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?"
"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|
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.
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 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|