Palatine screenwriter Frederick Mensch wants to quit writing. Just stop. Cold turkey.
'It's really out there'Frederick Mensch wrote "Nightingale" as a one-man, one-location movie, never anticipating it would be a major release. It is. HBO presents the Palatine writer's first produced movie, "Nightingale," starring "Selma" star David Oyelowo, at 8 p.m. Friday, May 29.
"It is mind-bending that this film would be on HBO," Mensch said. "This is a really hard-core film. It's really out there. It's a bold piece of filmmaking. It's the kind of film I can write because I have absolutely nothing to lose.
"I grew up in the 1970s when the kind of films the studios were making were 'Taxi Driver,' 'The Conversation' and 'The Godfather.' Those wouldn't get made today. They'd be called 'specialty' or 'art' films. But those are the kind of films I love."
-- Dann Gire
"If I would have had an opportunity to quit writing anytime during the last 35 years, I would have done so," he said.
"The process of writing is agonizing most of the time. Very painful. To get what you have in your head down there on paper is not easy. Then, once you finish it, nobody cares."
So, what keeps the 56-year-old, Elgin-born, Arlington Heights-raised Mensch motivated to write movies that, until now, no one has wanted to produce?
"It's how I process the world," he explained. "I need to write just to make sense of the way I live."
There's one other reason.
"Life can be pretty chaotic, but when you sit down to write, you get to play God," he said. "You're in control of the lives of these characters. It's appealing to me."
After 35 years of writing, Mensch will see his first produced movie, "Nightingale," broadcast on HBO at 8 p.m. Friday, May 29.
"Nightingale" stars "Selma" actor David Oyelowo as a tormented man who kills his mother. The drama was inspired by a news story about Karl Sneider of Palatine, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 2003 murder of his mother.
Mensch regularly walked his dog past the house where the killing occurred.
"What my movie is really about is what it feels like when you desperately want something that you can't have," Mensch told us. "That's a much more universal theme."
Mensch should know about that, wanting a Hollywood career for so long but having no success at it.
After graduating from Arlington Heights High School, Mensch became a filmmaking major at New York University, then headed into the thick of showbiz competition by moving to Hollywood.
Six years passed with Mensch writing screenplays never produced into movies or TV shows.
"I got my head turned around," he explained. "I started thinking about what was hot, what people wanted to see, instead of what I wanted to write. I started writing to what people wanted. I was encouraged to keep doing that."
Mensch said he knew his work had something non-authentic about it. So, he wasn't surprised his scripts were never produced. On a high school friend's invitation, he moved to Iowa and spent 10 years working in the dog racetrack business.
Eventually, Mensch wound up in Web design and married a Grayslake native named Betsy, a former schoolteacher. They have a daughter, Molly, 15, and son, Nicholas, 13. Mensche's mother Ceil, now 90, still lives in Arlington Heights with Mensche's stepfather, Dr. Robert Muench, who coincidentally bears a similar last name.
(Special note: Molly won the best documentary award at last year's Arlington Heights Library Teen Film Fest with her short "World Premiere," about her dad attending the screening of "Nightingale" at the Los Angles International Film Festival.)
Over the years, Mensch squeezed his writing in around his full-time job, writing one hour every day at 5 a.m. before work, and three hours on Saturdays. To make ends meet after Betsy opted to stay home with the kids, Mensch created a profitable website for screenwriters, moviebytes.net.
He never expected "Nightingale" to wind up on HBO. But producers at Brad Pitt's production company, Plan B, saw the movie at the L.A. festival and eventually brought it to HBO.
"We thought it would play at a New York art house theater for a week, then go straight to home video," Mensch said. "HBO was never part of the master plan."
Does Mensch have any sagely advice for writing dialogue?
"It has to reflect life, which is to say that people do not always say what's on their minds," he said. "The meaning in dialogue is not found in the words, but in the words that are not there. If you just taped regular people talking and used it for a script, that would be pathetically boring."
Next up for Mensch is his screenplay for "Supreme Ruler," a comedy about a go-getter in a small community who sets out to become the grand poobah of his local fraternal lodge. Producers are looking for financing, which might be a lot easier after the HBO send-off.
Mensch counts two Arlington Heights High School drama teachers as key mentors and influences in his professional life: Doug Murphy and Lyvonne Trad.
"They were both very encouraging to me as an actor and writer," he said. "They loved the theater and the arts. Doug Murphy would take us down into Chicago to see plays. Sometimes, one of his early students would be in the cast at Second City or in a play.
"That plants the seed in your soul. It tells you that life in the arts is possible."
-- Dann Gire
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