MOVIES | Minnesotans advance, hope to win $30,000 Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship

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The last meal for a prisoner to be executed. An eerie town in Nebraska. A waitress goes missing. Sleeping with lutefisk. Unseen creatures in a rural barn. The murder of Santa Claus.

These are some of the assorted plots written by Minnesotans vying for the 2010 Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Up to five $30,000 fellowships are awarded to new screenwriters each year.

To be sure, it’s a tough competition. 6,304 scripts were sent to Hollywood from all 50 states as well as international including first-timers Azerbaijan, Barbados, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cameroon, Uganda and Uruguay.

In Minnesota, 52 inviduals submitted screenplays. Of those, 22 scripts are from the Minneapolis /St. Paul area from 19 writers, according to Tarrah Lee Curtis, Academy Publicist. “As of right now, we are at the Quarter Final phase. There are seven Minnesotan’s in the running, with a total of eight scripts still in contention,” she said.

Nicholl Fellowship Administrator Greg Beal says only five percent of the 6,304 scripts even get to the Quarter Finals. “Minnesota, with seven of 52 entries advancing, is doing considerably better than average,” he said.

Don Nicholl was an executive producer of television hits such as Three’s Company and All in the Family as well as a producer of The Jeffersons. He also wrote episodes for those programs, including controversial topics such as the black Jefferson family integrating Archie Bunker’s neighborhood (Lionel Moves Into the Neighborhood). And that catchy Three’s Company title song “Come and Knock on our Door?” Also penned by Don.

Beal said the Nicholl Committee doesn’t shy away from controversy in their final selections. “Scripts dealing with controversial topics have frequently done well in the Nicholl competition. Integration, terrorism, child abuse, euthanasia, war and political oppression are among the serious issues that have appeared in Nicholl-winning scripts.”

After Don Nicholl died  in 1980, his wife Gee created the Nicholl Fellowships in her husband’s memory. Dee passed away in 2009.

Winning a Nicholl Fellowship can enhance one’s profession. “No question it has jump-started careers,” Beal said. “Writers such as Mick Rich (Finding Forrester) and Jason Micallef (Butter) saw their winning scripts go into production within a year after earning a Nicholl Fellowship. Other writers have started working professionally soon after winning.”

Additional Nicholl winners have included such names as Susannah Grant, (Erin Brockovich, The Soloist), Terri Edda Miller (TV’s Castle), Jeffrey Eugenides (Pulitzer Prize for Middlesex), and others.

Quarter Finalist names aren’t released by the Academy until the conclusion of the competition in November, but I received permission to follow the Minnesota entrants through the contest, and reached out to see if they would be willing to talk. Here are their stories (photos by Barb Teed):

Ted Dewberry: The Last Meal Project

“The Nicholl Fellowship is the Big Daddy of all. It’s like winning the lottery,” Ted Dewberry said over pizza. His script, The Last Meal Project, focuses on a chef preparing last meals for about to be executed prisoners.

“I spent some time researching people’s last meals. I went online and looked at every state that still executes prisoners, what their rules were for last meals. Like Texas, they can only use a prison kitchen.  Another has a limit of forty dollars. They can’t get alcohol or tobacco. I would watch prison TV shows and thought ‘what if a chef had to cook a last meal,’ it would be a nightmare for a chef. What pressure on preparing a last meal over and over. It would be a psychotic break.”

Dewberry created a main character of a chef gone bad. “He hurt someone because of a drug deal so his community service was to go prison to prison cooking last meals under the rules of the prison,” he said.

One scene is a prisoner’s last request for a hamburger, but the prison beef had  too many freezer burns. “The chef took a little bit of good meat from each freezer-burned beef. He had to get ten pieces of meat to make one hamburger.”

Dewberry said the chef loves to cook and is very creative. “It takes every bit of energy to make this happen. Should the chef succumb to prison rules or make someone’s last meal special.”

