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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

E-mail: JoanCrespi@princetoninfo.com

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

screenwriting."

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

any credits.

"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

the marketplace."

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

consent."

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

refueled."

— Joan Crespi

College of New Jersey Writers’ Conference, Brower Student

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.

Gerald Stern, Brower Student Center, 609-771-3254. A reading

by the award winning poet who now lives in the Delaware Valley. $5.

Tuesday, April 4, 4:45 p.m.

Anna Quindlen, Kendall Hall, Ewing, 609-771-3254. Novelist

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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