Monday, May 20, 2013

James Patrick Riley — Becoming a Scriptwriter

James Patrick Riley as Silas Rhodes in "Courage, New Hampshire"

The blast of a shotgun that fired too close to his ear did its damage and, for a time, writer/creator/producer James Patrick Riley could barely hear.

Nearing the end of the first episode of the mini series “Courage, New Hampshire,” a critical scene was still being filmed. But the hearing loss incurred from that blast left Riley unable to adequately hear the final words between the series lovers.

“I had to ask Drew Ganyer (Director of Photography) if it went well and he assured me it did.”

But it wasn’t until he could actually hear actors Nathan Kershaw and Alexandra Oliver on a recording that the emotion-filled dialogue, spoken to near perfection, took Riley’s breath away.

“It’s so gratifying when actors bring your words to life.”

While many writers may imagine that kind of response to characters in their novels, few authors ever get to see their words come to life in video form as Riley has. And this Memorial Day weekend, Riley gets to see his mini-series shown for the first time on INSP network as the four-hour program premieres May 27 at 7 p.m. Eastern time.

Riley didn’t always think he’d be writing scripts for a series. When he was a student at Stanford University in the writing program, he imagined himself developing into a literary fiction writer.

One of his favorite authors was American novelist and short-story writer, Flannery O’Connor. “She was the master of  ‘the surprising ending.’ Her stories were always about redemption or divine judgment.”

The longer Riley was submerged in academia, however, the less satisfied he was with the fellowship and grant route to publishing. In 1983, he left the writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa and headed back to the family farm in southern California.

This rural business was far more than a farm to grow crops, however, although apple orchards were a part of the acreage. His family had begun doing Civil War re-enactments on the land near Oak Glen, as well as scheduling tours for schoolchildren to offer educational programs. The first year they offered five tours for kids. By the following year, 50-70,000 children participated in the program.

“People have an affection for history,” said Riley. “It allows them to escape into a totally different ambiance.”

While his brother, Scott, enjoyed the history of the Civil War, Riley himself was always fascinated by the history of the American Revolution. His search into family genealogy had unearthed family connections going back to colonial Rhode Island and Massachusetts. So when he and his wife Mary planned their house, they designed it like a colonial home from New England. Soon some of the farm tours focused on Early America. This re-creation of 1700’s living in America served to inspire his writer’s heart to follow a new course, as he created scripts for the living history business.

Riley began studying television and movies, even taking classes and workshops on script writing. He watched movies over and over, paying close attention to how the writers accomplished transitions from one scene to the next. But it was really hands-on practice that taught him the ropes of writing scripts. “It really is just doing it.”

Ernest Hemingway’s novels inspired Riley with their abundance of dialogue and action, the key elements for script writing.

Somewhere on this journey, the seeds for the script of “Courage, New Hampshire” were planted. It took two failed attempts before his third try birthed the first episode, “The Travail of Sarah Pine.”

Working on a shoe string budget with new grads fresh out of film school, but also finding willing participants with seasoned Hollywood talent, Riley did the seemingly impossible: He created four hours of a period drama that rivals many programs produced for millions of dollars.

Not bad for a writer with a passion for history and Christianity, as well as a desire to produce “masterful storytelling.”

“You gotta dream big.”

Sometimes, dreams do come true.

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