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Elon in LA students polish their screenplays with help of Hollywood pro

All films begin on the page. Someone, typically the screenwriter, has to put pen to paper and give words and movements and motivations to characters. In the nine-week Elon in Los Angeles summer program, it’s no different.

Nizar Wattad (photo courtesy of Elon alumnus Laith Majali '05)

All students work on the final, culminating five short films—films that are the initial visions of five students who successfully pitched and sold their screenplays to the larger class.

Once the films are completed, they’re screened at the American Film Institute. But before production begins in earnest, the screenwriters have to fine-tune their scripts. And this year, professional screenwriter Nizar Wattad is taking a more active role in the development of both the scripts and the student screenwriters.

Wattad, who has won several writing awards and currently has feature films in development with several companies, including Disney, has been offering weekly writing workshops for any students who are interested in attending. He worked in the program last year but has seen his role increase this summer—a positive development, according to Elon in LA program coordinator J. McMerty, who says it’s good for the students to work with a young professional with a great creative vision.

“He’s a young, working writer that brings both a cultural diversity to our faculty and a really engaging way of teaching,” McMerty says. “It’s good that our students get to see a young professional writer that is making his living in what he went to school for. Nizar is a real passionate guy that helps motivate and inspire students while also helping them develop their short screenplays.”

Wattad, who was introduced to McMerty through 2005 Elon alumnus Laith Majali, graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Southern California. He says he picked up all kinds of advice and bits of information from his many textbooks and mentors. And, as he says, he’s hand selected the insights he’s received and put together a screenwriting formula of his own that he shares with the students.

“Picking and choosing from all the different advice I’d ever been given gave me a very clear system that could be used especially for a novice writer to get the ball rolling to demystify the process and make it very logical,” Wattad says. “I seem to get as much out of it as anyone.”

That system seems to be working for the students, too. Junior media arts & entertainment major Scott Richardson, whose screenplay “Fortune” was selected as one of the final five short films, says Wattad’s instruction has helped make the method of writing more accessible.

“For me, the script writing sessions with Nizar have been most beneficial aspect (of the Elon in LA program,” Richardson says. “He essentially has broken script writing down to a formula. Once Nizar established the format, it became about putting words into place.”

Outside the formula, some of the advice Wattad passes on are the kinds of lessons that need constant reinforcement, that help keep students grounded and focused. Some of those take-aways?

“Don’t be lazy,” he says. “A problem is an opportunity for better and more creative drama or comedy. Embrace obstacles. Honesty is key. If it’s not something you really care about, then I don’t think you can be honest about it, and if you’re not honest about it, then I don’t think it will resonate with an audience.”

Students also appreciate the finer touches Wattad can bring to their scripts. Because he’s written plays and screenplays, he can notice more readily if a line is off or if the action is stalling. And when he sees something that needs tweaking, he’s direct with the students, giving them feedback they crave and value.

“Nizar’s been really great,” says junior media arts & entertainment major Will Anderson, whose screenplay “Focus” was selected as one of the final five short films. “He’s blunt about what he says. He’s not going to beat around the bush. He’s going to be straightforward, and that’s really what a good screenwriting professor is all about, making sure that he’s there to help you build a good foundation. I think he really cares, and it shows.”

To this point in the summer, Wattad says he’s been impressed with the students’ progress. They’re maturing as writers and demonstrating great improvement with every passing week and every passing draft.

“For almost month we’ve been talking about ideas, structure, outline,” Wattad says. “Some of the students who had more writing experience are really getting to a polished level really quickly. Some are close to what their final drafts will be.”

To cap off the entire Elon in LA experience, those final, polished drafts—in their fully filmed versions—will be screened at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 3 at the American Film Institute.

Colin Donohue,
7/15/2011 8:45 AM