By TOM WOOD / Tennessee Screenwriting Association
He didn’t know it at the time, but the lessons that James V. Hart learned in the process of writing and re-writing his script for Bram Stoker’s Dracula are something he still sinks his teeth into even today.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and shot for $40 million, Dracula was one of the biggest hits of 1992, grossing $82.5 million nationally and $215.8 million worldwide — the ninth-highest grossing film of that year.
Hart was in Nashville on June 21-22 to headline the Tennessee Screenwriting Association’s 2019 Script-Com Screenwriting Symposium. During his visit, Hart also attended a screening and discussion of his Dracula script at Full Moon Cineplex in Hermitage.
Besides Dracula, Hart’s credits include Hook (1991), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Muppet Treasure Island (1996), Contact (1997), Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story (2001), Tuck Everlasting (2002), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider—The Cradle of Life (2003), Sahara (2005), August Rush (2007), Epic (2013), the 2014 TV series Crossbones, and 2019’s The Hot Zone mini-series on National Geographic.
A great body of work, to be sure, but it is his HartChart — which he describes as “a decoding ring that allows you to create a character-driven narrative as opposed to plot-driven” — which is having the greatest influence on the next generation of screenwriters.
The HartChart has been touted in the writer’s film festival presentations for 20-plus years with hand-drawn charts. In 2015, developer Guy Goldstein approached Hart at the Austin Film Fest with the idea of the HartChart app and Toolkit to help writers map stories and characters. It will be a major part of the Master Class he’ll teach at Script-Com.
“It’s hard to keep a good vampire down, so we’ll be revisiting Dracula in Nashville,” Hart said. “I’ll be doing a Master Class on Dracula using the Toolkit and the HartChart, which actually the first movie I ever charted was Dracula. That’s when I first applied all the stuff that I teach.”
Hart describes the script problems raised by Coppola and the ensuing chaos of the Dracula post-production and screenings that led to the idea — necessity — of a HartChart. He compares the HartChart’s basic questions to the fundamentals of journalism — answering who, what, when, where, why and how — to tell a story.
“They’re altered a bit from the … the big five,” Hart said. “Mine started with Coppola when we were doing Dracula. I got a call from him during post-production. We had some disastrous previews and I got a call from him about three or four months before the release.
“Basically he said, ‘Get on a plane, get out here. I hate you, I hate the film, I hate the script, I hate the cast, I hate the studio, I hate everything about this movie. And I want to show it to you.’ I was like, ‘Okay, I can’t wait to see that’ because I’ve spent 15 years of my life on that project.”
Hart caught the next flight from New York to California and got right to work.
“Francis, he set me up in the Godfather screening room downstairs at Zoetrope, and didn’t even come down to say hello — just said, ‘call me when you finish watching the film.’ And I sat there for the next 2½ hours getting drunker and drunker and hating viewing,” Hart recalled. “Oh my god, this is terrible.’ And he called me and said, ‘you didn’t call me after the film,’ and I said, ‘I hate it too, I hate you too, this is horrible.’ ”
So they got busy looking at all the footage, the cuts, everything over the next two weeks.
“And we found that it wasn’t reshooting the scenes, it was pieces of narrative that we had either lost or ignored or forgotten or cut out because we didn’t think we needed it,” he said. “The footage showed us where our needs were — the fallouts, the holes — so we went through and we actually did a draft of the script based on the film that was edited. And (we) only went back and shot pieces; we didn’t shoot whole scenes or new scenes, we went in and filled in the narrative.
“And I kept saying to Francis, ‘there’s got to be a way to head this off at the pass, there’s got to be a way to catch this before we’re in the editing room.’ ”
After Dracula’s success, they talked about how to fix a script before it needed fixing.
“He said, ‘why don’t you start with these three questions?’ And he gave me questions that are basically journalism-based, but they’re about character. And I went, ‘why the hell didn’t we do this before we wrote the script and shot the movie?’ They’re very simple, and I’ve expanded them into another eight to 10 questions over the years, and it’s where I start all my work. It’s basic journalism.
“But it’s about character—not so much about who, what, when, where, and why—but it’s what do you want, what do you need, what do you fear, what are you afraid of? What’s your goal? Why now? They’re basic journalism patterns, but they’re about character.
“We developed this over the past 20 years and now there’s an app called the HartChart which follows the heartbeat, the emotional journey of the characters as opposed to plot. And I use it every day. It’s been used all over the world and directors, writers, editors — the ones that are devoted to it swear by it. And I owe it all to Francis…thank you Francis.”
Hart says it’s a useful tool for writers at all stages of their career, even for those who are attempting to break into the business in the later stages of life.
“Listen, I’m not supposed to have a career right now at my age (he’s 72) but I still kind of have one,” Hart said with a laugh. “But the good news is there’s more buyers now than there ever were before for television. That’s where they have to hire writers at the same times every year because they need new content. And yes, they all say they’re looking for IP (intellectual property), but they’re also looking for young, unknown writers who have good ideas who can put stuff on the page, who can write character, and yet there is an appetite for new voices whether you’re young or old.”
Hart also recommended that budding screenwriters take advantage of other opportunities like attending festivals and entering contests. He mentioned the Blacklist, Screencraft, the International Screenwriters Association, and a few others.
“You have forums now that we didn’t have when I started out. You have these portals where writers are posting and putting up their material, and there actually are people in the business — 200, 300, 400 people in the business — who are paid to read everything … to canvas these contests at film festivals where awards are given. There are these platforms that didn’t exist when I started. And they’re being paid attention to. … And I would urge everybody there (in Nashville) to take advantage of that.”
Hope we see you at Script-Com in a couple of weeks. I really enjoyed talking with James, and think writers of all genres – screen, magazine and novelists – will get something out of his presentation.
And as always … thanks for reading.