I knew I wanted to be a screenwriter........
I wrote my first screenplay three years ago, as
part of my graduate program in dramatic writing at New York University's Tisch
School of the Arts. Having only written for the stage up to that point, I
found a certain kind of freedom and discipline in screenwriting that I didn't
find in stage writing. The emphasis on the visual, the need to keep action
moving, the ability of the camera to set the audience's eyes at different
angles or perspectives made my writing more economical and imaginative, and
through this process I knew that as much as I loved writing for the theatre, I
also wanted to sharpen my screenwriting craft in order to expand my
I know I've succeeded........
This is a tough one for me to answer because I
am pulled in several directions, not all of them complementary. Money, of
course -- that is, some level of economic success that allows me to support
myself and my family by doing what I love to do directly and not having to do
it "on the side" while doing something else to pay the rent. The visibility of
my work and the respect of my colleagues is another measure. I would count
myself successful if fellow writers felt that my material had integrity and
intelligence and that those who make the movies would contact me because they
wanted to work with someone of my caliber and dedication. In some respects,
this kind of success would be worth more to me than adequate amounts of money
because it signals me that I am taken seriously as an artist, as someone
committed to the best that he can do. Third, there is the inside satisfaction,
the "gut" satisfaction, independent of money or accolades, the sheer delight
and privilege I feel every morning when I sit myself down and write, the act
of writing itself redeeming and nourishing. I don't want to rank these three
criteria -- it is their balance, I think, that provides the starting point for
a definition of success with which I can live.
My inspiration to write AIN'T
I got the idea to write Ain't Ethiopia from a
brief article read in a leftover out-of-date magazine in a doctor's office
about the African American men and women who went to Spain to fight in that
country's civil war against Franco. The story spoke to me immediately. Here
were men and women denied freedom in their own country finding the courage and
tenacity to go to a foreign land to fight for freedom there. I have also had a
lifelong fascination with the Spanish Civil War, not only because of the
politics involved but also because of how many people who had no business
being soldiers -- artists of all stripes, business people, simple workers --
made it their personal choice to put themselves in harm's way in service to an
ideal of freedom and to bear witness in the fight against everything that
would take that freedom away. If I had been 21 years old in 1937, as is my
main character Jesse Colton, I would have gone to fight. The story point I had
to struggle with, though, was not to display Jesse simply as a heroic figure
but to bring him to a point where he actively decides that the real fascists
he must face are not the rebels against the Spanish government or the
mercenaries sent by Hitler and Mussolini but the people in his home town who
took the life of his wife when they lynched her. They are his real enemies --
the racism they practiced was the real enemy -- and it is this he must
confront and defeat if his life and his wife's death is to have real meaning.
What inspired you to write?
Michael Bettencourt: I write in order to breathe -- I always
remember being a writer, even as a child. It is the way I come to
understand the world and my place in it.
FilmMakers Magazine: What did you do to prepare yourself to write your first script?
Michael Bettencourt: Being a "newbie" at scriptwriting three
years ago, I read Robert McKee's Story and followed his suggestions as
best I could in writing a treatment, doing my index cards, setting the
scenes and then grouping the scenes into sequences, and then crafting
the script. I also read screenplays, though I found that less helpful
than training myself to "think visually" (stage writing privileges
"the text" over the visuals) and tell the story in pictures. (McKee
states that dialogue should come in later, if not last, if it comes in
at all -- set the story through pictures and movement.) I found this a
very helpful approach and do some form of this for each screenplay
FilmMakers Magazine: Is this your first script and how long did it take you to complete?
Michael Bettencourt: No, this is not my first screenplay -- I
think it is my fifth full-length piece. I wrote it as an independent
study in my last semester at New York University in 2004, working with
the playwright and screenwriter Leslie Lee. It took me three months
from planning to completion.
FilmMakers Magazine: Do you have a set routine, place and time management for writing?
Michael Bettencourt: I have my writing place, stocked with
books I use often: quote books, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and
Fable, Bulfinch's Mythology, several visual dictionaries about how
things work, the OED, an atlas, a Bible, and so on. I write for at
least two hours each morning before leaving for work, and I write even
if I have no special project to work on. It is important to me that
each day I do my "desk time," as part of my ongoing discipline as a
writer. If possible, I try to do a second writing session in the
evening, though I usually like to reserve evenings for reading.
FilmMakers Magazine: Do you believe screenplay contests are important for aspiring
screenwriters and why?
Michael Bettencourt: For someone who has no agent, and no
present hope of getting an agent, and who does not have teams of
people in the industry ready to go to bat for his or her project,
contests are one of the few ways, if not the only way, to combat this
kind of obscurity and provide a writer with some PR leverage. Yes,
they are important.
FilmMakers Magazine: What influenced you to enter the
FilmMakers.com / The Radmin Company Screenwriting Competition?
Michael Bettencourt: As I understand it, this was not the
competition I entered. However, I entered the competition I entered as
part of a project to get Ain't Ethiopia into circulation into as many
venues as my limited budget would allow.
FilmMakers Magazine: What script would you urge aspiring writers to read and why?
Michael Bettencourt: There are the usual suspects --
Casablanca, Witness -- but I would also suggest (though I'm sure it's
not available yet) the screenplay of The Constant Gardener. It's a
masterful adaptation of the novel and is quite clever in time-shifting
and place-shifting the story without confusing the audience.
FilmMakers Magazine: Beside screenwriting what are you passionate about and why?
Michael Bettencourt: The "live" theatre -- I feel very alive
whenever I'm in a theatre, either as audience member, as playwright
being produced, as grunt moving scenery around. I also love anything
that softens and blunts the harshness of life -- good food shared with
friends, an incisive book, music that morphs the spirit.
FilmMakers Magazine: Who is your favorite Screenwriter
Michael Bettencourt: Charlie Kaufman, for sheer chutzpah;
William Goldman, for sheer tenacity; Carlos Saura, for his lyricism
and wry humor; Walter Salles, for The Motorcycle Diaries and Central
FilmMakers Magazine: Name the director you would love to work with and why?
Michael Bettencourt: For Ain't Ethiopia, I would like to work
with either Edward Zwick or Peter Weir -- both know how to make big
movies and don't lose the focus on character.
Magazine: Name the actor you would love to work with and why?
Michael Bettencourt: For Ain't Ethiopia, I would love to
discover a whole new generation of African American actors, such as
Terrence Howard in Hustle and Flow. I am less interested in work with
a specific actor than finding excellent people no matter their
pedigree or level of success.
FilmMakers Magazine: Any tips and things learned along the way to pass on to others?
Michael Bettencourt: Do the "desk time" -- it's the only way
both inspiration and a body of work get done.
FilmMakers Magazine: What's next for you?
Michael Bettencourt: To continue what I am doing -- fight to
get my screenplays and stage plays read and done. When I started this
work in 1997, I told myself that I would walk this high-wire without a
net because, as David Mamet has said, only when you do that are you
truly at home in your craft -- you can't have something fall back on
because, inevitably, you will fall back on it.
FilmMakers Magazine: Where will you be five years from now?
Michael Bettencourt: Probably still fighting the same kind of
fight -- but with a longer resume, more recognition, a sense of being
a "veteran," and the continued self-knowledge that this kind of
writing is why I was put on the earth.