Directing a Live Screenplay Reading

Actors face off in a reading of Mirror Image.
Actors face off in a reading of Mirror Image.

A live screenplay reading offers the writer a chance to hear how their work sounds read aloud. It’s a great way to get feedback on your story. You can learn a lot from an audience – did they laugh at that joke? – as well as discovering whether your cleverly crafted dialogue sounds witty or clunky.

Every year, the DC Shorts Screenwriting Competition performs a live reading of short scripts. We read five short screenplays – the finalists from our competition –  before an audience who votes for the winner. It’s a theater-in-the-round setting, with actors sitting around a table and the audience surrounding them. You’re encouraged to just listen to the words, like a radio play, and imagine the story. Continue reading “Directing a Live Screenplay Reading”

New Article: West Wing Writer Opens ScriptDC

scriptdcI wrote a short article on the opening of ScriptDC, a weekend conference devoted to screenwriting in Washington. Allison Abner, a writer/producer with The West Wing, will give a talk tomorrow night to aspiring television writers. Should be interesting – I had the chance to visit the set of this iconic TV show during its final season and even sit in on the writers’ room a few years ago.

Allison’s talk is just the start of ScriptDC, which features some great speakers, including Gordy Hoffman, Marilyn Horowitz, Laurie Scheer and, of course, Jon Gann from DC Shorts. The conference is an inexpensive way to learn about television and movie writing without having to go to LA.

I’ll be there most of the weekend, most notably at the Saturday night screenwriting competition, where I will be filling in for one of the writers. Five short screenplays will square off in a live reading, with the winner getting $2000 to turn their script into a film.


My Favorite Films at DC Shorts

dc shorts catalogs

The DC Shorts Film Festival wraps up this Sunday. Now in its eight year, this celebration of cinema brought 145 films from 23 countries to Washington. As the Blogger-in-Chief for DC Shorts, I’ve seen a lot of short films. Not all, but enough to have my favorites. Here they are:

Little Horses
At the Q&A after the screening, director Levi Abrino said that he was looking to make a movie with the emotional resonance and complexity of a Chekhov short story. He succeeded – this tale of a divorced dad’s struggle to hold on to his son is moving, sad, funny and yet affirming as well. It demonstrates what independent film does so well, by portraying the drama of people who could be your neighbors. Little Horses won a DC Shorts Audience Favorite Award and a Filmmakers’ Favorite Award.

The Man in 813
This is one of several local films in the festival. We also did an interview with director Arlin Godwin on the DC Shorts blog. The Man in 813 is scarcely longer than its trailer, but still manages to tell a funny, creepy story that anyone who has ever lived in an apartment building can relate to – what are my neighbors up to? What’s significant is that the film was shot by one person in his apartment using a Canon T2i, a digital still camera that also shoots video. This short basically cost nothing and yet was screened with films that costs thousands of dollars, a potent demonstration of the advances in technology allow anyone to be a filmmaker.

Interview Date
The script for Interview Date won the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition last year. I read this script as a judge for the contest, then watched it being performed before a live audience. As the winner of the festival, Interview Date received $2000 from DC Shorts to turn their script into a movie. I was delighted when director Mike Lemcke and comedian Grant Lyon returned this year with a finished film. It’s been a fascinating journey to watch, this transition of words on a page to moving images on a screen. This connection between a screenplay competition and a film festival makes DC Shorts unique, turning writers into filmmakers.

The Scarecrow Girl
For me, this was the most beautiful film of the festival. While shooting in rural Brazil, director Cássio Pereira dos Santos took hours of sky shots, because they were so amazingly blue. These shots frame a film about a young girl in rural Brazil who wants to go to school but can’t. It’s a true story, taken from stories told by Cássio’s grandmother.

These four films are a great demonstration of the power of independent film to tell stories that you’re not going to get out of Hollywood. Rather than relying on formulas and catch-phrases, indie film at its best communicates visions that are both original and unique.

Friday Photo: Interview Date

interview date readingStaged reading of Interview Date, with writer/producer Grant Lyon on right.

Last year, I was a judge for the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition. I had the chance to see a staged reading of the screenplay Interview Date, one of six finalists that we selected. The audience voted Interview Date as the overall winner of the competition so the writers of this clever comedy received $2000 to turn their story into a short film

And now, one year later, Interview Date will be playing on the big screen at DC Shorts. Can’t wait to see it – stories like this are what make DC Shorts such a special experience.

DC Shorts – It's Back!

DC Shorts Film Festival

The DC Shorts Film Festival has returned! It’s my favorite time of year, when filmmakers from around the world come to Washington to share their cinematic visions.

This year, the festival features 145 films from 23 nations. The short films are organized into different screenings and shown at E Street Cinema, the Artisphere, the Atlas Performing Arts Center and the US Navy Memorial. The festival runs from September 8-18.

