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Low-Res Screenwriting MFA Program Launches With Industry Insider

Sarah Kernochan does not teach formula. She’s never read a book about screenwriting, she doesn’t really want to read any books about screenwriting, and she doesn’t write in acts (though she pitches scripts in acts).

“When you’re watching a movie, are you thinking about what act it’s in?” she asked a class of Emerson College graduate screenwriting students on Tuesday, August 23. “All you ask for is flow, and flow is the magic thing.”

Kernochan—writer of 9 ½ Weeks; Sommersby; and 2014’s Learning to Drive, starring Sir Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson, winner of a number of film festival awards—was addressing a dozen graduate students in Emerson’s new low-residency MFA in Writing for Film and Television as the new Semel Chair in Screenwriting.

The students were on the Boston campus for a week’s worth of intensive seminars and workshops before heading back to their homes to continue their coursework online and via Skype. In January, they will head to Emerson Los Angeles for another week and complete the semester remotely, for a total of 10 courses and 40 credits.

The new low-res MFA program is intended for students who can’t be on campus and attend class full-time, but who still want a “high-quality, intensive” program, said Jean Stawarz, program director and associate professor in the Department of Visual and Media Arts.

“We’re attracting people who want to write, people who want to teach writing. And it’s a very diverse population in terms of its age and background, which is sort of the nature of low-res programs,” Stawarz said.

The 12-student inaugural class is split 50/50 between women and men “which is really wonderful” because screenwriting programs tend to skew male, Stawarz said. The class includes recent college graduates and people with decades of work experience hoping to pursue a dream.

Kernochan led a three-hour workshop on how to build a scene, and then on Tuesday evening answered questions from the audience at a screening of Learning to Drive, which also was directed and executive produced by women.

“That’s a big deal in an industry where we still don’t see enough women,” Stawarz said.

New York City resident Lindsey Dier said she applied to two other MFA programs but chose Emerson because she could still get a quality education without having to physically be in class throughout the entire semester.

Dier, who said she’s written one full feature film that she’s happy with and “bits and pieces” of others, said that just a day and a half into the on-campus portion of her program, she’s already learned a lot.

“I think just the depth of the experience has surprised me,” Dier said. “I feel like I’ve gotten a semester’s worth of information from the classes….It’s concise, but you don’t feel like you’re sacrificing any of the content.”

On Tuesday, Kernochan talked about how to write a script that producers and directors will want to make and roles that actors will want to play.

“Every story is a mystery,” she told the class. “It needs to be plotted so as to fill in the puzzle bit by bit. Always stay unpredictable.”

Every screenwriter should have two scripts at the ready, she said: a “work sample” that shows off creativity, flexibility, and writing chops, and a “marketable script” that will make a producer see dollar signs.

Kernochan also got into the nitty-gritty of writing a scene, including character development, dialogue, action lines, and first and foremost, being your own audience.

“You know what a good movie is; you know what movies you like,” she said. “If you’re reading your own work and you’re [reading as] the filmgoer, you can see where the mistakes are.”

Matt McAskill of Beverly, Massachusetts, said he has been interested in movies since college, which he graduated from about 10 years ago. But the aspect of filmmaking that most fascinated—screenwriting—wasn’t offered at his college.

The low-res MFA program was a great opportunity to nurture that fascination without having to quit his day job, he said, and Emerson’s legendary network of industry alumni was another big selling point.

After Kernochan’s class, McAskill said he found himself wishing it were 10 hours longer.

“It’s great that [faculty] is condensing lessons into two or three hours, but my notebook is full,” he said.

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