Last Thursday night I attended a screenwriting seminar by Ron Nyswaner, the writer of “Philadelphia,” “Mrs. Soffel,” and this year’s “Soldier’s Girl.” He’s an extremely warm and down-to-earth guy who loves his job and has had considerable success as a screenwriter. We were told to watch “Philadelphia” in advance, and of course I forgot, but fortunately I had seen it before. At the seminar, we watched the scene in which Tom Hanks’ character asked Denzel Washington’s character if he will take his case against the firm that fired him. Watching the scene (which is absolutely top-notch), it was clear to me that his writing was at such a higher level than my own and that every single word and moment was hitting exactly the right note. Granted, that is also a tribute to the director and the actors, but we all know it starts with the written page, and Nyswaner had nailed so many levels of meaning at once in such a brief scene. Watching it in the context of a seminar, I could tell the actors were truly loving the scene and its nuances, and I wondered if I would ever write or direct a moment like that in a film.
So it was, like so many moments in my life in the “industry”, both inspiring and intimidating. Ron went on to talk about how his best work is personal and how every screenplay he has done has had elements of himself and the issues of his own life in them, though not necessarily in obvious ways. He told us to always ask ourselves the “Why?” when we write. As in, “Why are you writing this story that could take two years or more to complete?” It occurred to me as I listened that I couldn’t really answer that question for some of my scripts (at least not on any deep level). Of course, I could say I wrote this comedy or that one because I liked the idea or I wanted to “make people laugh,” but I couldn’t help but wonder if I had wasted so much time saying so little.
He also told us to write films that ask a question and to let every scene be tied to that question. For instance, the film “Philadelphia,” though it is about AIDS and a lawsuit, really asks the question: Can these two men love one another? Can they overcome the walls between them and treat each other like brothers? Ron reminded us that the film was made as a response to the terrible discrimination and public paranoia that characterized the 1980s, when AIDS first became known. I had forgotten all the “issues” people had back then and how nobody felt the general public should share bathrooms or shake hands with HIV-positive people. It’s amazing how differently we think about AIDS today, and I have little doubt that “Philadelphia”, a mainstream movie made by a studio with major actors, was a powerful step in changing people’s attitudes about the disease. Remember seeing that film in the theater? Everyone was crying and sniffling as that devastating Bruce Springsteen soundtrack played. I remember feeling terribly sad after that film. Ron Nyswaner, a screenwriter, had made ordinary, straight Americans feel profound sympathy for a gay man with AIDS, and in effect all AIDS sufferers, by typing on a keyboard.
After the seminar, about half of the attendees swarmed Ron, but I held back. I never know what to say in those situations besides unoriginal stuff like “I love your work, bla bla bla.” I always wonder what all those “swarmers” say to directors and writers and stars after a screening or a lecture that is so important that they are willing to wait twenty minutes to get a word in. Not that I think there is anything wrong with that urge to swarm, I suppose it’s just not for me. Are they asking for help with a particular story line they are stuck on? A character that they just can’t figure out? Or are they just throwing out compliments in the hope they’ll be invited over to the house for dinner and some even more stimulating conversation? I have no idea. Perhaps one day I’ll be swarmed and will find out for myself. Until then, I’ll just listen and soak it all up and come home and try to write something good.