For Saybrook’s first and last college tea of the semester, the college invited Paul Attanasio — a screenwriter, film and TV producer — who discussed his experience in the film industry, describing his trajectory to approximately 15 students.
Attanasio is best known for writing the films Quiz Show and Donnie Brasco and for serving as an executive producer on the hit show House. The conversation was led by Aaron Tracy, a screenwriter and lecturer at Yale.
According to Attanasio, he was not a “film buff” when he was young and learned most of what he knows about creating narratives from reading novels. Still, he credited his experience writing film reviews for the Washington Post as the catalyst that led him to become a screenwriter. Attanasio joined the Washington Post in 1984 after graduating from Harvard Law School and deciding that jurisprudence was not the field for him.
“I do not have any regrets — I did what I wanted to do,” he said.
For a short time after graduating from Harvard, Attanasio worked at a law firm where he met a senior partner Thomas Barr LAW ’58. Attanasio recalled Barr saying that he would rather “sit in a vault” going through documents than play golf with his family. He noted that Barr’s passion for his work inspired Attanasio to pursue a career he would feel just as passionate about — and law was not it.
At the tea, Attanasio discussed his creative process and work routine, noting that he usually tries to set aside eight hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to focus on his writing. It was much easier for him to have his regular working hours before he had children, he joked.
He also noted the difficulty of screenwriting because of the “need to hold the whole film in your head, even when you don’t know it yet.”
Initially interested in writing screenplays with “tight narratives,” Attanasio discussed how his feelings towards the craft changed as he grew older and started to admire Wes Anderson, whose films do not have a strict narrative.
During the tea, Attanasio also discussed how he came up with ideas for his work. He said he often did projects simply because he liked the people involved in them and sometimes did not know what he was really writing about until after he had finished.
“Donnie Brasco was about my relationship with my father, but I didn’t know that until the premier,” Attanasio said.
When asked about how Quiz Show — the movie that brought him initial fame and changed his career — Attanasio said that “success is much more difficult than failure” because initially he did not understand how to navigate his sudden popularity.
Attanasio said that his current success has to do with the fact that he went into TV “before anyone else did” in the 1990s. He said that he entered the industry before it became as saturated as it is today.
Attanasio currently works on a CBS TV show Bull, a series based on the early career of now famous talk show host Dr. Phil McGraw. He said that he likes the idea of reaching “huge numbers” of people through broadcast TV. Each episode of Bull’s second season had an average of 14.37 million viewers. The show is currently in its third season.
“I like the idea of a big audience, the idea that we are all one country [watching the same show],” Attanasio said.
He finished the tea by advising audience members to only write about what they know, noting that experiences too far from their own should be written by someone else. He said that he reached that conclusion after working on a project about the Chinese-American experience that never came to fruition because he could not accurately write about a life he never lived.
Attendees interviewed by the News said they enjoyed Attanasio’s talk.
Milo Reed ’22 told the News he was interested in hearing Attanasio talk about his creative process.
“Writing screenplays has always been something I’ve wanted to learn more about,” Reed said. “It was also very intriguing to hear about his ideas from the source rather than in a lecture or reading.”
Olivia Probst ’22 said she was “impressed” by the talk. She attended the event because she knew Attanasio was a successful and prominent screenwriter but admitted that she is not interested in going into the film industry.
Attanasio worked at the Washington Post from 1984 to 1987.
Eva Magyar | firstname.lastname@example.org