It’s funny as one get’s older we kind of rewind the past. Nadja was my screenwriting teacher at Brooklyn College. We were a small class, and we were expected to produce a screenplay in one semester. Needless to say for a young 20 year old it seemed like a hard task to accomplish, but Nadja spoke to us, read with us, and gave us criticism on what we were working on. I remember that our class was bigger in the beginning of the semester then it was towards the end. My screenplay was titled “Young & Independent” and it ran a whole 127 pages. It was a story of two guys trying to come to terms with young adulthood. It had romance, comedy, and a twenty something vibe. Now to put this into context this was the mid 80’s. Such films as “the Breakfast Club”, “St. Elmo’s Fire”, “Sixteen Candles”, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, and “Some kind of Wonderful” were playing, and I guess I figured I could write the definitive young adult movie that would catch fire. Also I think “Thirty-something” was playing on TV, and was gaining in popularity, so you can gauge where my head was. I was pretty naive, and I had no idea what I was doing. It was only later that I began to know what a successful screenplay was, and how to write better, and that was to Nadja’s credit correct. The secret on how to write better is to write and then re-write. Nadja took the time for each of us and listened, and dispensed her wisdom. If you may have not heard of Nadja since this article I would not be surprised. She was the subject of Eric Rohmer’s short film “Nadja of Paris”, and she was his assistant for many years. She is also the sister to Steve Tesich the academy award winner for his screenplay “Breaking Away”. Nadja knew stuff, and she tried to teach it to a few of us. Her expression “it’s in your head” was a favorite of ours. To her credit the few of us who finished our screenplays passed the class, but it wasn’t much later then I realized how much of a mark she made in my life.
Nadja had written a few novels as well. “Shadow Partisan” in 1996, “Native Land” in 1998, “To Die in Chicago” in 2010 and “Far from Vietnam” in 2012. She was an extraordinary writer who used what she experienced in her life in her work. That was the key. Now myself being older I find that some of the best stuff that I write comes from the personnel. “It’s in your head” is the phrase that keeps coming back to me. I have in no way been as successful as Nadja, but her life lesson still reverberates in my psyche. Good teachers do that, and she was a great teacher. It’s unfortunate that I did not know that back then. Back then I was a kid trying to pass a course, and finding it frustrating to write every day.
So what has this all got to do with filmmaking or low budget filmmaking? The idea is where it all begins. Re-writing that screenplay only makes it better. Get criticism from many different people. I certainly got that for my first screenplay, and it still wasn’t that good. After reading it again these many years ago I cringe at the premise, and the storyline. What was I thinking? A buddy of mine wrote a screenplay about a aspiring film student, and it was way better then mine. He had taken stuff from movies he loved, and from personal experiences and made a far superior screenplay, but did Nadja give him a better grade? Simply no. She was given the task to get students to write. Write a screenplay, and guide them through the process. We all critiqued our own work, and I even took the script and budgeted it out for another class which I can’t re-call the subject. My budget breakdown was okay, and came in at the seven figure mark. I used figures from my producer’s handbook (does anyone remember them?). My professor in that class commented on the breakdown. He wrote something like: “I don’t know how any studio can justify the budget of this movie about twenty-something year olds”. Ouch! But I didn’t care I got a grade and moved on. I did budget the screenplay as a studio picture, so I felt my figures were on the conservative side.
But back to Nadja. She had done the incredible. She had whipped out of us a full screenplay in a semester, and all she did is talk to us and review with us. She sure could have ripped into my screenplay and showed me the problems, but she was more and more interested in getting the idea down on paper in the right format. Don’t get me started on setting the tabs on my typewriter for screenplay format. We were graded on that as well. I laugh now with all the scriptwriting programs out there on how easy format really is. Back in the stone knives and bear skin era we set our tabs on a typewriter. I eventually got a Brother word processor that made it a lot easier. Remember kids this is all before affordable desktops.
It was in the re-writing that our screenplays would shine better. Of course back then we wrote it and forgot it. It was a grade. I even remember how she talked to each one of us after the course and how she said that you needed to keep writing. The idea is what is key. She was right of course. Now older I think of things like that. She was a great mentor and I wish she would still be around. She passed away in early 2014, and the world is a bit darker without her, but I still remember Nadja, and the lessons she taught. Hindsight is 20/20, but good ideas don’t die. So if you’re frustrated about making films maybe the idea for your film is right in front of you. Remember “it’s in your head”. Now go write and write something good. We’ll all be better for it.
Here is a article Nadja wrote about her experience in Paris and filming Nadja of Paris: