Interview with James Dalessandro, Author and Screenwriter Of 1906,
The Titanic Deal That Electrified Hollywood
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
Thanks for the interest and all the best.... James Dalessandro
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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