The idea came from Dewberry’s enjoyment of cooking. “I watch the Food Network. I have a great respect for people that cook well. Chefs put their heart into it. I like working with characters that create things and chefs are very creative people. So I created a character who is a chef with a little bit of a problem and gets into serious trouble.”

Dewberry admits his script is also a commentary on capital punishment. “Some prisoners are mentally handicapped. One of the characters in my script, the first meal the chef cooks for, is mentally handicapped and he thinks the executioner is a doctor giving him a shot.”

When not writing, Dewberry, 41, works in the human services field in the Twin Cities. “I tried filmmaking in Los Angeles and it was a disaster. I wasn’t a very good screenwriter until recently. I got C grades in filmmaking. My teacher said it was my worst subject and I should stick with directing.”

While in LA, Dewberry spent a summer employed as a script reader. “I read through dozens of scripts. They were terrible! Lots of misspelled words, typos, bad grammar, and sloppy writing. I found maybe one script that I liked.”

Moving back to Minnesota, Dewberry toiled away as a barista at Starbucks in the Mall of America. While serving coffee, he earned some noriety when he helped organize workers into joining the Starbucks Workers Union.

The Last Meal Project was a finalist in 2008’s McKnight Artist Fellowship Program, a local arts contest. Two years ago, Dewberry entered it in the Nicholl competition. As a result of feedback, he made improvements that resulted in being a Quarter Finalist for this year’s Nicholl. “You never know how these things work out,” he said. “I’m just happy I got this far. I’m really the underdog in all of this.”

Being named a Quarter Finalist has validated his talent as a writer, he said. “[Filmmaking] is luck and it’s talent and it comes together with money, but that doesn’t come with screenwriting. I’m as poor as a church mouse and I don’t have ties to Hollywood. At a certain point I found filmmaking to be unrealistic so I decided to start writing and the process was enjoyable. It’s my theory that as you get older and more experienced, that’s when your writing gets better.”

Dewberry has aspirations to work in the television industry. “I would love to create a unique TV series like Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under on HBO. It’s one of my favorite shows ever.”

Ted Dewberry’s Tip:  If you don’t nab them in the first five pages, it’s over.

Michelle Herrin:  Acts of Obedience

An interest in rural communities helped Michelle Herrin form the basis of her Nicholl Fellowship Quarter Finalist script Acts of Obedience. “I lived for awhile in a really small town in Kansas and I was fascinated. I love farm land, the pastoralness of it. But there’s a bad side.  Farming America is seen as this ideal life and it’s not.”

Acts of Obedience takes place in a little Nebraska town that has isolated itself. “They got rid of all the books and outside influences to protect themselves from these imagined threats,” Herrin said. “There’s no electricity. It takes place in the near future but with a 1950’s vibe.”

Catastrophe hits and part of the earth destroyed, but no one is sure what happened. “That town in Nebraska becomes very wholesome, clean, happy. They’ve gotten rid of all knowledge. There is a lottery for people to come there after the disaster.”

A burned stranger shows up and people invite him into their town. The script has a surprise ending, said Herrin. “It sounds like science fiction, but it’s really a love story.”

Herrin, 30, is an English teacher and entered the Nicholl competition at the last minute. She moved to St. Louis Park last year to attend a film program at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. “That was awesome and I learned a lot. But I couldn’t find a job. Being unemployed gave me some time to write and I decided to try the Nicholl. My goal was just to finish the screenplay, so to make it this far, it feels like I won. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s really validating.”

She entered the Nicholl in 2009 on a whim and even though she was rejected, Herrin earned a “P.S.” on her script. Only ten percent achieve the “P.S.” status, she said. “It means you didn’t advance, but you weren’t the worst, so that was uplifting.”

Going forward this year to Quarter Final status “is a big deal,” Herrin said. “This is a very film-oriented state. People are excited but they don’t know much about [the Nicholl competition]. I’m not expecting to go on, but if I do, it’s frosting on the cake.”

