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Hollywood on the Hill

By Bradley West '13
October 2, 2012

Anthony Balbo '13 (left) and Martin Santangelo '13 laugh as students work through their script ideas during one of the Advanced Screenwriting course's collaborative workshop sessions. Photos by Carina Lofgren '16

Every Thursday night this semester, a group of six students and one professor sit in a classroom and talk about movies. But they aren't talking about the relative merits of Coppola's later work or debating the year's Oscar nominees.

Instead, they're busy discussing their own film scripts. In order to complete English 396: Advanced Screenwriting, each student must write at least half of the screenplay for a feature-length film. That translates into some 50 pages of writing, and many hours spent brainstorming, workshopping, and trying to craft believable characters or that perfect opening shot.

Visiting Assistant Professor of English Tom Pope, himself an accomplished screenwriter, began offering this advanced course three years ago, when students from his regular screenwriting class expressed interest in creating more than just scripts for short films.

While screenwriting allows students to express their creativity and to turn their vague film ideas into concrete words on a page, Pope also believes that the craft can teach people to think and see the world in new ways.

"Screenwriting involves thinking differently from what we're used to," Pope says. "It is much more visual. All you can write is what you see and what you hear. These courses train students in the fundamentals of this type of thinking."

Ned Netzel '13 looks through his script during class.

Ned Netzel '13, Phil Schramm '13, Beau Hudak '13, Martin Santangelo '13, Anthony Balbo '13, and Chris Bowman '13 make up this year's cohort of aspiring screenwriters.

A few of these Oles, including Schramm and Hudak, are considering careers in film or theater. Others simply see the course as a fun and challenging way to share their creativity and learn new modes of expression.

"I just wanted to push myself to write a movie script. I've never written an extensive creative piece before," Bowman says, "and it's turning out to be a lot more complex than I'd imagined."

Turning ideas into scripts
Each of these students has already shared with the class his initial story idea, including the premise, a general plot outline, and character sketches. During these sessions the rest of the class chimes in with feedback and advice on the movie idea, suggesting, for example, which character needs clearer motives and which plot details need to be expanded.

After the class members have had their say, Pope gives his own critique of the film, suggesting ways to make the story more interesting or to capture the attention of an audience. Having had more than 25 years of experience as a professional screenwriter, including stints working for the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Penny Marshall, and Jerry Bruckheimer, Pope has plenty of practical advice to offer students. 

Pope's feedback is heavily peppered with references to other films (including such disparate works as Spartacus and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) that may inspire the students, and with witty comments that make the writers both laugh loudly and think deeply about their stories' characters and themes.

Visiting Assistant Professor of English Tom Pope (center) uses his more than 25 years of experience as a professional screenwriter to help St. Olaf students craft their own film scripts.

At one point during a recent class session, for example, Pope asks a student, "So what are you going for: Kung Fu meets Waiting for Godot?"

So far the students have all found theses workshop-based class session to be very beneficial and engaging.

"The class has a very intimate environment that helps us to work through our stories' flaws and to get praise for our accomplishments," Schramm says. "The comments are very brutal at times, but are necessary in order to grow our creativity."

And although the class only discusses one person's script at a time, such discussions can benefit everyone involved.

"Even when we're talking about someone else's story, the advice people give often applies to my screenplay as well," Netzel explains. "So I'm always learning about new ways to introduce a character or a subplot."

Although Pope teaches the young screenwriters how to entertain and fulfill the expectations of an audience, he never asks them to follow the formula of a typical Hollywood movie. That is, don't expect these screenwriting Oles to pen romantic comedies or heartbreaking tales of love lost at sea. 

Instead, their story ideas range from Netzel's tale about vampires on Wall Street (think Karl Marx meets Dracula), to Santangelo's film about an obsessive, drifting college graduate who travels by boat to Korea to track down his favorite pop star, to Schramm's story about a future society that attempts to conceal and erase personal identity.

Now that each student is set on a story idea, the rest of the semester will consist of turning these ideas into actual scripts. Their weekly class meetings will now be modeled on Hollywood pitch sessions — a type of meeting with which Pope, having attended  hundreds over his long career in Hollywood, is all too familiar.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or vanderve@stolaf.edu.