Rona Mark’s resume is impressive. She earned an MFA in Filmmaking from Columbia University. She’s successfully navigated the festival circuit as a writer-director of features and shorts. And, she teaches screenwriting at Sarah Lawrence College. While Mark has about twenty features under her belt, it had been about a decade since she wrote her first teleplay. She returned to that format with the script “Brooklyn Bus.” It recently won the Cinequest Film Festival’s 60-Minute Teleplay contest, which I had the privilege of helping to judge again this year.
The story is set inside the Hasidic community in Brooklyn. The protagonist, Sam, who works for a volunteer ambulance service, has recently converted and finds himself with a foot in two worlds. I interviewed the Queens-based Mark via email about the idea for “Brooklyn Bus,” the advice she gives her screenwriting students, and getting her house in order.
Synoptic Media: After such a long break from teleplays, what made you return to that format?
Rona Mark: I think the idea came to me as a TV idea, somehow. I have been watching a lot of TV series lately, and I like the fact that you can get deep into character in television. The germ for "Brooklyn Bus" came to me out of a character I met when I was doing my BA in Jerusalem. My roommate's hashish dealer was a Hasidic guy. So I asked him about it, how does a Hasidic guy become a drug dealer, and he told me that actually, he was a drug dealer that became a Hasidic guy. The Hasidim were trying to help him out of his drug habit and lifestyle, as religious people do. He was trying to lead a righteous life, but he wasn't really equipped to do anything else. The conflict seemed big enough to sustain an entire TV series.
To how many contests did you submit the script “Brooklyn Bus?”
I think I submitted to the Final Draft competition and Cinequest. Because I'm not as confident writing in television format, I thought I'd enter a competition to get some feedback. I've been writing for a while, but I had not entered a screenwriting competition in several years. I usually enter these things (contests) impulsively and then instantly try to forget about them. Once I enter a competition or a festival, and the decision is out of my hands, I try and move on; start the next project.
Some of your classes cover specific topics such as structure and rewriting. When it comes to teaching screenwriting, what are some of the hardest lessons for students to learn?
My classes are generally full of first time screenwriters, so "show, don't tell" is still the toughest thing for many of them to grasp. Finding the behavior that dramatizes whatever the characters are going through is a skill that one masters over a lifetime, I think. Whenever a character starts explaining backstory or plot or motive, I usually interject with, "No explaining". Most of the problems I encounter structurally seem to come from not really committing to a clear, simple throughline for the film. For that reason, I find that making students work on a logline before they start writing is helpful. If a writer can distill the story into a concise logline or elevator pitch, then she knows what the film is really about.
You’ve written and directed several features and shorts. What lessons have you learned from the filmmaking process that inform how your own writing?
I learned that if I have an inkling that something could be cut in the script, I will end up cutting it in the editing room. So I try and edit down my screenplays ruthlessly before going into production. Screening a film with an audience is invaluable, in that you can literally feel a joke fail, or feel air get sucked out the room by a scene that lingers too long. I've also learned that producers will ALWAYS give you notes, usually wanting things that are implicit made explicit, and those explanations usually end up on the cutting room floor. Similarly, working with actors teaches you to hone the drama in a scene and trim the fat. Actors tend to get lost when the writing doesn't make sense, or when the dramatic juice of a scene is used up. Generally speaking, making films has made my writing more concise. I hope I've become a better editor of my own writing.
Do you have a particular writing process or routine?
I'm a person who likes to set deadlines for myself. I don't write every day but I do schedule my writing. I know I need long chunks of uninterrupted time to hammer out a first draft of anything. I let my husband know in advance that I plan to take x amount of days to write and then I kind of turn into Jack Nicholson in The Shining: "Wendy, let me explain something to you. Whenever you come in here and interrupt me, you're breaking my concentration. You're distracting me. And it will then take me time to get back to where I was. You understand?" When I write I find it hard to do much of anything else, so I try and get my house in order first. I need a clean house before I can sit down and write. I can't have disorder or I can't think straight about my story. I also do my best work in the morning, so I try and write new stuff in the morning, then I like to print out my work and go over it with a red pen in the afternoon. I don't usually sit down to write until a story has been pretty well gestated in my head for a while. I usually know the main characters pretty well, the act breaks, the general idea for the resolution, and the midpoint at least, before I start.