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Author: Joan Crespi. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 29, 2000. All rights reserved.
The Screenwriter’s Verite’ — Charlie Schulman
So you want to make it rich in screenwriting? You
think the way to do it is by writing screenplays that get produced?
Charlie Schulman, an award-winning and frequently produced play and
television writer, tells us otherwise. Schulman, also a screenwriting
teacher, has yet to see a screenplay of his made into a film.
Schulman’s workshop on "Play, Television, and Screenwriting"
at the 19th annual Writers’ Conference at the College of New Jersey
on Tuesday, April 4, is one of many. There will be several workshops
on fiction and poetry, one each on nonfiction, writing for the young,
journalism, and memoir writing, all taught by noted authors, agents,
and editors. Going on simultaneously in this vibrant three-ring writer’s
event — Jean Hollander is the conference director — will be
panels on publishing and authors’ readings.
Award-winning poet Gerald Stern (U.S. 1 February 24, 1999), known
as "the modern Walt Whitman," caps the afternoon with a reading
in a plenary session. Novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist
Anna Quindlen (U.S. 1 March 1, 1998), the featured speaker, appears
at Kendall Hall at 8 p.m. One of Quindlen’s three novels, "One
True Thing," was made into a movie.
That transition might look easy: Quindlen is a big name author. Charlie
Schulman isn’t. Not yet.
In his workshop Schulman will discuss all three forms: play, television,
and screenwriting. "They all dramatize conflict, tell stories
with characters and show the relationships (and conflicts) between
human beings," he says. "It’s a visual medium in a way that
fiction is not."
Schulman has seen five of his original plays produced, both in this
country and abroad. While he says that his plays have gotten better,
he’s finding it harder to get first rate productions. He’s also written
for television — for cable TV and a pilot for CBS — and he
wrote a sketch comedy show, "The Apollo Comedy Hour," that
ran for three seasons at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. For the last couple
of years he has been focusing on writing screenplays. Although he
has had nothing made to date, he says "that’s not uncommon for
Schulman limns the plight of the screenwriter. "Most scripts that
are bought or commissioned don’t end up getting made," he says.
"You can make a living by having none of your screenplays made.
There are some people who have made excellent livings and don’t have
"What happens is, you write a movie, the agent sends it out, and
you either sell it or you don’t sell it. Sometimes when you don’t
sell it, you then get an assignment to write something else. You get
paid for that. And then you want to write your own original script,
so you do that, and the cycle starts again."
Playwriting remains Schulman’s first love. He still writes plays,
but says, "it’s impossible to make a living writing plays. Film
and television are much more lucrative. That’s just the reality of
One reason Schulman likes playwriting is that the writer
has "more control over the final product than you do when you’re
working for television or film. With a play the playwright has casting
approval, and they don’t edit you. You sign a contract stating that
not one word can be changed or cut from the script without the playwright’s
Film and television is "a very corporate world. A lot of people
want to put their imprint on the final product." In independent
films, he says, there’s a lot more freedom for the writer than there
is with the studios. In television there’s also more control for the
writer, because often the executive producers are themselves writers.
The old forms are changing, Schulman observes. In theater, it’s no
news that hardly any new American plays are produced on Broadway,
and only a few are done off-Broadway. Schulman doesn’t see much promise
for writers there. Nor does he see much hope for writers in television.
There, he says, the sitcoms are disappearing, game shows are very
popular now, and reality-based television is becoming increasingly
popular. In reality-based television there are no characters and no
script. Like documentary, which doesn’t require a script, you follow
somebody around. Also, he says, competition with the Internet is going
to have an impact on television.
With movies, he says, the big studio movies, "have become blockbuster-oriented.
It’s polarized: there are the small, low budget independent movies
and the big budget studio movies. The middle ground has kind of disappeared."
Schulman writes original scripts unless he is writing for an existing
television show. His favorite script, he says, "is always the
one I’m writing right now. Sometimes, when I’m not feeling that way,
it’s the one I’m thinking about writing next." He’s written mostly
comedy, but that’s changing. He’s working on a psychological thriller.
"I found that my comedies were dealing with more serious themes.
My ideas have become much more character and story-driven."
To his writing repertoire Schulman has added multimedia for the Internet.
