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The Master Class

Two weeks prove to be so little time, so much to do, for American and Israeli screenwriters

by David Margolis

September 9, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Not all of them were Jewish, but they were definitely the chosen people -- five Los Angeles and 33 Israeli film students brought together for a two-week "master class" in screenwriting at Tel Aviv University. Held under the auspices of the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles partnership, the class was designed to give a boost to Israel's film industry by improving the capabilities of Israel's future scriptwriters. A further aim -- a subtext, to use the screenwriting term -- was to strengthen sympathy for Israel among American film professionals.

The "master class" consisted of two weeks of all-day classes, nearly as many contact hours as two semesters. Aimed at "teaching writers to write," the class was taught by two Emmy Award winners from Los Angeles, Alan Armer of Cal State Northridge , who created and wrote the TV series "The Fugitive" and "The Untouchables," and David Howard, founder of the USC screenwriting department, whose writing credits include "My Friend Joe" and the animated series "Rugrats." The overall project was organized and coordinated by Dr. Judy Marlane, chair of the Radio, Television and Film Department at Northridge and author of the newly published, "Women in Television News Revisited."

Does Israel's film industry need big brothers in Hollywood? It certainly couldn't hurt. Israel's film industry is small and produces few feature films -- only seven or eight a year, estimates Israeli director Eli Cohen, who has collaborated on projects with American filmmakers. Typical budgets for Israeli films are well under $1 million, a fraction of what most Hollywood films cost. And these films do poorly at the box office, even in Israel, says Tammy Glaser, another observer of the local film scene.

The scripts for Israeli feature films, Glaser adds diplomatically, "leave a lot of room for improvement." Israeli-based Glaser, a former Angeleno who produced "It Was a Wonderful Life," the story of six middle-class, homeless women, also noted that lack of money, an emphasis on documentaries and the appeal of television, make it "virtually impossible to get a feature film made here."

With that in mind, the 33 aspiring Israeli screenwriters knew they were storming the battlements. Consequently, they were thrilled to learn that the half-dozen best scripts to come out of the class -- as well as attached writers -- will be brought to Los Angeles. The writers will have a chance to work on their projects under the supervision of leading Hollywood professionals.

They might also find, suggests Cohen, that in Israel, their most likely market is not in feature films after all, but in television. Calling the idea of the master class "very valuable," Cohen suggests that it would give a boost mostly to Israeli TV, which is constantly hungry for good writers for documentaries, soap operas and dramas.

For all participants, the class was an exercise in culture-jumping. The Israelis, all majors in screenwriting at local universities, constituted a diverse group that included Tel Aviv cosmopolitans and kibbutznikim, Jews from the Galilee and the Negev, and even a Maronite Christian woman from an Arab village near Safed. For the American students and faculty, culture shock was even greater. After they were set down jet-lagged into foreign territory, they had the challenge of integrating with or teaching students whose background and training was unfamiliar to them.

But by the end of the first week, all initial apprehensions had been set aside. After American students were paired with "adopting" Israeli students, the group came to feel itself as an integrated whole, and everyone was working hard. Things were going so well, in fact, that students, faculty and coordinators were developing plans for a second master class.

For next year, participants see a need for smaller groups and more teachers, since, they all agree, writing cannot be taught effectively in a lecture format. Another necessary improvement will be better and quicker translation. Although all the Israelis spoke English, they wrote in Hebrew, creating a logjam in preparing their assignments for class use and evaluation. It was also too bad, participants felt, that the American students had no background in Israeli films and filmmaking (the Israelis knew American films quite well), and that none of the teachers came from the Israeli industry. Nonetheless, everyone agrees, this was a pilot project that is likely to take off.

The five Los Angeles students who participated in this year's master class were Maria Berns (UCSD); Robert Davenport (UCLA), winner of the UCLA Screenwriters Showcase Award in 1997 and 1998; Fullbright scholar Tony Kellam (UCLA); Beverly Neufeld (UCLA), head of the Drama department at the Compton Magnet High school for the Visual and Performing Arts; and Jaime David Silverman (UCLA).

The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles partnership is sponsored by the L.A. Jewish Federation and the Municipality of Tel Aviv.


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