From Script to Screen: Professor Maurizio Marmorstein
Maurizio Marmorstein teaches Fundamentals of Screenwriting at John Cabot University. He holds a B.A. from Seton Hall University and an M.A. from Middlebury College in Italian Language and Culture. Professor Marmorstein has authored a biographical novel on the life of Niccolò Machiavelli, The Making of a Prince, published by The Mentoris Project, and is currently writing a novel on Admiral Andrea Doria, The Pirate Prince of Genoa, planned for release in early 2020.
What brought you to John Cabot?
Although I was born in Rome, my family emigrated to a small town on the New Jersey shore when I was two years old. I grew up as a typical immigrant, wanting desperately to fit in while never really letting go of my Italian roots. As you can judge from my last name, my father wasn’t Italian, but rather a Romanian national, and a survivor of the Holocaust, so identity-wise I was always a bit all over the map.
After completing my Master’s Degree at Middlebury College in Vermont, I started work on my Ph.D. in Italian Literature at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I was given a job in the Rutgers Study Abroad Program in Florence, Italy while working on my thesis. Once my whole family (two kids and my wife, Lexi) arrived in Italy we never went back to the States. From there I got a job teaching Italian language and literature at another university in Rome (AUR) where I stayed for nineteen years. Since my academic interests were always geared towards theater and film, and I had several plays produced and screenplays commissioned early in my career, my teaching slowly gravitated towards scriptwriting. That’s where JCU comes in. After leaving my job of nineteen years to work on a novel on Niccoló Machiavelli for the Mentoris Project in Los Angeles, I was invited to teach Fundamentals of Screenwriting at JCU, which I happily accepted.
What’s the most important lesson a student should take away from your Screenwriting classes?
The act of writing for the screen may be a solitary pursuit, but in the end, it requires the input and collaboration of a lot of people, and usually a good amount of money, to bring your work to fruition. The practicalities of such an endeavor call for a certain level of preparation before you sit down to write that first word. So, I would say the main lesson to be learned from my classes is that writing is a process. The thought and effort you put into preparing your script, as well as the focus you put into polishing it, are as important as the writing itself.
What advice would you give to an aspiring screenwriter?
I’ve found that the scripts that have worked best for me and have been most positively received, are the ones I felt most passionate about. It was that passion that gave insight into the characters and their motivations, and kept me focused on the theme I wanted to convey. Of course, you’ll also need to develop a storyline that communicates that theme as well as a tone, style, attitude, and point of view that supports it. In terms of screenwriting as a profession, I would say perseverance is the key. Learn the craft, and never stop writing.
What are three scripts everyone should read and why?
There are so many great scripts out there, but if I had to choose three that all aspiring screenwriters should read I would say Chinatown, Casablanca, and The Godfather are about as good as it gets. Chinatown is not only a great genre film full of suspense and intrigue, but it reads well on so many different dramatic levels. It’s politically relevant, emotionally riveting, and psychologically profound. Almost the same can be said for Casablanca which has the extra added benefit of having a terrific love story. As for The Godfather, you’ll never witness a more convincing and tragic transformation from good to evil than in the character of Michael Corleone.
How does the process of writing a book differ from that of writing a screenplay?
When I started writing my first novel on the life of Niccoló Machiavelli, I was struck by how free I felt compared to writing a screenplay. I could indulge in descriptions of scenery or character without worrying about taking up time or slowing down the pace. And at the same time, I could quickly state something that happened in the past, or that is currently going on in a character’s mind, without having to dramatize it or create a completely new scene. The essential difference between the two art forms is that when writing a screenplay the simple rule of ‘show don’t tell’ is to be followed at all costs.
With so many liberal arts colleges in the US, why should one choose JCU?
First of all, Rome is an awesome city. Studying in a foreign country, learning about a different culture, and meeting students from all over the world while getting an American style education is an ideal experience, one that will stay with you your entire life. Rome has attracted some of the best and brightest professors anyone could hope for, and many of them teach at JCU. I certainly know that to be true in the Communications Department.
Tell us about your biographical novel on the life of Niccoló Machiavelli, The Making of a Prince. What sets it apart from previous books on the topic?
Since The Making of a Prince was my first experience with a novel, I approached it much like I did when preparing a screenplay: who are my characters, what motivates them, and how can I get the reader (or viewer) to empathize with their struggle? I did a lot of research on Niccoló Machiavelli, the diplomat, the political scientist, and writer, but I spent just as much time trying to understand Machiavelli, the man. In the end, that’s the story you’re telling.
There aren’t many fictional accounts of Machiavelli’s life, so right off the bat that sets my book apart from the literally hundreds of non-fiction books out there. Also, I came to appreciate him first as a gifted writer of comedies such as La Mandragola and La Clizia, which are not only very funny, but in a weird way reveal more of his dark and brutally honest outlook on the human condition than his political writings. So, I guess you could say my Machiavelli is a stark realist with a dark and mischievous sense of humor. I also tried to emphasize certain aspects of his character that aren’t usually explored, especially in regards to his political treatise, The Prince, namely, his hatred of tyranny, and his desire to rid Italy of all foreign occupation.
What is your teaching method?
I think my approach to teaching was conditioned very early in my career as a substitute teacher in Newark, New Jersey’s inner city where actively engaging students in discussions was not only a challenge but eventually became an effective teaching technique. I see myself as more of a mentor than a professor, especially when it comes to my writing classes. Just as screenplays are more about showing than telling, I believe teaching screenwriting is more about doing than lecturing. I love hearing all the crazy ideas students have for a story, and they love brainstorming about them.
Read the Kirkus review of The Making of a Prince.