Hollywood is known to transform the fresh-faced dreamers who march into town like ants to a Twinkie. The newcomer’s breasts may balloon, her lips fill with collagen or his nostrils with cocaine. Sometimes the effect is diminishing, physically from anorexia, or spiritually from the onset of crass materialism. In this town, the forbidden apples hang low on the tree.
Budding screenwriter Spencer Lewerenz, however, may be the first person to come to Hollywood and find himself transformed into . . . a better Catholic? “It was only when I got out here that I got serious about it,” he explains over a Mai Tai at Trader Vic’s, the legendary Beverly Hills tiki bar where our table-neighbors are an HBO celebrity and another couple separated by a microrecorder. “There’s nobody who comes out here who’s not chasing this Hollywood dream. Christianity is a way to stay grounded.”
Spencer escaped to Los Angeles after a stint in Washington, D.C., working by day for the editorial page of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times, and by night as the editor of Brainwash, published by America’s Future Foundation. But after burning out on politics, he began to drink of a new Kool Aid: screenwriting.
Having just won a modest lawsuit against a certain Beltway-area Volvo dealer-former lieutenant governor who hit him with his SUV — “why couldn’t I have been injured more?” — Spencer signed up for a 4-week writing course in Los Angeles. It was run by Act One, an organization that helps Christians break into the industry and guides them to “create entertainment that will foster in viewers an encounter with God, a sense of connection with others, and deeper knowledge of self.” Ambitious goals, all of them. Success at just one of these would place any writer well ahead of the pack.
Now, roughly three years later, Spencer has found a home at Act One as the associate director of its writing program. His boss is the organization’s founder, former nun and screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi. Together they have co-edited a book, Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture, which won a warm review from Publisher’s Weekly, among others.
Behind the Screen is a series of thoughtful essays by Act One faculty — a roster that includes Linda Seger, author of the film-school staple How to Make a Good Script Great, and Scott Derrickson, director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The contributions are all loosely guided by the same open-ended theme: “What Hollywood Needs.”
Spencer emphasizes that his role as a Christian spokesmodel, while not unwelcome, was a completely surprising twist of fate. I asked if he’d rather be known as a great writer or a great Christian.
“I’d rather not be known as a great Christian at all. It would probably mean I wasn’t one,” he says, looking earnestly into the clamor of Trader Vic’s, which is now being mobbed by people in black-tie attire. “I have to talk about being a Christian because of our book, but it’s not something I think you should go around holding over people.”
Having shared three hours and two drinks with Spencer, I’d say he strikes me as a great Christian, one who happens to list Sex and the City as a favorite TV show. Pressed to choose the Sex and the City character he’s most like, he says he’s a Charlotte/Samantha hybrid. (Catholic, anyone?) He sounds a little like the Republican of old, however, when complaining about the movie Titanic because it perpetuates fatuous notions of class warfare. “The ship is sinking,” he notes, “and the rich villain is going around with a gun shooting at poor people!” But the 32-year-old writer returns to form when speaking about the chorus he’s formed in his church and especially when he says he wants to see people “mend their differences, rather than perpetuate them — to find common ground and try to understand each other.”
Born and raised on the border between Kansas and Missouri, Spencer earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of Dallas. He had a taste for books and ideas, but he soon realized that academia was a place to explore politics and vanity, so he moved to . . . Washington, D.C.? “The only thing I knew to do with an English degree was go into publishing or journalism,” he explains. “D.C. was where the job happened to be.”
“People in D.C. want to be politicians. They want to have a helmet-head of hair and give boring speeches,” he says.
Could it really be that Mr. Smith only goes to Washington when Frank Capra is God?
“I did know one person in D.C. who was absolutely trying to do good. Those people do exist there.”
What do his D.C. colleagues think about his hop West?
“Everyone finds it a little novel: Oooh, you’re in Hollywood. But I think Washington is a little jealous. Hollywood has an amazing influence that politicians only wish could they have.”
Does he miss Washington?
“I went back recently, and in 20 minutes I was deep into a conversation on Social Security. I don’t want to say people in D.C. are boring, but . . .” He trails off, looking for a less incriminating adjective. He doesn’t find it. But Social Security aside, he says he misses the political engagement and intellectual environment of the nation’s capital.
Given that propensity, you may wonder what he’s working on, script-wise. He hesitates, typical of a writer asked to pitch off the cuff. He first reminds me that Shakespeare geared his material toward the cheap seats — “a lot of sex jokes, a lot of violence.”
Like, yes, the Bard, Spencer enjoys working in genre and likes that scripts are engineered for the marketplace. “I reject the idea that art films are the only artistic movies out there,” he says. “People who are interested in saying something in film — I’m not into message movies, but every film says something — should write for genre in order to be heard.”
Finally, we quit the lofty talk, and I squeeze some log lines out of him. For those lucky enough to have never tried to sell a screenplay, that’s Hollywoodese for “your story reduced to a sentence.”
Script One: “My Fair Lady meets American Idol. A shy, intellectual hipster girl is remade by a crass, corporate music exec.”
Script Two: “A thriller called Nostalgia about a guy in the 1960s in a mental institution who has delusions about being a hero in the future. Very 12 Monkeys-esque.”
Spencer’s third script, about which he’s the most confident, sounds like a very strange breed of fun: A loose Dr. Jeckyl/Mr. Hyde thriller-romance in which Mr. Hyde falls in love with a nun.
Writing in Spencer’s case happens for a few hours at night, the well-storied life of a screenwriter with an actual job before that first big sale. It can be years before a screenwriter makes his first paycheck — and a writer can have a reasonably productive career selling scripts without ever seeing one make it to the screen.
Spencer is confident he’s found his path, but is ready to admit it’s a long one.
“You come to L.A., and no one seems to be working. Everyone is sitting around in cafes or at the coffee shop in the middle of the day . . . . You think it’s that easy. But of course, it’s not.”
Not to worry. Spencer has what any writer needs to stick it out: Faith.
Sara Rimensnyder is a writer in Los Angeles.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire