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Screenwriter Randall Jahnson will share his knowledge of writing films in Lake Oswego
by:  Randall Jahnson

Above screenwriter Randall Jahnson's desk is a framed series of photographs of Jim Morrison from The Doors. He sings to the crowd, turns, arches his back and wails into the microphone. Its significant placement could mean so many things - to inspire creativeness, experiment with new writing techniques or, maybe, because it just looks cool.

But when Jahnson wrote the screenplay for Oliver Stone's 1991 film, 'The Doors' - starring Val Kilmer as the late Morrison - he again learned first-hand that nothing in the film industry is predictable.

Jahnson's career - writing such screenplays as 1987's 'Dudes;' episodes of the early 1990s TV show 'Tales From the Crypt;' 1998's 'The Mask of Zorro' starring Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones; 2000's 'Sunset Strip' and the 2005 videogame 'Gun' - has taken him on one wild ride through the minds of a motley crew of characters. He moved to West Linn from Southern California in 2007.

And while he spends his mornings and afternoons typing away, Jahnson, 52, said his job as a screenwriter can morph into that of a therapist, historian or comedian oftentimes long before his hands hit the keyboard.

Avoiding a cradle-to-grave rendition

Research is one thing and the actual writing is another, Jahnson said of writing films like 'The Doors.'

'Jim Morrison was essentially a puzzle,' Jahnson said, 'and the million-dollar question of the movie was, 'what was Jim's angst?''

He continued, 'It was exhilarating, exciting, wonderful and terrifying all at the same time,' Jahnson said of 'prying with finesse' with all those involved - the families, surviving band members, the studio and those who owned the rights to the music. 'There is an advantage to writing something that's a product of your imagination.'

And, as an example, 'The Doors' proved that screenwriters have to make artistic choices in storytelling.

'It's darn near impossible to capsulate 20 or 30 years (of someone's life) into 90 minutes,' he said. 'That's why so many bio picks don't work because people try to tell the whole cradle-to-grave story.'

Jahnson said that when he's writing about a person's life, he tries to highlight a few defining moments.

'What defines them as an entity?' he said, 'and build around that.'

This year, he said he preserved defining moments in singer Dionne Warwick's life in a screenplay, which is in the process of being financed.

'You're taking some of the historical record, but then I'm also putting a spin on it,' he said of the script. 'In a sense, you have to let it run through your filter.'

He said that when he began writing - as a journalist in high school - he used to tell 'the whole truth,' but after decades in the business now has a tendency to wonder if there is an ultimate truth.

'It's important to be true to the spirit of the subject, and that gives you more wiggle room to create,' he said.

Those defining moments

If sketching his own defining moments, Jahnson would probably touch on his writing skills in high school in Southern California, when he covered sporting events for his hometown newspaper.

'I was participating in cross country at track (for school). I would participate in the event and then go home and write about it,' he said, smiling and clarifying that he didn't quote himself.

Back then, he wanted to be Cameron Crowe - known for his interviews with The Allman Brothers Band, Yes and Led Zeppelin - and write for Rolling Stone magazine. So, in college at University of California, Los Angeles in the late '70s and early '80s he took a class in playwriting which 'opened up a whole new world - screenwriting. He studied the work of Ray Bradbury, a science fiction and fantasy writer, and said that his several encounters with him taught him his most valuable advice - keep working at it:

Jahnson: 'I told him, I want to write.'

Bradbury: 'Do you write everyday?'

Jahnson: 'No.'

Bradbury: 'Then your'e not a writer.'

While he's currently recommending films such as 'Lars and the Real Girl,' 'Limitless' and 'The Hangover' - 'and anything from The Cohen Brothers,' he said - the films that left a long-lasting impression on Jahnson were from the mid '60s to the mid '70s.

'We had 'The Godfather' and 'Chinatown,'' he said. 'It was such a creative, terrific time for movies in America (with) great writers, great actors and great directors writing sophisticated, smart movies. It all changed after 'Jaws,' which spawned the blockbuster.'

Classes soon in Lake Oswego

While digital technology has hugely leveled the playing field in the film industry, Jahnson said that now it's most important to distinguish your work from the mediocrity out there. There are still great film projects; you just have to sift through the sludge to find them.

'You now no longer need to go to Hollywood. You can write, shoot something and have it on YouTube all in a half-day. It's that fast and accessible now,' he said.

And Portland's film industry expands each year and to cater to that, Jahnson teaches a Monday night class at the McMinniman's Backstage Bar in Portland for intermediate to advanced screenwriters. Those interested can purchase a block of classes.

'I might have a night where I talk about great female villains, so we're going to show some film clips - Nurse Ratched from 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' or Mrs. Robinson from 'The Graduate.' That would be a topic for the evening, and if you are interested, attend.'

Starting Jan. 10, he will also teach Tuesday nights in the lower level at Maher's Irish Pub - located at 352 B Ave. in Lake Oswego - and most likely share scenes from some of his favorite films such as 'Sunset Boulevard,' 'Adaptation,' 'Big Picture' and 'The Player.'

'I enjoy teaching and I actually learn a lot by re-examining these films. As you mature, you see things from a different perspective - especially if you've had children or are married,' he said. 'You've got a different filter.'

Class attendees can read a screenplay on the page and then view the scene from the movie to see how it was adapted for the screen - and how the words were interpreted.

'When it comes down to it, we're all a little bit like Huck Finn - the unreliable narrator,' Jahnson said. 'We like to embellish the facts because it's good story telling.'

For more information about Jahnson and to sign up for a class, visit the website www.randalljahnson.com .