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Q+A with screenwriter Douglas Soesbe (B.S '71, M.A '76)
Q+A with screenwriter Douglas Soesbe (B.S '71, M.A '76)

Portland State Alumnus Douglas Soesbe is a story analyst and editor working for NBCUniversal. He recently wrote a feature film entitled “Boulevard.” It is being shot in May of this year with Robin Williams starring. It will be directed by Dito Montiel, whose film, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, is a previous Sundance winner.

When did you graduate from PSU?

I got my B.S. in Theatre Arts in 1971. I received my teaching credential in 1973, and after teaching high school at Sandy Union High School for two years, I returned to PSU and received my M.A. in 1976, with an emphasis in playwriting.

What do you love about PSU?
I love the urban mix of it. There is such a wide range of people there from all different backgrounds.

What was your happiest experience at PSU?
My happiest experiences were the three years I spent doing summer stock in Cannon Beach, back when PSU offered summer participation there. Class credit was available for doing plays. It was great training for the professional world, as we had to do plays for people who came to be entertained and paid for the privilege, thus expecting something in return.

How did you get into being the story analyst at Universal Studios?
Frankly, I just walked into the employment office one day back in the 70s, took a typing test and was hired as a temporary, “floating” secretary. Luckily, my first assignment was the Story Department, where the scripts were read and evaluated. I became head of that department in 1981, and then, after many years at Tri-Star pictures and ten years working as a writer for t.v. movies, I came back fifteen years ago as a Story Analyst at Universal and remain so today.

What is the most challenging thing about your career?
In terms of being a Story Analyst and Story Editor it’s being able to recognize material that might catch on with the public. The business is so high stakes now, it’s a huge gamble every time you make a movie. The two hardest things to do are: 1) turning down a script that you love but know won’t make money; 2) recommending something that you don’t like because you feel it will be successful. The main thing I do, however, is aid the writer with rewrites. Working with Judd Apatow, for example, on all of his movies (40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, This is 40) and being able to write notes that respect his vision but which also reflect concerns of the studio, is always a challenge. I recently worked on the film version of “Les Miserables,” as well; that one was a challenge making a stage play into a movie and understanding the special needs of each medium.

Your up coming film is a drama about marriage. Can you tell me a little more about the film?
“Boulevard” is about a man trapped in a marriage that isn’t emotionally fulfilling, largely because he’s living a lie. It’s really about facing, at a late age, that one isn’t living an honest life and having the courage to change.

What was your inspiration for the film's topic?
Certainly there are aspects in my own life that led to writing the script (one’s best work is always work that’s close to one’s own experience) but also, as an aging man, things that I’ve perceived about myself and others.

Who decided to cast Robin Williams for a role?
Believe me, he chose us. A terrific casting person got it to Williams. I am delighted to say that he sparked to the material and wanted very much to do it. I am honored by his participation.

What screenwriter or director do you admire? What is your favorite film by them and why?
I show my age here but I have always canonized Alfred Hitchcock. He invented so much that is used today. “Psycho” is pure film, “North by Northwest” pure entertainment. Also Billy Wilder, whose versatility is so impressive. I love the work of Martin Scorcese (I’m working on a bio of Frank Sinatra that he’ll direct).

How has your PSU education enabled you to be effective in your professional life?
I was lucky that I had some great instructors who were able to teach me so much about dramatic structure. The aforementioned years at Cannon Beach were invaluable, as well.

What is ahead for you? What possibilities exist?
This is actually my fifth produced movie. I should mention that my writing is separate from my work at Universal, and they are very accommodating about that. The first four films were for cable, however, and this is a theatrical feature, so it’s a big step up, particularly as it involves such a brilliant talent as Robin. The director, Dito Montiel, is wonderfully talented, as well, his previous film, “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” having won an award at Sundance. Hopefully’ the visibility of “Boulevard” will lead to other projects.

What advice would you give to students wanting to follow the same path?
Don’t listen to people who say the movie business is impossible to get into. If you want it and you persevere and you work hard, something will happen. You also have to give up a lot and start at the bottom. And learn to accept criticism and learn that there are jealous people who want you to fail. Ignore them.

Interview by Kemea Smith