SANTA BARBARA — In the backwoods of rustic Zaca Lake, the seventh annual Hollywood Literary Retreat brought together the usual assortment of scribes, producers, studio executives, actors, lawyers, agents, managers and Hollywood insiders May 1-3 to learn an old trade from a new perspective.
For two days they all forgot what they did for a living and listened to a few hints on how to structure a story from directors, screenwriters, singers, journalists and even professional storytellers.
Unlike last year’s retreat, when attendees spent more time outside on a blissful, sunny weekend, this year it rained both days keeping more people inside to hear the speakers.
Valerie Landsburg, who everyone remembered as Doris on the TV series “Fame” but prefers being thought of as a director of several indie cable features, explained how to use improvisation to create story and character development.
Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Wall Street Journal, showed that attention to detail made for more interesting characters. Suskind spent months in a Washington inner city high school to do a profile on a group of poor black kids who were struggling to maintain as honor students. The piece not only won him the award, but was turned into a book and later optioned for a feature.
Stephen Nemeth, who just produced “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” with Johnny Depp, was laconically cool with his tales of woe on the set and off. “Very loosely, the definition of a producer in this town,” Nemeth says, “is someone who knows a writer.”
Nemeth was most amusing later that night when he squared off with Landsburg until the early hours with the ultimate story-structure — joke-telling.
Screenwriter Jeff Arch, who wrote “Sleepless in Seattle,” told of his lowest point after getting panned on Broadway and his highest when “Sleepless” was nominated for an Oscar. His message for would-be screenwriters, producers and just about anyone creative: Your best days are your worst and your worst are your best.
Folksinger Jill Sobule, who had an MTV Buzz Bin hit with “I Kissed a Girl,” inspired a 1960s coffee house feel with several songs that satirized modern-day problems like Bill Clinton’s Monica-gate troubles.
Mindy Farrell, co-president of HyperFilms at Universal Pictures, storyteller Susan Klein and Writer’s Boot Camp founder Jeff Gordon also put in their two cents.
In the end, a few deals were cut with writers. Some were so inspired with Sobule that they planned to set up with a one-woman show in L.A.
Retreat founder Lynn Isenberg summed up the weekend in her opening statement. “Irving Thalberg once said the three most important elements in filmmaking are story, story and story,” she wrote. “The Hollywood Literary Retreat brings us back to the roots of what we do as film creators in the most far-reaching medium of today — and that is to tell stories.”