Jan Hubbell flips through the ink-covered pages of a dog-eared spiral notebook, its pages filled with scribbled notes, lists, characters and scenes.
The local teacher and writer filled the notebook with thoughts for a movie over the course of a year, before spending another two years writing the actual script for “A Perfect Gentleman.”
Earlier this month, that screenplay won the Best Comedy award at the Los Angeles Film & Script Festival — a breakthrough for the local woman and, she hopes, the first step toward seeing the movie on the big screen.
The award-winning screenplay is a gender reversal of “My Fair Lady.” It follows two New York City socialite women — both jilted by long-term boyfriends — who, on a bet, give a homeless man a makeover and then try to pass him off as a count in Cannes.
The romantic comedy has won admirers for its twists on the tried-and-true “Pygmalion” story, and its development of the homeless man as a spiritual seeker and closet intellectual. He can quote Rumi but, as Hubbell puts it, “doesn’t believe in himself.” The story line about the vagrant’s physical transformation, she hopes, also will tap into the makeover craze running through television these days.
The script also took fourth place in this year’s Colorado Film Awards screenplay competition.
Though it may surprise non-Hollywood insiders, racking up screenwriting awards doesn’t necessarily mean the movie will get made.
“But it’s definitely a good way to gain visibility for the project,” Hubbell says.
Of course, people don’t write a screenplays to win awards for the writing, they write them to see them translated on screen — a prospect that looks all the brighter for Hubbell.
“You could win 10 or 20 contests and nothing ever happens, but it shows that at least you have an idea that could cook,” she explains.
Hubbell is a lifelong writer. She studied at Bennington College in the ’70s, under the late, legendary Bernard Malamud, and, at 22, went on to the Writers’ Workshop at The University of Iowa. The vaunted masters program, Hubbell notes with pride, has produced nine out of the last 15 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
“It seemed like the writers there were all in their late 30s and writing the great American novel,” she jokes.
She had — and has — similar ambitions for her own. She’s written two unpublished novels and dozens of short stories over the years, as well as poetry.
Out of grad school, though, with novel manuscripts in tow, she was disillusioned by her prospects of landing a decent-paying entry level job in the New York magazine world. So she started a career as a business writer.
“I said, ‘The heck with it. I’m going to Wall Street to follow the money,’” she recalls.
She sparingly continued work on her fiction and poetry, on the side, as she worked as a writer for an investment bank — putting her skills to work for decidedly unpoetic projects, like product brochures for optimized portfolios.
Moving to Aspen in 2007, she opened a business-writing service and started teaching at Colorado Mountain College (CMC). She soon became an active member of the Aspen Poets’ Society — publishing poems regularly here in Time Out and in journals like Sugar Mule Literary Magazine.
Three years ago, an idea took hold of her for a screenplay that she says she couldn’t ignore.
“This project set up shop in my mind and wouldn’t let go,” she says. “I immersed myself in the world of screenplay and haven’t looked back since.”
As ideas came to her for “A Perfect Gentleman,” she would scribble them down in that trusty spiral notebook. The characters grew more complete. The scenes grew more fully formed. Dabbles of irony were added here and there. It was all there — but it also was all jumbled.
“What I ended up with after a year was this whole notebook,” she explains, thumbing through it, “full of scenes from the movie and all in the wrong order.”
She went through it and hammered out the screenplay, putting her other projects aside for “A Perfect Gentleman.”
“I just kind of said, ‘OK, if this is what my muse wants me to do, I’ll do it,’” she says.
She wasn’t disciplined, she explains, in writing at a certain time of day or for a certain amount of time, she says, instead writing and polishing the script whenever she could.
To her surprise, her years of poetry writing deeply informed her work on the screenplay, where economy — especially in dialogue — is paramount.
“It has to be so concise,” Hubbell says. “Every word has to be carefully chosen. It’s all about how short you can make the dialogue and how short you can make the action. So, like poetry, it has to be perfect. And that’s why it takes years.”
Her classes at CMC, where she teaches fiction and English composition, have helped her hone her craft.
Teaching fiction, she workshops stories by the local students but also has them read short fiction by masters of the form, like Chekhov.
“It’s amazing how teaching fiction helps your own writing,” she says. “It’s such a give and take.”
Hubbell recognizes that talent and a good script are, for better or worse, only one part of being a successful screenwriter. They also have to hustle and pitch and sell themselves and, oftentimes, hit a bit of good luck.
She’s practiced her “log-line” (the essential one-sentence screenplay pitch), entered contests and is now shopping the script around to agents. Get her started on it, and she talks fast — and persuasively — about its unique attributes, possible actors and anything else related to the screenplay.
She describes it as a mix between “The Soloist,” the 2009 Jamie Foxx film about a gifted homeless cello player, and “What Women Want,” the 2000 Mel GIbson/Helen Hunt romantic comedy about a man who can hear what women are thinking.
“In Hollywood, it always has to be something meets something,” she laughs.
Over the last three years, Hubbell has studied screenplays — their rigid format and their creative possibilities — along with filmmakers and screenwriters themselves. She points to a quote by Melvin Shavelson, the late Writers Guild of America president who wrote movies for old Hollywood greats like Bob Hope and Henry Fonda, as a reminder of the realities for movie writers: “I’ve got a shelf full of films I’ve written and directed and an even larger shelf of films that have never been made. Those scripts are usually the better ones.”