WGAW mentors help writers navigate the thrilling, sometimes turbulent waters of directing their own scripts.
(November 6, 2012)
Four years ago, several WGAW Board members came up with the idea for a program that would help screenwriters who wanted to direct their own scripts for the first time by providing them with mentors who had already made the transition successfully. The notion behind the program was simple: experienced writer-directors share their expertise with writers who are gearing up to direct. With 1,400 Guild members who were already directors (and DGA members) it seemed logical to draw on the rich pool of potential mentors within the ranks of the WGAW.
“We were an untapped resource,” says writer-director/mentor Robin Swicord (The Jane Austin Book Club). “It seemed ludicrous not to go to the many writer-directors we had at the Guild when writers needed a little advice so they wouldn’t have to ‘cold call’ somebody.”
Writer-Director Mentoring Project: Mentees and mentors Billy Ray, Robin Swicord, Lawrence Kasdan, Rodrigo Garcia and Susannah Grant discuss the program and why writers should direct their own scripts.
Out of that early conversation the WGAW Writer-Director Mentoring Project evolved, and today several dozen writer-directors serve as mentors. From its inception, the program – co-created by Swicord and writer-director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) – was designed to be manageable for mentors in terms of time commitment - a meeting or two in person and telephone (or email) availability as mentees move through their directing experience. The only criteria for being a mentor: a willingness to do it and prior experience directing one's own feature film.
On the other end, fledgling writer-directors who sign up for the program are divided into two categories: those whose scripts already have financing or talent attached and have a real chance of being produced – they’re immediately matched with a mentor – and writers who don’t have talent signed or money and need help in this area.
When Duane Adler was getting ready to direct his script COBU, a dance movie scheduled for release next year, he attended a workshop at the Guild and was inspired by the idea of being mentored by a seasoned writer-director. Because the lead dancer in his film was acting for the first time, he was matched with mentor Bill Condon, who had a similar situation having directed singer Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls, which was her first acting experience. “It gave me the confidence to feel that I could do this,” says Adler.
Guild members David Posamentier and his writing partner Geoff Moore were eager to direct their script Living Through Chemistry, having nailed down an extraordinary cast including Jane Fonda. But they recognized that they would benefit from having the point of view of other writers who had successfully moved into directing. The suggestions and advice Moore and Posamentier got from their mentors ranged from taking extra time to re-shoot a scene if it wasn’t exactly what they wanted to remembering to thank crew members at the end of each day. “It seems so simple, but it’s huge,” says Posamentier.
It was this kind of pragmatic advice that also helped guide Hours writer-director Eric Heisserer, whose mentor helped him overcome and anticipate the unique challenges of directing so that he could focus on the final product. Even quirky suggestions - bring an extra pair of clean socks to change into each day – helped Heisserer ultimately turn his script into the film he wanted. “It allowed me to tell a pure story,” he says.
The pay-off for those writers who venture into directing is not only in expanding their job possibilities at a time when opportunities for writers are shrinking but also the creative control that they often have to cede when others direct their scripts. “Whether we like it or not our business is viewed as a director’s medium, and directors have a great deal more power in the moviemaking process than writers do,” says Ray. “If you want to have a greater say in the interpretation of your script you should be the one interpreting it.”
For the Guild’s writer-directors who volunteer as mentors, the rewards come through sharing their expertise with writers who are just beginning to direct. “It’s good for the whole group,” says mentor Lawrence Kasdan. “Any help you can give them to move in that way so people more and more are ready to say ‘he was a writer but now he’s ready to direct his own material and step into this job,’ the more we can have it be the accepted notion in movies and the better off we all are.”
To learn more about the WGAW’s Writer-Director Mentoring Project contact Todd Amorde, Member Services