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Janna Gelfand: Producer, Development Executive, Story Consultant

Interview with Janna Gelfand: (Producer, Development Executive, Story Consultant)

by: Christopher Wehner

JANNA GELFAND is an Independent Producer, specializing in working with writers to strengthen screenplays and make them ready for submission to studios and networks. She produced a feature film, Kissing Miranda, which is being distributed throughout Europe, and has been seen on HBO and CINEMAX.

Janna Gelfand is serving as a Consultant at HBO, reporting to President of Original Programming, Chris Albrecht. Prior to this, she worked as Vice President Vice President of Free Range Pictures, working with Gil Friesen and producer Andy Meyer (Fried Green Tomatoes, Breakfast Club, Birdy) to develop new feature films for Warner Bros. Studios. She created and oversaw the overwhelmingly successful Port Townsend Film Conferences while working with Meyer and Friesen. She has been involved in the creative end of the film and television industry since 1984. Prior to moving to Port Townsend, Gelfand served for two years as Director of Development under Mitchell Cannold (DIRTY DANCING) of LillyAnna Productions at Walt Disney Pictures. During 1990, she was a Development Associate for Martin Starger of Marstar Productions (SOPHIE'S CHOICE, ON GOLDEN POND, MASK) at Fox Studios, having previously worked as a Development Consultant at Orion Television and Story Editor for Gary Nardino Productions (HAPPY DAYS, LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY, MORK AND MINDY, CHEERS ) at Paramount Studios. Through the 1980's, she served as a Story Consultant for MGM/UA and Vestron Pictures. She was the Development Associate for Rollins - Joffe Productions, working on such projects as Arthur and Good Morning, Vietnam . Gelfand translated a book, from French to English, acquired by Jack Nicholson and Robert Towne.

A cum laude graduate of UCLA film school, Gelfand is a published author of A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO FLAWLESS SCREENPLAY FORM, a screenwriting handbook which is used as a textbook in many Universities and is sold in the United States, Canada and Europe. Gelfand is currently an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writer's Program. She has been a Mentor/ Teacher with Syd Field's Worldwide Screenwriting Program. She taught Advanced Screenwriting at the University of Washington, as well as conducted a series of screenwriting courses at Seattle's 911 Media Arts Center. Twice, Janna has been selected as a consultant for the National Endowment of the Arts, reviewing screenplays and films for potential film and video grants. This year, she was asked to judge the Cable Ace Awards and the Diane Thomas Screenwriting Awards. As a screenplay consultant, she works with writers, producers and agents to strengthen screenplays for film and television. She also drafts story notes on studio projects already in active development.

To order her book: send $19.95, US only, to:

Janna Gelfand
Screenplay Form
10560 Wilshire Blvd. #304
LosAngeles, CA 90024

Order Richard's Book Now Order this book today

Can you give us some of your you got involved with the film industry?

I was always interested in film, but never thought it was something one actually did for a living. It would be way too fun... I began my college education pre-med, but was quite bored very early on in the game. I realized that I had a photographic memory. I got straight As and found little challenge in memorizing material. I learned as much about the human body as I wanted, and then realized that 8 more years of this was definitely not for me.

My family was friends with Sandy Bresler - Jack Nicholsons agent - and I used to sit in his office and listen to him while he made phone calls. I thought his work was fascinating, challenging and quite fun. And people actually did this for a living! I decided I wanted to direct, basically because I had no real concept of what directing was, and I didnt know what else I wanted to do. I did know I wanted to do something in the entertainment industry.

Ed Feldman - the producer of Hogans Heroes told me if I wanted to direct, I had to write. That was fine with me. I took some classes and wrote a script. A year later, I showed it to Ed and he thought I had promise. He was working on a few TV shows and had me do story notes on the scripts. I had no idea what I was doing, but I gave him feedback, which he thought what I had to say had merit. He didnt want to produce my script, but that was OK. I was loving being on the set, watching him, learning from him...not sitting alone writing.

I worked with him for a while. At the same time, Charles H. Joffe - the producer of Woody Allens films - handed me a script and asked what I thought of it. I began telling him, and I ended up giving him more thoughts than he had intended. So he handed me a legal pad and told me to write not only what I liked and didnt like about the script, but how to fix what I didnt like. Charlie was impressed with my notes and suggested I go to film school. The title of that script was ARTHUR.

I got into UCLA school for Motion Pictures and Television. I liked film school mostly because it gave me an opportunity to actually make films. I made a short film which was terrible. Charles Joffe was a manager of comedians as well as a producer, so he helped me get a comic to play the lead role. It was a lot of fun, but within the confines of the class, we needed to film the visuals on super 8, and record the sound on 16mm. We werent able to have sync sound and we had to have at least three sound tracks. It was a great exercise in writing, directing, editing and the like, but without sync sound, it felt like little more than a student film; and most of us couldnt do a thing with our projects once we left UCLA.

Being at UCLA did give me an opportunity to meet fellow filmmakers.

Is that when you made "Beethovens 5th"?


What was your role in that film?

I got close to a screen writing teacher who had a student who was making a film for her graduate thesis. He thought she could use my help in producing the film. Christine Mehner had found a group of A Capella singers who put words to famous classical works of music. One of their favorite pieces was Beethovens 5th symphony. Chris wanted to make a film using the choirs voices, and set the music to visuals. This was before MTV!

Christine and I figured out what we wanted the film - and the song - to be about. We decided it would be fun to show a fantasy of how Beethoven might have created his 5th symphony. But we also felt that his work was timeless, and that no matter who was listening or when - past, present or future - his work would have an enormous impact.

