Charter school students' final project: Write a screenplay

Special to The Times

High school students tend to dread the 20-page term paper. But at Camino Nuevo High School, a charter school located on West Temple Street near L.A.'s Silver Lake neighborhood, some seniors have chosen to write 120 pages instead.

A unique collaboration between screenwriter and author Blake Snyder ("Blank Check") and a gung-ho economics and English teacher named Peter Cook is harvesting a crop of soon-to-graduate screenwriters-in-training. Last fall, 15 Camino Nuevo seniors agreed to write industry-standard screenplays for their final project, and Cook, an aspiring author and screenwriter, pounced on the chance to run the pilot seminar.

"If there is an absence of humanity in movies, which I would submit that there is today, then you might have an absence of humanity in a lot of other places," Cook says. "So what I'm trying to sell to the kids is to think about humanity in their movies and tell their human stories."

All year, the teenagers have been having daily meetings with Cook to screen movies, brainstorm ideas, workshop scenes and practice pitching to visiting industry figures such as producer Stephanie Austin Taylor ("True Lies") and Snyder, who wrote the popular "Save the Cat!" how-to screenwriting guide that Cook uses as a kind of textbook.

"We got a lot of producers visiting us, and we pitched them our stories, and they're like, 'Oh, they're great, call us when you're done!' " says 19-year-old Ayah Enverga. "It's exciting."

A grant proposal Cook sent to Final Draft early on resulted in hundreds of donated units of its popular screenwriting software, which were uploaded onto laptops issued by the school. Ever since, the kids have been tapping away at their stories of orphan girls adopted by CIA assassins, decadent businessmen and struggling adolescent immigrants.

Students take turns giving PowerPoint presentations derived from Snyder's 15-point breakdown of screenplay story segments, with the classroom walls, holding framed posters of Rocky and "Raging Bull," as their backdrop. References to "Jaws," "The French Connection," "The Poseidon Adventure" and "Die Hard" fly about the room. It's the rare class where properly addressing the shifting dynamics of the relationship between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter earns you the teacher's praise.

"The fact that they're talking about character development, they're talking about story -- and they're talking about writing! -- it's a glorious thing," says the 46-year-old Cook, whom the students often stop on campus to excitedly pitch an idea for a new scene. "I can't get enough of it, man."

Apparently, neither can the students, mostly Latino, African American and Asian kids from the economically disadvantaged areas of South and Central L.A. Already weighed down with their regular course load, they were excited enough about the writing in Cook's seminar that an optional week he held over spring break boasted 100% attendance. With graduation just a short time away, three screenplays are already finished.

This year's graduating class will be the school's first. Camino Nuevo, a mixture of 70% state and 30% private funding, was founded in 2000 by a nonprofit community development corporation devoted to improving conditions in the MacArthur Park area and providing learning environments safe enough for kids to focus on their studies. Two years ago, the high school moved to its new Temple Street campus near downtown, within shouting distance of the 101 Freeway -- a modern, slatted wedge of gray and yellow that houses 400-plus students and manages to look both warm and impregnable.

Cook's background gives him some simpatico perspective on the kids' struggles. An underachiever who graduated from high school with a 1.7 GPA, Cook joined the Marines for a five-year stint in the early '80s that landed him in Ecuador, Spain and Haiti. He's since gone on to teach at a public school in Japan, a junior college in the Czech Republic, a private ski academy in Maine and high schools in the Bronx and L.A., so he sees Camino Nuevo's cohesive, project-based academic environment as a positive contrast.

"I've been in the business world and I've been in the education world, and this is as close to a unified organization -- except for the Marine Corps -- that I've ever seen," says Cook, who's been at the school for three years. "Everybody's on the same page: What will engage the kids? I'm aware of what works in a culture and what doesn't, and this works."

Cook is also aware of potential criticisms about the educational value of screenwriting to YouTube- and Wii-obsessed young people already losing their grip on the classics (or reading at all). "We do 'The Great Gatsby,' we do 'Things Fall Apart,' we do study novels, and there's great legitimacy in that too," Cook says. "I'm a big reader and many of the kids are. But storytelling is storytelling is storytelling, it seems to me."

Cook's passion for both teaching and screenwriting colors his every word. During a recent class, dressed in a crisply knotted tie and artful gray stubble, he engaged the kids on their own movie-loving level, displaying an enthusiasm that implicitly encourages theirs.

"Mr. Cook, he's really good at motivating everybody to keep writing," says 19-year-old Maria Garcia, who admits having struggled at first with her story of an undocumented high school girl who dreams of going to college and playing on the soccer team. "It doesn't matter if it's right or wrong, just keep writing, just get it done. I talk to him and he always motivates me and tells me that my work is awesome."

"At some points, it does get difficult, because you do get stuck," says 18-year-old Christian Gonzalez, who's writing a riches-to-rags drama about a self-centered wine company heir called "Derailment, the Story of a Self-Indulgent Man." "But as long as you're doing something you're really passionate about, you just go with it. And it's going really well."

Gonzalez marvels that he's stayed focused on a single project for an entire school year, a sentiment shared by classmate Jessee Joseph, an 18-year-old senior who first became interested when he took a film-writing class as a junior. Joseph admits that he got "kind of lazy" with his script work, and after consulting with Cook he committed to writing three pages a day for a month.

"That was a real milestone for me because now I have 80 pages," Joseph says of his crime drama about a woman caught up in the search for her murdered father's missing diaries. "If you're interested in it and you'll make a career out of it or it's just a serious hobby, it becomes easier. Everyone in there's pretty engaged."

"One of the things that was refreshing to be honest with the students about -- and we go big on the honesty -- is they're going to come to hate their movies, like any other writer does!" says Cook, who sees the screenwriting program as such a success that he's hoping to implement similar seminars at other schools citywide. "But they gotta go through it and then they come to love it again. So you acquire discipline, and you have these great rewards at the end."

As far as narratives go, that sounds an awful lot like life.

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