Writing a screenplay for the first time is hard enough. Writing a screenplay for a national contest selected from hundreds of submissions with nine people who have strong opinions about culture, masculinity, and New York City, however, is actually a lot more fun than it sounds.
Scenarios USA, a national nonprofit organization based in Brooklyn that works with teens to help them develop critical thinking skills and tell their own stories, chose three screenplays written by teens to be made into short films for its screenwriting contest. The nonprofit, in its ninth year of existence, has helped make seventeen films by young writers, several of which have won awards including an Emmy, and have been recognized at film festivals.
“We thought it was from a single vision and we thought, ‘How can nine writers put this together?’ but when we met them, we saw how they did it,” said Maura Minsky, co-founder of Scenarios USA. “They collaborated as a team, brainstormed, and took their subject really seriously about how they put their vision out into the world.”
The script, “Misunderstood,” written by nine teenagers from Kioni Dequi Sadiki’s Health Education Class at Graphic Arts High School in Manhattan, was the winning New York City entry chosen from hundreds of submissions.
“Knowing that it is your words being spoken through your characters and having an audience judge them is indescribable,” said Malik Roberts, a high school senior, Bushwick resident and one of the writers of “Misunderstood.” “I have never had something this big happen to me. I have had good things happen, but not this good.”
Added co-writer Amerstar Farrow, a senior from the Gowanus area: “The best part of filming for me was putting my words to life. While we were filming, we gave the actors insight into how we wrote the characters, such as maybe you should be more aggressive in saying this line.”
The students riffed on the theme, “What’s the REAL DEAL about masculinity” with a story centering on a young girl’s attraction to two twin boys who have very different personalities.
“The world puts masculinity on a pedestal,” said Roberts. “You have to be tough, muscular, six feet tall, and be a guy who can’t cry or be nerdy. We feel there’s no clear meaning to masculinity. There are guys who are out there who are not like that.”
For the project, the group of teen writers interviewed their friends in school about masculinity and what it meant to them in order to better inform the characters and the plot of the story. It took them about four months to complete a first draft.
“First we discussed what masculinity was, then we threw out ideas, and put the ideas in regardless,” said Phillesia McKenzie, a high school senior and co-writer of “Misunderstood.” “We had to find a way to incorporate all of the ideas. We didn’t want to hear an idea and then not give credit to someone.”
After their script was selected, the students had the opportunity to work with Clark Johnson, a director from The Wire, and other actors during the shooting of their film this past May. Several of the writers played smaller parts in the film and working as filmmakers made them appreciate filmmaking in a new way.
“None of us have ever looked at movies the same way now,” McKenzie said. “I’m paying attention to how they’re cut, zooming in, monologues, and montages. I know how much time is put into making every scene.”
For Roberts, McKenzie and Farrow, the project has opened up their lives to new experiences and networking opportunities beyond high school. The students have attended awards galas where they met other filmmakers and industry professionals from BET and Showtime. They also have been applying to summer internship programs in the entertainment industry and auditioning for other acting jobs.
As for the ending, and which twin the girl chooses, the teen writers have been mum.
“I can’t tell you that,” Roberts said. “That’s the big finish. You’re going to like it when you see it.”
For more information about Scenarios USA, visit www.scenar