While sitting in the UCLA library working on his screenplay, “Waking Hours,” Barnett Brettler began to cry. He had reached a solemn moment in the story when a character had to leave and, although people in the library stared, he could not help himself.
“Writing is such a lonely pursuit that you begin to fall in love with your characters,” Brettler said. “When certain scenes hit, it feels so true to heart I begin to cry or laugh.”
Brettler, a second-year screenwriter graduate student in the School of Theater, Film and Television, recently became the first UCLA student to win the 2013 Student Grand Jury Prize for Screenwriting from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for his screenplay, “Waking Hours.” The prize includes a $30,000 grant plus mentorship from industry professionals and an extra $20,000 toward the production of “Waking Hours.”
Taking place in a dystopian future where a viral epidemic inflicts sleeplessness, “Waking Hours” tells the story of a UK border agent who must cross into an infected zone to find the woman he loves.
Originally a New York native and alumnus of Syracuse University’s film school, Brettler began his film career in development and acquisition, giving notes to writers and editing scripts.
Brettler said his six years as a script reader helped him understand both the creative and production side of screenwriting, ultimately leading him toward the creative side.
“Writing is the best way to understand the story and it’s a very visceral experience,” Brettler said. “I wanted to be the guy working alone a lot of the time, making my own choices.”
Similarly, Brettler said he chose screenwriting as opposed to other forms of writing because he liked the challenge of telling a story visually and showing things that could not be said.
UCLA’s film school was the perfect school for his development as a filmmaker, Brettler said, because it focuses heavily on the craft of writing. In the program students must put out a new screenplay every 10 weeks, allowing them to leave at the end with five screenplays under their belts.
While at UCLA, Brettler said he learned of the Sloan Foundation contest and decided to give it a shot even though he did not think he had a chance.
Brettler said the goal of the contest is to encourage the integration of science and art, resulting in “Waking Hours” discussing the microbiology of viruses, but also incorporating aspects of humanity.
“I am more interested in people whose lives exist in gray zones where good and evil aren’t exclusive,” Brettler said.
To prepare for the scientific aspect of the screenplay, Brettler was mentored by Professor Imke Schroeder of the UCLA Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics, who said the science flows well with the action in “Waking Hours.”
“Brettler writes well enough so that the science doesn’t turn the audience off and doesn’t distract from the story,” Schroeder said.
Brettler also worked with film professor Hal Ackerman, who read his progress on the script and supplied guidance. Ackerman said he was direct and clearly vocalized problems so Brettler could maximize his screenplay writing.
“The notion of Brettler’s story is very provocative; his dialogue is sharp, and he has a complex mind that can deal with many intersecting story lines,” Ackerman said. “I have no doubt it will become a movie someday.”
Brettler said he thought entering the contest was a shot-in-the-dark, so after learning that he won it was all the more overwhelming.
“I didn’t think anything would happen with this contest,” Brettler said. “At one moment you’re nothing, and suddenly you’re everything. I want to use this opportunity to make something of myself.”
Over the next year, Brettler will be busy having one-on-one meetings with industry professionals and attending screenings in hopes to learn how to produce “Waking Hours” into a film.
Brettler also said he will be taking advantage of the security the cash prize offers to revisit old screenplays and refine them into products of similar quality to “Waking Hours,” hopefully attracting further producer attention.
“This success really three-dimensionalizes what I came to UCLA to do,” Brettler said. “There is always a chance I may fail but the trick is to just tell the story with my own voice and hope for the best.”