WGA writers take chance on France

Foursome take part in Paris' Autumn Stories

PARIS — Four American screenwriters recently left strike worries behind for the cloistered tranquillity of a 13th century French abbey.

James Greer, Howard Himelstein, Randy Howze and Mark Wheaton were selected by the Writers Guild of America to take part in Autumn Stories, a six-week residency in the landmark Royaumont Abbey north of Paris, from Oct. 1-Nov. 12.

There, in rooms formerly inhabited by monks, the four scribes toiled on their latest scripts, stopping only to hobnob with new acquaintances in the French film biz.

While Greer was enjoying the solitude at Royaumont — “I’ll really miss this place,” he says; Himelstein confessed to culture shock.

“I’m used to the cacophony of street life around me, being able to walk outside and get a coffee. But there’s no Starbucks anywhere near here!” exclaims the Santa Monica resident ruefully, as he gazed out at the fall foliage of the Gothic abbey’s well-tended grounds.

“But nothing gets written in six weeks. What’s important is that we’ve established relationships here. ”

The residency was set up last year by the Franco American Cultural Fund and the Ile de France Film commission. The Fund spends roughly E600,000 ($880,000) a year supporting transatlantic events including Los Angeles’ City of Lights, City of Angels film festival, with funding from France’s copyright levy on the sale of blank cassettes and DVDs.

The Autumn Stories program aims to encourage more filmmakers to make films in France, and to qualify, participants must be working on a project set in Paris’ Ile de France region.

This year’s projects ranged from Wheaton’s “Hi jab,” a thriller set in a racially sensitive Paris suburb, to Himelstein’s 18th century period drama “Svengali,” an adaptation of George du Maurier’s classic “Trilby.”

“When you say the words ‘period piece’ in Hollywood, people go cold on you. But it isn’t like that in Europe,” says Himelstein, the scribe behind costumers including “A Good Woman.”

At Royaumont, as well as lunching and dining with producers, distributors and French talent who might be interested in their projects, participants were shown around potential locations, involving trips to such varied places as the Garnier Opera House in Paris to Clichy sous Bois, the suburb at the center of the Paris riots two years ago.

Greer was hoping he’d found suitable atmospheric ruins for his project “The Bright Side,” about an American alcoholic living in France, at the forgotten Chateau d’Herouville, once a recording studio used by the likes of David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Elton John.

“It’s not all “Amelie” — that’s what Americans think Paris is,” says Greer, “but there is so much more to France.”

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