Bryan Allen Fierro | Call it What you Want

Editor’s Note: Juneau—you are in for a treat! Screenwriters Bryan Allen Fierro and Don Rearden are coming to town for a weekend workshop, Screenwriting Bootcamp, February 28 & 29, 2020. You can sign up for one class or both (with a discount for full participation). These guys are seasoned pro screenwriters (they are also great teachers, fun, and funny human beings). Seriously, you don’t want to miss the opportunity to study with them! We still have room in this class, so sign up now!

I was on a flight to Las Vegas a few years back, listening to the BAFTA Screenwriter’s Lecture Series podcast when I had my first soul-searching screenwriting experience. I don’t remember the particular BAFTA lecture year, as the podcast just happen to pop up from nowhere as a recommendation in my podcast menu. The ether knows me this well.  

I enjoyed ruminations from the likes of Emma Thompson, whose scripts include Saving Mr. Banks, Love Actually, and the recent holiday release—Last Christmas, and for whom I happen to carry a very heavy across-the-pond crush. It’s okay, my wife knows. I push for Emma to play the lead in a script my talented wife and I co-wrote, The Royal Aloha Club, a self-made woman who is tasked with reuniting her estranged girlhood friends in paradise where love and self-discovery awaits…blah, blah. Bring a box of tissues. I’m not saying I keep a copy with me at all times, but modern technology does allow for such screenwriter-stalker tendencies to take shape.

Moving on.

I took the deep dive into Charlie Kaufman’s screenwriting mind. If you don’t know this already, your toes never touch the bottom on this end of the pool. His works obviously include, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind. His lecture left my head feeling a little fuzzy inside, like I did too much math. The ink inside the pen I typically use when I write is black. His is fine-point existential. And I love his work for it. 

Both spoke to common story craft issues, and to the pain that accompanies making art. At no point in the BAFTA series did I ever consider the screenplay as anything but art. At 30,000 miles up, I sped through Guillermo Arriga—Babel and 21 Grams, Tony Gilroy—The Bourne Identity and Rogue One (The last decent Star Wars movie post original trilogy), and Nancy Meyers—It’s Complicated

Then James Schamus saunters along from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk fame. His undeniable business approach to the form was resolute: The screenplay is nothing more than a commodity, a product to be bought and sold, only then turned into a work of art by the director. Did I mention Hulk? The Ang Lee version by the way, in case you’re keeping score. 

As per the ether—Commodity: An article of trade or commerce, especially a product as distinguished from a service, something of use, advantage, or value, any unprocessed or partially processed good, as grains, fruits, or coffee. Precious metals. Nowhere in there does it mention story.  To be honest, his statement haunted me—Am I writing art or set of blue prints? I’ve seen Frank Lloyd Wright’s blue prints hanging as a works of art, boundless imagination coupled with the technical. What I’ve never seen are the 128 separately framed pages of Robert Towne’s Chinatown hanging on a wall. For your scorecard at home, there should be. Somewhere. Perhaps when I hit my truly eccentric years, I’ll accomplish this feat.

We can all agree that making film is mostly a collaborative effort. You write your original or adapted story then the director writes his version of same story, and then the director hands it to the editor who slices together her version. There’re a million little brushstroke touches along the way that tilt the original version one direction or another. After nine months, and 140 million dollars later, art is born à la Schamus. 

And all her parts seem inextricable.

What is your take, art-not art? I suppose it doesn’t matter. Not really. I come from a formal fiction background, so I treat the script storytelling vehicle as an art form. To me there’s too much at stake—characters I must guide toward terminal decisions, managing all their sensibilities and fears through a lens of my own making. I bring personal investment. You certainly don’t have to, but it wouldn’t hurt, and I’d actually recommend it. Perhaps it’s structure Schamus is referring to. Bones. I can meet him there. But the choices I make inside that structural framework are deliberate, intent driven, and language dependent. I still use cheater words like heart to describe what I put inside those bones. For me, that’s enough to call it art. In the end, even for James Schamus, there’s a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for every Hulk

BRYAN ALLEN FIERRO holds an MFA from Pacific University in Oregon. He grew up in Los Angeles and now splits his time between Los Angles and Anchorage, Alaska, where he works as a firefighter and paramedic. Fierro is the recipient of the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award in Fiction, and recent recipient of the Rasmuson Individual Artist Award for literary and script works. Latino Stories named him one of the top ten new Latino writers in 2017. His stories have appeared in Copper Nickel and Quarterly West. His 2016 debut short story collection is Dodger Blue Will Fill Your Soul (The University of Arizona Press, Camino del Sol series.) With finalist appearances at several National and International film festivals, his screenplay, Inside Passage, won Best Screenplay at the 2019 Los Angeles Cinefest. Bryan has adapted best-selling author, Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into The Beautiful North and The Hummingbird’s Daughter for screen and television with his co-writing partner, Don Rearden, who happens to be pretty spectacular.

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