Herrin wrote Acts of Obedience in about a month while working full-time. “I do better on a deadline. I read books on formatting and Writing a Screenplay for Dummies. I’ve always been good at writing and I love movies,” she said.

Herrin said she would like to direct if she were given the opportunity to break into film.

Michelle Herrin’s Tip: Plot is so much a part of it.

Russ Meyer:  Jenna’s Gone

When the Academy of Arts and Sciences emailed Russ Meyer to say he advanced to the Nicholl Fellowship Quarter Finals, he wondered if they sent it to the right person. “My family thinks they’ve been through enough contests with me,” he said laughing over frozen lemonade. “It’s long odds to win [the Nicholls]. But my brother said he’d be my driver when I earned my second million.”

Meyer, 53, grabbed an early retirement check from the New Prague Postal Service in December and is now a full-time writer. “There’s still not enough hours in the day,” he said.

Meyer has written ten scripts, finished his 11th, and is working on number 12. It’s his third time entering the Nicholl competition, and his first time advancing. He calls screenwriting a “quiet profession.”

Jenna’s Gone is a dramatic thriller focusing on a missing 22 year-old waitress. The friendship of a deputy and a hunting guide is strained as they track across the Southwest desert after the kidnapper, both suspecting the other of a role in her disappearance.  The only clue is horse tracks. To make it more complicated, they both love Jenna.

The screenplay has already won several awards and finalist placements around the country. His prizes have run from software to $250. The $30,000 attached to the Nicholl would be quite an improvement, Meyer said.

Being in the Quarter Finals brings rewards, too.”Producers show an interest in the Nicholl Quarter Finalists,” he said.

Meyers has been writing stories since he was in grade school and took a couple of writing classes in the 1980’s. When not writing, he was a stock car racer and the first NASCAR Minnesota season champion driver in the “Thundercar” division.

He said he sticks to screenwriting because, “Everyone says they can write a better movie and I see things visually. But once you sell it, it’s no longer yours. If it bothers you, then you should write novels or plays.”

Jenna’s Gone has 15 speaking parts and runs 92 pages. Nicholl Fellowship rules allow for finished work to be 90 to 120 pages. Meyer said the industry standard is one page equals one minute of screen time.

Meyer wants to go to the west coast if he wins the Nicholl. “If there is a reason for me to be in Hollywood, I would move there.” He said he would focus on television scriptwriting as he feels there are more jobs in that field. He has applied for a writing internship with ABC network.

He belongs to the Minnesota Screenwriters Workshop, an all-volunteer non-profit organization where screenwriters can hone their craft. Meyer also attends numerous seminars and conferences. “I just keep plugging along,” he said.

Russ Meyer’s Tip: People “weigh” your script when they lift it to read it. They should have a smile on their face before they start to read it.

Chris Velasco: The Last Noel

The real Santa Claus is found face down in a hot tub, murdered. An inexperienced detective named Jerry Tannenbaum is summoned to the North Pole to investigate. “It’s a Christmas movie for adults. R-rated,” said Chris Velasco, The Last Noel’s scriptwriter. “Everyone looks like a suspect. Rudolf the Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, the head of the toy-makers union. Santa’s killer is found and it’s not who you would suspect.”

Velasco describes his Nicholl Fellowship Quarter Finalist script, The Last Noel, a farcical comedy. “It’s different from romantic comedy. Farcical comedy plays with reality some. Boundaries are pushed, elements go beyond farcical to comedic effect. Farcical comedy has zero chance of winning Their bias is toward drama and I say that without prejudice. The Nicholl is associated with the Oscars and they reward drama.”

The Last Noel has a sub-plot as well. “Jerry [Tannenbaum] plays out his whole family drama and he hates Christmas and now he has to save Christmas. His father is Jewish and his mother is Christian. It’s an interfaith story. Religion is with the mother in Judaism. The child Jerry is going to be raised Christian. Christmas is about Jesus, Santa is not.”

