First draft-- Attorney writes screenplay about the Great Sit-down Strike in Flint

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

As an attorney, Bob Davidow was used to writing legal briefs and memoranda.

In retirement, he turned his hand to a different kind of writing--screenplays.

His new venture got under way in the spring of 2006, when he realized the 70th anniversary of the "Great Sit-down Strike" in Flint was fast approaching. The 1936-37 strike changed the United Automobile Workers from a collection of isolated locals into a major union and led to the unionization of the United States automobile industry.

"I initially thought of writing of my father's involvement in that strike," he says. "He had recently been hired by Homer Martin, then head of the International UAW as general counsel for the UAW. My father did some of the legal work in connection with the strike.

"In 1939 he left the labor movement and eventually moved across the political spectrum--from Socialist to Democrat to Republican to right-wing Republican."

Davidow's focus shifted from the strike to his relationship with his father.

"I didn't get very far into the screenplay before I switched to a biography/autobiography, then to a novella, then back to a screenplay, then to a stage play, and finally back to a screenplay," he says.

At this point he enrolled in a class in Ann Arbor for aspiring screenwriters, taught by Harvey Ovshinsky, president of HKO Media, an Ann Arbor-based production and story consulting company. Ovshinsky, is a former producer for ABC and Post Newsweek stations in Detroit and former director of production at Detroit Public Television.

The "How To Complete Your First Movie Script In Six Months" class demystified the screenwriting process and taught a simplified approach to completing that first script. Davidow learned how to get started--and not stop; screenplay as story and structure; creating characters, not caricatures; what do you mean it's not perfect?; the screenwriter as rewriter; and the back door approach to selling a script.

He has further refined the screenplay, although at present it constitutes only a first draft, he says. In his work, Davidow confronts his own issues with his father, and his father's denial of his Jewishness.

"I'm now debating whether and how to revise it to make it more appealing to an audience--to get beyond a personal, cathartic exercise," he says. "Whether or not the story ever makes it to the screen, in a way, I've accomplished what I set out to do."

Davidow has long enjoyed the creative pleasure of writing.

"The good thing about writing fiction is that I don't have to worry about footnotes, about documenting each statement," he says. "My challenge is to get outside of myself to a greater extent than I've been able to in the past.

"I realize, of course, that I can never totally free myself from my past. I'm not the sort of writer who can write about subjects that are completely unrelated to my own experience."

Davidow learned three important lessons from Ovshinsky's class:

(1) The first draft is what the writer wants to say--which got the ideas off his chest, but didn't advance the story.

(2) Every scene must advance the story.

(3) Plays typically have too much dialog for a screenplay. On the other hand, a screenplay can use flashbacks more effectively.

Davidow could certainly draw on his own life experiences for a screenplay. Born and raised in the Detroit area, he went to college in the East, but returned to the state for law school at the University of Michigan.

Following graduation, he worked briefly with a law firm in Cleveland, before taking leave for a three-year stint in the U.S. Army, serving for a year in Korea as a JAG officer.

After briefly rejoining the Cleveland firm when his tour of duty ended, he then went into law teaching at the University of North Dakota, then Florida State, then Texas Tech, and finally George Mason University, from which he retired some years ago.

Along the way he spent several additional years in graduate schools, including two other law schools, as well as a year in Northern Ireland, teaching at Queen's University of Belfast during "the Troubles," the period of political and religious conflict that started in the late 60s.

"I've also practiced criminal law from time to time; some of my practice overlapped my teaching, for example, at Florida State where I did clinical teaching, as well as traditional teaching," he says.

He also practiced for a time with the Cook County (Chicago) Public Defender's Office. His practice in Illinois included the representation of two death-row inmates. Since returning to Michigan after an absence of 43 years, he has handled a few appellate cases as a roster attorney of the Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System.

"As they say, it's been an interesting journey," he says.

Attention aspiring screenwriters!

The Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor will again offer Harvey Ovshinsky's screenwriting workshop, "How To Complete Your First Movie Script In Six Months, beginning Tuesday, Sept. 7. The class will meet from 7-10 p.m. on the first Monday of every month ending February 6, 2011. Tuition is $325.

Similar sessions will be offered at the Community House of Birmingham on the last Monday and the Grosse Pointe War Memorial on the third Monday.

"I've been astonished by the number and variety of people who have decided that now is the time to tell their stories in the form of a screenplay," says class teacher Harvey Ovshinsky, president of HKO Media, an Ann Arbor-based production and story consulting company. "Their goal isn't to make a million dollars; it's to get their truth off their chest, or to write a new ending to their own story. With so many people feeling like they can't control things that are going on in their world right now, telling their story in the form of a screenplay provides them with an element of mastery over one portion of their lives.

"What we learn in these groups is that writing doesn't change anything. It changes everything."

Published: Thu, Sep 2, 2010