LUNCH with Rick Hansberry, Screenwriter Extraordinaire

LUNCH with Rick Hansberry, Screenwriter Extraordinaire

— Originally Published in FLL Issue #08

LunchWithRickHansberryMy editor gave me my next assignment — to interview Lancaster screenwriter Rick Hansberry. Forgive me but I was immediately skeptical—a screenwriter in Lancaster? Isn’t that a bit like a surfer in Idaho? Oxymoron kept running through my brain—jumbo shrimp, act naturally, and Lancaster screenwriter.

We met at the restaurant, and I was immediately struck by the fact Rick looked like a lawyer, a successful lawyer at that—his suit, tie, and shirt impeccable. The shoes were polished, the glasses professional, and the hair tidy. He introduced himself, escorted me to the table, began to talk, and he screamed efficient, analytical, in control lawyer. I kept thinking, where is the screenwriter?—Mr. Bohemian, jeans, long hair, unkempt from writing all day and losing track of time? In fact, Mr. Hansberry was early and then in his very controlled lawyer voice graciously apologized. This article was going to end up being about a successful Lancaster attorney, not a screenwriter. I was tempted to call my editor and ask if I had understood him correctly; but I had already ordered my meal, and I did not want to upset the man sitting across from me. We began with me explaining that I would ask a few questions and that I have found interviews are best if they are allowed to be an organic experience, emphasizing the second syllable so there would be no misunderstandings. I started with the elephant in the room question. How can you be a screenwriter and live in Lancaster?

Here I witnessed a genuine, glowing smile. He was expecting this question, probably had heard it a million times before, but was undeterred by it. He explained that in reality he worked in three professions—as a paralegal for 20 years, as a disc jockey for over 30, and as a writer for all of his life. Well, that explained the suit and demeanor, but how did these three very different vocations merge together in Rick Hansberry’s life? He began by explaining that he worked as a DJ from the time he was 17. He started with parties, bar mitzvahs, and eventually worked the Wildwood New Jersey night clubs. Seven days a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day, he kept the crowds dancing so that he could pay the bursar at LaSalle University, and in 1984 DJ Rick and now screenwriter Rick earned his bachelor’s degree in broadcast communications. It is while in school taking a screenwriting class that Rick found his dream. All his life he had been a writer, but after that class he focused his writing ambitions toward the field of screen writing.

In the 1984 economy of Philadelphia, he was able to find plenty of interning placements, but they were just that— interning with no money. His goals commanded a move to where the action was taking place, LA or New York. He announced to his parents his intention of moving, perusing the dream, and finding his place in the screenwriting community. Being loving and practical parents, they suggested that Rick not move to these places until he had a marketable skill, something to sustain him as he and thousands of others tried to peruse the same dream in the entertainment communities. He found a paralegal 16-week program that guaranteed placement in a job in the city of his choice; and if they couldn’t, they would refund one third of the tuition. Rick asked for either LA or New York. There were no job offers on the West Coast, thus New York is where he found his first adult job. He lived in Philadelphia, but the two hours each way train commute was a gift of time. Those four hours he wrote. It was at this point in dinner that Rick shared with me that every day, each and every day since 1984, he has taken at least 45 minutes a day to write his screen plays. He has accumulated at least 25 of them and half are registered with the screenwriters’ guild. I began to think, what have I done, other than the mundane chores of daily life everyday for the past 24 years? Rick attacks this screenwriting job like an Olympic athlete. There are no days off. This level of discipline truly amazes me.

This New York paralegal job led him to his wife, Christin, and then to Lancaster. In 1990, celebrating their one-year wedding anniversary, they planned a trip to a romantic bed and breakfast here in Amish country. While here they came across a 100-year-old farm house in Manheim Township and decided it was here they were going to live and raise their family. They now have two children, Ali, a senior at Manheim Township High School, and Evan, a freshman. The commute was a strain on the family, and so now Rick works as a paralegal in York and DJs throughout the county. In addition, he continues to write his screenplays. But the cards fell as a new direction was taken by the MTV board and all was lost. Rick explains that in order to obtain an agent so jobs can be attained by the artist he must have sold work, but the only real way to sell work is to have an agent. Rick does not give up; he continues to wonder what might have been and yet continues his writing. It appears to me it does not matter the hurdle, where most of us in our middle-aged years, with responsibilities of children and home have fallen to the pressures and have captured the “I could have been someone” syndrome, Rick keeps at it.

