Screenwriters find an outlet

At Carnegie Mellon, talent doesn’t like to keep to itself. From drama performances in Purnell to student art on display at The Frame, there’s always something to see. And despite the wealth of creative outlets already available, students are constantly finding new ways to express themselves. What’s the latest in campus artistry? Film. Stop by McConomy on Friday to see two movies written, directed, and produced by Carnegie Mellon students.

It all started in the English department. Professor Sharon Dilworth picked six students from her screenwriting classes to participate in a year-long film project. “I felt like the opportunity just fell into my hands,” said junior English major Alie Kolb, one of the chosen writers. Dilworth divided the students into two teams, which were each charged with the ambitious goal of creating a screenplay.

The first step in the process was selecting a pitch. Each student proposed an idea to Dilworth, who chose the two with the most potential for the screen. From there, the team members worked together to create a treatment, a detailed outline of the story that precedes the creation of a script. After receiving feedback on their treatments, it was time for the first draft.

“Sometimes it felt like we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Kolb. Though the writing process was difficult, good team chemistry and respect for each other’s ideas kept it from being impossible. For Kolb’s team, whose film is called Grace, the primary challenge was in settling on a well-defined idea. Their script started out as the story of two fallen angels, one of whom was unfortunate enough to be in love with a demon. But the initial concept is nowhere to be seen in the final screenplay, which turned into a murder mystery about a reporter. It might seem like Kolb’s team entirely abandoned their original idea, but Kolb insists that the evolution of Grace was only the result of a lot of little changes.

The other team found it difficult to write consistently due to the constraint of multiple authors. “Three writers is about the max,” said senior English major Brian Leahy, who worked to create the screenplay for Routes of Wild Flowers. In the beginning, Leahy’s team created a card for every intended scene and divided them at random among the three writers. Though efficient, this method wasn’t exactly practical. “None of the transitions would work,” said Leahy. Eventually, his team settled on a routine in which the writers took turns taking the script for the night, during which time they would both edit and add content.

Routes of Wild Flowers chronicles four strangers in Pittsburgh trying to make it downtown on a day when the buses aren’t running. Labeling it a “dramatic comedy,” Leahy compared his script to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in its style. The idea was definitely practical, especially since both of the crews were confined by their location.

Leahy was less than enthusiastic about shooting in Pittsburgh: “We had to,” he said matter-of-factly. “Pittsburgh’s really pushing to get filming done here and it’s not gonna work,” he added. In Hollywood, a crew would be much more likely to use a studio set of the ’Burgh, perhaps traveling to Canada when in need of a more realistic environment.

Kolb, a Pittsburgh native, did not see the city as such an obstacle. “We had some good locations,” said Kolb. Her crew filmed at one of Pittsburgh’s Pamela’s diners and the Forward Lanes bowling alley in Squirrel Hill. For both teams, Pittsburgh provided the entirety of the films’ casts. In Leahy’s film, three of the four starring actors are Pittsburgh residents, while the fourth is a student at one of the city’s other colleges.

All six of the writers are current Carnegie Mellon undergrads. Originally a psychology major, Leahy said that when he entered the creative writing program he knew that his primary interest was screenwriting. He recommended Dilworth’s Survey of Forms: Screenwriting class, in addition to the Screenwriting Workshop, which he’s taken twice.

Kolb came to Carnegie Mellon intending to major in creative writing, though did not discover her fondness for screenwriting until taking Dilworth’s class. Kolb admitted that originally she only signed up for Survey of Forms: Screenwriting to avoid the poetry section. Unlike fiction and poetry, Kolb pointed out that most students are not exposed to screenwriting in high school. Still a junior, Kolb plans to go through the process again next year with a brand-new script.

This is the first year anything like this has happened at Carnegie Mellon, and so far the project has been a success. For Leahy, his most rewarding experience to date was witnessing the “table read” for his script. After casting, all the actors assembled to run through the screenplay aloud for the first time. Leady was impressed when they delivered the lines he had written with immediate intensity. “It was just really cool to be in the room,” he said.