Hollywood ON THE Volga : What happens when nine important American screenwriters travel to the Soviet Union to talk shop with their Russian counterparts?

This spring, nine major American screenwriters converged in Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, lugging cans of tuna, granola bars, coffee and other creature comforts of capitalism to buffer them against the bare-bones conditions that they had been warned about in the Soviet Union, where they were headed. Soon, they would add to their portable larders cartons of Marlboro cigarettes and packets of condoms, which tour leaders assured them would be useful for hailing down cabs and rewarding good service.

The Americans were the visiting team on the first leg of an American-Soviet Screenwriters Festival set up by a pair of enterprising Americans to help boost the status of writers at home and to create a dialogue between writers from both countries in the era and spirit of glasnost .

The group, selected from a list of 25 submitted by the Soviets, represented a broad cross-section in terms of age and genre. Each came bearing a film he or she had written. The writers: Julius Epstein, 80, "Casablanca"; Ernest Lehman, 68, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"; Frank Pierson, 65, "Dog Day Afternoon"; William Goldman, 58, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"; Roger Simon, 46, "The Big Fix," adapted from his Moses Wine detective novel; Anna Hamilton Phelan, 46, "Mask"; Paul Schrader, 43, "Taxi Driver"; Lawrence Kasdan, 41, "Body Heat"; and John Patrick Shanley, 39, "Moonstruck."

Next January, a contingent of Soviet writers will complete the program with a trip to the United States. That the program got off the ground at all is a testament to the perseverance of TV writer Linda Elstad who, after the Writers Guild of America had shot down the idea, enlisted the help of writer/producer Pamela Rosenberg. Together they secured financing from the U.S.-Soviet Film Initiative and the newly independent Soviet Screenwriters Guild and persuaded the WGA Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting the image of the screenwriter, to give it a "go."

The journey, a 17-day tour of Moscow, Leningrad and Tblisi (the capital of the Soviet republic of Georgia), shed light not only on the Soviet film scene, but on certain realities of Hollywood: the ongoing battle between art and commerce; the adversarial relationship between the writer and the rest of the Hollywood hierarchy; the impact of American films on the rest of the world. For a reporter, the trip also offered rare opportunity to observe a handful of top-notch American writers--accustomed to solitude and affluence--thrown together in an underdeveloped country for a relatively long stretch.

Eye-opener No. 1: Glasnost , a seeming boon to the Soviet film industry, has created as many problems as it has solved. The new freedoms have proven problematic for Soviet filmmakers thrust into the commercial arena for the first time. "You've been spoiled since you never had to pass audience approval," Schrader told one Soviet colleague during a discussion at the Central Club of the People of the Arts. "Now you'll find out--and it's a chilling realization--that the audience can impose as much censorship as the government. I hope you'll try to give them what they need . . . not just what they want."

Not likely. Art, in the minds of Soviet filmmakers these days, is evidently secondary to commerce. The thrust of the questions posed by the Soviets throughout the trip: the possibility of generating U.S.-Soviet co-productions to get a piece of the international pie (difficult, Roger Simon explained, because of the American aversion to subtitles and "all things foreign"); salaries paid for various kinds of work (as well as taxes paid on those sums); specifics of the Guild contract (a copy of which was left for them to peruse), and (1917 notwithstanding) how exactly one goes "on strike."

"The writers were less interested in 'process' than in trading their lives for ours," noted Shanley. "Getting that house in Malibu, all that success in America brings. They want what we can't give them, which is not only frustrating but exhausting. The students were a different story, though. I saw young Raskolnikovs--dark, dissatisfied, full of foreboding--at every turn. Not one mention of money. When I lectured at NYU, all they cared about was the 'back-end deal.' "

A meeting with the newly elected minister of culture, a charismatic former actor, hit home the hard truth: Glasnost has left the Soviet feature-film scene at a virtual standstill. "We still have a slave mentality," he admitted. "It's like a hungry man coming to a table full of food and drink. We hardly know where to begin." Political upheaval further complicates the situation. "Meetings of the Supreme Soviet are much more gripping than a detective story," says Maria (Masha) Zvereva, a leading Moscow screenwriter and one of the primary organizers of the exchange. "Documentaries and television are much more interesting to the people. Glasnost has been a cold shower for a lot of us."

