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Workshop Turns Would-Be Writers Into the Real Thing

Times Staff Writer

J. B. Mackey, a 48-year-old drifter who felt he had a lot of stories to tell, was living off the aluminum cans and junk iron he picked up along the road in west Texas when he heard about it.

Tom Homans, a 24-year-old college graduate who had hoped to write the definitive treatise on Western religion, was counting engine parts in a Baltimore warehouse when he heard about it.

Months after they heard about it, it had changed their lives. Both Homans and Mackey have become working writers, professionals with tax returns to prove it. They have sold screenplays.

How did this happen? What was it that added these dissimilar men to the Hollywood work force?

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The answer in a moment. First, we’ll introduce a third character--Willard Rodgers, one of 12 children of a sharecropper family in Arkansas. Thirty years ago, Rodgers was one of three young men singled out and told at an assembly of about 300 recruits that they were not smart enough to belong to the United States Navy.

“I made the lowest score of all,” said Rodgers, adding that he had tested at a third-grade level. “I ran all the way back to the barracks crying, crawled under my bed and swore this would never happen again.”

It didn’t happen again. Rodgers managed to stay in the Navy by promising to take correspondence courses, and by the time his four-year tour was up, he was testing at a 10th-grade level. After he was out of the Navy, he finished high school, went to junior college, got a degree in anthropology at Cal State Fullerton, studied social work at UC Berkeley as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, then earned his master’s degree in theater arts from USC.

All of which was good for Homans and Mackey, Oscar-winning writers Sterling Silliphant (“In the Heat of the Night”) and Edward Anhalt (“Becket”) and dozens of others in Hollywood, because Rodgers eventually launched the American Film Institute Alumni Assn. Writers Workshop, which has helped them all.

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“I am glad you’re doing this story. Maybe I’ll learn something about (Rodgers),” said Silliphant, who has moderated several of the workshop programs and who said he has had problems with one of his own scripts solved by the process. “He is not a pushy guy. He doesn’t promote himself. He just quietly goes about his business and he runs a wonderful program.”

Homans and Mackey are two of the would-be writers who would almost certainly not have had a break in Hollywood without Rodgers’ help.

Homans had written something he thought was a script about a Little League baseball star, but didn’t know what to do with it until he read a blurb about the workshop in Writer’s Digest. He sent his material in with the $50 application fee and six months later had an agent at William Morris, an option at Lorimar and an apartment at the bottom of the hill below the Hollywood sign.

It was a newspaper article about Homans’ success that caught Mackey’s eye in Texas. That day, Mackey and his wife jumped into their van and headed West with their worldly possessions, which included Mackey’s story about a sociopathic child and his demonic dog.

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Homans’ script, “Umpire,” languished at Lorimar and has not been produced, but it has put Homans in the game. Mackey’s script, “Mac and Tanker,” is scheduled to go into production early this year.

Neither Homans nor Mackey had a clue as to the form or requirements of a screenplay. Homans turned in what read like a 200-page essay, Rodgers said. Mackey had 50 pages of hand-written notes with dialogue. But both had what Rodgers considered cinematic story lines and he accepted them into the program.

“I look for that raw talent,” Rodgers said. “I can teach somebody the screenplay form in three hours. But it won’t help if they don’t have a story.”

Although a couple of major films--"Cross Roads” and “River’s Edge"--have emerged from workshop readings, the workshop itself is one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets. The 48-year-old program director does not promote it well; he can’t afford to. The annual budget is just $45,000, out of which come office expenses, a secretary’s salary and $12,000 worth of routine mailings announcing workshop schedules. Whatever’s left is Rodgers’ salary.

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“When you add in Xeroxing and some other things, it’s a tough way to make a living,” he said during an interview in the space that has been donated to him in a one-time funeral home adjacent to the old MGM lot in Culver City. “I have been able to take as much as $6,000 in salary, but my wife works and I sell something myself once in a while. It’s working out fine.”

Rodgers, himself a graduate of the American Film Institute’s directors’ program, started the AFI Alumni Assn. Writers Workshop eight years ago, convincing the alumni board that talented starting writers could benefit from a process that begins with professional supervision of their scripts and ends with a reading by professional actors and an audience critique.

The actual format of the workshop had to be created because nothing like it had apparently been done before. Rodgers had worked in theater where readings were routine. But it wasn’t being done for film.

