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Writing a Biopic: advice from the best

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

Only a super scriptwriter like Gregory Allen Howard can write an action-adventure biopic that makes super hero movies pale in comparison to a real life hero. Learning from the best.

It was a wonderful experience to be in the same space as one of the greatest biopic writers I have come to admire, Gregory Allen Howard, thanks to CineVisun and Miami Film Fest 2021, moderated by Kevin Sharpley.

The Creator of Ali, the "World's Greatest" motivated youth to be the best

Little did I know that the writer of Ali would one day be known to me when in looking for ways to motivate my 4-5 grade students at Rosenwald elementary in Palm Beach County, the western-most post in the Glades, in South Bay, during the early days of my teaching career in 2001, I remember talking about the movie but not being able to watch any part of it due to its Restricted rating. I remember how we could not watch the movie but were inspired to research books and articles about Ali through our internal library system. It motivated reading and discussion, as well as dancing and parading to the “World’s Greatest” song during the black gold Jubilee that year.

How teaching language arts taught me to tell stories in role play action

Teaching Language Arts gave me the opportunity to adapt almost everything my class read into “action” and role play director/producer/writer with the crew at hand. It’s what made teaching-learning interesting and personal to me. I developed a hands-on style of teaching through that allowed students to internalize the reading and motivate the writer in us, including the teacher. From creating backdrop to improvising dialogue, our make-shift classroom plays were always a standing-room only success, later on at Southside elementary where, as a magnet school for museum learning, we were trained by the Smithsonian Institute and encouraged to apply such models. Film and screenwriting should be an integral part, not an enrichment, to the core elementary curriculum.

The best advice.

I like Mr. Howard’s advice; he said, “writers write” and we need to help ourselves by writing as many screenplays as possible. Now is the best time for diversity in the industry and there are 500 shows streaming at any time through the many conduits available to us. His long trajectory shows that he indeed is a superhero of persistence, and I believe he is a genius who has sharpened the saw and honed the skills that made “Harriet” an action-adventure super real hero no one could ever fall asleep on. I would also like to talk about how “Harriet” director Keisi Lemmons made the difference in the outcome of the movie, whereas in “Ali” Mr. Howard has expressed disappointed with the final product due to the cuts made by its director Michael Mann.

How many screenplays you write may not be the best way to measure of a writer

In the short span of 6 years as a writer, not counting any of the adaptations made during 20 years of teaching at the intermediate level (4-10 grades), I have written and rewritten, adapted from book to script, and vice-versa, not 18 but 5 major projects. They are, 1) Spiderwoman, short story to short, to 1hour TV pilot, to novel and 2 sequels; 2) The Nativity Conspiracy adapted from a book by Horace Feliu into a script; 3) Isabel III, a historical fiction screenplay thesis for my MFA at Full Sail which I have rewritten twice and is in adaptation to novel; 4) Touchdown on Wall Street, a screenplay which I wrote for a former NFL player; 5) Max and the Meteorite, a children’s middle grades book and children’s TV show script; 6) Sojourner Truth, a biopic, which I am now adapting, and I am working on a new movie about life in the Glades.

Writers have something to say and how they say it is the art form

“I believe a writer has something to say,” and that’s why they write, said Mr. Howard. I agree with this, and that’s the 20% or more that is woven into the facts of a story but which make the difference in storytelling. And I also agree with Mr. Howard’s answer to the question I posed about crafting dialogue. I embody my characters and they speak through the action, as Mr. Howard suggested, but then I sit back and double guess myself thinking, “should the character say something more significant at this time, what would the character say or do in this case?”

For instance, I would ask Thomas McCliechy, a descendant of Truth with whom I conducted research during the preliminary steps before writing “I am Sojourner Truth,” “what do you think grandma would want?” and we would agree, “she would want the TRUTH, that’s her name.” But since she is not here, we must really carefully do our research before giving our character whether in action or dialogue or both, a false identity.

Can I call myself a writer?

Maybe I’ll make it to 20 scripts, maybe not, maybe I'll write 50 scripts. I sure don’t want to “break-in” anywhere, I just want to sell either my books or my scripts because I have something to say through my characters and non-dualistic storytelling. For the last five years I've been working on polishing, rewriting, and editing "I Am Sojourner Truth" a real-lifehero that gave us the "Ain't I a Woman" speech and rocked the foundations of christianity and popular culture in her day, becoming the iconic human rights activist who transcends race, gender, and religion.

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