Ask students what they want to be and rock stars, vets, chefs, even actors are the more common answers you'll hear. But screenwriters? Probably not. The Charleston International Film Festival wants to change that — by offering high school students classes on screenwriting in December 2013. CIFF president Summer Peacher has teamed up with screenwriter Margaret Rogers to start a pilot program to do just that.
"Basically [Summer] wanted the festival to have more of an outreach in the community," Rogers says. "Because a lot of festivals their whole purpose is to show films, but she wanted to broaden the scope, and bring the community more into the Charleston International Film Festival. So we all decided that an educational component would be a great thing, because a lot of kids, especially in the under-served communities, really don't know much about films."
The pilot program consisted of three schools — Wando High School, Academic Magnet High School, and Goose Creek High School. Each hosted three workshops. Students were encouraged — although some were required — to submit their finished screenplay to a team of graders. Megan Montgomery from Goose Creek High School, Matthew Rodgers from Wando High School, and Jake Williams, Coleman Kiester, and Max Toubiana from Academic Magnet High School were selected as the finalists. The students are currently working on submitting their final scripts, and one of which will be made into a short film and screened at CIFF.
"The teachers were very, very sweet and supportive. Goose Creek had two teachers, and I think 150 kids went through the program all together," says Rogers.
With a maximum of six hours to teach these kids the basics, there wasn't much time to waste. "The first workshop was an overview of our festival, festivals in general, what they knew about screenwriting. Summer and I did that one together," explains Rogers. "The second one I taught, which was the nuts and bolts of screenwriting — a quick overview. And then they had to start their screenplay, if they wanted to be involved. And then the third class I asked if there were any questions or problems, I had them read their dialogue out loud, you know just reinforce the parameters that we had."
Of course, being in a high school setting, there were rules on what the screenplay could be about: No horror, no porn, no excessive swearing — the usual drill. And to keep things feasible, the script had to be between six to eight pages with a maximum of three locations and three character, and they had to be actual camera ready locations. "We didn't want somebody jumping out of an airplane with like an army," she adds.
Thankfully the horror ban ruled out an influx of zombie scripts. "There were a lot of gay issues and high school, girlfriend-cheating-on-boyfriend, type of stuff," Rogers says. One student who was quiet as a mouse during the classes that required active participation. "After class she came up to me and showed me what she was working on, and it was beautiful. And it was about suicide. I know some of these kids, they were writing about whatever they were going through," she says.
But that was the point of the program. "Part of it also is to help these kids — I don't know — gain some self-esteem, identity. Some of these kids and classes were underserved, so you know, these kids don't have a lot of opportunity to feel good about what they're doing."
Lori Carroll, a teacher at Wando whose class participated in the program, agrees. "Many students discovered a voice they did not realize they owned. The students had 'lightbulb moments' when Margaret and Summer demonstrated the difference between meaningful language and bland dialogue," Carroll says.
Like most high school kids, some were less than thrilled with the idea of added work. "Most of my students were very skeptical at first, not sure whether they wanted another writing assignment," says Carroll. "But a few already had scripts they had written on their own, and once they all started sharing ideas, they became very excited about the opportunity to tell their own stories."
Wando's Matthew Rodgers (no relation to Margaret Rogers) didn't realize that he loved film until his involvement in the program. "I didn't even want to watch movies most of the time because I had to be alone, isolated, and in silence to do it. Movies were just too much of a hassle because I couldn't get my friends to stop talking or my family to stop making noise," he says. "In time, I realized this was a huge indicator of my now full-blown love for film. I needed the concentration. I had to focus on the movie, not just absorb it like others. Of course, now I am obsessed with the cinematography of films, the production design, the direction, and all the other things that truly make a film great. But when I was younger, it was all about the story. The story is the one thing that everyone, even I, a young movie enthusiast, can enjoy."
It was this love of storytelling that led him to Script-to-Screen. "This program was refreshing because for once the instructors did not try to spoon-feed us the way to format a script or other basic lessons. Instead, they focused on more advanced topics, things like the three-act structure, character motivations, and having a crisp and concise screenplay," Rodgers says. "I am planning to produce a few of my short films on my own, just for the experience."
And it's this love that Margaret Rogers wants to instill — or at least the awareness that there's more to filmmaking than just acting. "I mean we're not looking for a Steven Spielberg or a great scriptwriter like the Coen brothers. We're just looking for kids that have some creativity, that can execute or have you feel or see what they are trying to convey," she says. Of course, she hopes the program will eventually become a statewide one.
For now, Rogers is waiting to read the three finalists' submissions and select the winner, who's script will be made into a short film and premiered at the Charleston International Film Festival, which runs from April 9 through April 13.