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Budding local screenwriters get some expert advice

The film script by Johns Hopkins University students Zack Schlosberg, Ellie Park and Kat Lewis was part of a lab where they sought the advice of professional Hollywood filmmakers.
The film script by Johns Hopkins University students Zack Schlosberg, Ellie Park and Kat Lewis was part of a lab where they sought the advice of professional Hollywood filmmakers.(Chris Kaltenbach / Baltimore Sun)

In a nascent movie script titled "Excessive Force," a young mother is killed during the violence following the death of Freddie Gray, leaving her husband behind to raise their biracial daughter alone.

The script's authors are three Johns Hopkins University undergrads, and this week, they got the sort of chance budding screenwriters pray for. They, along with four other Baltimore screenwriters with projects in various stages of development, spent four days talking over their project with veteran Hollywood filmmakers, picking their brains for ideas and guidance, hearing where their scripts should and should not go.

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By the time the Narrative Feature Screenplay Lab ended with a lunch and final brainstorming session Saturday, budding screenwriters Kat Lewis, Ellie Park and Zack Schlosberg had renewed confidence in their project, and in their ability to move it forward.

The lab "really solved a lot of problems that were within our outline," said Park, 21, a native of South Korea studying film and sociology at Hopkins. The opportunity to spend time with "great masterminds, in terms of writing and filmmaking in general," was invaluable, she said.

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Lewis, 21, echoing the words of one of their newfound screenwriting mentors, agreed: "If you look at storytelling as an ocean and as fish, Baltimore as a setting is the ocean of our story. The fish is this particular family that had lost their mother. We had been focusing too much on the ocean, and not the fish — which is actually the interesting part."

The lab is part of the Johns Hopkins Film Incubator, a mentorship program designed for budding filmmakers from Hopkins and the Baltimore area. It is funded through a $1 million grant from the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation. Zaentz, who died in 2014, was the Oscar-winning producer of "The English Patient," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus."

To be accepted into the incubator, a script had to be able to be filmed in the Baltimore area. More than 75 scripts were submitted; 18 were chosen for this initial class. Of those, five, involving seven filmmakers, were chosen for this first lab. A second lab, set for the fall, will focus on documentaries.

"A central part of the mission of this fund is to discover, embolden and empower new and unique voices in Baltimore," said Roberto Buso-Garcia, director of the fund and director of Hopkins' Master of Fine Arts in Film and Media program. "We want them to tell us what they want to do, what they dream."

In addition to "Excessive Force," scripts accepted into the lab included Evan Balkan's "Spitfire," a drama set in the 1950s centering on a Baltimore girl's efforts to earn a spot on an all-boys ice hockey team; Harrison Demchick's "Time-Traveling Idea Bandits," featuring time travelers who take story ideas from the future and sell them to authors in the past; Danielle Naassana's "The Moray Project," following a Baltimore architecture student's entrance into a design competition; and Matt Porterfield's "Sollers Point," the story of a 26-year-old man's re-entrance into society after a jail term and eight months of home detention.

Filmmakers participating in the lab included Oscar-nominated screenwriters Zachary Sklar ("JFK") and Jeremy Pikser ("Bulworth"), writer-director Darnell Martin ("I Like It Like That"), producer Diane Houslin and screenwriter Martin Salinas ("Gaby: A True Story").

The lab "has been great for me," said Porterfield, an instructor in film production and theory at Hopkins and accomplished director, whose films have included the Baltimore-set "Hamilton," "Putty Hill" and "I Used to be Darker." He's already set to shoot "Sollers Point" beginning in July, and said the critiques he heard from his newfound filmmaking mentors will help him tighten the script.

"There were things that weren't clear — that were clear in my mind … but were confusing to the reader," Porterfield said. "And some of those things relate to the most important themes and relationships in the film." After hearing from four professionals who read the script, "I was able to identify and strengthen those core themes and relationships. It makes me feel like, with a small rewrite, the film is going to be so much better."

All of the projects are eligible for grants from the Zaentz fund, Buso-Garcia said. Those grants should be announced in June.

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