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Write here, write now - Screenplay writers gather to share their knowledge, love of the art
Write here, write now - Screenplay writers gather to share their knowledge, love of the art

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THE COLONY 13: A GATHERING OF ARTISTS IN SUPPORT OF THE WRITER'S CRAFT, runs June 14-21 in the PAR-TV Center on the University of Montana campus.

Tickets are $75 for the Total Immersion session and all 16 readings; $50 for the Total Immersion weekend only; $50 to all 16 readings only; and $10 for two afternoon readings or one evening reading. They are available at the PAR-TV Box office. For more information, visit www.montanarep.org or call 243-6809.


There are just a few moments, right between consciousness and sleep, when the mind is a wild beast.

In the twilight zone between those states, the human imagination is free of distraction and free to dream up Technicolor monsters, absurd plots, Oedipal fantasies, and anything else that what's left of the conscious mind is able to ladle from an endless well.

"Every night when we go to sleep, we all become William Shakespeare," said William Mastrosimone, a television and movie screenwriter who highlights this year's Colony, the annual weeklong writing intensive at the University of Montana. "We dream. And we all become that playwright in your head, one that's ruthless and brilliant and concise. Because of that fact, I know that everyone can tell their own stories."

Mastrosimone has spent most of his life telling other people's stories. As the author of numerous screenplays, including the award-winning "Sinatra" mini-series and 1986's "Extremities," starring Farrah Fawcett, Mastrosimone knows a bit about what it takes to tap the resources of the human imagination.

Yet it was the limitations of his own powers as a storyteller that led Mastrosimone on his career path as a pedagogue, teaching young screenwriters what he considers the most important mission of writers: developing characters with depth.

On the set of "Extremities," a tale of a serial rapist tortured by one of his victims, Mastrosimone was asked to create a character on the fly to satisfy the demands of the director.

He couldn't do it.

"I've always been good with pressure, but I realized that my instincts couldn't create this other character," he said. "This horror went through my mind: Am I finished? Is this the end of my career?"

Quite the opposite. In the aftermath of that experience, Mastrosimone set out to discover, in precise and real terms, the mental and spiritual processes of creating characters, ones that are human, oh so human.

And what he has come up with in the last 20 years is a manual, of sorts, for screenwriters. In his travels and workshops, Mastrosimone teaches the art of character development in a way that tests the mettle and material of young screenwriters.

His two-day workshop, "Total Immersion," runs this Saturday and Sunday at UM, and will place students under his tutelage for 11 hours each day.

Those who attend won't get obtuse lectures on Hollywood, be pumped full of self-esteem or be taught the ABCs of screenwriting.

What they will get, said Mastrosimone, is specific, real lessons on how to create characters that breathe.

"I tell them, 'I make a living, and I put food on my table, and I do it from these notes that I'm about to give you,' " he said. "If they want to know anything, I'll tell them step by step."

Part of the problem with young screenwriters is that they're taught they need to develop "three-dimensional" characters. But nobody explains what that means, leaving the writer with only haphazard guesses.

Those three dimensions, Mastrosimone insists, are simple - and they are the dimensions of every human on the planet: The past, the present, and the future.

No teachers of the art stress that, if they know it to begin with, said Mastrosimone.

"There are books on screenwriting, and I've read them all," he said. "And when it comes to characters, they're really thin. Basically what the authors do is reminisce about the characters that have moved them, but they don't offer a method."

Mastrosimone's two-day seminar isn't for the casual dramatist. "Total Immersion" is intense, its exercises testing even seasoned writers.

"They're going to be sweating on Sunday," he said. "I'm going to put them through their paces. If they think they're just going to show up and watch a few movies and listen to me tell a few anecdotes, they're mistaken."

This is the Colony 13 - the 13th year of the writers' intensive dreamed up by Montana Repertory Theatre artistic director Greg Johnson.

It mixes young writers with seasoned scribes, making for an atmosphere of creative energy that lasts all week. Mastrosimone's two-day workshop is a first for the Colony, in that it teaches specific strategies in the art of writing. The Colony is more known for its unstructured pedagogy, where feedback among writers and actors takes center stage.

"I don't think of it as instruction," said Johnson. "It's not a traditional lecture instruction at all. That's why we call it a gathering. I think we all grow together. From my observation over the last 13 years, it's a place where people can come relax for a week and be with other writers."

Screenwriters debut plays, or portions of plays, acted out on stage. In most cases, it's the first reading of new works, and that's when the feedback and learning begin.

Two of those writers - well-known and established authors - were sipping on drinks at Charlie B's bar earlier this week.

Screenwriter Roger Hedden and novelist James Crumley are debuting their own collaborative, as-yet-unnamed work at the Colony on Friday, June 20.

Crumley, the author of numerous hard-boiled crime novels, most recently 2005's "The Right Madness," minces no words when it comes to how to write.

"You put your ass in the chair," he said, lighting up a smoke. "Everybody has ideas. Ideas are cheap."

Over his 40 years as novelist, poet and screenwriter, Crumley has learned what works and doesn't work in his novels. And what doesn't work, he said, is a lot of planning.

"I never think of plot of characters," he said. "Those things don't mean anything. They're just things people make up because they don't know exactly what they're doing."

Like the salty, jaded characters he creates, Crumley is hardened - at least when it comes to the process of writing.

"There's always someone out there who wants to tell you how it goes," he said.

Crumley and Hedden have been working on this screenplay for years. The plot was essentially Hedden's, and Crumley agreed to collaborate with him after hearing just one line from the play.

"It was one line, and when he said it, I said, 'Let's do it,' " Crumley said.

And that line is?

"No. It gives away too much," he said.

Hedden, author of 1994's "Sleep With Me" and 1998's "Hi-Life" with Eric Stoltz and Daryl Hannah, almost immediately thought of Crumley when he began to dream of the screenplay's plot. What he was looking for was "a great writer" to collaborate with.

"Jim is a better writer, and that's not what I do great," he said. "I had a great idea. I was a newcomer to Montana, and this is a Montana script. Jim is a talented, great writer. I'm a talented, good writer. The day I thought of it, I said, 'Wow, this should be Jim's screenplay.' It will be the first reading of the play. Crumley knows exactly what happens when things work in a screenplay.

"The hair on the back of your neck sticks up," he said.

Hedden and Crumley don't feel any pressure. After all, the Colony, even for seasoned writers, is a learning experience.

"It's not like Spielberg will be sitting in the audience," said Hedden. "The idea is you hear things out loud and work on them. It's not the presentation of a done thing. It's, 'Wow, let's find out where we are.' "

Reach Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

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