The meal is coming to an end, and I randomly begin asking questions about his favorite writer. “Lawrence Kasdan,” he replies. “You just get caught up in his stories.” Rick then asks if I ever saw Body Heat. Did I! I was 19 years old, dateless and at a movie theatre watching Kathleen Turner ask William Hurt if he wanted to lick off the ice cream she has just dropped onto her very white skirt. I have never forgotten that line, or that movie, and Kathleen Turner has always represented the ultimate seductress who I’ve always wanted to be and yet have never become. I instead carry baby wipes in my purse. Rick moves the conversation to other favorites such as Ron Howard, who is directing Nixon and Frost, which stars one of the actresses that Rick hired to star in his short film Chemistry. Her name is Jen Gotzon, and she plays Tricia Nixon. Jen is also the actress that conducted a question and answer session at the Wildwood Film Festival where Chemistry premiered for an audience outside of Lancaster. Jen Gotzon is on the fast track to Hollywood success, and she seems to like Rick’s work enough to help him along. Then Rick also shares that a Bollywood producer from India had called that morning and sincerely likes one of Rick’s love stories The Tenth Woman. They are going to work the story to fit the script to Indian culture, but it looks good for a sale. I casually ask why he saved all this exciting news for the end of dinner?—a highly supportive Hollywood actress and a sale to Bollywood. He smiles and then humbly shares that director George Heredia is going to direct his next 8 minute short film. “Good things are happening,” I say. “This is very exciting. You are so close.”

“Well I keep writing and mailing scripts and sending emails and praying,” he replies. He continues to share the exciting news that a country musician Timothy Paul has written a song specifically for Rick’s short film Forever Starts. Rick also reveals that a director is ready to begin shooting composed original music and a completed script and that several music channel outlets have expressed enthusiasm for this Bon Jovish 8 minute film about the trials and travails of a musician making it in a very harsh business. But Rick’s body language expresses a sense of worry rather than elation. “What is the problem?” I ask. After a few moments he says, “Money. The very small budget is still $10,000, but $10,000 could be a million. I do not have the $10,000 necessary to produce this film.” So everything is in place but once again something is going to stop Rick from reaching the finish line, the end game, Hollywood.

As he spoke I flashed to one of my son’s favorite films, Rudy. the true story of a young man, Rudy Rutteiger, who was always told he was too small to play college ball at Notre Dame and not smart enough to attend the prestigious university. But Rudy persevered. He practiced, transferred in, and by never giving up he didn’t become a star, but in the last season of his last year at the last game the crowd began chanting “Rudy, Rudy, Rudy.”

All he had to do is play in one game, and he earned a sports letter and a place in Notre Dame’s history. Rudy, against all odds, kept at it and with the help of others played his game. There is not one viewer who does not cry at the end of the film and who does not cheer for the young man who never gave up. Rudy is the ultimate can do, Horatio Alger story, and it occurred to me that Rick Hansberry is Lancaster’s Rudy. Size and dyslexia couldn’t stop Rudy Rutteiger, and money can’t or at least I hope not, stop Rick. So I ask, “What if people could donate to producing your film? What would they get besides knowing they were helping a dream come true?”

Rick smiles and says, “Well we could make them producers, listed on the credits; we could send them the script and ask for notes and input. We could invite them to the premiere party and offer them admission to all of the festivals in which we enter the film. I could DJ for their premier party with all of their friends, and ultimately they could be a part of Hollywood.” How much would this cost them? Five hundred dollars buys them producer status. Five hundred dollars and you stand up for the man who has never lost his dream to the everyday demands of life. He has never given up. I was not able to be part of Rudy’s incredible experience, but I can be part of Rick’s. Basically $500.00 invests in a celluloid dream and Lancaster’s image. Philadelphia has M. Night Shyamalan, but Lancaster, we have Rick Hansberry. Thoreau once wrote that “dreams are the touchstones of character.” Rick’s character is worth the investment, and his dreams are worth seeing them to fruition. I am standing and chanting, envisioning myself in that stadium cheering on the man who wouldn’t give up and hoping with my help and help from others that his success will be shared. But, I also begin to think about what young dreams I have left behind that need to be rediscovered. It appears Rick Hansberry inspires on many levels.

FAST FORWARD >>

Since the initial interview, Rick has shared that other positive events have occurred. The short film Chemistry, starring Jen Gotzon, has been accepted into the First Glance Film Festival; it has also been listed with IMDB, the Internet Movie Database, a website that lists all the credits and release information of all screened movies. Also, he has just finished his script for the year. This script entitled Expiration is posted on Trigger Street. Trigger Street is a website developed by Kevin Spacey and others as a networking site where writers and filmmakers can meet in an online forum to exchange ideas, tips, leads, and read and review each other’s work. It has developed a reputation for being a goldmine of new, fresh talent for Hollywood. For all of the exciting positive news, Rick has also informed me that he is still in need of producers for his music video Forever Starts. Associate producers for a contribution of $100.00 can also be a part of the process. Times are tough, but Hollywood and other realms of escape always flourish during economic down turns. If interested, readers can contact Rick at djrickhansberry@msn.com or connect at Facebook.