Allagash novelist offers new screenwriting class to UMPI students

Posted Oct. 05, 2008, at 10:10 p.m.

There wasn’t supposed to be a break in the evening’s activities, but while a technician took a few minutes to get a computer back online, Cathie Pelletier had an opportunity to talk to her screenwriting class at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

“If you write your screenplay for yourself, good for you. You’re a purist. And the first writing should be for yourself. You shouldn’t worry about anyone meddling,” Pelletier said to the group of students and observers. “And then the time comes where, if you’re going to try to sell it, you’re going to have to start thinking, ‘Well, what do I have to change?’ And if you don’t, it’s going to stay on your shelf forever.”

Pelletier has had plenty of experience in making those changes. The best-selling novelist and Allagash native has several projects under way to bring her work to the screen, including one with actor Donald Sutherland, and recently has started to focus on screenwriting rather than writing novels.

Two books Pelletier wrote under the pseudonym K.C. McKinnon, “Candles on Bay Street” and “Dancing at the Harvest Moon,” were made into television movies.

Pelletier’s class is not merely a how-to lesson on screenwriting. She is hoping to impart a more complex lesson. Her goal is for her students to understand the full process of how a movie gets made, and how a screenwriter has to work with a whole crew of filmmakers before a screenplay comes alive.

“I want them to see all of the components that go into filmmaking, all the hard work and the many people [involved],” Pelletier said after the class. “I want them to have an idea of what the task is to become a screenwriter, and to not watch a movie again without thinking, ‘somebody had to design this,’ ‘somebody had to decide what the light was going to be,’ ‘somebody had to decide what the characters would wear.’ To become a good screenwriter you have to know what goes into making movies.”

Pelletier’s class is one of the starting points for UMPI’s new film studies concentration, which Ray Rice, chair of the College of Arts and Sciences, said is the only program of its type in the University of Maine System. Other schools have media programs, which focus more on production, or offer a film class here and there.

It was important to mix both the technical and academic aspects of film studies, Rice said.

“I think that was key, looking at the critical analysis of film along with production,” Rice said. “We really wanted the emphasis to be on evaluation and criticism.”

Other courses in the concentration include Introduction to Film, Film and Literary Theory, Contemporary Film, Great Film Directors Series, Topics in Literature and Film (such as Women and Film), Native American Narrative, Topics in Religion, Photography, Video Production, Film Seminar and Aesthetics.

The concentration falls under the umbrella of the department of English. Professors Clifton Boudman in the art department and Richard Zuras in the English department helped developed the curriculum.

About a dozen students have expressed interest in the program, Rice said, even though it wasn’t in the school’s course guide this fall.

Not all of Pelletier’s students are interested in the film concentration, but having a successful author leading the class is a draw for UMPI.

“I’m an English major so I’m fulfilling a requirement,” said 21-year-old Erin Pelletier of Madawaska. “But also I read two of [Pelletier’s] novels in high school, so I was very interested in taking a class from her. I thought it would be something really cool.”

Cathie Pelletier, a graduate of University of Maine at Fort Kent, taught creative writing last year at UMPI and enjoyed the experience of both teaching and being on campus.

“I had such a great time, and I’ve been talking film for so long that when I found out we were doing a film studies program I thought, well, this is a good opportunity to launch it with a screenwriting class,” she said.

During her creative writing course, Pelletier had her students read books by best-selling authors such as Camden resident Richard Russo, Chuck Farris and Wally Lamb. During class sessions, Pelletier teleconferenced with the authors to give students a chance to ask questions of the writers.

Pelletier has done the same thing with her screenwriting class. The class works on a screenplay during its Monday meetings, and Wednesdays are for watching a film and then teleconferencing with a filmmaker.

In one of her first UMPI sessions, Pelletier showed the students “George Stevens: A Filmmakers’ Journey,” a biography of the legendary director that was directed by his son, producer George Stevens Jr. The movie included clips of Stevens’ classic films, such as “Gunga Din,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Shane” and “Giant.”

After the movie, Pelletier called George Stevens Jr., for whom Pelletier adapted her novel “A Marriage Made at Woodstock,” at his office. The screenwriting students had a chance to ask him questions about the film, and his own experiences working on some of his father’s movies.

It was a valuable class lesson for students such as 28-year-old Adam Brabant of Lyndonville, Vt.

“It’s a unique experience, getting to pick a professional’s brain for a little while,” he said. “It’s something we’ll do more and more throughout the class and something I’m looking forward to. As we were watching the film I started jotting down names of people [Stevens] had worked with. It’s kind of a who’s who of old Hollywood.”

Pelletier’s class also did a teleconference with actress Lolita Davidovich to discuss her 1989 film “Blaze.” The class spoke with Davidovich on Sept. 24, two days before the death of “Blaze” star Paul Newman.

Mitchell Galin, who has produced several Stephen King movies for television and film, also spoke to the class by teleconference.

Other teleconferences with filmmakers on the proposed syllabus include singer-songwriter-composer Janis Ian, producer Caldecott Chubb, director Ron Shelton and production designer Paul Sylbert.

Pelletier also hopes to bring director Gabrielle Tana to UMPI for a class. Tana’s film “The Duchess,” starring Ralph Fiennes and Keira Knightley, was released last month.

Cinematographer Zoran Popovic is scheduled to spend a week helping the class make a five- to 10-minute film that will be based on a student screenplay. Pelletier will serve as producer, Popovic as director of photography, and students will fill roles as assistants and other jobs needed to make a film. Rice said Pelletier may be able to get a professional actor and actress to play roles in the film.

Outside of teaching, Pelletier has several projects in the works. Her original screenplay, “The Luna Christmas,” was optioned by actor Sutherland but was on hold for a time while Sutherland was busy filming the television show “Dirty Sexy Money.”

She also adapted her first novel, “The Funeral Makers,” for director Doug Liman, and recently found out that a collaboration with a producer from the film “Leaving Las Vegas” to turn another of her screenplays into a movie is moving ahead.

“[Filmmaking is] the most nerve-wracking business,” said Pelletier, who may return to UMPI next semester to teach another writing class. “But I really love it, and it isn’t the solitary journey of a novelist. I was a novelist, and novelists are used to working in solitary confinement for two, three years at a time. [Screenwriting] becomes a group thing right away, if someone is interested in buying it.”

Pelletier’s presence, as well as a new UMPI collaboration with Presque Isle’s newly reopened downtown movie theater to show classic films, seems to have given a boost to the local movie scene.

“I just think it’s such an exciting thing,” Pelletier said of the course. “How I wished it had been around and something had existed in northern Maine so I could have studied film. What an opportunity for students.”

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