Hey there, young screenwriter. Want to maintain complete control over your work and be showered with lilies, wet kisses and Krugerrands if it emerges to great acclaim? Ted Grifﬁn has a few words of advice.
“Write a book,” says Grifﬁn, the gifted screenwriter of Ocean’s Eleven, Matchstick Men and the cult horror ﬁlm Ravenous. Grifﬁn has had his work mangled, mauled and manhandled on the path to production—most notably when his self-written directorial debut, Rumor Has It…, was taken away from him after 12 days of shooting and handed off to director Rob Reiner. As he learned from that experience, he says by telephone from New York, a screenwriter “can get the most airtight contract available” and still get the shaft.
Pressed for information on the well-publicized dust-up, Grifﬁn says only, “Everything was ﬁne until [executive producer] Steven Soderbergh showed up”—although he suggests he might be willing to spill the sordid saga in person. But it’s probably the last thing he’ll want to talk about at this weekend’s Nashville Screenwriters Conference, which settles in May 30-June 1 at the Union Station Hotel for its 10th year—and unquestionably its strongest lineup ever.
Since 1998, when screenwriter Les Bohem (The Alamo) and producer Karen Murphy (writer-director Christopher Guest’s longtime collaborator since This Is Spinal Tap) founded the conference with entertainment-industry accountant Gary Haber, the NSC has sought to link Nashville’s music industry with ﬁlm and TV professionals on the coasts. This year, the NSC has made a substantial leap forward, from its roster of scheduled panelists to its showpiece event.
For aspiring TV writers, there may be no greater hero at the moment than David Simon, whose The Wire just wrapped up its ﬁnal season as perhaps the only show this decade more acclaimed than The Sopranos. Simon also shepherded the greatest TV drama of the 1990s, the legendary Homicide: Life on the Street. (“I’ve got some questions for David Simon myself,” an impressed Grifﬁn says.) Simon, co-writer Ed Burns and Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright will discuss their new seven-hour HBO miniseries Generation Kill, an Iraq War drama adapted from Wright’s reporting; there’ll be a sneak preview of the ﬁrst two episodes 5:30 p.m. May 30 at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Another coup is the scheduled appearance of Scott Frank, whom Grifﬁn cites as one of the best screenwriters working. An Oscar nominee for Out of Sight, Frank has written everything from blockbuster sci-ﬁ (Minority Report) to caper comedy (Get Shorty) to an inventive 1940s thriller pastiche (Kenneth Branagh’s nifty Dead Again). Long regarded as a go-to guy for intricate structure and plotting, he made a striking directorial debut this year with the noir drama The Lookout, which ﬁltered a complex robbery yarn through the main character’s damaged mind.
Even beyond Frank, Simon and Grifﬁn, this year’s panelists can answer most any question about the industry’s shifting ground. Curious how to run one of the hottest shows on TV amid scorching controversy? Ask Krista Vernoff, executive producer and head writer on Grey’s Anatomy, who hosts a panel with Grey’s writers Allan Heinberg, Tony Phelan and Joan Rater. Wondering how to retool a classic? Ask Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, who did a bang-up job on last year’s 3:10 to Yuma (and co-wrote this summer’s wicked-looking Wanted). Anxious about this whole Internet thing? Edward Scissorhands screenwriter Caroline Thompson and Stand by Me producer Steve Nicolaides, co-founders of Small & Creepy Films (smallandcreepy.com), say don’t fear the clicker.
In addition, on Saturday the NSC will host Anastasia Brown’s annual music-supervision luncheon, a typically sold-out affair featuring high-powered music supervisors such as Kaylin Frank (the Hannah Montana movie), Julia Michels (Sex and the City) and New Line Senior VP of Music Erin Scully. But the conference’s true focus remains on that least appreciated, least compensated component of the entertainment business: the humble content provider who must ﬁll the ﬁrst of many blank screens.
Whenever reviews assign all the credit to a director and all the blame to screenwriters, Ted Grifﬁn wryly says he feels like “Cyrano feeding lines to the guy who’s getting laid.” But when some piece of his work makes it to the screen exactly as he intended it—the SWAT-team switcheroo in Ocean’s Eleven, or an unnerving mid-ﬁlm twist in the cannibal chiller Ravenous—the satisfaction is immense. “Most of the craft is parceling out the right information at the right time,” says Grifﬁn, who believes it’s “time to hang up the big twist” that distinguishes some of his own scripts. “The real challenge is being naturally clear.”
The Nashville Screenwriters Conference runs May 30-June 1 at the Union Station Hotel, 1001 Broadway. Walk-up registration is $125. For a full schedule of panels and parties, see nashscreen.com.
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