Telenovela pupils reach for the extreme
Late at night in a college classroom, Liliana Hung opened her laptop and adjusted her Chanel eyeglasses. She took a swig of Rockstar energy drink before tackling her assignment, which was to write a synopsis of one of three scenarios for a television show:
A man learns that his long-lost mother is working in a strip joint.
A woman seduces a young man, then realizes that he is her son.
A transvestite called the “Queen of the Night” discovers his father dancing onstage at a club.
At Telenovela U., naughty plot lines earn the best grades.
“It can get a little sordid,” Hung said with a giggle, “but because it’s so extreme it’s kind of funny.”
Steamy telenovelas with outrageous plot lines are the bread and butter of Spanish-language television networks, and Telemundo is teaching bilingual and bicultural novices how to generate them.
The U.S. viewership for Telemundo runs a distant second to powerhouse Univision, which buys its novelas from Televisa, the Mexican media giant that has churned out popular, inexpensive soap operas for more than 40 years.
Telemundo President Don Browne decided four years ago that the only way his network could compete was to make its own novelas. (The network previously had bought from second-tier Latin American suppliers.)
Last year, Telemundo, which is owned by NBC Universal, spent about $100 million making seven novelas including “El Cuerpo del Deseo” (The Body of Desire) and “Zorro.”
“Producing original content is the way to control your own destiny and to be competitive,” said Browne, the brains behind Telenovela U. “The key to this is the quality of the writing, and we just don’t have enough great writers.”
Thus was born Taller Telemundo: Escritores - roughly translated as Telemundo Writer’s Workshop - a six-month program with daily classes in writing soap operas that outdo “Dynasty” or “Dallas” in their plot twists and scenarios of romance and treachery.
Inspired by Taller Telemundo, NBC launched an English-language screenwriting course this year called Writers on the Verge. Of course, Los Angeles is brimming with screenwriting classes for Hollywood hopefuls - but it is rare for a network to teach an internal class and even more unusual to have them in Spanish.
Hung, a 35-year-old mortgage banker by day, is a member of the Class of 2007. She and 20 others were selected from 1,500 applicants from around the world who each submitted a 750-word essay, a 1,500-word short story and a 10-page telenovela script based on a plot provided by the network.
She is among only eight students to make it to the graduation planned for Tuesday. Their diplomas won’t guarantee them employment at the network, but about 70% of Taller Telemundo graduates in the last two years have landed jobs there. Hung said she would be happy if she did too.
First, she must master the distinctive melodramatic miniseries genre that has produced such titles as “Dos Mujeres, Un Camino” (Two Women, One Path), “Amor Real” (Real Love), “La Esposa Virgen” (The Virgin Wife), “Duelo de Pasiones” (Dueling Passions), “Corazon Partido” (Broken Heart) and “Cadenas de Amargura” (Chains of Bitterness).
In class at Loyola Marymount University - Telemundo joined forces with LMU’s continuing education program to establish Telenovela U. - Hung has learned to keep viewers breathlessly waiting for the next episode through tension and theatrical dialogue.
“When I wrote in the past, it was more like a catharsis, like a flow, and I hoped somebody would understand it,” she said in the clipped Spanish of her native Colombia. “Now I think about what I want to tell and how to tell it in a way that people will understand. It is not intuitive anymore. I see the story in its totality, like a map.”
One guest professor was actress Adriana Barraza, an Oscar nominee this year for “Babel,” who asked the students to create their own take on “Te odio! No quiero volver a ver tu sucia cara.” (“I hate you! I never want to see your dirty face.”)
Barraza asked each student to say it their own way, out loud in class with the appropriate novela theatrics. Hung gave it some Colombian flair: “Lo odio perro maldito! No quiero volver a verlo jamas.” (“I hate you, you dirty dog. I don’t want to see you ever again.”)
Successful soap operas, Barraza instructed, should veer into such tantalizing topics as crimes of passion, infidelity and homosexuality. But they should steer clear of abortion and euthanasia, as the topics may be too taboo for Roman Catholic viewers.
Instructors also have stressed the importance of writing in “neutral” Spanish so a script has universal appeal among all Spanish speakers and won’t seem too Mexican or Cuban or Colombian. A telenovela, Barraza said, should carry nostalgia and “fulfill a wish that touches on people’s identity” no matter where they live.
Hung has had a tough time putting together love scenes: “It’s really hard for me to get over the corniness. It’s like writing Hallmark cards, and I’m not the type who says, ‘I love you my darling, and I would give my life for you.’ No one gives their life for anyone - unless you’re their mother.”
Mimi Belt, Telemundo’s vice president of artistic development and a teacher of the class, said Hung has had to learn to let go.
“You take your emotions to the extreme in novelas,” Belt said. “Lili needs to be able to write that one great love scene and put her emotions out there and be vulnerable to them. When we fall in love we give people teddy bears and chocolates - and that is tacky.”
The first months of the year were the toughest: Hung, who lives and works in Lake Forest, was up at 5 a.m. every day to go to her regular job. She would leave by 4 p.m. for the two-hour drive to Los Angeles for classes that ran from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. After finally arriving home she would dive into her homework.
“There was about one month where I only slept about three hours a day,” she said. “I became the best client for Redbull and Rockstar - sometimes I would drink three a day.”
Though Hung does watch some Spanish-language TV, her favorite shows are “Law and Order” and “Nip/Tuck.”
Growing up in Bogota, Hung was a voracious reader, finishing Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” before she was 7. Her other passion was television, a love she nurtured when she and her father, a banker, watched “M*A*S*H” and “Las Calles de San Francisco” (“The Streets of San Francisco”) in the evenings.
Hung graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business from Bogota’s Los Andes University in 1995. Living with her parents in her 20s, she would sneak away on Saturday mornings to attend a screenwriting course at Bogota’s Museum of Modern Art. (She told her parents she was going to a business administration seminar.)
Hung said the idea of her becoming a writer “terrified my parents,” because they feared she would not find steady work.
Hung moved to Boston seven years ago to study English and work on a master’s in business administration at the University of Massachusetts. She met her husband, Ken Starke, there, and they moved to California in 2002. Last year, while watching “Al Rojo Vivo” (the “Extra” of Spanish-language TV), Hung saw an advertisement for Taller Telemundo.
“I thought, ‘This is exactly what I need,’ ” she said. “I didn’t think they would pick me.”
Hung’s final project is a romantic comedy called “ArcAngela,” about a disobedient angel expelled from heaven and sent to Earth to serve her penance. Cupid is one of her friends, and ArcAngela falls in love with Christian, a musician who is an illegal immigrant and works at a 7-Eleven. Of course, she ultimately decides to forgo heaven for life on Earth with Christian.
Her classmates include journalists and other types of writers, a postal worker and even a lawyer looking break into the entertainment industry.
With her future uncertain, Hung can only say que sera, sera.
“It was a lot of driving, a lot of traffic, a lot of caffeine and a lot of tough teachers who didn’t like my love scenes. But I could never live with a ‘what if.’
“And if worst comes to worst, at least I have the personal satisfaction that I did it,” she said. “I learned how to tell my stories in my own voice but in a way that everybody will understand.”