The A Capella group and Christine put words to the symphony and created a script. I made some notes, adjusted some of the lines, and we had a script to work from.

Christine thought of visuals to go with the words. Once again, I gave notes and we soon had a script - which consisted of the lyrics and accompanying visuals. There would be no dialogue. All of the ideas would come from visuals, which we thought was what film was about

We got backers, and decided to do the film in 35mm, instead of the usual 16 that most students were using. We chose locations, created a lot of sets and basically had enough set-ups for a feature! When we edited it, it turned out to be around 6 minutes - which is the length of the particular movement of the symphony. We had enough footage literally for a two hour film!

It looked great! I helped with the art direction and post production, as well as producing, because without being a union show, we all worked as a team, without having to worry that we were breaking labor laws. We all had the same goals: get the film finished, make it look great - with high production value - and get it in on budget.

It was a wonderful learning experience, especially when we went to MGM studios at off hours - like 3:00am to do the color timing!

We were proud of the film. I got it on the "Z" channel - the first cable movie channel in LA, and Chris later got it on HBO. She sent it out to competitions, and it was ultimately nominated for an Academy Award. We didnt win, but it was exciting and truly gratifying!

So, after UCLA, what led you back into the film industry?

I never really left the industry, even while I was at school. While making Beethovens 5th, I was also onto other things. Charles Joffe had me do notes on another script that ended up being GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM. To this day, he has me consult on his material.

Do you like being a consultant, or a producer better?

I love doing story notes and working with writers. In fact, I have just been hired to do consulting work for HBO Original Programming.

I also love producing, but it is much more difficult work. Not only do you have to find material and work with the writer, but then you have to set it up, which is becoming increasingly more difficult as the years go by. The film industry has turned from SHOW BUSINESS - part creative show work, and part business - to mostly all business. The risks are so high, that studios are being much more cautious with their choices. Im not saying theyre being more discerning, just more cautious!

What have you learned from the people you have worked for, and with?

I was given a good education in producing by working in development for a variety of producers. Gary Nardino - who ran Paramount television and was responsible for CHEERS, MORK AND MINDY, HAPPY DAYS and the like - wanted to start a feature film division at his company. I wasnt involved with his television products. It was my job to find material for feature film projects. That experience, and later working for Martin Starger - who produced SOPHIES CHOICE, ON GOLDEN POND, MASK, etc.- taught me the importance of finding quality material. Without a good script, a movie certainly had a much smaller chance of being a success.

While I was working with these producers, I was teaching screen writing with Syd Field. Through him, I learned the importance of doing character biographies. Im not one for formulaic writing, but his notion of creating full, fleshed out characters before beginning to write is one that I have taken to heart and passed on to all my writing students...even the professional writers I work with.

It was working with Syd that led you to write your book, wasnt it?

While teaching with Syd Field, I realized that many of the newer writers had great ideas, but they had no idea what the page for a script looked like. They had some vague notion of where dialogue and description should be, but that was about it. I realized that each time I stumbled on poor formatting, I was pulled out of the script. In addition to my story notes, I found myself spending a lot of time explaining just how to make their scripts look professional. If they wanted to be taken seriously in this industry, they needed to look like they knew what they were doing. Syd told me if I would write a book, his company would publish it. Of course I leapt at the chance! Actually being able to focus on story, and not deal with format with every set of story notes was thrilling! Before they turned their scripts in, the new writers would already have good formatting! The book - although its really a guide - has nothing to do with dialogue, characters or the functions of screen writing. It is simply the industry standard for screenplay form - how the story looks on the page. The book has caught on, and is now used in many universities throughout the world. The WGA West asked for a copy for their library.

What are some of the projects you have going now?

I currently have a romantic comedy that Arthur Hiller is attached to direct. We have some casting commitments, and hopefully we will have a "go" soon. I also have a wonderful true story which Lee Grant will be directing. The Hiller project is for film, the Grant for cable. I find that TV is much faster than film, and it is becoming just as prestigious to have cable projects as it is to have film projects. It used to be that TV played second fiddle to film, but with cable that has all changed.

Do you have any final thoughts?

The biggest thing Ive learned through the years is that you will be living with your projects for a long time. Nothing goes quickly in this business, and a lot of the work is repetitious. Each time you repeat, whether rewriting, making cast lists, going time and again to the same executives, or the like, you need to be enthusiastic. If you dont believe in your project, no one else will either. You also have only one chance, so make everything as good as it can possibly be - within limits! Never go out with a script that you are still working on. 2 weeks down the line, you never want to call an executive and tell them that you have a better/newer draft. Go out with the best draft the first time. Dont waste peoples time! But also dont make the mistake of sitting with a project for so long that your time to sell it has gone by. Be thorough. Think things through. Put the material away fro a short while. Come back to it. If its to your liking, then its ready to go out.

This is a difficult business, filled with constant rejection. The rejections usually arent personal, so you need to hold onto what you believe and keep pressing forward. Find people you trust to work with. Make sure you share the same vision and then fly forward together!

Dont forget to continue learning a little something from everyone and everything around you. There are always new ways to deal with people, new things to learn about yourself, new ways to improve on your old ways of thinking. I teach at UCLA extension and am amazed at the amount I learn each quarter. I am forever finding new ways to look at films and scripts, and learning new ways of relating to writers. Theres a wealth of knowledge out there and listening is just as important as talking.

You need to keep a strong sense of self. Hold onto your beliefs and passions. And no matter what happens, keep on pushing forward.

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