He developed "24/7," a dramatic game series for the Internet
for the Microsoft Network in ’97, but the network pulled the plug
on its entertainment division at that time, he says. "It was too
early in the development of entertainment on the Internet. We still
haven’t seen the kind of entertainment made for the medium that we’re
going to be seeing very shortly. That’s a whole new field that’s exploded."
Schulman has retained the rights to "24/7" and is now trying
to place it elsewhere.
To writers just starting out Schulman would say that entertainment
on the Internet "is at its ground floor. There’s a lot of opportunities
there. That’s where the future lies." Not only is the television
sitcom disappearing, but movies are more expensive now and harder
to get made. Considering film, Schulman thinks that "probably
the way to go there is to write a small film and get it independently
financed. The independent world is where a lot of the really interesting
films are coming from. And it’s perhaps easier to raise $1 or $2 million
than get a much larger film made."
"Especially with the economy doing so well, people who have money
want to invest in independent producers," Schulman says. "Venture
capitalists are the source." And if the economy does badly? "Entertainment
always does well," he says.
Schulman, 34, was born and raised in New York City, where his father
is a doctor and mother is a social worker. He has two sisters and
is unmarried. He got started in playwriting in St. Ann’s High School,
a Brooklyn progressive college prep school, by taking a playwriting
class where the students wrote and produced their plays. Here "The
Birthday Present" was first presented. That play, written when
he was 17, went on to be produced in the Young Playwright’s Festival
in 1985. It has had hundreds of productions here and abroad and still
gets produced. At the University of Michigan, Class of ’88, he majored
in literature and won three awards in drama. He won the Charles MacArthur
Award from The Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference in 1991
for "Angel of Death." That play was produced at San Francisco’s
Magic Theater and Off Broadway at Manhattan’s American Jewish Theater.
He received an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU in ’91. He teaches
screenwriting at the West Side YMCA in Manhattan and has taught playwriting
at public high schools in New York.
Both "The Birthday Present" and Schulman’s "The Ground
Zero Club" are published by the Dramatists Play Service and are
in several anthologies.
In a phone interview from Manhattan, Schulman decided he did have
a favorite play. It’s "The Kitchen," produced at the National
Playwrights Conference in 1998. Since then he’s done more work more
on it. The play is about four generations of one family and takes
place in a kitchen. Eighty years transpire in accelerated time during
the course of this play’s one uninterrupted scene which runs 1 hour
40 minutes. The characters age while they’re speaking. They actually
die — there’s a birth aisle and a death aisle — and the actors
come back and play their own grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
His newest completed play, "Character Assassins," had a late
March reading at the Neighborhood Playhouse in Manhattan. The play
is a finalist in the National Playwrights Conference.
Although he usually writes singly, Schulman collaborated with Daniel
Bellow on his most recent screenplay, "Heart of a Pig." Collaboration,
he says, "is a nice break from writing on your own. Brainstorming
helps keep the process going." The script was inspired by Russian
writer Mikhail Bulgakov’s "Heart of a Dog," about a dog who
turns into a man who is the perfect Communist. "But I made it
into a pig," Schulman says. "I thought that was more suitable
for the time we’re living in now. In America the system is capitalism,
and we’re seeing people today making lots of money and not contributing
to society in any positive way." He’s also working, by himself,
on another screenplay, that unnamed psychological thriller.
Given the difficulties of getting a play performed or a screenplay
made into a film, does Schulman regret his choice of profession? "There
isn’t anything I would rather do," he says, then laughs. "Sometimes
I wonder if that’s a good thing; then I wake up with an idea and I’m
— Joan Crespi
Center, Ewing, 609-771-3254. The 19th annual conference includes workshops
and readings by Belva Plain, Jody Carr, Katherine Russell Rich, Lan
Samantha Chang, James Richardson, Phebe Davidson, Robert Carnevale,
and Mary Jo Bang, as well as agents and editors. Preregister, $40
plus $10 per workshop. Tuesday, April 4, 9 a.m.
by the award winning poet who now lives in the Delaware Valley. $5.
Tuesday, April 4, 4:45 p.m.
and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, Quindlen’s three best sellers
are "Object Lessons," "One True Thing," and "Black
and Blue." $8. Tuesday, April 4, 8 p.m.
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