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Thursday, 14 June 2012

SCREENWRITING PROGRAM: Matthew Zurcher - 'Café Americain'

From Sunday 3rd June-Sunday 10th June 2012, I mentored six writers for the week. Their task? To write a screenplay each, which had to be no longer than 15 pages. Each day I am sharing the work of one of the writers, accompanied by an interview to hear about their experiences with the program.

MATTHEW ZURCHER is a 22 year old student from the Appalachian backwoods of Pennysylvania. Before last week, Matt had never written a screenplay before. Why did I choose him? This sentence in his application sealed it: "The time is right for me to make a go at it. My job is not demanding. I have the time. I have the drive. I have the desire. I have the ability. I need the kick in the ass."

I think it's been a fascinating week for you! At the beginning, you'd never written a script before, never used screenwriting software, and you were battling around with numerous different ideas for a story. What was the week like for you? 

Wild. Unlike some of the other writers, I didn't have to fit the project around a full-time job. I'm a student and just work in the film department. There was a lot of extra time to think. It was a curse, not a blessing. Initially, I kind of went backwards in the sense that I usually like to be impulsive and then rewind and ponder. That said, I had a great time. I never knew it was possible to be so intimately involved with a screenwriting computer program. It was love at first type. 

Your initial idea was quite complex and difficult to fit into a short screenplay with a 15 page limit. Tell me a bit more about the idea you were working on for most of the week. 

I wanted to write a story about lying and how we romanticize our pasts. Even on a daily level, we pick and choose how our lives are represented. And I wanted to tie that concept into technology and talk about how it can both hold us accountable for our history and allow us to create a new identity at the same time. I created this character who the audience knew was lying to them. I wanted to play around with how something so basic as love fits into all of it. We all lie and we all create ourselves to a certain extent. And we all fall in love. I'll think about it for a few decades and maybe it will turn into something. 

At the very end of the week; you had a flash of inspiration, and completely changed course. What happened? How did it feel? 

Ha! It was Friday night and I was trying to patch up this massive story. I was failing and it hurt. When I'm frustrated, I like to push through it instead of take a break because there's some real energy present when you're pissed at yourself. There were a lot of images passing through my brain about people trying to make themselves into someone new. That's when I thought of the idea to have someone wake up and be a fictional character. I chose to have a woman become Rick from CASABLANCA because he, more than any other character in popular cinema, was made to personify American virtues. 

CASABLANCA was a (brilliant) propaganda film made to relieve anxieties about entering WWII but it almost never reads like that anymore. People say America has changed, but I think our expectations have changed. The character embodies a bunch of stuff and means a lot to me. There are some political things being said at the end of the script, but I can't put them into words. The real flash of inspiration that made me switch course was when I thought of the sex scene. There's something very true about two people only being able to connect by pretending they aren't themselves. And I shot for melodrama through the entire thing. It adds another dimension of humor. I finished a rough draft in about 5 hours.

During the week I kept saying to you to 'simplify' your ideas. Consciously or not, I think that is advice you eventually followed - do you agree? 

Sure. The original story was too dense for 15 minutes. CAFE AMERICAIN is, story wise, a one trick pony and fits perfectly in that time frame. There is a whole web of thematic junk happening in both ideas, but the final product is pretty straightforward. I didn't have enough time to get funky -- a good thing. 

I think your initial script was full of ideas that you couldn't quite get a handle on. But what you finally turned in has a real energy and liveliness to it. I'm thinking maybe you can learn something from this, about your style as a writer. What do you think? 

I learned about what works and what doesn't in a 15 page piece. A good story is a good story, but certain things are more suitable for a short-form narrative. It's a great feeling to strip away all the bells and whistles, to just tell a story with a core. I plan on revisiting my original idea when I'm older. I'm too young and silly for it right now. 

Was my input during the week useful? What positives did you take from the program? 

The most helpful thing was having someone responsible and accountable for my work. It got me writing like a maniac. Everyone knows that the best way to learn writing is to just sink your teeth into it. I came into last week with no screenwriting experience and I came out with 1 1/2 pieces and a real urge for more. The program fed me the bug. I owe it a lot. Thanks a lot and see you around!

You can read Matt's screenplay from the program HERE

You should also check out his website, and follow him on Twitter

Care to share?


  1. Matthew, your script was an engrossing read! Was intrigued at the beginning and quite liked it overall.

  2. Agree with Lesya, Matthew. What a great read. Good work!