I’ve been a part of the festival for more than five years, as a judge, screenplay competition manager, photographer, volunteer wrangler and, this year, as a blogger-in-chief. What I like most about DC Shorts is that it’s a festival for filmmakers. They’re front and center, with the opportunity to receive recognition for their work. Lots of small touches make them feel welcome, like vouchers for food and a special filmmakers-only party.

This is not Hollywood. The films in the festival come from people doing it themselves. They’re not trying to win the attention of some fickle producer; instead, they go out and film the story they want to tell. This year’s DC Shorts features a slew of local films, including a film that cost only $500 to make. This is not atypical – you can do a lot with a camera and volunteer labor.

As someone who has written screenplays and self-published a novel, I identify with this DIY philosophy. It’s what makes our age so wonderful, that advances in technology allow anyone to communicate their vision with the world.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

Mac users at SXSW

Everyone writes. In this digital age, we’re creating more words than ever. Whether it’s an email to a client, a persuasive blog post or the Great American E-Book, the ability to explain yourself in writing is the critical skill of the Internet era.

Despite this profusion of words, people often encounter writer’s block when attempting large or significant projects. They can fire off tweets and snarky Facebook comments all day long but their fingers stall when it comes to crafting something that really matters.

After I wrote my novel Murder in Ocean Hall, the question I got most was, “How?”

How did I muster up the patience to devote so much time to a single idea? How did I keep at it? How did I overcome the inertia of writer’s block to get started?

Writer’s block happens to everyone. But it can be overcome. Continue reading “Overcoming Writer’s Block”

The Two-Step Plan to Write a Screenplay

My conclusion...

I had a chance to speak at a DC Film Salon panel on screenwriting. It was a really interesting session, with lots of great questions from the audience. This is the advice I provided.

I won the Film DC Screenwriting Competition in 2006 for my feature-length screenplay, Mount Pleasant. Since then, people have asked me about screenwriting, what software I use, if I took classes, etc… How’d I do it?

It’s simple, really. Just two steps:

  1. Read
  2. Write


Continue reading “The Two-Step Plan to Write a Screenplay”

Judging the AU VISIONS Short Screenplay Competition

Recently, I had the opportunity to be a judge for the American University VISIONS Short Screenplay Competition.

As an AU grad myself, I was glad to help out. VISIONS is an annual competition that seeks the best in documentary, fiction, digital/new media production, screenwriting and photography from AU students and recent alumni. The theme for this year was, “Media That Matters.”

Joining me in the judging the short screenplay portion of VISIONS were Jon Gann (DC Shorts) and Sheri Ratick Stroud (Women in Film and Video). We read more than 30 scripts, ranging in length from ten to 40 pages. Every script was reviewed by all three of us. We judged the scripts on the following criteria:

  • Originality of Premise
  • Visual Originality
  • Story
  • Dramatic Structure
  • Characterization
  • Dialogue
  • Style/Format
  • The screenplay fits within the theme “Making Media Matter”

liberty road screenshot

We selected Liberty Road by Jason Fraley as the winner. Set at a crab shack on the Eastern Shore, it’s a timely story about people on the margins of life. With its depiction of the economic struggles of ordinary folks, it fit in well with the “media that matters” theme. I liked the strong characterization in the script – these were real people – as well as the dialogue, which was punchy and original.

I was glad to give back to my alma mater, as well as help out the “AU mafia” of filmmakers, several of whom have been finalists in DC Shorts. It makes this International Relations major happy to see AU students doing something fun and creative.

New Article on Silent Code Features

Check out my latest article for the Pink Line Project on local filmmakers – this time I look at Silent Code Features. This local production company is helmed by Anthony Greene, a screenwriter I’ve known for a couple years now. He writes very punchy, topical scripts.

Out of the four films by Silent Code that I saw at a special screening on March 12, the one that I liked best was “The Favor.” Greene handles controversial material with a deft touch. It’s also a very funny film.

Catching Up Preview

Check out the trailer for the short film “Catching Up”. It’s a film by an American University film student, Mary Ratliff.

I first encountered this script during a live reading at Arlington Independent Media. At the time, I thought part of it seemed unrealistic – a little girl in a prison? But it’s based on a real story. Truth is stranger than fiction.

The script for this film was a finalist in the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition, where I got to read it as a judge for the competition. Mary is just one of our talented finalists who have gone on to make movies and do other great things.

She’s also part of what I like to call the “AU mafia” of filmmakers, including Colin Foster, who just filmed Man with a Bolex Movie Camera. As an AU grad myself, I think this is awesome.


Official Trailer for Catching Up from Mary Ratliff on Vimeo.