Barbara Turner

Barbara Turner died in April. I've been in deep denial, dreading/avoiding writing anything at all about it, as if the act of writing will be a horrible homework assignment which will end with me facing the cold fact that she is not here any longer. Alternately kind and caustic, hilarious and serious she was a formative presence in my life.

I had just been accepted to AFI in Screenwriting and needed a summer job before the semester began (and student loan $ rolled in). I went up to AFI and looked on the job board (this is in 1997, internet just a baby) and saw an announcement for screenwriter Barbara Turner needing a research assistant. I knew just who she was from seeing Georgia (and from reading her corresponding interview in Scenario magazine.) My heart pounded when I called the number. A real screenwriter. I was given an address and told to come by to meet Barbara the next day.

"The pay is shit". These are among the first words Barbara said to me as I sat at her kitchen table. Though early afternoon she was drinking prosecco. By good fortune she had two scripts back-to-back that had to be written & researched in short order, one based on a historical account of 2 possessed girls in early 19th century Illinois, and the other an adaptation of a novel set on Majorca in the 1500's. Each would require a high volume of research.  She had already hired another AFI Screenwriting student named Guy Davis and would I like to join them? I muttered "sounds good" and tried to play cool but inside my heart was doing flips. I could see a framed award from the NY Film Critics Circle on a nearby shelf. This is inner circle shit. I've made it! I didn't mention that I hated doing research or talking to people lest that sway her decision to hire me.

Guy and I started in earnest the next day. First up was the Illinois project. Barbara as writer had the same degree of commitment as a hardcore method actor. Which is to say, it wasn't enough to know the names of artifacts and customs and principles of 19th century Illinois, she had to fully comprehend them at the molecular level. Each day found her sitting at her desk or in a chair in her office reading for 7, 8, 9 hours while myself and Guy were sent out into the corners of Los Angeles tracking down books, maps, folios, daguerreotypes, poems, farmer's almanacs. I spent a week chasing a period song down, finally finding sheet music at the UCLA Music Library. We got it to a pianist and had him record himself playing/singing on cassette tape so she could hear it. (The net result in the screenplay was a line of description: They enter the house and  hear "Period Song" being played on a piano in the next room). After 6 weeks or so of dedicated research Barbara begin writing.

screenplay drafts on legal pads

The process in short: She sat in her chair next to her sharpened pencils and wrote the script out in longhand on legal pads, starting at page 1 and going page by page to the end. Guy and I (and her research coordinator Chris) were all a room or two away in case we were needed.
"Brian?" I'd be summoned suddenly after an hour of silence.
"Which book had the picture of the dray-wright reattaching the wheel?"
"I'll look"
"Thank you. And I need all the notes on that parade.  And the spiritualists"
Moments later I'd return with a stack of things. She'd check what she needed and return to writing.

At the end of each day she'd phone her friend and former assistant Pam in NYC and read what she'd written over the phone, Pam would type along and then fax the pages back to Barbara (again, pre-internet really). The next day would repeat until the script was finished. And by finished I don't mean a draft was finished, I mean the script was complete after one pass owing to the depth of Barbara's commitment and research and her deep talent. The screenplay was invariably also awesome and lyrical and pitch-perfect. (note: get your hands on her work.)

a million yrs ago in nyc
Barbara was always a real-world counter-point to the screenwriting dogma I was absorbing at AFI. You should not do X in a screenplay or Award-winning scripts do this by page X. Her screenplays transcended these. They talked about how the camera was moving, about if it was a medium or tight shot; they had expository paragraphs just for the reader; they talked about the rhythm of the cutting. All standarized verboten in a million screenplay seminars and a million hastily-assembled how-to screenwriting books. Years later Barbara learned that her one of her screenplays was used in a film school class as an example of WHAT TO NEVER DO IN A SCREENPLAY and she, true to her nature, took this as great honor, as proof positive that her work was landing correctly in the world.

One of the most vital things to Barbara was how a screenplay sounded. When I would nervously pass her my specs a frequent note after she read it was: I think you need to hear it. (Another common note: You should direct this.) How the words flowed on the page and in the reader's eye and ear was the aim, how the writer's voice presented itself and landed, in lilt and command.

My tenure working directly for Barbara ended in the fall with the start of film school but since Barbara still needed help (and Margaret - my girlfriend at the time, now wife - needed a job,) Barbara hired Margaret as research assistant.  They worked together for several years and across time Barbara became a dear friend and ally.

To put it cleanly: I learned more about being a writer watching Barbara work than from any book, any class, any interaction in Hollywood. She was a true artist (an overused phrase to be sure, but one that contains how commitment to art/form can yield returns, sometimes at a cost). A true sui generis writer in a town bloated with self-announced unique snowflakes, one whose slender but respectable body of produced work betrays the volume and scope of her true abilities and genius. Many of the best things she wrote are as yet unproduced.

Barbara's desk
There is so much else that can be said but it will just veer into uncollected ramble. The ache of loss and love I feel for Barbara, along with my unwillingness to accept that she is dead are intertwined. Mostly I miss talking with her, getting her opinion on my screenplays, seeing movies with her, deconstructing the latest celebrated indie film, drinking prosecco with her at her kitchen table in the early afternoon, watching shadows slowly extend across the backyard.  I miss the feeling of sitting down to read her latest screenplay and marveling at the movie to be made from the words on the page, the feel of those words - her words - and the lilt and command of her voice.

Barbara is amazing. I say it in the present tense because I feel her in the present tense. Here and not here at once.  I imagine her now, sitting next to me in a dark theater watching current cinema and whispering "I can't believe what I'm seeing" at terrible acting or dialogue. More than anything I have memories of her in tiny moments like this.

from the thank you page of  Margaret's book People Like You

1 comment:

Stephilius said...

What a lovely tribute. How lucky you were/are. xo