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Developing the story through self reflection

Photo credit/Robert Humphreys

For the first assignment of his screenwriting course this semester, accomplished writer and director Noah Stern had students write their life stories as screenplays. The assignment helped Stern learn about his students and their writing styles, and it also introduced a major theme for the course.

“I’m teaching them about themselves. It’s truly a mission of the humanities,” said Stern, whose films “The Invisibles” and “Seven Songs” have earned film festival awards. “I’m teaching them that to write and create something is to look at yourself and learn about who you are and what your limits are, what your dreams are, what your aspirations are, and what your anxieties are.”

The dynamic screenwriting course is offered through Northeastern University’s cinema studies program and sponsored by the Home Box Office Artist-in-Residence Program, established last year through a generous gift from HBO. Earlier this month, the program also brought director Claudia Weill to campus for an engaging two-day visit, cosponsored by cinema studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

Inez Hedges, director of the cinema studies program, said: “It’s truly wonderful that, thanks to the HBO grant, cinema studies could begin its life in the new College of Arts, Media, and Design with this opportunity to expand our offerings in the creative area.”

The course exemplifies Northeastern’s leadership in the integration of study with experience.

Throughout the semester, Stern has challenged students with a host of stimulating assignments. Students have written screenplays based on music videos, with lyrics serving as dialogue, which Stern said helped students think visually. They have also written fresh scripts for existing sitcoms, which were later acted out. Students also watched the opening scene of the Oscar-winning film “The Social Network” to analyze characters and see how the scene masterfully sets up the rest of the film.

The course is structured like a workshop; participants discuss their work and receive feedback from Stern and their peers. But the course’s focus on character development has been most enlightening, said students.

“That’s been one of the best parts of the class,” said Joel Marsh, a third-year student and combined major in cinema studies and communication studies. Marsh has been making short films for five years, but said the class has boosted his confidence and made him strive to improve his writing.

“Through character comes dialogue,” added Tesla Cariani, a third-year student majoring in cinema studies and English. “If you have a really solid character, you can write dialogue and it will be more natural.”

Stern described the art of screenwriting in architecture terms: It’s not about designing a great house, but rather developing characters and discovering what kind of house they should live in.

“If they can understand those characters, and can walk them around and take them on a little virtual reality ride, then they can answer the one question I get asked most often: ‘Professor, what happens next in my story?’ If you know your characters and you know what they’re going to do, then you know what will happen next.”