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Pilar Alessandra helped each writer find what he or she had missed by writing the stories in a hurry

In a room packed to capacity with more than a hundred attendees, Pilar Alessandra hosted her first-ever three-day screenwriting course, which took place from November 28-30 in Ho Chi Minh City.

With a bright smile and relaxed demeanor, Alessandra instructed her Vietnamese students, who are from all walks of life and every age, to write a three-act script in 10 minutes. She told them to start with the character and occupation, his or her problem, activity, and finally the problem he or she encounters.

The real-time exercise inspired the attendees to pour out their ideas, although many of them admitted that they lacked ideas in the early morning.

Yet high praise came when everyone shared their stories. In the most graceful and polite way, Alessandra helped each writer find what he or she had missed by writing the stories in a hurry.

Among the diamonds in the rough were stories about a middle-aged woman trying to kill a noisy rooster, a paranoid student who adores Hitler and commits suicide, and a love story about a New Yorker and an ethnic girl. The screenplays were ready to be reborn from Alessandra's precise cuts.

"You can't write a complete script in three days. But, you can come up with a great idea, organize it into a movie story and get started on scenes in three days," Alessandra told Thanh Nien Weekly. "If I want to keep turning pages, it's a good script. If I wish I could go out for a cup of coffee instead, it's a bad script. Try to make this: Intrigue in the first act. Entertain in the second act. Surprise in the third act," said the 45-year-old American.

Bach Hue, a businesswoman, said Alessandra's course helps those who have an aptitude for writing but have no clear direction on how to arrange the story.

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"I have no time to follow a long-term training program due to my business, so Alessandra is the perfect choice," Hue said. "She gives us students basic knowledge in building and developing a story. However, writing is a gift. The good or bad story definitely depends on that gift." 

Alessandra's course was organized by House of Wisdom Co., which also brought popular film instructor Dov Simens to Vietnam in July.

Money versus emotion

Alessandra is famous for her "On the Page," which provides ongoing classes, workshops and private consultations for screenwriters and television writers at all levels, according to her website. She is also the author of "The coffee break screenwriter," which is one of the best-selling books on screenwriting and filmmaking in the industry.

The University of Massachusetts-Amherst graduate said she came to Vietnam with one destiny: to help figure out the common concern and issues facing local writers.

"The target for the class is to imagine and outline a screenplay. That script might end up being a moneymaker, or it might just be a personal project," Alessandra said. "It's up to the writer. Now that filmmaking is getting more affordable, making a short film is an easier gamble than it used to be. However, I'd suggest going even shorter and filming something that can be posted on the Internet."

Alessandra describes herself as a movie geek who sold sandwiches out of a cart when she ran into her friend in the early '90s.

"She asked me to become a script-reader for Amblin Entertainment, as she remembered that I was good at writing in the university. I was 25 at that time. And I worked that job for free for a couple of months, until one day, another friend told me that I could earn [a lot] of money doing that. Lesson one: working for free sometimes really works," laughed Alessandra at the conference on November 27.

When DreamWorks formed, the company gave her career a boost, as she became a senior story analyst and a reader liaison between many studios like Image Movers, Radar Pictures, Cineville Entertainment and Saturday Night Live.

But Alessandra also became addicted to teaching as she taught screenwriting and story analysis at the UCLA Writers' Program. In 2001, she started her own company, On the Page, and she opened the "On the Page" Writers Studio in Sherman Oaks, California, in 2004.

In the interest of expanding access to her teaching tools, she also created an instructional "On the Page" DVD. She also presents weekly "On the Page" podcasts with guest hosts from within the industry. The shows regularly appear in the iTunes Top 100 list of film and TV podcasts.

Alessandra said that the first Vietnamese movie she watched was Mui du du xanh (The scent green papaya - L'Odeur de la papaye verte) by noted Vietnamese-French director Tran Anh Hung. The film impressed her and propelled her to make a great switch in her career.

"Time spent on commercial scripts has spoiled my mind, and Hung's film really cured it," Alessandra said. "The film helped me realize the power of the small moments. A movie shouldn't be all about money. It must be about money and emotion. If a movie leaves the audience feeling something, they will spend money to see it"¦ and see it again."

Alessandra would not comment on the shortcomings of Asian, especially Vietnamese, screenwriters. Instead, she advised local screenwriters not to hesitate and to get in the game.

She also emphasized that the script's quality plays an important role in filmmaking.

"I am a screenwriting teacher," Alessandra acknowledged, "but to tell the truth, a good script will inspire the whole team, especially the director, while a bad script has nothing to ignite the creativity."

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