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Screenwriting 101 with Bill Marsilii

By Isabel Pulgarin

Co-writer of the romantic time-travel thriller “Déjà Vu” starring Denzel Washington, Bill Marsilii, visited Barry last month for an intimate online forum on how to write your story and market your screenplay. On Oct. 26, he was the second guest speaker of a three-part Writers’ Series this fall organized by the English and professional writing program at Barry.

Photo Credit to Isabel Pulgarin

This industry veteran from Delaware has a lot of experience in TV and feature writing as a writer, producer, director, and actor. As a Tisch School of the Arts drama graduate, Marsilii holds the record for the highest-priced spec script of all time after selling “Déjà Vu” to Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Touchstone Pictures for $5 million in 2006. It took him seven years to write the screenplay, crediting the birth of his daughter for shaking him out of his crippling writer’s block. He wrote six episodes of Cartoon Network’s “Courage the Cowardly Dog,” including the infamous, “King Ramses’ Curse,” rated as the scariest episode of the series.

From his writing den in Los Angeles, he shared his behind-the-scenes industry anecdotes and wisdom to help new storytellers find their footing in the sea of competition. He screened his most recent short feature, “Gunpoint,” which so far has won seven film festival awards this circuit.

“Short film: so many film-making careers get started that way,” he said. “Whether it's short or long, the first thing people will say is, ‘Oh, what’s it about?’… In my opinion, what nearly every film and, particularly, every short film should be about is, ‘It’s about this guy…’ or ‘It’s about this woman…’

He broke down that you need to have a few things to make your story: strong characters, problems, relationships, goals, and even a running gag. The structure of the story must introduce the characters quickly, ideally starting with the drama or action as late as possible, with characters stepping up and taking action towards their goals despite the worst in the middle, and ending with the characters reaching their goal or failing at the last chance.

Photo Credit to Pexels

“You want to tell a story about nuclear war: war is too huge for short film—maybe it’s too huge for any film—but you can tell a story about a young, suburban mother who’s trying to keep her children alive in the aftermath of a devastating nuclear strike,” said Marsilii, giving an example. “And radiation is getting everyone sicker and sicker, and her neighborhood is falling apart, and civilization is falling apart, and the TV doesn’t work anymore, and the telephone doesn’t work anymore; the radio doesn’t work anymore.”

He described the circumstances of “Testament,” from 1983, which he only saw once but its devastation stayed with him.

He highlighted the importance of making every moment count; every second, every syllable. Every one of your shots, lines, sounds, violent sequences, and non-verbal directions must have meaning—even a double meaning. And when characters are in a discussion, always have them doing something by giving bits of business, as they are referred to by actors, to not bore audiences visually.

“When you choose a particular character and tell one person’s story, by extension you can tell a really huge one,” he said. “Particularly, when you think of your short film, think of it as a shot of heavy strong liquor. You can have a huge impact in a very short time.”

Reflecting on horror and thriller films with it being the fall season, Marsilii pointed writers to the examples of “Cargo,” “Whiplash,” “Lights Out,” “The Babadook,” “Hereditary,” “I Was Afraid,” and “Midsommar,” as successful films reimagined from shorts.

He has a few screenplays in the works, including “Cold,” a thriller film sold to Lionsgate to star and be produced by Reese Witherspoon, and “Time Zone,” a sci-fi action thriller film sold to Amazon Studios.

“It's comforting to know that even as we mature in our fields that we all can experience fear in taking risks to grow our careers. Hearing him overcome that was motivating,” said Briana Bapthelus, a senior English major specializing in professional writing.

To market your screenplay, Marsilii said to simply network with industry professionals. Get in by asking for advice over a quick coffee or lunch and go from there.

Photo Credit to Pexels

“Exposure to professionals allows our students to network and learn how they can apply the writing skills they acquired from our Professional Writing Program,” said organizer Dr. Andrea Greenbaum, professor of professional writing and screenwriting.

The first speaker was homicide detective Christopher Santos, a 2012 graduate of the Los Angeles Film School, who gave the ins and outs of crime writing.

The last segment of this series takes place on Thursday, November 16 at 12:30 p.m. at Powers 236 with guest speaker award-winning writer, producer, and showrunner Daniel Knauf; known for his work as TV executive producer and writer of “The Blacklist” over three years and creator of “Carnivàl.” If you are a storyteller of any kind, stop by to learn industry tips and the possibilities of your story.  

Aspiring screenwriters can contact Dr. Greenbaum about her program or simply pick her brain about a work in progress at agreenbaum@barry.edu. 

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