“There had not been one word written on staging a screenplay before a live audience,” Rodgers said. “Live readings are valuable in giving writers feedback. Sometimes, you just don’t know what the problems are until an audience tells you.”

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Anhalt and Silliphant were in business long before Rodgers formed the workshop, but they have both found it useful. After serving several times as volunteer moderators of post-reading critiques, both writers put themselves through readings.

“I had written a screenplay for an Australian producer and it ended up on the shelf,” Silliphant said. “I felt the script was flawed but I truly didn’t know what was the matter with the piece. Willard took it and his actors performed it before 300 or 400 people.”

Anhalt moderated the Silliphant reading, and Silliphant said there was the usual 10 or 15 minutes of praise before the audience began listing the script’s faults.

“They made some wonderfully direct points that had never occurred to me,” Silliphant said. “I don’t know what I’ll do with that script, but I know how to do it now. It gave me peace of mind.”

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The Silliphant and Anhalt readings were “showcase” readings, Rodgers said. They drew larger audiences, and at $8 per person, helped defray some expenses. But virtually all other readings represent net losses to the workshop.

For a writer accepted into the program, the most he or she will spend to complete it--to receive a live reading--is $450. Rodgers estimates the actual cost for each “graduate” at $2,500.

The deficit is made up by contributions from the most likely beneficiaries--Hollywood’s talent agencies, independent production companies and major studios.

The entire workshop process can take less than six months, depending on the original condition of the script and how hard and fast the writer works. Rodgers reads the scripts first, then sends them out to professional writers he has enlisted as volunteers. When the script is far enough along, it is scheduled for one of the two readings currently held each month.

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After a final rewrite, done with audience feedback in mind, Rodgers has the scripts duplicated and sent out to his regular customers. He said he has 39 companies and agencies that will read every workshop script submitted to them.

When scripts are bought, or put into development, the writers are obligated to return 5% of their earnings from those projects to the program. This doesn’t happen often--even with help, script sales are like winning lottery numbers--but when it does, there is little complaining.

Jonathan Strum, who had worked in retail merchandising before quitting to try screen writing, said he is going beyond his written commitment.

“I’ve told Willard that in the next couple of years, whatever comes in, I’m giving 5% of it back,” Strom said. “This has been fantastic for me.”

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Strom didn’t go through the regular workshop program. He joined a group organized by Rodgers to coach writers on selling their ideas. Strom spent $50 for the practical experience of verbally pitching his stories to other writers, then met with production executives lined up by Rodgers and did it for real.

Within two months, Strom said he had two development deals--one with veteran independent producer Joe Wizan, the other with Jerry Weintraub’s Weintraub Entertainment Group.

The successes of Strom, Mackey and Homans are not the norm for the workshop. The rule-of-thumb in Hollywood is that one out of 100 developed scripts actually gets produced, and though several of Rodgers writers have made money from options and development deals, few workshop scripts have been produced as either TV shows or feature films.

But the process unquestionably improves both the writing and the odds.

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“Seeing your writing acted out in front of an audience gives you a sense of its impact,” said Oliver Stone, who moderated the reading for Neil Jiminez’s “River’s Edge.” “I think it would have helped (me) enormously if there’d been something like it when I was starting. I think I could still use it.”

Rodgers said the program improves writers’ skills, whether they make a sale of their workshop scripts or not. Even the 60 workshop repertory actors, each of whom pays $50 a year to participate in readings, benefit.

“I love doing it; it’s a chance to exercise some acting muscles in front of an audience,” said actor Donald Chase. “I’ve had some work generated from doing the readings too. Sometimes the directors of those projects will decide to use me in something they’re doing. It’s just another way of being active in the business.”

But the most grateful person involved in the program is Rodgers himself.

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“I love this job, I love what I’m doing,” he said. “If I didn’t have this job, I would be going nuts.”

Rodgers still writes scripts occasionally, and said he has considered writing something autobiographical. It’s a pretty good story: Illiterate 18-year-old sharecropper educates himself, earns college degrees in anthropology and social work, becomes a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, studies theater arts at USC, becomes a theater director and TV writer, then the den father to wayward Hollywood writers.

In the meantime, he has moved his entire family to Los Angeles and helped them get started. Six of his brothers and sisters, he said, have graduated from college, and the family gets together three or four times a year.

“I have never been depressed in my life,” Rodgers said. “I’ve hurt, but I’ve never been depressed. I think I’m going to have $1 million in my own way, and I’m going to be happy all the way there.”

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