James Dalessandro, Author and Screenwriter Of 1906 The Titanic Deal That Electrified Hollywood
March 11th, 2004
Interview with James Dalessandro, Author and Screenwriter Of 1906, The Titanic Deal That Electrified HollywoodBy Kenna McHugh, author of Breaking into Film
"Listen carefully, that sound you hear is someone else writing your story," admonishes James Dalessandro to procrastinators in his popular weekend screenwriting class in San Francisco.
James Dalessandro began researching 1906 over five years ago as a planned novel. When Titanic hit, his manager suggested he write a treatment for film and get out and pitch it. They sold it in 24 hours to Warner Bros. for six-figures who purchased it for Baltimore/Spring Creek Productions run by director Barry Levinson and Paula Weinstein. Other buyers bidding for the property included Steven Spielberg's company Dreamworks SKG.
Dalessandro went with Levinson's company because Len Amato made it very clear he wanted him to write three drafts of the script which meant his influence on the product would be greater than anywhere else.
Dalessandro finished his three drafts and is currently writing the novel to 1906 and teaches a well-attended screenwriting class in San Francisco on weekends. He has a true crime novel, Citizen Jane: A True Story of Money, Murder, and One Woman's Mission to Put a Killer Behind Bars , coming out in October, which he is shopping around for television.
I caught up with Dalessandro while he was hanging out with some fellow writers and students in cyberspace.
I took Dalessandro to the side and talked to him about his writing career from being a poet, UCLA film student to novelist. He told me about his first novel, Bohemian Heart , which he wrote in '93 because he was burned out on screenwriting. Bohemian Heart is a political-historical mystery and is consider a classic in mystery circles. The late Herb Caen (San Francisco columnist) called it one of the best San Francisco mysteries and a signed first edition is now a collectable.
I don't know if I was intrigue or impressed with his recollections, but his stories did prompt me to ask him some questions about screenwriting and writing in general. His replies were easy to understand and insightful, and helped me tremendously with my current screenplay, Bite The Hand That Feeds.
Kenna: Were there any movies, TV shows or books that first got you interested in writing?
James: What influenced me most as a child--and continues to influence me as a writer--are books. I read Leon Uris, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy beginning at age 12. Before that, it was comic books--that's how I learned to integrate visuals, dialogue and narrative--when I was 8 I wrote a story for Batman comic books called Robin's Day of Reckoning when Batman got wounded and Robin had to be the big bat. I have always wanted to be a writer. The first films that knocked me out were On The Waterfront and To Kill A Mockingbird" and later, everything by Hitchcock. Hitchcock is the master: you can't be a serious student of film until you ingest everything he did. And, Marlon Brando was the greatest actor ever to set foot in front of a camera.
Kenna: When you write, how do you generally work?
James: I write in spurts...sometimes 12-14 hours a day, sometimes an hour here or an hour there. When I have a huge deadline, I like to start at 6 a.m., go to the gym at 8:00, come back and work all day. When I'm inspired or desperate, I go at night. If I'm too tired to write, I edit. I'm the master at re-writes: I can do an entire script in one long day. And again the next day. First drafts are painful: re-writing is a joy.
Kenna: What are some of the main points you stress with your students?
James: With my students, I stress hard work and a love of the art and craft. There are no successful lazy writers: you either make progress, or you make excuses. Structure is critical, understanding the architecture of film in particular. But the voice is all that readers/viewers remember: how good are the characters? What was the plot of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? They robbed things, people chased them. It's Butch and Sundance we remember.
Kenna: What sort of characters interest you? What sort of stories?
James: My novel and screenplay, Bohemian Heart, speaks volumes for what I like in a character. Someone complex, who understands his/her place in history (personal or otherwise), who has a political opinion, a view of the world and a devastating sense of humor, self-deprecating at the forefront. I like to challenge my characters morals and ethics: confront them with decisions they thought would be easy if they ever faced them in real life. I like twists and turns and always surprising my readers and myself. As for stories: anything that addresses and challenges the human condition. As a weird twist, I probably write action/adventure sequences, fight scenes and chases, better than anything -- Go figure.
Kenna: How do you work through parts of a script or novel where you hit a roadblock in the story?
James: As for writer's block, let me give you the one true answer. WRITE OUT OF SEQUENCE...if you're stuck on a certain part, skip over it, and write a part you can't wait to get to. The problems will work themselves out. You must keep making progress. And if you're stuck for story points in a script, you didn't write a master scene list. ALL GOOD SCREEWRITERS WRITE THEIR MOVIES IN OUTLINE FORM BEFORE THEY START--One paragraph per scene...then you always know where you are, and where you're going...
