Workshop promotes Gallic-set stories


ROYAUMONT, France -- A 13th century Cistercian abbey may seem an unlikely place for a filmmaking fellowship, but this monastic setting last month welcomed a quartet of U.S. writers looking to hone their French-set screenplays.

The inaugural six-week residence -- dubbed "Autumn Stories" -- is jointly run by the Ile de France Film Commission and the Franco-American Cultural Fund, which organizes the film festival City of Lights, City of Angels in Los Angeles. The two share the $106,000 bill for the residence.

Royaumont Abbey, just north of Paris, has splendid vaulted ceilings and a cloistered courtyard beneath moss-covered roofs and is set in tranquil gardens with a gently flowing stream. But peace and quiet is not all that is on offer to the visiting writers.

With the film commission trying multiple tactics to attract projects to the Paris region, the scribes were treated to an intensive cultural program to implant the French capital at the heart of their stories.

This included visits to local chateaux, the Paris catacombs, Van Gogh's resting place, concerts, restaurants and even a ballet. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Eric Axel Weiss ("Buffalo Soldiers"), on his first trip to France and writing a thriller based on the true story of a man who recruited gullible tourists for fantasy anti-terror operations. Weiss transposed his screenplay from London to Paris to qualify for the residence.

Nnegest Likke came to research a biopic about Louis Braille, inventor of the eponymous language that enables the blind to read. "It gave me the opportunity to capture the spirit of his life in France," Likke said. "Lots of people would want to do a movie set here but don't have the resources. Especially writers, we're the bottom of the food chain," she laughed.

Darryl Ponicsan used the residence to work on "Un Pied-a-Terre," a light comedy about four middle-aged men looking to add a little spice to life. Ponicsan said he thought up the idea especially for the residence. "It requires a certain French formality," he said.

Only one of the four Royaumont projects has a producer attached -- David Marconi's post-Sept. 11 thriller "The Take" -- but the writers are hopeful they will all result in French-shot movies. "I want to make it as a writer so the producer has no choice," Likke said. "Even if the power (over where to shoot) doesn't lie in our hands at the end of the day, if the screenplay doesn't start here, it can't finish here."

But Marconi, who will direct "The Take" himself, said more concrete measures are needed to bring shoots to Paris. "They've got to come in with financial incentives. It's 20 days in Paris or 40 days in Hungary," he said bluntly.