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Telenovela pupils reach for the extreme

Infidelity, seduction, crime, over-the-top dialogue: Now that's A+ writing

July 15, 2007|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Late at night in a college classroom, Liliana Hung opened her laptop and adjusted her Chanel eyeglasses. She took a swig of Rockstar energy drink before tackling her assignment, which was to write a synopsis of one of three scenarios for a television show:

A man learns that his long-lost mother is working in a strip joint.

A woman seduces a young man, then realizes that he is her son.

A transvestite called the "Queen of the Night" discovers his father dancing onstage at a club.

At Telenovela U., naughty plot lines earn the best grades.

"It can get a little sordid," Hung said with a giggle, "but because it's so extreme it's kind of funny."

Steamy telenovelas with outrageous plot lines are the bread and butter of Spanish-language television networks, and Telemundo is teaching bilingual and bicultural novices how to generate them.

The U.S. viewership for Telemundo runs a distant second to powerhouse Univision, which buys its novelas from Televisa, the Mexican media giant that has churned out popular, inexpensive soap operas for more than 40 years.

Telemundo President Don Browne decided four years ago that the only way his network could compete was to make its own novelas. (The network previously had bought from second-tier Latin American suppliers.)

Last year, Telemundo, which is owned by NBC Universal, spent about $100 million making seven novelas including "El Cuerpo del Deseo" (The Body of Desire) and "Zorro."

"Producing original content is the way to control your own destiny and to be competitive," said Browne, the brains behind Telenovela U. "The key to this is the quality of the writing, and we just don't have enough great writers."

Thus was born Taller Telemundo: Escritores - roughly translated as Telemundo Writer's Workshop - a six-month program with daily classes in writing soap operas that outdo "Dynasty" or "Dallas" in their plot twists and scenarios of romance and treachery.

Inspired by Taller Telemundo, NBC launched an English-language screenwriting course this year called Writers on the Verge. Of course, Los Angeles is brimming with screenwriting classes for Hollywood hopefuls - but it is rare for a network to teach an internal class and even more unusual to have them in Spanish.

Hung, a 35-year-old mortgage banker by day, is a member of the Class of 2007. She and 20 others were selected from 1,500 applicants from around the world who each submitted a 750-word essay, a 1,500-word short story and a 10-page telenovela script based on a plot provided by the network.

She is among only eight students to make it to the graduation planned for Tuesday. Their diplomas won't guarantee them employment at the network, but about 70% of Taller Telemundo graduates in the last two years have landed jobs there. Hung said she would be happy if she did too.

First, she must master the distinctive melodramatic miniseries genre that has produced such titles as "Dos Mujeres, Un Camino" (Two Women, One Path), "Amor Real" (Real Love), "La Esposa Virgen" (The Virgin Wife), "Duelo de Pasiones" (Dueling Passions), "Corazon Partido" (Broken Heart) and "Cadenas de Amargura" (Chains of Bitterness).

In class at Loyola Marymount University - Telemundo joined forces with LMU's continuing education program to establish Telenovela U. - Hung has learned to keep viewers breathlessly waiting for the next episode through tension and theatrical dialogue.

"When I wrote in the past, it was more like a catharsis, like a flow, and I hoped somebody would understand it," she said in the clipped Spanish of her native Colombia. "Now I think about what I want to tell and how to tell it in a way that people will understand. It is not intuitive anymore. I see the story in its totality, like a map."

One guest professor was actress Adriana Barraza, an Oscar nominee this year for "Babel," who asked the students to create their own take on "Te odio! No quiero volver a ver tu sucia cara." ("I hate you! I never want to see your dirty face.")

Barraza asked each student to say it their own way, out loud in class with the appropriate novela theatrics. Hung gave it some Colombian flair: "Lo odio perro maldito! No quiero volver a verlo jamas." ("I hate you, you dirty dog. I don't want to see you ever again.")

Successful soap operas, Barraza instructed, should veer into such tantalizing topics as crimes of passion, infidelity and homosexuality. But they should steer clear of abortion and euthanasia, as the topics may be too taboo for Roman Catholic viewers.

Instructors also have stressed the importance of writing in "neutral" Spanish so a script has universal appeal among all Spanish speakers and won't seem too Mexican or Cuban or Colombian. A telenovela, Barraza said, should carry nostalgia and "fulfill a wish that touches on people's identity" no matter where they live.

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