An aspiring screenwriter wants to break into the business. So which route does he choose: movies, which tend to get more prestige and more money, yet also have more likelihood of rewrite headaches and turnaround hell; or TV, which according to conventional wisdom treats the writer and his work with more respect?
The answer, Les Bohem says, is to let the work decide. "Write what you're most drawn to," says the veteran TV and film writer, whose credits include last year's retelling of The Alamo and the TV miniseries Taken. "If you want to tell a story that can be resolved in two hours, write for movies. If you want to develop characters and stories over a long stretch of time, then write for TV. What's going to get you work and satisfy your soul is to write the best work you can do."
Bohem is one of the organizers of this weekend's Nashville Screenwriters Conference, running Friday through Sunday at The Marriott at Vanderbilt. For three days, the hotel will be an oasis where writers like Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society), John Lee Hancock (A Perfect World) and Sam Harper (Cheaper by the Dozen) occupy center stage. It doesn't happen often. When asked how he attracts panelists, Bohem says, "Here's a town that has respect for its own writers. Besides, you'll eat good barbecue, you'll hear good musicthat's hard to turn down."
At one time a career musician, Bohem had been coming to Nashville in the mid-1990s to co-write songs, and he says he was struck by the depth of the city's creative community. In 1998, he founded the NSC with producer Karen Murphy (This Is Spinal Tap) and entertainment-industry CPA Gary Haber to begin building bridges between Nashville and Los Angeles. The idea was to connect the West Coast entertainment industry with Music City's pool of writing talent.
So far, no large projects have resulted from the yearly meetings of local hopefuls with writers, producers, directors and entertainment executives. But Bohem says that visiting music supervisors have used Nashville artists in projects after hearing them perform. "Several of us are trying to do movies or TV set in Nashville," Bohem says. "That's just a natural."
This year, the buzz will likely concern television. With the popularity of script-driven episodic dramas like Desperate Housewives, Lost, Gilmore Girls and Deadwood, writers such as J.J. Abrams, Amy Sherman-Palladino and David Milch are getting the kind of attention normally lavished on directors. The centerpiece of this year's NSC is Into the West, an ambitious new 12-hour miniseries executive produced by Steven Spielberg for TNT. An epic Western told through the eyes of both settlers and American Indians, it offers the kind of sprawling canvas and leisurely storytelling that has drawn writers like playwright William Mastrosimone (Extremities) to TV.
Opportunities for writers have waxed and waned since the 1980s, when Bohem, the son of a screenwriter, started out. "There were only seven or eight studios and four networks," he says, and TV writing was still bound by broadcast standardsa condition that Bohem believes produced the last golden age of TV drama. Every time writers got away with something shocking, he explains, "You could feel their pure joy at slipping one by the goalie. Every 'son of a bitch' or 'ass' on NYPD Blue had a bigger thrill than every 'cocksucker' on Deadwood." The same proliferation of cable networks that chipped away at broadcast standards has created "more outlets for writing than ever before," Bohem says.
Bohem himself is adapting Alice in Wonderland ("the first book, not Through the Looking Glassmost movies combine them") and working on another science-fiction series. He's hesitant to talk about them, after the time he jinxed a spec script that drew Julia Roberts' attention. But even that gave him a cautionary story he can pass along to people this weekend. And screenwriters love their war stories.
"I could write novels and make less money and not change a word," Les Bohem says. "But I don't. Writers tend to bellyache."
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