By PATRICIA CONOVER
For Montclair Local
“I hold The New York Times up and I say, ‘this is the novel’,” Montclairite Richard Wesley says he tells his screenwriting students. “Then, I hold up the Daily News and I say, ‘This is the movie.’”
Wesley gave a master class in screenwriting, as part of the Montclair Film Festival, on Saturday, May 5, Presentation Hall, Montclair State University.
Wesley, who was born in Newark in 1945, said that from an early age, he could be found at the library. He realized that he wanted to write when he watched television shows like “The Twilight Zone” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” as a young teen. He went on to study playwriting and dramatic literature at Howard University. Now, he’s a man who wears many hats — screenwriter, playwright, and beloved professor of dramatic writing. Wesley currently teaches at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.
Wesley’s screenplays include “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974), “Let’s Do It Again” (1975) “Native Son” (1984) and “Fast Forward” (1985).
Wesley is also known for his plays, including Drama Desk winner “Black Terror” (1971), “The Talented Tenth” (1989) and “Autumn” (2015), which premiered at Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick.
Actor Eric Payne and Khairah L. Walker, founder and executive director of Tiltfest, moderated his talk.
“An event or a subject interests me. Then, there is a question about the characters. Who are they? Every idea is not necessarily a good story. Is there a dramatic situation?” Wesley said. Deep contrast must exist for a scene to work:
“Putting two characters into a story, there has to be an inherent dramatic conflict. Someone wants something the other person has. What are the people like? Where are they from? You have to know the story you want to tell.”
When writing a play, Wesley said, “I never want the audience to feel comfortable. They should be caught in that thin line—the conflict between what is right and what is wrong.”
One of the lessons Wesley recalled learning at Howard University was that the plays of Euripides, the Elizabethan era plays, and Ibsen’s “The Doll House” were all, at one time, political.
“Richard III was not the person Shakespeare wrote about. Shakespeare created that character to conform to the current political climate. Aristophanes’ ‘The Frogs’ was a political drama. Ibsen’s ‘The Doll House’ criticized elements of Swedish society of the time. There was a riot after the first performance of ‘The Doll House,’” Wesley said. “I thought, that’s what I want to do.”
Wesley’s experiences in Hollywood helped him come to an understanding of the difference between art and commerce.
“When you talk about Hollywood, you’re talking about commerce, not art,” Wesley said. “It may begin as art. A writer is hired to write a screenplay. Then, the director is hired and he hires another writer. An A-List actor is brought on and he hires another writer. That’s how art becomes commerce.”
Screenwriting and playwriting are not the same thing, Wesley explained.
“Here is the film version,” he said, “The opening scene is a close up of a teenager, a young prince. There is a stiletto knife on the table. We see the prince pick up the knife. He is in deep emotional distress. He breaks down. He hesitates. The chamber door is open. The prince can see the king, kneeling at prayer. Camera cuts back to the prince. We see a trace of rage cross his face. He walks across the room and into the king’s room. The kneeling man has no idea the prince is there. The knife goes into the king’s back. The rage disappears. The prince backs away.”
“Five hundred years ago, a playwright wrote ‘To be or not to be’” Wesley said.
That soliloquy told the same story as the film, but not in the same way.
“And that’s the difference between screenwriting and playwriting.”