As a child growing up on Detroit’s northwest side, Bonnie Garvin loved to eavesdrop, eager to extract juicy details from other people’s stories. Eventually, her covert hobby paid off.
Now a successful Hollywood screenwriter, Garvin says the simplest part of developing a script is coming up with the dialogue.
“The writing is the easy part,” she says during a phone interview from her California home. Developing a compelling plot is where most writers get lost, she says.
This weekend Garvin, along with fellow Detroit native and writer Jack Epps Jr., will lead a screenwriting workshop at the Community House in Birmingham, an event they’ve billed as an attempt to demystify the craft for budding writers.
Epps’ screenwriting credits include Dick Tracy, Top Gun and Legal Eagles. A graduate of Michigan State University, Epps has co-authored more than 25 screenplays while working for every major film studio, and his words have been spoken by some of Hollywood’s biggest names, including Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, Jon Voight, Al Pacino, Debra Winger and Michael J. Fox.
Garvin has been writing for television, cable and feature films for the past 13 years. Her career, she says, was actually somewhat of a fluke. After graduating from Wayne State University with a degree in communications, she did media relations for the Birmingham Theatre. When a play she had written in college ended up as a finalist for the prestigious Eugene O’Neill Award, it prompted her to move to New York and pursue playwriting professionally. Seven years later, Garvin moved to Los Angeles.
“It kind of happened accidentally,” she says.
Several of Garvin’s films are based on characters from Detroit, including her most recent film for Showtime, The Killing Yard, a gritty courtroom drama about the Attica prison uprising of 1971. The 2001 movie stars Morris Chestnut as inmate Shango Bahati Kakawama, convicted in the murder of a jewelry storeowner, and Alan Alda as Ernest Goodman, the civil rights lawyer who defended him in the Attica uprising.
“It was about the extraordinary relationship between these two characters and the lifelong friendship they formed,” Garvin says. “One was this white, Jewish civil rights attorney and one was this very radical, black prison inmate.”
The Killing Yard earned a prestigious Edgar Award nomination for Best Television Feature/Miniseries and also went on to win the Silver Gavel Award, given by the American Bar Association, for helping to “foster the American public’s understanding of the law and the legal system.”
Usually, Garvin says, “I don’t think of the people I know as potential story material,” but The Killing Yard was different. The late Goodman had been a mentor to her husband, Jim Lafferty. When a friend sent them a magazine pictorial highlighting Goodman’s achievements, the idea to adapt his story to the screen seemed obvious.
Another of Garvin’s films, When the Vows Break, details the life of a Bloomfield Hills woman whose divorce proceedings were handled by a judge who, in turn, was revealed to be living a double life with two families. That film aired on Lifetime.
Garvin says her friendship with Epps goes back to when she first moved to Los Angeles, and introduced herself to the accomplished writer under the pretense of knowing a mutual friend.
“He read a script of mine,” she says. “He’s a wonderful, wonderful teacher, and he’s never taught anything back in Detroit since he left.
“He has an amazing ability to sort of simplify things and boil them down to their essence so that it just really clicks and you get it.”
Garvin teaches screenwriting at Columbia College of Hollywood while Epps teaches at the University of Southern California. A similar scriptwriting methodology led them to create a workshop together.
“We were both feeling the same way, that people don’t necessarily get the information from their head to the page,” Garvin says.
Helping students map out a plot is key.
“If I tell you you’ve got to get from Los Angeles to New York in three days and I put a blindfold on you and put you in the car, it’s very different than if I take the blindfold off and give you a map,” she says. Knowing a script’s general direction will make it easier for writers to “connect the dots,” she says.
Workshop enrollees can expect to write large amounts of dialogue during the two-day class.
“Nobody turns in their first draft,” Garvin says. “All writing is rewriting.”
While in Detroit, Garvin plans to visit old friends and stop by old haunts.
“I love to go to Hunter House and have my greasy hamburger and French fries,” she says. But she might have to get directions.
“I’ve been gone so long, when I get back sometimes I forget how to get around. It’s been 20 years,” she says.
At least for students’ sake, Garvin has no problem steering a script.
The workshop runs May 22 and 23, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tickets cost $375. The Community House is located at 380 S. Bates in Birmingham. Call 248-644-5832 or contact www.communityhouse.com.Ronit Feldman is a Detroit-area writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org