Tuesday, February 25

Student develops TV pilot based on grandfather’s post-WWII experience

(Left to right) Channing Dungey, Liz Buda, Neil Landau and Tony Goldwyn pose at the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Awards, where MFA screenwriting student Buda won first place for the script of her pilot episode of “Zero Hour.” (Courtesy of Todd Cheney)

Liz Buda’s grandfather survived the concentration camps of Dachau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Kaufering, only to face the difficult conditions of the black market in a postwar displaced persons camp.

His story of survival and hardship inspired the MFA screenwriting student’s TV pilot script, “Zero Hour.”

“Zero Hour” challenged Buda to craft a script that accurately portrayed the horrors of war, which she said she accomplished by building a dark, troubled world populated with characters forced to do terrible things by circumstance. Buda won the first place Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award for the pilot script on Oct. 30.

“I think this (is) actually the hardest script I’ve ever written,” Buda said. “That’s why it’s even more satisfying to get recognized for it.”

Loosely based on Buda’s grandfather’s life story, “Zero Hour” focuses on a concentration camp survivor following the events of his liberation. In the midst of postwar chaos, he joins the criminal underworld and embraces the black market to survive. Buda initially began working on the script in a writing for television workshop taught by lecturer Neil Landau in the MFA screenwriting program.

“Liz came in with an idea that was very personal, which I always appreciate and encourage,” Landau said. “So I really encouraged her to tell the story, but as I’m always telling students, you have to find a new angle, a new twist, something to make it unique, authentic and your own.”

Buda decided to focus the show’s angle on the postwar period, specifically the emerging black market within the displaced persons camps that her grandfather, like many survivors, experienced after his liberation. “Zero Hour” required extensive research, both about the black market and the Holocaust itself, that Buda said was difficult to undertake.

“The truth of what happened at that time is so horrible and there was such unspeakable horrors that were committed against so many people,” Buda said. “When you’re researching, you’re really getting into the mindset of your characters and it’s a very challenging emotional process.”

The pilot begins with a scene that directly mirrors her grandfather’s liberation – the protagonist is freed while being forced to walk in a death march. But Buda had to create other elements of the pilot, such as the plot and specific characters. Buda said she wanted to showcase a survivor experience that reflected the lasting impact of trauma.

“One of the things I wanted to explore was this notion that you can’t start your life over again,” Buda said. “You have to process what’s happened to you before and it will always affect you in some capacity.”

Buda also had to create a world that reflected the darkness of the time period and help readers understand the main character in the context of that period. To continue to sympathize with the protagonist and his struggle with morality, readers had to believe the protagonist’s only way to survive was to become involved with the black market.

“She needed to create a character who had room to grow and room to evolve,” Landau said. “Somebody who comes out of this horrific experience completely changed, more enterprising in finding out that in order to survive, he’s going to have to turn into somebody he may not really like.”

To continue developing the show from a pilot script to a marketable project, Buda partnered with MFA producing student Sam Marquis, who will work on preparing the pilot so it can be pitched and potentially developed at major networks and studios.

Marquis said he heard about the story through a professor and originally asked to help develop the pilot because he was drawn to the distinct nature of the story and the unusual postwar atmosphere the story inhabited.

“I found the premise really unique because I feel like we’ve seen so many stories and narratives that are set during World War II, and her story is set immediately after World War II,” Marquis said. “We think it’s the end of the war, the time of unity and celebration, but in reality, it was a chaotic time for a lot of people.”

As Buda continues to develop “Zero Hour,” she said she hopes the show challenges audience perceptions in the same way the writing process challenged her, shedding some light on a forgotten era in history.

“It was difficult to immerse myself in this (world), but I felt it was necessary not only to honor my grandfather, but to tell a story that hasn’t really been told before,” Buda said. “I always go back to that, the concept of ‘never forget’ – it’s really essential that we look at our history so that we in the future don’t repeat the same actions.”

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