Categories: ScreenwritingSpeaking/TeachingTravel

Hollywood Intensive Retreat (Australia, 2010)

In the summer of 2010, Jeanene Tracy invited Valerie McCaffrey, Milton Justice and I to teach a wonderful weeklong braided retreat in Sydney, Australia, where we divvied up directing, acting and screenwriting, respectively, and coordinated the program such that the screenwriters wrote scenes for the directing students to direct the actors in – all culminating in a performance workshop by week’s end. A truly memorable experience for all. I have stayed in touch with as many of my students as I could – many of us are close friends to this day. And of course Valerie and Milton are the bomb! We’d love to teach this same program again sometime – somewhere – soon!


In the writing tracts, we really had a ball! I adored my students!  Hysterical Gordon Napier from Melbourne, beautiful and sweet Soraya Spiers from London and smart and strong Elise Frances from Narrabeen – what a wonderful, intimate way to develop our art and craft. I so enjoyed hearing about all of your projects and helping you develop them as you learned new approaches, strategies and ways of working and thinking! So funny that no one could ever find the writers ’cause we were never in our class! (We were out at the beach, in a cafe, on the grass – c’mon, we’re writers! They’re lucky we weren’t napping or in a pub!)

But we had some fun, eh? Individual and group creative writing exercises, studying clips from brilliant contemporary genre films for nonlinear storytelling, games, learning about structure and how to hone your scripts and make them pop off the page. I know you all learned so much – and taught me so much. Thank you for all your giving and sharing – and all your hard work! Neither of the other tracts had “homework” for every break, eh!?

I loved when we braided the three tracts and merged in with the actors and directors for business classes – PowerNetworking, especially! What an eye opener, eh? What a challenge it was for all of us to “real world” fresh new material up on its feet! For the writers to have to write under a surprise deadline with such specific casting parameters and for the directors to work with actors to rehearse in such a short time period and for us all to see these works in progress up on the stage!  Bravo to all of you for being brave enough to push through each of your respective crafts to learn how truly collaborative this process is! I think everyone got a renewed appreciation for everyone else’s jobs/challenges/gifts!

Wildly creative sci fi fan, Paul Nicholson and ever-helpful Richard Halpin rounded out the Directing group with Jeanene and director/actor Jo Clark from Auckland, New Zealand, a fast new friend out there hustling all afresh and anew! Good for you!

And the actors! Wow! How much fun to get to know all of you! I’ll be rooting for all of you! Beautiful and talented PhD’d Hanna Cliff, from Brisbane, and ever-talented Kiri Basner-Churches – both fresh-faced youths on the brink of great careers! Awesome veteran Paul Tassone (from the Blue Mountains I never got to see! Our “touring” was limited to the airport and bridges – oh, and the top of the opera house – four times as we passed by! “There it is again!”) We have to figure out, Paul, how to get you legal to act in my movie here in North Carolina! 🙂

Gosh, I wish I could post photos and reels of you all! Wonderful Breigh Foughy, so charming and delightful! Estelle Giraud from Perth, Talia Zucker, Dinka Dzubur and Deborah Jourdain – I loved seeing all of you work! What a delight! I wish I’d had more time with all of you!

Thank you all for sharing, for learning, for listening and for being such a wonderful student body in such a spectacularly beautiful place!

I hope we all get to do it again next year! And the next and the next! 🙂 Maybe we’ll swap between New Zealand and Oz? 🙂 and maybe Valerie, Milton and I’ll actually get to see some of your beautiful country!? 😉 Or at least: SLEEP! 😉

Best to you all!

And thank you!

Some of the Screenwriting classes I taught in Australia included:

The Idea High Concept: Marketable Ideas, Loglines and Genres
What is high concept? What makes a movie premise commercial and mainstream? Specific yet universal? Fresh and contemporary yet familiar and evergreen?  In our modern world of decisions based on sound bytes, it all comes down to your “logline”: the “25 words or less” sentence or two summation that “sells” your script or project – your most important marketing tool. What makes a great logline? This interesting lecture and interactive writing workshop helps you understand the distinctions of the genre continuum – and where the projects you’re working on fit in while you have fun playing games with partners and teams to come up with increasingly marketable ideas.

