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Posted December 19, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

The reel life: Local screenwriter places in contest, shooting for Hollywood

By James Heffernan - jheffernan@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER - The Blue Ridge Mountains are a long way from the Hollywood Hills.

But that doesn't discourage hundreds of aspiring Virginia screenwriters from trying to make the leap. Today's film industry is capricious -- a compelling script in the hands of the right person can launch an unknown's career.

Wayde Byard, of Winchester, knows the odds of seeing his pages come to life on the big screen are long. The craft can be a lonely one, and, for the vast majority of writers, far from lucrative.

"There is no real way into this trade," he says. "It's a miracle any film gets made."

But a little peer recognition, even on the fringes of the industry, never hurts.

Byard's latest script, "Again," was one of six finalists in this year's Virginia Screenwriting Competition. The contest, created by the Virginia Film Office, provides screenwriters in the commonwealth with a forum for their work and an opportunity to present their scripts to decision-makers in the film industry. Each writer submits a full-length screenplay to be evaluated by a panel of Virginia judges. Final scripts from the first round of judging are then sent to a second panel comprised of professionals active in the film or television industry.

Byard, a former journalist who currently serves as public information officer for Loudoun County Public Schools, is no stranger to the competition. He has been a finalist before, and in 2004 won for "Spotts: An American Legend," about Winchester's own Spottswood Poles, who nearly became the first African-American to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, 25 years before Jackie Robinson.

Byard admits he was somewhat disappointed with this year's competition results.

"Having won before, you always want to win again," he says.

"Again" sparked from a luncheon with Byard's screenwriting professor. "He was writing a script, and the hero needed a sin in his past that motivated him to do good and continue doing good against incredible odds and with little thanks."

The story, which took Byard a little more than two months to write -- "I work in manic spurts, which is pretty common among screenwriters," he says -- centers around a security agent who blames himself for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and gets a chance to prevent an even bigger catastrophe.

"The main character is in anguish over what he did, or didn't do," Byard says. "His sins cost him his job, his family, his fortune. He can't undo what he did, but he can try to keep it from happening again."

Byard says the subject matter probably brought the screenplay close scrutiny during the copyright process -- what normally takes only a few weeks dragged on for 17 months.

"I might have guessed about a few things some people would rather not have made public from a security standpoint," he confesses.

A versatile wordsmith, Byard likes to hone his research skills by writing historical nonfiction works. His specialty is the National Football League.

"Moving between genres lets some of the skills acquired in one form of writing rub off on another," he says. "What I like about screenwriting is the satisfaction of creating something unique and the people you meet who share your interest."

In August 2008, Byard was accepted into the Squaw Valley Community of Writers in California, the top screenwriting workshop on the West Coast. His mentor was Tom Rickman, who was nominated for an Oscar for "Coal Miner's Daughter" and now teaches at the American Film Institute.

"It's fascinating. You work with actors, technicians, directors, anyone who can make your work better," Byard says. "I learned a decade's worth of information in a week."

Hollywood screenwriting is rather formulaic, he says. "You have 70 scenes and 110 pages to tell your story. You're allowed only one scene that doesn't directly advance the story. No gray pages, no long monologues. Keep it moving. That said, there are no real rules. If it works, it works."

Character development is key, Byard says. "Characters should grow and reach some point of resolution. They should realize something about themselves at the end they didn't know at the opening credits."

Byard almost had a sale on "Spotts" in May. An influential movie producer expressed an interest but couldn't find the backing for it.

"I'm working on it and will go back to him in a bit," he says.

His advice for other aspiring screenwriters?

"Have patience, enjoy the ride, take the studio tour," he says. "Don't let your goals get in the way of the experiences you can have and the fascinating people you'll meet. There is no one road in. Whatever road you're on, enjoy the trip."

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