Founded in 2009 by Blackwood, NJ-based screenwriter Keith Chamberlain, the DSS is a support group for aspiring screenwriters of all skill levels. Nearly 100 screenwriters from the Philadelphia/New Jersey/Delaware area attend the organization’s bimonthly meetings, which are usually held at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Membership and admission are always free.
Cinedelphia recently spoke with Keith about the origins of the group, what it takes to be a good screenwriter, and his thoughts on Philadelphia’s film community.
CINEDELPHIA: Did you start the DSS as a response to anything or did you simply see it as a resource that Philadelphia was lacking?
KEITH CHAMBERLAIN: A combination of the two. I was in a couple screenwriting groups. One, they don’t last long. Two, they never really covered anything that I wanted to cover. Three, it just seemed that the people who ran them didn’t know what they were doing. It was never clear on what their agenda was. So I took it upon myself. There are groups out there in Philadelphia for directors, producers, and actors, but nothing out there that supports writers. There are some roundtables and readings, but they don’t really celebrate the writer, they don’t acknowledge how important the writer is. So I just wanted to help show the screenwriters that their hard work is appreciated. If you have an idea or need support, the DSS is here.
KC: Absolutely. They were kind of boring. They silently read the scripts, critiqued each other, and went home. There are no relationships that are formed out of that. That was something that had to change. Local actors stick together; editors, camera people tend to associate with each other when they’re not working. Writers are very solitary, we’re solitary creatures, we write and work alone. Something needed to be created so that these writers don’t need to feel alone, so that they know they’re not geeks, they’re not strange, they’re not crazy for spending hours writing a screenplay. We’re a family in a way, an awfully strange family, but a family in a way.
C: Is that where the “dysfunction” in the group’s title comes from?
KC: Yeah, most writers are dysfunctional human beings. We write and send it off and then if it’s optioned, if someone wants to develop it into a film, then it’s out of our hands. The film crew are all united, they all work together as a unit to get this done, but the writer is most times at home or in a coffee shop by ourselves. That takes a lot of dedication. For people that aren’t familiar with the film business and don’t know what writers do then that can be looked at as very weird. You have to have a certain mindset to write and to the average everyday 9 to 5 person that mindset comes off as a bit dysfunctional.
C: So dysfunction may be a necessary trait for a successful screenwriter.
KC: Absolutely. You have to have a quirk in order to do things. You look at some of the successful stuff that’s out there right now, shows like The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, if you ever read about these writers they’re very interesting people who have a certain way of thinking and living that is off-putting to average people.
KC: The events change, last time we did comedy, developing a comedy skit. In December we had a script reader come by who had just written a book and he spoke for a good hour and a half. In February we have Power of the Pitch in which we have judges who are producers or directors come and help teach people how to pitch their screenplays. We had one person last year who pitched to a producer and now they’re developing that. A lot of people enjoy Power of the Pitch, it’s our best-attended event. The April event will be a read through with actors and that helps the writers see how their words sound when spoken by professionals.
C: Is it a casual environment where attendees can feel free to speak their minds and ask questions?
KC: Absolutely. That’s one of the main reasons I formed it. A lot of the groups I was seeing were just too formal and I saw people that felt awkward or stupid for asking questions in fear of seeming less experienced or educated. At DSS you can ask what you want, it’s very casual. If you have an interest in writing then come on out and don’t be afraid to speak your mind. Hopefully after three hours you have a sense of direction or confidence.
KC: I’ve had a love for film ever since I was a kid. I took film classes in high school and college, I wrote some spec scripts. I kind of put it aside, when I was doing this back in 1994 it really wasn’t like it is now. The support wasn’t there in this area back then so I went into another field, graphic design, but I would always keep one foot in the screenwriting door. About four years ago I was at a coffee shop working on a design project and I noticed that the guy in front of me was typing a screenplay and the guy in front of him was also typing a screenplay and there was a disconnect, you think they’d share a cup of coffee and talk about their trade. A group of individuals came into the shop, they were a formal screenwriting circle, and I was intrigued by it. So I joined some of these and started writing again, I did a couple short films, I did a film that was in the 48 Hour Film Festival, another that was in Project Twenty1. I was seeing that these groups were so formal that people just didn’t have a good time, I wasn’t having a good time. So you can sit around and wait for someone to do it or you can just do it yourself.
C: Can you name any scripts that you’ve written that you’re particularly proud of?
KC: The script I did for 48 Hour Film Festival was a mockumentary like Parks and Recreation and The Office. I like the script, but because it was shot on such short notice the actors didn’t really bring it to life. I’ve written spec scripts that I really enjoyed.
C: Are you attracted to any particular genres?
KC: I dabble with everything. Right now I’m drawn to drama and personal stuff. I really like Winter’s Bone, Hunger, those types of films. Films about people living real lives that aren’t afraid to be ugly, very in-your-face type of stuff. When I was younger, back in 1994, I was trying to do science fiction and action. Right now as I’m older I really like real stuff and real people.
KC: Philly is a very interesting town. It should be more connected than it is, it seems like there are a lot of organizations that all offer the same things and there’s not a lot of cooperation between them. Case in point, there were three organizations holding networking parties and they all held them on the same night at the same time. You’re not going to build community that way, you’re forcing people to pick the one they want to go to. The local actors are pretty much harmonious, pretty interconnected, there’s three degrees of separation with the actors. Same with people behind the camera. But there are a lot of organizations, excluding the Philadelphia Film Office, that have an ego and they’re hurting the community rather than bringing it together.
C: So these organizations simply concentrate on their own interests rather than those of the community.
KC: You would be 100% right in that. One thing about the DSS, I don’t mention my work in the meetings, I don’t use DSS as a promotional tool for myself. I’ve seen people do that and it turns my stomach when they use these groups to try to promote themselves, try to get people to be in and see their films. I understand that it’s a business and you want to work, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. When you run an organization you need to take your ego out of it.
The Dysfunctional Screenwriters Society will meet on Wednesday, February 22 from 6 – 9 PM at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The event is sponsored by Final Draft and Quick Film Budget and will feature live readings of previously submitted screenplays followed by a Q&A.