FilmMakers International Screenwriting Awards 2005 - Interview

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FilmMakers International Screenwriting Awards

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Michael Bettencourt
Third Place Winner
Michael Bettencourt
of Union City, NJ
Screenplay
AIN'T ETHIOPIA
Drama
Biography:

Michael Bettencourt's A QUESTION OF COLOR won an Ostrander award in Memphis (TN) for Best Original Script in July 2005. IN THE FORT chosen was a Selected Script by Inner Voices. In 2004 he won Boston Theatre Works' BTW Unbound 2004 competition with his full-length ESQUINA. He won the Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition at the Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo with his play A QUESTION OF COLOR. He has also won the Eric Bentley New Play Competition at The New Phoenix Theatre in Buffalo with TRANSLATION and the PlayWorks 2001 competition of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education for A QUESTION OF COLOR. His children's play, MACBETH'S CHILDREN, won the AATE 2003-2004 Unpublished Playreading Project and the Sonoma County Repertory's Best Youth Play award in September 2002, and his short play CLICK won Best Play in the Turnip Theatre's 7th Annual 15-Minute Play Festival (April 2001). DANCING AT THE REVOLUTION (about Emma Goldman) has been produced by Playwrights Forum in Memphis (August 2001) and the Theatre Cooperative in Somerville, MA (November 2001). He is a member of Scene4, an online community of theatre professionals, for which he writes a monthly column (http://www.scene4.com). He recently graduated with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. All of Michael's scripts are at

http://www.m-bettencourt.com

Interview

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 story-telling talents.

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 ETHIOPIA.......

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.

 

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FilmMakers Magazine: 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 I've written.

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 and Why?

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 Station.

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.

FilmMakers 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.

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