Kenna: How important are plot points versus just telling a story? Can you give an example of how you use plot points, twists and unifying moments?
James: There is no difference between using good plot and story points, unifying and galvanizing moments, and good story telling. Even "soft", character stories like A River Runs Through It has rock solid structure. How many times have you seen a film and said "I like the characters but the story didn't make sense"...the death of good structure is everywhere.... look at the new Thomas Crown Affair compared to the old one...ugh...just fluff and pretty pictures...I use twists and turns to keep the reader/viewer guessing. Look at Chinatown: in the first 17 minutes, everything you learned is wrong. Jake Gittes must start from scratch, only now he's in deeper than he ever was. Brilliant twist. And the ending to Bohemian Heart. No one has yet figured out all the twists and turns. Just take the obvious and twist it 180%: if it's still logical, go with it.
Kenna: Regarding Citizen Jane, what was it like writing about some one who is a real person versus a fictional character?
James: My true crime book, Citizen Jane, which comes out Oct. 11 from Dutton/Penguin, was a unique experience. I've never done a true crime book, though I've written films about living people. It's unique because there is such a burden to make their story engaging and dramatic, yet keep it factual and pleasing to the subject. Always a fine line between what they want and what you think as a writer is the most interesting. I had several very heated discussions with Jane Alexander while writing the book, but we're both quite pleased with the outcome. Next is writing the TV movie, and reducing a 400 page story to 97 minutes...
Kenna: What is your best experience as a writer?
James: My best experience as a writer? Getting a standing ovation from 2,500 people at the Santa Cruz Poetry Festival, which I founded, after reading in 1974 with Kesey, Burroughs and Ferlinghetti. Joining the Writers Guild of America in 1983. Selling my first novel, Bohemian Heart in 1993. And selling 1906 to Barry Levinson last year, and doing three drafts of the screenplay with notes from him and his partners. That's more than one "best" isn't it?
Kenna: Any particular writer who acted as a sort of mentor to you?
James: Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a de-facto mentor because he was so friendly and encouraging to me, and so was Ken Kesey, who continues to be a great friend. They got me started. But Lew Hunter is my real mentor; the guy who got me pointed in the right direction as a screenwriter.
Kenna: Why do you write?
James: I write because there is absolutely nothing else in life that makes me feel the way that writing does. It's not a career; it's a calling.
Kenna: How do you think the Internet will assist writers of books, film, TV and plays?
James: The Internet is a valuable tool for research and marketing...the beginning and end...but I pray it does not replace books or movies...
Kenna: You sold 1906 by way of treatment. Do you recommend this for newcomers or for screenwriters who have been there, around and proved their wares?
James: Yes, I sold 1906 on a 38-page treatment, both to Crown Books and Barry Levinson/Warner Brothers. I do not recommend this for beginners: they won't hire you, they'll only buy you ideas. I got the assignments based on a highly acclaimed first novel, Bohemian Heart, and the screenplay based on the book. I was a working, professional screenwriter who was well versed in his craft when I pulled this out. Amateurs should not try this at home.
Kenna: What is the number one barrier a writer experiences that keeps him or her from finishing a project?
James: What keeps people from finishing projects is procrastination and failure to have a deep love of the work. If you're as obsessed as I am, finishing is never an issue. Prying your fingers loose from the keyboards and keeping your head from hitting the desk at 3:00 a.m. should be the problem. If you don't love this work, you can't do it. There are no part time writers. It is not a hobby. This is not a dress rehearsal. I don't give a damn about what you got on your 11th grade book report.
Kenna: What do you find easier writing novels or screenplays?
James: The answer depends on when you asked the question. I've written and probably sold more than 20 screenplays. I'm working on my 4th book (a book of poems, Bohemian Heart, Citizen Jane and 1906), Writing contemporary novels is the easiest thing for me, you have free ranges of style and expression. Screenplays are very tough: you have to be cinematographer, costume and set designer, director, writer, etc; and never let them know you're anything but the writer. Screenplays are short, compact, and intense. Novels are fluid and open. But my historical novel, 1906, about the San Francisco earthquake, is killing me. I wasn't there: I don't know who had a gas heater or a coal stove, who wore wool and who wore lace, how much beef jerky cost. Everything is research, research, and the hunt for tiny and important details is exhausting. It's a big book but not as much fun as my contemporary novels. It's tough...but it will be worth it when it's done.
Kenna: What are you currently working on?
James: I'm currently writing the novel 1906, waiting for word on my treatment of The Jack London story, and writing There Is A River -- The Edgar Cayce Story with my San Francisco class. But 1906 takes up most of my time. When this is over, I don't know if I'll write any more books right away. All I want to do is direct and write movies, and my first will probably be Borderline, a script I wrote with one of my students...
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