Spend your vacation writing a movie script? Why not?
That’s the outlook of movie and TV scriptwriter Valerie West, who will be joining her mentor and UCLA Film School screenwriting colleague, Lew Hunter, at his annual summer Superior Screenwriting Colony, June 16-29 in the friendly environs of Hunter’s 1880 three-storey Victorian manse, the George Day House in Superior, Neb. Surrounded by towering trees and a sleepy town of 1,800, there is not much to do except write, write, write, and enjoy the extraordinary camaraderie that always ensues when about twenty students congregate from around the globe for two weeks of intense classes and writing sessions.
“Students get a real immersion into screenwriting,” Valerie said from her country hideaway home in west Washington State, a refuge from L.A. where she lives with her husband, photojournalist David Lynn. “They get a knowledge of structure and character development and they really learn to write a screenplay – they must have the first act finished by the end of the colony.”
The fascinating thing about it is that other kinds of writers show up for the discipline, despite the fact that they may be novelists or non-fiction writers. I remember a woman from Boston at one of the colonies a few years ago – she was praising Lew and his staff for getting her creativity jump-started so she could work on both the screenplay and (in her spare moments) her novel. The shared excitement of the ensemble effort, the new friendships with like-minded people, and the joy of self-expression seem to be as much a draw as the screenwriting.
“This screenwriting discipline is really helpful in novel-writing – because of what you learn about structure, pacing and character,” Valerie said. Superior offers few distractions – writers, ensconced in Victorian-decorated bedrooms fancifully named “the Willa Cather Room, “The Marie Sandoz Room,” The Ernest Hemingway Room,” are on a strict schedule of classes, public readings, seminars and writing sessions. They let down their hair at night, sometimes in ensemble cooking efforts in the Day House kitchen or, at times at Hunter’s other Victorian, his home a block away, where his wife of many years, Pamela, a great cook and master decorator, prepares a roaring feast for all at the colony (and sometimes a few neighbors, too). Having attended one of these wine-inspired song and food extravaganzas with my wife and actor/casting agent John Jackson, I can attest that plenty of steam was let off by the students and a great time was had by all.
Valerie, a 1988 MFA graduate from the UCLA Film School, had an agent while still an undergraduate. Despite having no screenwriting experience, she was accepted into the UCLA MFA program on the strength of a letter from novelist John Rechy.
“Lew was my mentor then,” Valerie said. “In my first class he told me, ‘Get rid of that conservatism in your writing, push the envelope, don’t be subtle.’ I was able to find my own voice after that and I naturally gravitated toward screenwriting rather than narrative writing because of the cut-to-the-chase, terse style. It seemed my niche.”
Valerie began working in TV almost immediately, sometimes credited, sometimes not. She worked on the Houston Knights TV series while still a student, then moved on to more TV: Almost Grown, Blue Skies, One of Her Own, She Wolf of London, Moonlight Becomes You, and other shows. She worked on some feature films, including Irresistible Impulse, and wrote an early treatment for The Lion King. The Lifetime cable network has bought her script, My Brother, My Keeper, and is developing it now as a feature film.
This is Valerie’s second appearance as co-teacher at the Colony.
“I taught the beginner’s class, which I will again – Lew takes the master class. It’s very intensive – and it’s exhausting – but I’m looking forward to it. The collaborative work at the Colony is a good preparation for the real thing – I always tell my students that Hollywood screenwriting is a collaborative effort and that it can be frustrating. You often have your scripts optioned and then you get them back and have to do lots of rewrites.”
Valerie loves the atmosphere in Superior.
“I feel very much at home in Nebraska,” she said. ‘I grew up on a farm and can connect with that kind of community.”
Regarding the students – “They can learn to take their hero (often themselves) on a journey with many obstacles – stories are parables and metaphors – often of our own lives. Storytelling helps us understand ourselves.”
The Colony is $2,500 for 14 days, about what you’d pay for a medium hotel and nothing more. But there is so much more at the Colony. See Lew Hunter.com for details.