Beating Out the Beat Outline (and Mining the Diamond Mines)
Let’s take it all a step further. Applying your new understandings of the finite differences — and the overlap — between genres, we’ll dive right into bringing your idea to life as a story. How to collide your characters in conflict and braid those subplots with a unifying theme. All from a high level before doing the heavy lifting of writing a single page.  After a brief Cliff note story structure review and an overview of all the major analysts’ terminology and approaches, we’ll have a ball brainstorming verbally and collaboratively as teams to think your stories through on paper and get it up on the walls in color-coded 3” x 5” post it’s and butcher blocked timelines. Learn truly helpful mind mapping and diamond mining character development strategies and story structure techniques. Find your tone. Honor your voice. Figure out your style. Leave the class with a whole new set of tools to replicate this process over and over on each and every new and existing project at home.

The Development Process
A joint-workshop merging both the Writers’ and the Directors’ tracts and tutors.] Film and television are collaborative arts. If you’re not already working with a producer or a writer/director (or even a writing partner) – with any luck: you will be soon. Learn how to “give good meeting.” Discover key tools and techniques to articulate and execute, deliver and receive (when to keep your mouth shut, when to defend, what battles are worth fighting – and how to make others think they came up with your ideas – or sometimes even let them take the credit so you actually get your way).  It’s all about effective communication – and clarity of vision – and truly listening – and a lot of psychology. Your ability to sift through sometimes wildly conflicting takes, goals and hidden agendas to honor what’s right for the story and the characters will be a measure of your success in this business.

Your First Impression: Hooking the Reader on Page One
The opening of your screenplay is your single most powerful weapon for acquiring an agent or securing a deal. Most Hollywood executives will toss a script before they even reach page 10 if they’re not immediately grabbed by the story. They’ll forgive weaknesses later in the script if you engage them emotionally early on – and keep them intrigued. Using clips from popular or Oscar-nominated films and pages from as-of-yet unproduced but up and coming “Black List” screenplays, this seminar will show you how the greats reveal their tone and genre through style, write great establishing visuals and opening lines to draw their readers into the worlds they create and compel their readers to keep turning those pages. Then, we’ll look at your first pages – and constructively critique and improve them.

The Art of Exposition
Pruning your narration and killing your babies are some of the most critical skills for a screenwriter to learn. Learn where and how to bury back story, deftly lay pipe, subtly set-up for later pay-offs and use exposition as ammunition as conflict in motion. Don’t just learn tips and tricks — learn the trade. You have to master the craft before you can excel at the art.

Pruning and Polishing Dialogue
We’ll look at some clips and pages of some of the best and worst out there – then take the rake to your pages after some reader’s theater so you can hear your work aloud and re-evaluate what can be said with less – or a look. Learn to trust your Director (and the whole filmmaking team) and leave white space for your Actors to act.

Unifying Your Character Arc with Theme
Plot is what your script’s “about” – theme is what it’s really about. Each and every decision your Hero makes should not only drive your story forward – but it should reveal theme. You should know what your theme is – and every line of dialogue, every character motivation, should riff of that unifying force. Your subplots should be melodies to the symphony you orchestrate. Give your audience a satisfying, resonate ending so that the whole experience has meaning. We will breakdown and analyze (and refine) as many volunteers’ projects as we can get through.

Writing for the Camera
Learn the subtle, effective way to “direct on the page” so that not only do you not piss off your Director but that you don’t lose your Reader in camera directions. Make everyone who reads your script envision the movie you see in your head in their mind’s eye. Discover clever, subliminal literary ways of emulating the viewing experience on the page. In order to get what you mean out of your head and onto that screen, it’s gotta get translated clearly onto the page. Become adept at cutting-edge, professional techniques to blueprint your vision clearly to everyone on the filmmaking team.  Key scenes will be shared from attendees’ projects.

The Treatment and Pitch
Learn how to sell the sizzle (rather than cut up the steak). The goal is to get to “Yes!” That’s it. “Yes, we’ll read it!” “Yes, he’ll attach.” “Yes, we’ll buy/produce/distribute your project.” Whether on the phone or in an elevator, at a pitch fest or in a casual “meet and greet,” tongue-tied screenwriters have to face the same challenge that advertisers do – having seconds to convince people to buy. And they can’t do it without you as you have to hand the ball off so they can pitch it all the way up the ladder to one sheet billboards and trailers. Practice your pitches verbally with partners and in front of the class. Get direct, kind and helpful feedback from a working Hollywood pro!  Learn from the strengths and weaknesses of others how to master your own. And find out what should really be in the written version of your pitch – those marketing leave behinds.

Heather :