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December 12. 2013 9:40PM

ConVal students get a taste of Hollywood


ConVal High School freshman Jill Pierson, 15, and junior Sarah Hurley, 16, work on their screenplays Thursday. (MEGHAN PIERCE/Union Leader Correspondent)

PETERBOROUGH -- A haunted opera house, a mysterious death, a fatal plane crash were just some of the ideas flying around a screenwritg class at ConVal High School on Thursday morning.

The students are getting a taste of Hollywood in the class that is teaching them to master the craft of writing for film.

Award-winning filmmaker Aaron Wiederspahn of Nelson is teaching the class as part of a new educational component of the Keene-based Monadnock International Film Festival, which he helped found.

"We always wanted to have an educational outreach program," Wiederspahn said. "By the end of (the class), they are going to have a short script."

Four of the scripts will be chosen and the students who wrote them will be asked to sit on a screenwriting panel at the MONiff this April. And one student will be awarded a $1,000 scholarship to pursue film studies in college.

Hopefully, over the next few years, the program will expand into other high schools in the region, he said, and the scholarship granted will increase.

"The course is basically teaching them how to write. Everything from A to Z," Wiederspahn he said.

Most teens these days are no strangers to homegrown filmmaking, thanks to easy access to affordable digital film cameras, Wiederspahn said. What these teens don't have are the story-telling tools to be able to drive a plot that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats or the skills needed to create characters audiences care about and actors want to portray, he said.

Technically, the course is not a class at the high school. It takes place during students' 45-minute free period. While the 20 students participating are not getting a grade, they are passionately engaged and focused on learning screenwriting — story structure, plot and character development and story resolution.

Freshman Beckett Gourlay, 14, said the scripts written in the class will be read by professional screenwriters attending the MONiff screenwriting panel in April.

"This could totally open a ton of doors if we take it seriously," Zoe Smith, 14, said. "I immediately jumped on this opportunity. I really hope I can get as far as I can with this."

Freshman Jill Pierson, 15, said she had previously taught herself the screenplay format, but in this class she is learning how to tell a story through plot development. Wiederspahn is teaching the essentials of what you need to know, she said, skills she hopes to take beyond the classroom.

"I want to work in the field, and I want to get as much knowledge as I can," Pierson said.

Junior Liam Healey, 16, says he hasn't done a lot of writing outside of school. He was encouraged by a friend to join the class and was soon enthralled with the power of story-telling.

"The reason that I keep coming and showing up is Aaron has showed me screenwriting really actually means something, to portray a story and use your ideas and thoughts and put it in a script," he said.

Wiederspahn met with the students one-on-one Thursday to discuss the outline of their scripts. During the 18-week course, he plans to walk them through the outline and first and final drafts of their scripts.

He also brings in guests speakers. Last week an actor friend from New York City talked to the students about what actors look for when reading a screenplay and mistakes to avoid. Next week another friend who works as a screenwriter in Hollywood will visit, Wiederspahn said.

Wiederspahn is the program director of the Monadnock International Film Festival and owner of either/or films. When he's not traveling to Los Angeles for work or teaching at ConVal, Wiederspahn has been making the film festival circuit with his latest film, "Only Daughter," which was shot entirely in New Hampshire over 10 days in 20 locations with a $20,000 budget.

mpierce@newstote.com


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