Velasco, 47, managed to get into the Quarter Finals in the 1990’s, also with a comedy. “I’d like to elevate comedy in people’s minds as the same level toward drama. In general serious, depressing movies are critically more worthy than a comedy. The art of making you laugh is as high an art form as something that makes you depressed. [To say] ‘that comedy was a brilliant work because I looked at things in a different way because of that comedy,'” he said.

Velasco entered the Nicholl competition last year, but didn’t make the Quarter Finals. He said he has fond memories of past Quarter Final days. “They have a spotless reputation in a marketplace that is filled with dubious contests. Everyone who wins [the Nicholl] has a career. It’s advancing storytelling like no other contest. It’s a reliable source of really talented writers. Their fellowship can free-up a writer to focus on writing.” The Last Noel took four months to write, but Velasco said it’s by no means done.

Velasco, past president of the Minnesota Screenwriters Workshop, said he didn’t receive much feedback after being eliminated as a Nicholl Fellow. “It’s really difficult to get valid information on how to improve what you do. That is why I go back to the Screenwriters Workshop. [Scripts] come back rejected without an opportunity to know how to improve. The Workshop gets writers, mostly scriptwriters, together to say ‘I think this scene would have worked better.’ There is an art in giving feedback and we all do that there.”

The first time Velasco realized the power of movies was watching The Wizard of Oz when he was three. “I will often use the Wizard of Oz in my screenplay workshops. Movies are the dominate art form of the 20th century,” he said.

Velasco, who lives in St. Paul, works as the president and executive director of PLACE, Projects Linking Art, Community & Environment, a non-profit organization promoting sustainable facilities and communities. “If I am not working or writing, I am at the movies,” he said. Velasco predicted the film Inception will win big at the 2011 Academy Awards.

Chris Velasco’s tip: The heart of all of this is art.

Wenonah Wilms:  Sleeping with the Lutefisk and Nest

Having one script reach the Nicholl Fellowship Quarter Finals is an achievement, but two scripts from the same person in the same year advancing on? Those bragging rights belong to Wenonah Wilms, 39, of Minneapolis.

The Academy uses the most recent competition as an example of the difficulties in advancing even to the Quarter Finals. In 2009, 6,380 scripts were entered in the competition. All of those scripts were read once. Nearly 2,800 of the scripts, based on a positive first read, were read a second time. About 800 scripts received three reads. After the third read, each script’s best two scores were tallied, and the 321 scripts with the highest scores advanced to the quarterfinal round.

That makes the odds of Wilms’ two scripts receiving all those high scores unique indeed. She said her stories are Minnesota-based and specific to the state.

Sleeping with the Lutefisk is about a Swedish farming family mafia, and how they hit-off people to ensure they win the Blue Ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair every year.

Wilms knows about family life, she has three sons ages 10, 12, and 14. In 2007, her script Beaded Road won the McKnight Artist Fellowship as well as advancing to the Nicholl Quarterfinals. “I’ve entered every year for eight years. If you have something to go, Nicholls is the one you have to do. It’s the golden ticket. If you win, agents start contacting you. It’s hard getting in the door in LA, almost impossible,” she said. “The Nicholl is head and shoulders above any contest. It’s so well-run and open and honest about the process.”

Administrator Greg Beal agreed. “Winning a Nicholl Fellowship certainly can serve as a ‘golden ticket.’ Winning opens doors all over Hollywood,” he said.

Beaded Road featured a script based on her grandmother’s experience living in government-run Native American boarding schools. Wilms, of Ojibwa heritage, is also half-Swedish.

Her second Quarter Finalist in this year’s Nicholl Fellowship, Nest, is about a man and his wife who are snowed-in at a farmhouse. “The barn has creatures in it that you don’t see, and that is scary. It’s written for a small budget and it’s been optioned by a local producer. I wrote it as low-budget as I could and that helped. It’s horrific and suspenseful.”

