A Conspiring Creative

Gregory Bernstein stands next to his movie poster of "The Conspirator."
Photo by Mackenzie McCreary

Fresh from the adventures and challenges of writing for the silver screen, Gregory Bernstein reclines in his desk chair and gazes at a full-size poster of his award-winning film on the opposite wall.

Nostalgia gleams in his eyes as he speaks of his film, “The Conspirator.” Passion erupts from his words into the sparse gray office slanted with end-of-the-day light. Outside, ASU students kick back in the Secret Garden to discuss homework and the weekend ahead.

Bernstein is new to ASU this semester, a professor in the School of Theatre and Film, which is a part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. But he arrives with the experience and professional advice of someone who has worked in the film industry for decades.

Bernstein and his partner James Solomon recently received the 2012 Humanitas Prize in the Feature Film category for co-writing “The Conspirator.”

Directed by Robert Redford, “The Conspirator” explores the aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln with the trial of Mary Surratt and the young, former Union soldier, Frederick Aiken, who was forced to defend her.

Bernstein, a self-described war buff with a passion for history and law, is the son of well-known film composer Elmer Bernstein, who composed the scores for “Ghostbusters” and “Cape Fear” among other movies.

However, Gregory Bernstein never really thought of going into the entertainment business. At first, he wanted to escape show business to pursue politics, but after some time on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., he realized the political world was not his calling.

Bernstein graduated from the University of California-Los Angeles Law School and, after his attempt in D.C., he went on to become the vice president of business affairs at Columbia Pictures, TriStar Pictures and Lorimar Telepictures.

Then he tried his hand at writing.

“I just wanted to write,” he says. “I wanted to say my things and have the opportunity to make people laugh or tell a good story and it just became really interesting to me as something to do.”

Bernstein helped write other films including “One Day in Dallas,” “Call Me Claus” and “Trial and Error,” all of which he wrote with his wife, Sara.

“I suppose it was somewhat natural that I gravitated towards film,” he says. “Although my father’s success made that, in some ways, not a very appealing way to go.”

But Bernstein took the leap of faith and saw what it was like to be on the creative side as opposed to the executive side of the film business.

“There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing scenes that you have written up on the screen,” he says.

“The Conspirator” is not a documentary, but a historical drama that follows written records of what happened throughout the assassination and Surratt’s trial.

“The people who put up the money for the film insisted that it be historically accurate,” Bernstein says. “People who go and see this film are seeing a slice of American history, and whether they like it or not, that is what happened.”

No one suspected the bible-touting, bonnet-covered Surratt to be involved in something as grizzly as an assassination. But when her family’s strong loyalties to the Confederates were forced into the spotlight, tensions escalated both in and out of the cramped courtroom.

“It would be like someone being told they have to defend Osama bin Laden two days after 9/11,” Bernstein says. “Not many people would really want to do that, and back in 1865 no one wanted to defend this person.”

However, when Surratt’s attorney — the young, inexperienced Aiken — begins work on the trial, he starts to realize Surratt’s humanity and the truth behind the justice system of that time, Bernstein says.

“He overcame his prejudices and really fought for her,” he says. Surratt’s trial intrigued Bernstein, as she was the first woman hanged by order of the U.S. federal government. However, while at first Bernstein thought the film would revolve around Suratt and her struggle, it evolved into Aiken’s endeavor to defend a woman already marked for death.

“We are looking for films that explore the human condition, something where someone makes a transformation,” says Dierdre Dooley, program administrator at Humanitas, in a phone interview. “Growth and change is pertinent to the overall theme and we want to see that.”

The process of the Humanitas system consists of over 60 jurists who read scripts in several categories including feature film, children’s animation, documentary and others.

These jurists do not see the film on the silver screen when they are judging. Instead, they just read the screenplay: “It’s all about good writing,” Dooley says.

“It was very surprising and really nice,” Bernstein says of receiving the award. “Awards are nice, they have their place, but I don’t think they’re the end all and be all.”

Bernstein poses in his office between the posters of the films he wrote.
Photo by Mackenzie McCreary

Bernstein is one of two professors from the School of Theatre and Film still involved in the film industry. He teaches the business of media industries and beginning screenwriting.

Those who want to pursue a career in screenwriting need to be patient and easy on themselves. They also need to search deeply for what they truly want to say in their writing.

“What they should want to say should be something very much part of their DNA, of their experience, rather than trying to mirror what someone else has said or done,” he says in his warm voice.

Jacob Pinholster, director of the School of Theatre and Film, says students taking Bernstein’s classes will benefit greatly from his knowledge and experience.

“Having, in one professor, someone with experience in writing, feature development, the Writer’s Guild and studio administration is an amazing advantage in terms of students’ understanding of the film and media industry,” Pinholster said in an email.

Bernstein says he chose to teach here because he liked the enthusiasm of both the faculty and the students.

“Universities are very optimistic places because you have faculty and students who are all working for the future and to make a better world,” he says. “I have known for a long time that I’ve always wanted to be a part of it.”

Bernstein says he plans to continue to write and an idea for another historical drama is already in the works. While he enjoys writing and watching these, he also likes to write comedies.

“I can like anything from ‘Inception’ to ‘Dumb and Dumber’,” he chuckles. “[But] there aren’t many things better in this world than making people laugh, and that’s a great feeling.”

As he continues to focus on the poster for “The Conspirator,” the light from the window starts to fade and Bernstein smiles at the end of another long day. He heads home, a view of modest humility.


Reach the writer at mamccrea@asu.edu or via Twitter @mackenziemicro

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