Barbara Schiffman

Barbara Schiffman

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By DEBBIE BURKE

After moving to Whitefish in 2019, before the boxes were even unpacked, Barbara Schiffman jumped into the vibrant Flathead writing community, eager to share her experience of 35-plus years in Hollywood as a script consultant and creative producer.  

Her resume includes working for actor/director Warren Beatty, writer/director Mike Gray (China Syndrome), and production companies including HBO, Showtime, Dreamworks, and more. 

During previous visits to Montana to see their twin grandsons, Barbara and her husband Glenn had connected with the Authors of the Flathead (AOF). In 2016 and 2019, she was a featured speaker at the annual Flathead River Writers Conference. 

After retirement, she and Glenn left Burbank, California, moving first to Spokane,Washington, and ultimately landing in Whitefish to be close to their grandchildren. 

“We want to be with them while we are still fun,” she said.

Both Barbara and Glenn are authors and made immediate friends among other writers. Since a number of people expressed interest in screenwriting, she was soon leading discussions on the topic, sponsored by AOF as well as her own Meetup screenwriting group.

After having read thousands of scripts, Barbara knows what works and what doesn’t. She generously passes along her insights in seminars and workshops she offers for free on the fourth Thursday of every month. Her talks draw aspiring screenwriters who drive to the community college in Kalispell from as far away as Polson, Ovando, Helena, and Spokane. 

She is particularly interested in encouraging more film production in Montana. 

“We have a great talent pool of writers here. I’d like to see them ‘discovered,’” she said. 

When Steven Shapero, founder of the Bigfork Independent Film Festival (BIFF), asked for Barbara’s help, she gladly rolled up her sleeves, giving classes on how to pitch scripts to directors and producers. For five years, BIFF was a popular event showcasing films made in Montana. Winning films were screened at the Bigfork Playhouse. Even though Covid meant switching to a virtual event, audiences remained enthusiastic. When Steven could not continue running the festival, BIFF went on permanent hiatus. 

In 2019, Barbara attended a wedding in Ojai, California. While there, she learned about a screenwriting contest and thought, “We can do that in Montana!” As a result, she founded the Montana Screenwriting Competition. The contest required the story to have Montana settings, or to be written by Montanans, or by writers with significant Montana connections. More than 60 entries came from all over the country and Canada, resulting in eight finalists. 

“They were really good scripts,” she said. “Being a contest finalist gives the writer credibility when pitching to producers and directors.” 

She knows whereof she speaks, having been a featured presenter on script reading at the American Film Institute and having judged more than a dozen screenwriting competitions. 

For this year’s Flathead River Writers Conference (October 1-2, 2022), Barbara recruited long-time colleague Suzanne Lyons, a film and TV producer, as a guest speaker. Suzanne will evaluate a limited number of scripts in advance and meet one-on-one with the writers. 

Barbara wants those selected scriptwriters to have the best chance at success. To that end, she offered a summer workshop to polish the all-important first 10 pages. “I want to help them get those pages as good as they can be. There’s a gold mine in the Flathead Valley, and I’d love it if Suzanne discovered someone in our community.” 

In the future, Barbara plans to compile notes from her workshop into a book because she has not found anything similar on the market. 

“I write books I can’t find,” she said. 

She wants to encourage filmmaking in Montana. “The Montana Film Act made all the difference in attracting the industry to Montana as a location for films.” 

In addition to craft tips, Barbara’s monthly talks offer a special bonus: an insider’s view. She has read scripts for stars like Bette Midler, Oprah, and Steven Seagal, looking for roles they might want to play or stories they could direct. “If a star is involved, then the money for production is more easily available.” 

She demystifies how books and scripts are chosen and the process by which they’re developed into films. Often the original story bears little similarity to the finished product.  

At one time, Barbara worked for Dan Petrie, Jr., who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Beverly Hills Cop. She described the evolution of that story. It started as a gritty crime drama, set in Chicago, then moved to New Orleans. Initially, Sylvester Stallone was cast as the star. 

But Eddie Murphy was brought in instead. He gave the project a whole new comic slant, playing a black cop from the mean streets of Detroit who finds himself out of his comfort zone in sunny Beverly Hills. The 1984 movie became a hugely successful comedy. 

“If Stallone had played the role, it would have been an entirely different film,” said Barbara.

Another insider glimpse concerns the 1979 horror/sci-fi hit Alien. The role of Ripley was originally written for a male actor. However, relative newcomer Sigourney Weaver became the star, and her performance electrified audiences. Barbara said that role was ground-breaking for women actors and opened doors in Hollywood for strong female leads in action films. 

When Barbara is not mentoring writers, she and Glenn enjoy exploring Montana, especially sampling diners that are off the beaten path. She’s also a member of two book clubs in Whitefish because “that keeps me reading stories I wouldn’t have otherwise tried.” 

Barbara laughed about local authors she knows who write mystery and crime novels. 

“When you meet them in the grocery store, they are the nicest people. Then you go home and read their thriller or murder mystery, and it gives you nightmares.”  

Barbara’s generosity and willingness to share her experiences both educates and enriches the cultural community of the Flathead Valley, making Barbara and Glenn Schiffman welcome additions to Montana. MSN

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