Cleese dreams of scriptwriters

September 26, 1997

NO ONE would ever have guessed that John Cleese was a secret gardener. To filmgoers throughout the world he is known for his outlandish acting talent rather than his green fingers.

It was, however, a desire to make things grow that persuaded Cleese to get involved with the Fulbright Commission.

"I wanted to plant some seeds in a flowerbed which would sprout film writers at different times," he said. It is these seeds he hopes will flourish from the thousands of pounds he has donated to Fulbright scholars.

It was while taking a trip down the Nile five years ago that John Cleese first heard of Fulbright.

While the boat cruised gently along the river, solicitor friend Charles Lubar suggested he might like to provide a film scholarship, especially to remedy the shortage of good film writing in Britain.

"One of the few unselfish impulses that I've encountered is to nurture talent," Mr Cleese said. So he agreed. Five years later, five writers have benefitted from the John Cleese award for scriptwriting. The scholarship provides money for writers to follow screenwriting courses at universities such as the University of Southern California.

He said: "As well as the course, friends and I give them introductions to people making films who can help them so they can sit in on meetings and observe."

So far Cleese believes they have all benefitted. He has stayed in contact and most of the award winners have spoken to each other briefly. His dream is that they should build up a network.

"I believe that talent clusters. People can be influenced by each other, like artists used to be years ago when they sat and argued into the night," he said.

Five years ago, Cleese had just sold his company, Video Arts, and had some spare cash for scholarships. This year, however, he has put the award on hold as he prepares his finances for retirement. He plans to continue with the scheme as soon as possible.

Cleese is precise about the type of scriptwriter he wants to support. "I want to nurture the film industry. Movies are expensive to make but I want to choose writers whose movies will make a profit so that the money will keep being reinvested in new films."

"I am not trying to train people to write Independence Day or Stallone movies but at the same time I am not looking for writers of experimental movies."

"I am looking for the next Richard Curtis (who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral) not the next Peter Greenaway."

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