Wilms said scriptwriting is often unrecognized. “You can probably count us on your fingers and toes,” she said. “Filmmakers say ‘I’ve never met a screenwriter here in Minneapolis.'”

She said she is not a film buff, but is drawn to stories. “I am a terrible fiction writer. There are rules and restrictions on scriptwriting. You can be creative within those rules. It has to be visual. It’s fun. I wouldn’t do it this long with no pay if I didn’t love it.”

Having others read her material has been helpful to Wilms. “I don’t hold tight to my stuff. The more that read it the better. You get personally attached and you write from your heart, so when you get ‘no’, it’s not a reflection of you as a person.”

Wilms’ husband Ed is her biggest fan, she said. “He totally supports me and reads everything I write.”

Wenonah Wilms’ Tip: Be an “economical” writer.

Jeremy Bandow, 2008 Nicholl Fellowship winner for: Hive (photo at top).

In 2008, Jeremy Bandow from Minneapolis won the $30,000 Nicholls Screenwriters Fellowship for his script Hive. Now living in Denver with his wife and two children, I spoke to him by phone about winning the Fellowship.

Did getting selected for the Fellowship have an impact?
No doubt about it being a Golden Ticket. You get unrivaled access to producers. I got wooed. It was just surreal and larger than life to be associated with that gold Oscar. The cool thing was having Hollywood royalty read your script and they really liked [Hive]. They want the Nicholl scripts really bad. You get great industry contacts.  It was a most hectic month when I won.

How did you find out you won?
[Nicholl Fellowship Administrator] Greg Beal calls everybody. I got my winning phone call in October [2008]. There are 10 finalists. They fly all of us to Hollywood and put us up at the Renaissance Hotel, right by the Kodak Theater, for a week. They give us $750 per diem. The saddest part is that there are 10 finalists but only five Fellows. They bring out the 10 and we all attend the same sessions, but I’m the one getting the $30,000. The 10 write personal letters to the Fellowship Committee on why we need the money. We are all starving artists who love our craft and have respect for the Academy. There’s 250 Quarter Finals, then down to 100 Semi-Finals, then 10 Finalists. The Committee reads the 10 scripts and meets behind closed doors. It’s very intense. Each script has its own fans. [Cinematographer]John Bailey [Ramona and Beezus, When in Rome, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, etc.] said “I am the biggest advocate for your script.”

What happened after you were selected?
After I won, I stayed in Hollywood for an extra week. I am from Minneapolis, one [winner] was from London, and the rest from LA. The out-of-towners, it was harder. The locals could go face-to-face, instead of I only had a week. It was a slight disadvantage. Hive has not been produced. It is a war movie. They are still not making Iraqi movies. I am waiting until the right time. Usually after a war, it takes a decade for people to warm up to war movies. They want to see kid movies, romantic comedies. I’ll wait a few years until the troops are out of there, then take [Hive] out of the drawer.

Did you attend any film schools?
I went to the Minneapolis Community and Technical College. It is such a good program and I had such a good experience there.  I was in their Cinema division. I’ve taught English in Rome.

What do you do now?
I am mostly a ghost writer, I am a dad, and I’m a published poet.

Why did you choose to live in Denver?
I am closer to Sundance now! Hollywood is not conducive to raising a family. It is overpriced and smoggy.

Any advice to the Quarter Finalists?
Congratulations and the best of luck to the next round. For sure, I’ll be keeping my eye on them.

Jeremy Bandow‘s tip: I worked really hard, I had a great script, and I had a lot of luck.

Final judging is done by the Nicholl Committee, chaired this year by Producer Gale Anne Hurd (Terminator trilogies). Fellowship Administrator Greg Beal said it remains difficult to break in as a screenwriter from outside of LA. “If a writer had the good fortune to sell a spec script, that might make it possible to remain in Minnesota. Or if the writer were primarily interested in writing independent films, remaining at home probably makes the most sense,” he said.  Beal said a number of Nicholl fellows go on to work in television.