WORDS - JONAH LIPMAN '16,
IMAGES - JACOB SUSSMAN '17; DESIGN - ARIEL JACOBSON '15
When I entered the Shapiro Creative Writing Center at 8:04pm on Monday, October 27, Joseph Esuebio, Ella Israeli, Wyatt Krutsch, Claire Shaffer, and Jacob Sussman were already discussing plans for next week’s meeting. With only six weeks left in the semester, pressure was on to find ways to attract anyone else interested in film at Wesleyan to join the Screenwriter’s Lounge.
Ideas ranged from guest lectures by screenwriters at Wesleyan to Senior film majors, beginning production on their thesis films, coming in and speak about their writing process, guiding guests at the lounge through their short screenplay and citing their inspirations. Several members wondered aloud if Amy Bloom, Wesleyan Writer In-Residence, might be willing to lead a master class at the end of the semester. It was also suggested that attracting a successful alumnus (“Matthew Weiner?”) might make for an especially noteworthy night.
Joseph laid out his plan for a 24 Hour Screenwriting Contest. After guzzling some coffee, participants would write tirelessly for one complete day and night, only to emerge from the caffeinated frenzy with completed works that would then be judged by a panel. The piece deemed most attractive by the judges would then be ushered through the subsequent stages of production, culminating in a completed short film.
Before long, the minds behind the Screenwriter’s Lounge settled down to tackle more immediate objectives. Joseph planned to set about contacting senior film majors and other screenwriters on campus, while others busied themselves with beginning a Wesleying post. I was honored to be one of the first people to be invited to join the newly created Screenwriter’s Lounge group, and witnessed a discussion wherein some members of the staff reservations about the morbid cover photo—the Jacques Louis-David painting “The Death of Marat,” depicting a murdered revolutionary bleeding out in a bathtub, clutching piece of paper in one hand and a quill in the other.
By nine o’clock, fifteen students, including writers with recently completed short scripts as well as others with a fledgling interest in filmic storytelling, were milling about the front room of the Shapiro house, looking over the night’s reading. In preparation for this meeting of the Screenwriter’s Lounge, each member had been asked to read the screenplay for “Contact,” a thesis film written and directed last year by film major Jessie Napier. As I read the script for the film I had seen projected for a packed house in the Goldsmith Family Cinema last semester, I marveled at how Napier had condensed her intimate story into a dozen pages that included the dialogue and specific visuals that would compose a moving portrait of a boy’s relationship with his eccentric grandfather. A few members commented on the economy of the script and its restrained use of dialogue before we proceeded into the back room to watch the film. See the script/ and some stills for yourself below:
While the event’s organizers occasionally asked guiding questions about initial reactions to spur thoughts, the conversation about “Contact” following the film was casual and freeform. The discussion was not limited to the content or style of the written screenplay I had read minutes before. Instead, loungers seated around a long table discussed all aspects of the film, from its structure and visuals to its reliance on tropes (the characters of the grandfather and the grandson) and how they combined to tell an effective story in such little time. Several people present launched into a debate about the “purpose” of a short film—whether one should strive to elicit emotion, depict a fully fleshed out character, or maybe simply provide a powerful tone in order to be deemed a successful movie.
The second film of the evening was “Death to the Tinman,” the thesis film of Ray Tintori, a member of the Court 13 film collective who has directed music videos for MGMT and The Killers, and who was the special effects director on Beasts of the Southern Wild. Standing in stark contrast to the muted tones and reserved storytelling of Napier’s short film, Tintori’s black-and-white, narration-heavy retelling of L. Frank Baum’s Tinwoodman of Oz evokes Wes Anderson and Guy Maddin in equal measure. Following the film was a discussion about the use of voiceover as a narrative shortcut, the heavily stylized, somewhat stilted dialogue, and the characterization of the lead, a brash rabble-rouser who finds himself transmuted into an automaton limb by limb. The main focus of the debate that followed was whether any twelve-minute film could construct a truly deep and multifaceted character, or whether this was even a necessary goal in every short film. While some present at the meeting were happy that the short had allowed them access to an engrossing magical-realist universe for a quarter of an hour, others expressed concern that style had gotten in the way of the emotional development of the film’s characters.
After the conversation ended and the group disbanded, I spoke with Joseph Eusebio and Jacob Sussman, two of the main backers behind the Wesleyan Film Project and the Screenwriter’s Lounge, about the motivating factors for establishing both projects.
“Wesleyan has an amazing film program. Tons of kids come to Wesleyan wanting to do film,” Jacob said. “As far as I’m aware, there weren’t any major groups on campus dedicated to film, and there weren’t many opportunities for kids to get involved with production outside of the department.”
To rectify this situation, Jacob, Joseph, and others founded the Wesleyan Film Project, a program devoted to rallying students who are enthusiastic about filmmaking and guiding them through every step of production, from the development of a story to shooting and editing the final product. Through a listserv comprising two hundred names, the Wesleyan Film Project provides a network for students interested in getting involved in any aspect of the process to coordinate with others, compile a crew, and make a film. The Project also boasts an arsenal of gear—sound, video, and lighting equipment—that was purchased courtesy of a $3600 grant, and is free for use by any crew with an approved project.
“Our main focus was to be a production oriented organization, you know, borrowing from the Second Stage model to provide a framework for kids to make films through,” Jacob explained. “But we also became aware that equally important to that was creating a space for a film community to emerge on campus.”
The Screenwriter’s Lounge was intended to be just that space, where students could simply write movies in the company of others. Joseph described how the idea of the Lounge evolved after the first meeting.
“It was just going to be a place where people could write and talk and there would be someone here who knew how to use Final Draft, Celtix, all of that,” Joseph said. “There would be resources for people like screenplays that they could read and find inspiration in and reference… but the first time everyone gathered, people assumed that we would have a program, so we kind of just pulled it together.” What had begun as a freeform writer’s room immediately became more guided after the large crowd present at the first meeting necessitated a split into smaller groups, which began performing collaborative brainstorming exercises.
The next meeting was more structured, with Celeste Barnaby bringing in her screenplay “Memory” for a workshop session. The Wesleyan Film Project is currently producing the revised screenplay. During the second half of that same meeting, Amanda Distler spoke of her experience working in the office of an HBO drama currently being produced by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger.
The Lounge, as Jacob summed it up, “is moving beyond screenwriting, actually, to a venue to highlight really interesting people on campus.”
Watching my peers engage in a lively discussion about two films made in the past decade by other Wesleyan students revealed that the Screenwriter’s Lounge is far more than the name implies. By expanding its purview to cater not only to students interested in screenwriting, but others hoping to learn about the experiences of their artistically likeminded peers, the Lounge has become a weekly informal celebration of the campus film culture that Wesleyan prides itself on fostering.
“If you can include anything specific in your article,” Jacob said towards the end of our talk, “I’d love for you to include ‘SEND YOUR CREATIVE PROJECTS TO THE WESLEYAN FILM PROJECT.’”
If you have a screenplay you think is worthy of achieving fruition, email your work to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re interested in not only learning more about screenwriting, but also joining the celebration of filmmaking that distinguishes Wesleyan from other small, East coast liberal arts schools, be sure to stop by the Screenwriter’s Lounge, either at 8pm for an informal writing session, or at 9pm for a structured event.