In the wake of The Blair Witch Project, it sometimes seems as if every third Orlandoan and his dog have movie scripts of their own in various stages of development. So it was only a mild surprise that Tuesday's screenwriting forum at Enzian Theater was as well-attended as many of the ongoing Florida Film Festival's nighttime screenings.
The late-afternoon panel discussion allowed a septet of scribes -- some visitors from L.A., some locals -- to impart tips for making a splash in the crowded pool of big-time pensmanship. Their encouraging but honest advice began with some no-nonsense commentary from "Lethal Weapon" writer Shane Black.
"If you're here to make money, go get a hot dog," Black recommended, setting the ground rules for a session that emphasized creativity over commerce. But every time the session's "follow your passion" philosophy threatened to approach the saccharin, a welcome injection of reality was right around the corner. James Ponti, an Orlando-based writer who's worked for the Nickelodeon TV network, said that one of his smartest professional choices had been to move back into his mother's house, thus cutting his rent to zero. He made the point twice, just in case someone had missed it.
Myths were torpedoed as the symposium progressed: Black asserted that their whiny self-pity is as instrumental in relegating screenwriters to the bottom of the Hollywood totem pole as the studios' elitism. He wasn't above a bit of melancholia himself, however, reiterating the unfortunate, erroneous stereotype that writing is an inherently lonely, excruciating process. It was up to Mary Johnson, a member of the film department faculty at the University of Central Florida, to gently prod the panel into admitting that practicing their craft could be fun, too -- that they were lucky to earn a living by "making shit up," as another of the participants eventually acknowledged. (Write on, Mary.)
Playing in the dirt
Talk of agents, film schools and pitch meetings ate up the bulk of the afternoon. The laymen in the audience were probably more amused when "RoboCop" writer Ed Neumeier pressed Black for his honest opinion of "Lethal Weapon" director Richard Donner.
"He seems like such a horse's ass," Neumeier said. Black admitted that Donner had indeed shown signs in the past of having "his head ensconced in his inner ass." They're an anal bunch, these writers.
A fairly sparse turnout met the subsequent screening of Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles. Either the festival was running out of steam, I feared, or documentaries were still a hard sell -- even to the supposedly enlightened indie tribe.
The sadly static "Night Waltz" did little to vindicate the perennially overlooked genre. In profiling "Sheltering Sky" author Bowles' little-known background as a composer of classical music, director Owsley Brown made every mistake that consigns docs to the outer reaches of public TV. The interviews with the late Bowles were moderately engaging, particularly a segment in which he called the written word a "release" from the pressure of making music. (Several members of the preceding panel would have benefited greatly from that perspective.) But the melodic interludes that regularly interrupted the discourse -- vignettes that matched Bowles' compositions to pretty but generic street scenes -- came off as ersatz music videos. In private, a festival volunteer judged the film "a snoozer," and I had to agree.
Immediately thereafter, director Brown appeared on the Enzian's screen in real time, taking part in a teleconference from his home base in California. The herky-jerky transmission was fun to watch at first; it made Brown look like Keir Dullea calling home in "2001: A Space Odyssey." But the filmmaker's needlessly verbose answers to the simplest questions caused audience members to leave in droves. One attendee asked why the picture hadn't delved into Bowles' love life. Brown took about five minutes to deliver a reply that could have been boiled down to one sentence: "Because it's none of your business."
Blinded with science
With the festival's momentum at a dead stop, it was reassuring to see a standing-room-only crowd file in for Me & Isaac Newton, director Michael Apted's magnificent inquest into the scientific mind. The picture had enjoyed strong buzz since its Saturday showing at Colonial Promenade, but I was still pleasantly shocked that a documentary about pocket-protector types could elicit such interest. Perhaps the unreliability of second-hand news, I worried, had led a few of them to expect a biography of the inventor of the Fig Newton.
Not to sweat. The first onscreen appearance of theoretical physicist Michio Kaku inspired a righteous cry of "Michio!" from somewhere behind me. Who knew the guy had fans?
For the next 107 minutes, the audience paid rapt attention to the seven researchers' stories, laughing uproariously at the lighter moments and emitting a chorus of oohs and aahs whenever a brilliant theory was postulated. Rarely had I seen the entertaining of ideas provide such pure entertainment.
The same staffer who had dismissed "Night Waltz" as cinematic Nytol was now over the moon as the end credits rolled. "I want to own it!" she said of Apted's film. "I want to EAT it!"
The day was over, and the scientists had clearly gained more ground than the writers or the musicians. Not the scorecard one might have anticipated, but reason enough for geeks everywhere to tape up their glasses with pride. "The Horrors of Gym Class," coming soon to a theater near you.