Jesuit English teacher builds screenwriting career
He’s a Jesuit English teacher by day and a screenwriter whenever he can isolate time in his busy schedule.
Michael Begg, who received the 2016 Profile of a Jesuit Teacher Award from Jesuit High where he is an English teacher and assistant disciplinarian, is making inroads with professional screenwriting.
His most recent, “The Milk Route,” has earned official selection at the 2015 Richmond International Film Festival and the Sacramento International Film Festival, finalist status at the 2014 Peachtree International Film Festival and Top Ten finalist at the 2015 Reno Tahoe International Film Festival, among other accolades.
As a result of winning a Paulist Productions Scholarship from CineStory Foundation, a national nonprofit screenwriter’s organization, he recently attended a retreat where he met fellow writers and was schooled by producers who schooled him on the fine points of screenwriting.
“Two worked with me on my script ‘Milk Route,’” Begg said, and the other was interested in his screenplay “Reel Man.”
“It was interesting to go to California and be with about 20 other writers and industry professionals, and they weren’t interested in me as anything else but a writer,” he said. “For so long, I’ve been a Catholic educator, teacher, administrator, moderator. That’s who I am, but it’s nice to know that the private side that you’ve spent a lot of hours on, not in collaboration with other people, is recognized.”
“The Milk Route,” written after Hurricane Katrina, drew from Begg’s experience as a teenage milk man’s helper in New Orleans delivering milk from midnight to 5 a.m. Begg’s fictional characters are based on stripped down versions of people he’s known.
“All the subtexts and themes I wanted to deal with are all me in the story, but nothing happened the way that story says it. ... It’s in loving memory of the milk man. It has all the heroic qualities of him, but it is not him.”
Lover of film
Begg is a self-admitted movie buff whose “guideposts of my life I can remember based on a movie I had seen at the same time. I remember seeing ‘Star Wars’ two days after my high school graduation, and Spielberg’s ‘Empire of the Sun’ when I was on my honeymoon.”
He said it was watching the movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in sixth grade that got him hooked on screenwriting and the work of William Goldman, who won a 1970 Academy Award for the movie’s original screenplay.
“Looking at that opened up my eyes to that style of writing,” Begg said. “It made me look at movies differently.”
Other influences on how he writes today come from being a Brother Martin student in the 1970s and the more literary, more mature, character-driven and risk-taking movies that he saw at the time.
“I had some really good English teachers who awakened me to literature and storytelling,” Begg said. A one-on-one English elective with teacher Guy Nelson was pivotal for him. Nelson later invited Begg to teach English at Brother Martin after graduating from the University of New Orleans.
Worn many hats
Begg has been a teacher and was president/principal at Archbishop Rummel High from 2005, when it was a transition school after Hurricane Katrina, to 2011. He also taught a year at Delgado and Nunez College.
He’s collaborated on several projects with Barry Lemoine before Katrina and reconnected after on the original screenplay “Audubon” about John James Audubon’s life. That screenplay won the 2014 Yosemite International Film Festival and was honored by the 2015 Mountain Film Festival. It was even optioned by a production company.
Among the most meaningful screenwriting advice that came Begg’s way was from Professor Richard Walter, chair of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA)’s screenwriting department. Begg had met him while lecturing at the University of Notre Dame about his travels with Catholic Relief Services to the Holy Land.
“He opened my eyes a little more to the craft of writing,” advising that scripts have a maximum of 120 pages, since each page equates to a minute on film, and every minute costs more to produce.
“In screenwriting, you only put on the page what you see and what you hear,” he said. Screenwriters provide the spine and structure to hang a story on and let directors and actors do the rest. “It’s a lonely job because you write all of this, and the number of people who will read it will be few.”
Begg has the best of the worlds he loves – teaching and screenwriting. He says his Jesuit English I and IV students have great interest in filmmaking and often ask him to show them the way. He’s quick to share his experience by breaking down scripts of movies they watch for coursework.
“The students are enthralled, he said. “When students know that you write, I think it has a positive influence on them.”
Begg is on the board of an online school and working on a curriculum for a high school screenwriting course.
His return to classroom teaching, especially at Jesuit where emphasis is on formal writing and grammar, has given Begg a re-education on grammar, editing and rewriting, essential skills for screenwriters.
“It’s made me step up my game and made me a tighter writer,” he said. “I think I’m a better writer because I am a teacher, and a better teacher because I am a writer.”
Begg is working on several new scripts, including “The Blue Tarp Boys,” “The Advantages of Whiskey Over Dogs,” and one on Archbishop Joseph Rummel’s fight in the 1960s against segregation in Catholic schools in New Orleans. He said he researched the archbishop’s life while president at Archbishop Rummel High.
“He would make a phenomenal movie character,” Begg said. “This was a guy approaching his 80s at the time and almost blind.”
But, it’s a long journey from idea to screenplay, so, at this stage of his career, he will keep his day job.
“It’s a little bit hard for anybody to break in (the industry),” he said.