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Behind the Scenes with Hollywood Screenwriter, Robert Avrech

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I love the idea of a movie as one big collaboration. The energy level must be intense when everyone's in the zone.  Have you had mentors along the way? Who have you found  particularly helpful? 

Unfortunately, I never had a mentor. I came into the film business not via social connections or a well established film school, but in a unique back-door manner. 

In a very real sense, I, a sheltered yeshiva kid, was not prepared for the brutal dynamic that animates Hollywood.Thus, I pretty much had to learn the hard lessons of life in Tinsel Town on my own. This is a valuable character-building path, but definitely the hard way of doing things. 

The truth is, if not for my wife Karen's wise and sensible council--I never make a career decision without getting her input--I probably would not have a achieved the moderate success I have enjoyed.

I learned more about making movies from the late director Sidney Lumet, who directed A Stranger Among Us, than from any single person. He was one of Hollywood's greatest directors. Sidney was incredibly generous when we worked together. We discussed every aspect of the script, casting, wardrobe, cinematography, and art direction. We spent an enormous time location scouting. Sidney insisted that a script must have, at its core, an essential truth that the audience recognizes. If the script is false, audiences will sense it and reject the film. Sidney also said that 90% of a director's job is in casting the right actors. If you put the wrong actor into a role, no matter how well written and directed, the film will fail. Watching Sidney work with actors was a revelation. It was a master class in directing. I was with Sidney throughout production and the thousands of lessons that I learned from this great man sustain my vision to this day. 

from 'A Stranger Among Us' - Avrech's daughter sits on Griffiths's lap
(image by courtesy of Robert Avrech)

We can quibble about definitions but I think Lumet fits the bill, even if the duration was a single film. How did you hook up with him?

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I have admired Sidney's film for as long as I can remember. When Stranger Among Us was green-lit by the studio, the producers asked me who was my first choice to direct the film. I said: "Sidney Lumet." They sent him the script. He called me a few days later to tell me that he read my script in one sitting; that it was masterful, and original, and he would be honored to direct the picture. A few days later, the studio flew me NY to work with Sidney on rewrites and pre-production. It was, for me, a dream come true, and a collaboration to which all serious screenwriters aspire.

Lucky you! On another topic, you grew up and remain Orthodox. How do you manage Sabbath and Jewish holiday observance in an industry where time is money and everything is on the clock?

As a screenwriter, religious observance is not a problem. 

The bulk of my work is done alone in my office facing the computer screen. Studio meetings are on work days, during business hours. If there's a Yom Tov [holiday], I usually say that I can't make it that day and reschedule. When I'm on location, the director and producers know me well enough by then to know about Shabbos [Sabbath]. They schedule my work accordingly. 

Most everyone is incredibly respectful, because I work hard to make up for any lost time I might have caused. And because I am consistent without being a jerk, or wearing my religion on my sleeve. I do not wear my yarmulke when I'm in meetings or on location. It is inappropriate. And just begs people to make judgements that are at odds with the spirit of the collaboration that is at the heart of Hollywood production.

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Only once in my career did I run into conflict with a producer. He scheduled a meeting on a particular Yom Tov. I told him I couldn't make it. He demanded to know why. After all, all the Jewish holidays--Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succos--were over, right? 

"No," I said, "it's Shmini Atzeret." 

"No such thing," said the producer. "In fact, I'm Jewish," he said, "I go to Reform services and I've never heard of this holiday. I told him to look it up. He called me back and said: 

"Man, you're like a real Jewy-Jew. Have a happy Shmini Whatever." 

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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