Where Liberty Dwells
13 May 2011
Dinaw Mengestu at the Library
6 June 2011

A Night at the Movies with Judith Merians

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Judith Merians serves as a consultant to independent film producers in structuring their film projects, securing film financing and distribution, and developing film production companies.  She has been teaching a course on The Business of the Film Industry at the University of California at Los Angeles Film School for 16 years.  She also teaches in the producing division of the Filmakademie Baden Wurttenburg, Germany, lectures on story and screenplay at The American School in Paris, runs private screenwriting and producing workshops in Paris, France, and leadership conferences in the US and Europe.

Judith has been an entertainment attorney and business executive for 27 years working in the major Hollywood studios and has been integrally involved in the production of hundreds of films.  She has taught and been published in several countries. She leads a educational film series at the Library and has shown us new ways to appreciate the work of Tennessee Williams as a part of our centenary celebration of the playwright. Today she talks about Paris, her love of film and why the work of Tennessee Williams is relevant today.

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What brought you to Paris?

I visited for years and then when I quit the corporate world I did what was top on the list for “when I had the time” and that was a month in Paris.  That quickly turned into half my time in Paris and half in California.  A perfect life!

What keeps you coming back?

I have made wonderful friends here, I present conferences in Paris and in Germany so I can still use my knowledge, I play boules in the Luxembourg Gardens with the guys, I love the culture, food, the beautiful city, and the sensibility that life is meant to be enjoyed.  I worked very hard for many years and now what better place is there to pick and choose how to find pleasure every day?

The Library is celebrating the centenary of Tennessee William’s birth. Why is his work relevant to audiences today?

Tennessee Williams was an exquisite poet in his playwriting and short stories. That’s reason enough to read and listen to his words. Also he wrote on timeless and universal themes frequently having to do with love lost or never found, seeking the solace and comfort of others, people lost and lonely or who simply don’t fit in, sexual passion (how better to describe that than the way he did  when Stanley tells Stella that “we turned on the colored lights”?).  He did this with great compassion for the hurt and damaged and made one see their humanity no matter how monstrous they could be.

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What can screenplay writers learn from watching Psycho?

How to tell a story without words. Hitchcock clearly understood the language of visual story-telling.  If the sound were turned off in Psycho the audience would still understand the entire film.  Hitchcock had a storyboard created for all his films and shot each frame accordingly.  The actors could make choices as long as they stayed in frame.  He also understood suspense and how to hook and audience.  What better way than the shower scene in Psycho?  One knows there’s a lunatic afoot and is breathless to see what will happen next.  The audience is involved, not on the outside looking in, but shouting to the screen “don’t go there!”

What is your favorite movie? Why?

My all time favorite is 8 1/2 because Fellini had the most fertile mind and the ability to create visualizations of dream worlds and unconscious processes.  I’ve seen this film at least 2 dozen times and I still find images within images that I had never noticed before and which created a multilayered landscape of story telling that the conscious mind might not even grasp but is affected by in the viewing.

I also very much admire The Godfather since the story is told neatly, clearly, with rich characters and lots of texture that created the world of the crime families.  The acting and the cinematography were splendid. The opening of that film is a classic of how to open a story – who is the protagonist and what does he want and need to learn, who is the antagonist and how is he on a collision course with the protagonist,  who are the other major characters, what is their world like.  All of this is portrayed richly and engagingly in the first 30 minutes of The Godfather.  I watched that and said “take me on this ride, I can’t wait to see where this train is going.”

What is the best advice you have ever received?

Just do Monday.  When I was contemplating going to law school with a 2 year old and a 4 year old at home, along with a disgruntled husband, I talked to a woman who was doing her medical residency about my fear of conquering 3 years of demanding schooling along with all the other demands I had in my life.  She looked at me and said “I don’t understand you.  When I went to medical school I just thought to myself ‘how do I do Monday?’ Then I just did Monday and I just did Tuesday, and then 4 years were up.  So just do Monday.”  It worked and I graduated Cum Laude.  I have used that advice ever since and have taught my students to think that way, too.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a screenwriter?

Firstly, know yourself.  Can you be content sitting alone and writing, facing rejection and rewrites and the long, long process of creating a screenplay someone might want to buy?  Then try to determine if you have the talent to write well, the imagination, the story sense.  Take classes and read books on screenwriting.  Write every day and see all kinds of films and analyze why they work and why they don’t work.  It is such a competitive field that if one doesn’t have the right stuff and isn’t ready for the long haul, it’s best to move on to something else.

What’s next?

I’ve been running workshops in Los Angeles on career development.  I’ve recently become a certified hypnotherapist with the intention of using the techniques to improve people’s careers.  For example, most people are afraid of public speaking, or many don’t interview well, and hypnosis can really improve their performances, along with constructive suggestions and practice.  I am considering doing one-on-one career coach which is something I can do anywhere in the world via phone, skype, email, or in person.

Join us on 7 June at 19h30 for A Night at the Movies with Judith Merians!

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