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He knows all about being cool

Screenwriter Dan Berendsen has written some of Disney Channel's most popular movies, including "The Cheetah Girls: One World," "Twitches" and "Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie."

October 18, 2009|Dawn C. Chmielewski

The gig: The unofficial voice of "tween" America -- children between the ages of 9 and 14 -- Berendsen has written some of Disney Channel's most popular movies, including "The Cheetah Girls: One World," "Twitches" and "Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie," which was the top-rated telecast of the year, attracting 13.5 million viewers. He also penned "Hannah Montana: The Movie," the big-screen adaptation of the popular television series, which grossed nearly $155 million in worldwide ticket sales. Filming just concluded on another project, "Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam," and he's polishing the script for "High School Musical: East Meets West."

Act One, Scene One: Born in Wisconsin, Berendsen grew up in Huntington Beach. He graduated from UCLA in 1987 with a bachelor's degree in political science, then moved to Seattle to pursue a career -- as an insurance underwriter. "After five years I thought I wanted to kill myself," he said.

While researching business schools, Berendsen stumbled on a newspaper article about USC's graduate screenwriting program. He applied and promised himself that, if accepted, he would quit his day job, sell his house and return to Southern California. "I wasn't brought up [to think] that being a writer was an obtainable dream at all," Berendsen said.

The turning point: Berendsen was one of 15 people accepted into USC's program from about 2,000 applicants. Pursuing one's passions would become a recurring theme of his work. Whenever a young fan approaches him now to ask for an autograph, he always signs it "follow your dreams."

The big break: Early jobs included penning jokes for comedian Paulie Shore and for Jackie Guerra's situation comedy, "First Time Out," on the now-defunct WB network. In the late 1990s, Berendsen interviewed for a writing job at the Disney Channel. "It was the worst meeting of my entire life," he said. "Because I had come from this sort of adult comedy world, this woman who was interviewing me told me that I was wasting her time. . . . She basically threw me out of her office."

"I was so angry I went home and, over the next two weeks, I wrote one of my ideas, which became the movie 'Up, Up, and Away!' for Disney Channel," he said. Independent producer Paula Hart, the mother of actress Melissa Joan Hart, bought the script. Then she hired him to write "Sabrina Goes to Rome," a 1998 television movie based on the series "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." Berendsen joined the staff of the television series, starring the younger Hart, and would become its executive producer. "That was really where I honed my skills and really developed that niche," he said.

On channeling his inner tween: Adolescent angst is timeless.

"What's going on inside hasn't changed one bit from when we were kids, or from when our parents were kids," he said. "It's that great conflict of wanting to run with the crowd and to stand out from the pack. Those have always been the core conflicts."

Adolescent archetypes are likewise enduring. Girls still spend hours communicating with friends. Only now they're texting, tweeting and posting on Facebook. Information travels instantly. And that, Berendsen said, has torpedoed certain time-honored plot devices.

"There are no more messages left on answering machines," he said.

As for, like, you know, the lingo? Berendsen said trying to mimic tween slang would render his work "automatically uncool." So he doesn't try. "You need to write the emotions," he said, "not write down to them."

Moving from TV to the big screen: "The challenge is taking characters from a sitcom . . . and taking them out into the real world and making them seem authentic and real and letting them have a voice that doesn't make it sound like they need a laugh track behind them."

In "Hannah Montana: The Movie," the pop singer's soaring popularity threatens to take over her life, so her father, played by real-life dad Billy Ray Cyrus, takes the teen home to Crowley Corners, Tenn., to gain perspective on what's important in life.

"There was so much time to play out the drama and the emotion that you wouldn't have been able to do in the 30 minutes on the show," he said. "This is about a girl really deciding what she wanted to do with her future."

Personal: Berendsen, 45, and his husband, Kevin, live in the Larchmont neighborhood of Los Angeles.


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