April 16, 2014

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‘Cocoon’ Screenwriter and UMass Alum Tom Benedek speaks

Marsha Gelin, Collegian Staff

A University of Massachusetts graduate and longtime professional screenwriter Tom Benedek visited the Student Union Ballroom on Tuesday to discuss screenwriting and his life “From One Golden Age to Another.”

Benedek wrote screenplays for many famous films, including “Cocoon,” “Free Willy,” “Zeus and Roxanne,” “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” and more.

He has written and edited screenplays for Martin Scorsese, Sydney Pollack, Ron Howard, Robert Zemeckis and others. In addition to eagerly sharing his journey in his lecture, Benedek also visited several screenwriting classes throughout the day, giving tips to interested students trying to get a foot in the Hollywood door.

The auditorium was scattered with students, professors and fans Tuesday, all eager to hear Benedek speak. Attendees were still sifting through the doors into the Student Union until 15 past the hour, when Benedek took the stage. Benedek spoke openly and warmly, as if relaying the story that is his life to a room full of acquaintances.

Benedek graduated from UMass in the winter of 1971 as one of the first students to graduate from the Bachelor’s Degree with Independent Concentration program.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the BDIC program, which was founded by director Dan Gordon. Gordon, present throughout Benedek’s lectures on campus yesterday and serving as his introducer, played an essential role in bringing Benedek into the program.

Benedek claimed the BDIC program has helped the way he’s approached his entire professional career. This personalized program allows students to select their own concentrations of study, some of which have previously included Outdoor Education, Trauma Studies, Neuroscience and myriads more.

While in school, Benedek took photographs for The Daily Collegian. The film fanatic studied journalism and was an English major, writing creatively in his spare time. He also edited news for the five-college public radio and promoted concerts. The writer hails from Southwest’s very own Kennedy Tower, residing on the sixth floor his freshman year.

The guest speaker came prepared with a projector behind him, broadcasting images of his own. Black and white photographs of Kennedy Tower, Southwest, the library and even some of Benedek’s friends hitchhiking to the Massachusetts Pike shone throughout the auditorium.

As Benedek progressed to some of his more serious art photography, he landed on a photograph of Strom Thurmond, the Senator from South Carolina. Although Thurmond was never said to be in the Ku Klux Klan, a few people dressed in the Klan’s infamous white outfits and went onstage to mock the Senator. The black and white photograph Benedek captured of this outrageous event spoke more than one thousand words, leaving the crowd breathless.

Like many UMass students today, Benedek studied abroad his junior year. He went to Paris, where he enrolled in a film school where he wrote, directed and did camera work on a student film which later became his senior thesis.

After graduating, Benedek made student films in New York and while writing away, the well-known screenwriter began working with Steven Spielberg’s protégé, Robert Zemeckis. Fresh from producing the flop film “1941,” Zemeckis contacted Benedek six months later for help with an unpublished draft titled “Cocoon.” Benedek successfully presented his ideas for the script to a room full of producers and was rewarded for his persistence. In a turn of events, Zemeckis was fired from the film to be replaced by “Happy Days’” Ron Howard. This move was beneficial to the movie because it allowed Benedek to further explore and develop the characters.

“Cocoon” turned out to be Benedek’s breakthrough film, reeling in many job opportunities and bringing continuous success for years to come. He was eventually hired to re-write “Free Willy” due to a bit of good luck. Benedek’s re-write was picked out of a large pile of scripts after several writers were fired from the project. Spending countless hours molding what should have been an improbable relationship between a boy and a whale into reality, Benedek was more than discouraged to receive no credit for his work. “When I didn’t get the credit I was outraged,” admitted Benedek nearly two decades later.

In hindsight, the discredit may have been beneficial to his career, as producers felt bad and spread word of his name. That fact didn’t stop Benedek from reflecting that the assistant to the hairdresser was credited, but the Writer’s Guild maintains an unwritten rule that only credits up to three script-writers-Benedek, of course, being the fourth. He dwelled upon this misfortunate surmising that he should have hired a lawyer to write his arbitrations.

The screenwriter discussed the Golden Age of film, taking place when he was first starting out. Benedek said that although bad movies happened regularly, many worthy projects came about, such as “Star Wars,” “Annie Hall,” and “Taxi Driver.”

“Today we have the possibility of another Golden Age,” stated Benedek. He went on to sum that since we have the available technology, there’s no reason why we can’t repeat the successful film era.

Benedek feels that success in the screenwriting world is measured with equal parts creative work and marketing. Though he certainly practiced perseverance, Benedek may have also been in the right place at the right time. He acquired his first agent when the top three at William Morris Agency (WMA) left to form Creative Artists Agency (CAA), leaving WMA vulnerable and staff-hungry. Benedek called WMA one week after losing top personnel and was granted an opportunity to share his work.

“If you’re walking down the street and you see James Franco, or somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody, having a 30 or 60 second summary of your material (is vital),” claims the success-savvy alum.

Benedek continues on to share a Hollywood axiom originally stated by William Goldman, which is: “Nobody knows anything.”

The writer continued Goldman’s train of thought, saying, “You don’t know where the magic’s going to come from.”

Post “Free Willy” fame left Benedek branded as a family film writer, a fact which surprised him. Benedek said that he never would have known he’d end up writing family-oriented films. For the next half of a decade, every family film script trying to be developed was sent to Benedek for approval.

Being type-cast as a screenwriter hasn’t stopped Benedek from exploring his other talents. The writer created an art project out of old scripts and projects taking up space in his garage that he had no ownership rights to. The art project, titled “Shot by the Writer,” consisted of 21 jobs he bronzed and riddled with bullet holes, then took photographs of. As a result, Benedek had a gallery show published in a literary magazine and was interviewed by the L.A. Times and New York Times.

Benedek is currently working in television screenwriting. His most recent project, called “Dr. Knott,” is about a man who impersonates a doctor. Eight years ago, Benedek wrote pilots for CBS and is currently trying to reignite that spark.

According to Benedek, persistence will get you everywhere. The professional screenwriter, winding down in his lecture, emphasized that “the process is as meaningful as the presentation to anyone else.”

Kate Evans can be reached at kvevans@student.umass.edu.

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