Humanitas Prize-Winning Screenwriter

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ASU School of Theatre and Film Professor of Practice Greg Bernstein won a 2012 Humanitas Prize for screenwriting for his work on Robert Redford‘s The Conspirator. Bernstein talks about his work and the power of words and film to explore the human experience.

Ted Simons: Our next guest is screen writer Greg Bernstein, who was recently awarded a 2012 Humanitas Prize for his screen writing on the Robert Redford directed film "Conspirator." The award was created in 1974 to honor film and television writers whose work explores the human condition in a nuanced and meaningful way. Here to talk about it is screen writer Greg Bernstein who teaches screen writing at ASU's school of theatre and film, part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. It's good to have you here.
Greg Bernstein: Thank you for having me.
Ted Simons: Did I get that Humanitas, is that pretty much what that award is all about?
Greg Bernstein: Exactly right. That's right.
Ted Simons: So "The Conspirator," what's that film all about and how did that coincide with getting this award?
Greg Bernstein: "The Conspirator" is a story that everybody knows Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Most people don't know the history of the conspirators who were charged with that murder. We all know about John Wilkes Booth, but there were four other people who were charged with conspiring to kill Lincoln, all four were executed. And one of them was a woman. Which made the story immediately on some level interesting. But as it turned out, when you dig into the historical record, it turns out that the person who defended this person, this woman, Mary Surratt, was a northern army -- a man who was wounded in war farther north, Abraham Lincoln was his commander in chief, and just weeks after the assassination, this very green attorney was appointed to represent Mary Surratt It would be like someone defending Bin Laden two days after 9-11. It's something you didn't want to do. And this young man had to do this and all the prejudice that he -- you would expect him to bring, he brought. But as it turns out, he was able to overcome that and form a relationship, he became -- he respected this woman, and ended up vigorously defending her and believing in her innocence, which caused him to be among other things, ostracized from his friends who just wanted to see these people hang.
Ted Simons: That's a fascinating story. Is it a story you wanted to do or a story someone else wanted you to do?
Greg Bernstein: It's a story that I've always been a civil war buff. I've always been interested in the civil war. I did not know -- I knew very few of particulars of the story, but me and my partner Jim Solomon came upon the story on our own, right after we graduated from film school. And we started investigating the story, and we started working on it.
Ted Simons: So you've got the story, you're working on it, the creative process interests me, especially something like this, you're basically in front of a screen, a white piece of paper and you are creating a film there. What do you do when there are historical characters that do certain things? Can you let them be free? Or do they have to walk down the hall and do the things they did back then?
Greg Bernstein: Well, I would say in almost all movies, writers take creative license with history. In order hopefully they don't distort the essence of the character or the essence of the history. But sometimes you need to take a little creative license to make the film a better -- a better film, because you're trying to tell a story within a very defined time and space. On this particular project, much to the credit of the producers who funded the movie, they absolutely refused to tinker with history. They wanted history retold absolutely accurately. And that's what happened. And so yeah, it turned out in the film that the characters make for a good movie because you have this young man and this older woman, and that leads to good storytelling. But the producers were absolutely unwilling to change history in this case.
Ted Simons: The screen writing process in general, not necessarily this film, what is it like, what -- when you're writing, when you're going through the whole process, do you see the scene? Do you think you see the scene? And, if you do, or even if you don't, when you finally do see the scene, is it surprising? Is it a good thing? I think that's fascinating to be doing all this work and having literally your dreams eventually come to life.
Greg Bernstein: I will tell you that one of the great moments that any writer can experience on the first film that I worked on that got made, I wrote it with my wife Sarah, and Sarah, for example, would write a joke. And four years later when the film was made you're standing in the back of the theater and people are laughing at that joke. And the scene is realized on screen as you saw it. And that is what keeps you going because it's a tremendous feeling. Yes, when you're writing you do try to envision the scene. Yes, you speak the dialogue out loud. In your mind you become the actors. And you do your best at really realizing the scene as best as you can. Does it always come out that way on film? No, of course not. Things change. But yeah, when you're writing I think you try very hard to be the audience, and roll the movie in your mind. And when it actually comes out that way --
Ted Simons: I'll bet. When did you get started? You come from a Heliae family, your father was a very composer, a conductor, talk about him and did you feel, was there pressure to follow in his footsteps in the movie footsteps? In anyone's footsteps?
Greg Bernstein: My father, as you say, was a wonderful film composer, he did many scores I'm sure people in your audience know "to kill a mocking bird" or "magnificent seven" even through "animal house," even through a lot of other different kinds of movies. So he was wildly successful. He was a very tough act to follow for his children. I was one of two. And yeah, that was a tough act to follow. When you were very young you were being told your father was a genius, and that's a high bar for any child to try and aspire to. And yeah, there was a period of time where that was difficult. But over a course of a lifetime, you learn to realize that you don't have to aspire to what he did, and you can do what you do, and do -- try and do it the best you can, and of course there were a lot of advantages growing up in that.
Ted Simons: I would imagine. You're doing something different, he was obviously more focused on music and you're more focused on screen --
Greg Bernstein: That's because I'm a terrible musician.
Ted Simons: So there was a shot at music?
Greg Bernstein: I once asked my father if I had a chance, a scintilla of hope of being a singer, and he said you have a nano-scintilla, so I had no hope.
Ted Simons: That's what fathers to give you that kind of advice to get you going. Before we let you go, you're teaching screen writing at ASU, if there's one thing for the students, for anyone watching right now who's an aspiring screen writer, advice? Something to keep in mind as you are putting words down on a page?
Greg Bernstein: Oh, man. There's so many things one could say about screen writing and advice for screen writing. I think that every human being, there's only one of you in the world, there's only one much me in the world. We all come to ideas and storytelling with something which is unique to us in our DNA and in our experience. And I guess if I had any one piece of advice would be to search within one self for that which they want to say. Try not to repeat what other people want to say, don't be derivative of other people, but find what's unique and special about you and your perception and try and infuse that in your story telling. Congratulations on the award. That's great advice as well. It's good to meet you. Thank you so much for joining us.
Greg Bernstein: Thank you for having me.

Greg Bernstein:Professor of Practice, ASU School of Theatre and Film;

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