Perhaps, but Soviet warmth radiated nonetheless. Moscow screenwriters, bucking food shortages themselves, pooled their money to buy produce for the "salad-loving Californians." (Three four-course meals a day kept the American stores of tuna cans and granola bars in the suitcases.) In Tblisi, where visitors are considered "gifts from God," American filmmakers were particularly welcomed. The Georgian national folk troupe was called back from vacation to perform for the group; local independence fighters postponed their disruption of the airwaves so a scheduled televised press conference with the writers could proceed.

"American films provided the dreams on which these people lived for generations," said Elstad. "And these are the guys who wrote them. They don't want to hear about our problems. To the Georgians, we represent democracy, freedom."

The films screened for the Soviets played to sell-out crowds, almost all of whom were seeing the movies for the first time. Watching the masses flock into "Casablanca" at Moscow's Oktober Theater, Ernest Lehman commented to the film's co-writer Julius Epstein, "Julie, Julie . . . your picture has legs."

In the absence of subtitles or dubbing, a translator in the back row of the theater played each of the roles. "The theater had no air-conditioning and it must have been 95 degrees," recalls Anna Hamilton Phelan, who watched "Mask" being shown. "A woman, using a flashlight to scan the script, would imitate Cher, then Sam Elliott. The place was as quiet as a tomb. Bodies leaned toward the screen. It hit home the fact that, for an emotional experience in the theater, you don't need technology and special effects. All that's necessary is to pull that string of 'humanity.' "

For the Americans, the emotional ice-breaker of the trip was triggered on the third day with a 65th-birthday party thrown for Frank Pierson at the Mali Theater Club. After several Soviet toasts were rendered, the Americans took the floor. Before the evening was over, they were quoting their favorite last lines from movies and singing film songs on the bus heading back to the hotel.

"There used to be a community of writers in Hollywood, writers' tables at every studio," said a nostalgic Pierson, later. "Now we all work at home and only get to meet each other in the caldron of immediate production. This evening we started talking about film writing as a career with value and meaning. It was a sense many of us had lost."

Spirits flagged during the Leningrad leg. The cool, damp weather muted the beauty of the city and the moods of the Americans, many of whom had to load up on antibiotics to fight off sore throats. As food and tourism dominated the agenda, the writers talked of being "under-tapped and over-entertained," as Melville Shavelson, head of the WGA Foundation, put it. "I'm being used, but I'm not sure for what," said Lehman. "If this were a film, this would be called the 'soft underbelly' (Achilles heel)," Kasdan agreed.

Tblisi revived them. Deep in the throes of independence fever, politics displaced movies as the topic of conversation. William Goldman was overwhelmed by the sound of a bullhorn at a demonstration outside the hall where "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" was being shown. "Before I came, I thought that going from Moscow to Tblisi would be like going from New York to L.A. Now I realize it's like going from France to Spain . . . different language, different alphabet. I think of myself as non-political, but this has been a radicalizing experience for me. It's so moving. All they want is to be left alone."

Interaction with students at the Institute of Theater and Film proved equally enlightening. Goldman, assigned to an animation class ("a street cleaner knows more about the topic than I") marveled that no one had yet seen "Fantasia" and suggested that the next delegation come videocassettes in-hand. Kasdan gave an acting class an inspirational shot-in-the-arm. "If you're a doctor, you'll probably have a practice. If you're an actor, though, you may not have anything. People who give their lives to art are very brave. Everybody will be trying to push you off the road, encouraging you to do something 'reasonable.' Ignore their advice. You may grow old and never hit it. But only if you're on the road can you get lucky."

Though participants said they found the trip personally rewarding, tallying up the impact proved difficult.

"We came expecting our brains to be picked, but ended up more as goodwill ambassadors," said Lehman.

Shanley was less pessimistic: "We were a repository of knowledge," he said. "The Soviets got from us a taste of what they didn't know . . . which turned out to be 'a lot.' I suspect the most important of the exchange is yet to come. When the Soviets come over to screen their films in January, it will be like excavating buried culture--opening a sealed time capsule after so many years. The American public is totally ignorant of what they've done."

The 17 days dragged on at times, but a sense of internal harmony prevailed. Pierson's theory: "Our bus consisted of the single smallest oppressed ethnic group. The thing that held us together was the sense that nobody understands us--including our mothers. It was bizarre: no fights of any importance. My real family can't get through Thanksgiving without a fistfight in the yard. Those of us who are successful live like princes and princesses and tend to complain too much about the pea under the mattress. But that was all put aside in this case."

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