having never written a screenplay to several writers who had written several screenplays and produced their own short films. In a few days, the beginning of our own artist’s colony began to form – all of us were dedicated, rising early and giving up the weekend to be enlightened to the inner workings of the Hollywood industry. I talked with other women about starting our own writer’s group, students shared with me their ideas about expanding my screenplay and a number of the speakers gave out their e-mails and offered help. A community built on an interest in words and the visual began to form, and it was exciting. Speaker Jon O’Brien (production executive, SBCC instructor) disclosed to me that his experience was “very positive and active. … People are very appreciative and it’s all about making good movies, which is what I am all about. It’s been very positive. Fun.”
The commercial truths of the business set before all participants were, at times, daunting. O’Brien informed students, “You have to be a whore.” We were reminded of what an incredibly competitive business the film industry is, but Word Farm allowed participants to get caught up in the luxury of generosity. The speakers and the organizers generously offered their time and patience. One of the most valuable seminars was with Stephen Susco (“The Grudge” and “The Grudge II”). The workshop did not scare me out of my wits – in fact, there was no trauma involved at all. Susco greeted us all like old friends and, in a simple and casual “Question and Answer” setting, he proved to be the kind of guy one wants to sit down and have a beer with. He was young, vibrant and a fantastic story teller. We sat engrossed in all his tales of failure and success in the business, ready to go out and do what he advised: Write in every genre! Go intern! Adapt books into film! Together, we all left ready to be fresh blood for Hollywood.
My experience of Word Farm ended ceremoniously, snapping a photograph of Bob Gale (“Back to the Future” trilogy) with the sensation of feeling like a real grown up; I had just given my e-mail to a participant who had a possible job contact for me. I left Ellison Hall elated with the wisdom of the Hollywood professionals and inspired by my peers. Anyone interested in screenwriting who did not get the chance to go to this year’s Word Farm can check out the Screenwriter’s Co-op, which meets every Sunday at 8:00 pm in Ellison 1710.