Screenwriting: A Word from Lenny Crooks
Story, story, story.
Recent years have seen me adapt to the hard-nosed realities of East Coast independent filmmaking, an education facilitated by the good people at Killer Films where I serve as a development consultant. However my heart still lies in Europe where time and financial resources are lavishly afforded to emerging screenwriting talent. For screenwriters in Stony Brook's new Film Program I intend to bring all that European experience to life in the courses I teach.
The centerpiece will be Dogme rules for writing and directing - with a twist. The product of our Dogme classes will be a series of interconnected short films - webisodes, if you like. For those of you unfamiliar with Dogme 95 rules you should look them up but don't labor on the technicalities - that's all for later. The essence of OUR Dogme is story. Story told without embellishment and with total reliance on the actions and words you have given your characters. To prepare for a semester of Dogme, we begin with The Advance Party.
The Advance Party was the name given to a set of challenges thrown down to young writer/directors by Lars Von Trier, where they had to create stories from characters not of their own creation. In our iteration of The Advance Party, each student will create ONE character out of whatever fascinates him or her. If the class size is 10 then there will be 10 characters from which to choose and you will be encouraged to rely on character to guide your story's evolution into a short form screenplay. The course will begin with an exercise using the original Advance Party characters - the characters who came to life in the Cannes Jury prizewinning film Red Road (2006), written and directed by Andrea Arnold. And yes, we'll screen and discuss the film.
As we progress in complexity there are two courses I intend to bring to the new program. Both are for long form screenplays of 70 minutes or more. The first class is Screenwriting I where, through introduction to story, character, premise and structure you progress from a blank page to the First Act of a narrative feature film.
The second Screenwriting class is titled Screenwriting II/Script Doctor. You bring your incomplete draft screenplay to the table. The first half of the semester will involve completing a first draft script. The second half is turned over to Script Doctor where each first draft is revised and improved. With my guidance, you will learn to become a more convincing writer not least through articulating your feelings regarding the work of your peers.
It will tough and time intensive. As respite from the relentless toll I teach a Film Survey course - "European Auteurs," where we watch, discuss, review, then analyze, in the context of the filmmakers' body of work, seven great contemporary films at two-week intervals. Some will be filmmakers I have viewed at close quarters, e.g. the aforementioned Andrea Arnold, Ken Loach and Lynne Ramsay; some I've admired from afar, e.g. the Dardenne Brothers, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Cristian Mungiu. And there should remain a place for the self taught and prolific Shane Meadows, not least for his advice to aspiring filmmakers, "It's about putting some of yourself into it ... we all have people in our lives and access to things that no one has ever seen and that's what makes you individual.
Who am I looking for? Well...
I would recommend you read the Michael Haneke interview in the Winter 2014 issue of The Paris Review. Echoing Shane Meadows, one of his kinder pieces of advice to students is, "Try to create something that springs organically from your own experience, for only then does it stand the slightest chance of being interesting." I have had the privilege of working with many great screenwriters in my time and there are two who stand out, whose authenticity is ever present. One is a Scot, one is a Dane.
Paul Laverty is a natural storyteller. He used his time on a Fulbright Scholarship in LA to help mobilize immigrant workers and later turned it into the screenplay for Ken Loach's Bread and Roses. His first collaboration with Ken Loach was Carla's Song (1996) his latest Jimmy's Hall (2015). Paul and Ken, along with their indomitable producer Rebecca O'Brien, have made 12 films together, ALL of which have been selected for competition in either Cannes (9), Venice (2) or Berlin (1).
Anders Thomas Jensen is so talented it would make you sick. Still in his early 40s he has over 50 writing credits to his name and yet has found the time to direct three successful features. Oh yes, and he won an Oscar in 1999 for his short film Election Night. You should start with the Dogme films he scripted: Mifune, The King is Alive and Open Hearts.
Study their work. If it resonates with you then I might just see you in the Fall.
Lenny Crooks is a full time faculty member of Stony Brook University’s MFA in Film Program. He became a founding member of the program when Killer Films joined with Stony Brook’s Creative Writing and Literature Program to form an exciting collaboration where active in practice filmmakers joined with academics to teach filmmaking in a new and dynamic way.
Lenny remains a New York based consultant advising European producers on transatlantic co-production opportunities and working with Killer Films on its development slate. Lenny's recent investments included Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin, Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur and Ben Wheatley's Kill List. Crooks is the former head of the UK Film Council's New Cinema Fund, where he backed Cannes Special Jury Prize winner Fish Tank and Bright Star. Crooks also ran the Glasgow Film Fund and the Glasgow Film Office. As director of the Glasgow Film Office, Crooks has supported the city's transformation into an internationally recognized creative hub and has also managed a successful public/private investment fund.
With 20 years of experience in the film industry, he has supported some of the UK's most exciting filmmakers, including Gaby Dellal's On a Clear Day, Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters, Ken Loach's My Name is Joe, Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar, and David Mackenzie's Young Adam.
Crooks has a strong reputation for supporting filmmakers and his instinct has taken him from backing Andrew and Kevin Macdonald and John Hodge whose Shallow Grave became a spectacular international film debut for director Danny Boyle, to Gilles Mackinnon with Small Faces, writer Paul Laverty with Ken Loach's Carla's Song, Peter Mullan with Orphans, and Saul Metzstein and Jack Lothian with Late Night Shopping. He also supported the co-production partnership between Gillian Berrie's Glasgow-based Sigma Films and Peter Aalbeck Jensen's and Lars Von Trier's Danish production house, Zentropa Films, and bankrolled the Advance Party slate which led to the production of Andrea Arnold's Red Road, winner of the Prix du Jury at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.
"I became a groupie the first time I heard Lenny talk. I'd written a screenplay about a brother and sister shortly after their father's death, and Lenny suggested I think of the camera as their father watching over them. When I told him how amazingly helpful his advice was - keep in mind I'm a fiction writer trying to translate narrative voice into film - he shrugged it off, saying he could do what he did because "luckily," he wasn't "burdened by talent." Which is hilarious: He is insanely talented in a hundred ways, a genius at collaboration, and the most inspiring teacher I've ever had. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to work with him."
- Melissa Bank
"I thought I knew a thing or two about filmmaking (I taught screenwriting at Princeton and sold scripts to Hollywood) but it wasn't until I met the stupdendously smart and delightful Lenny Crooks that I understood how little I understood. Now that I am somewhat enlightened, I hereby apologize to my former students and to Sony and Paramount."
- Patty Marx