Port Washington resident Jennifer Wilke has stories to tell about her career annotating the dialog of Hollywood movies.
While an aspiring screenwriter, Jennifer Wilke of Port Washington picked up a job in Los Angeles she didn’t know existed until she was hired.
Wilke annotated studio movies for translation into other languages, capturing idioms and ensuring humorous lines would remain funny.
“We had to define the dialogue,” she said, “something a translator would find confusing.”
Back in the 1980s, movies could come in five reels. Wilke started by making a transcript of the film.
“We had to make it exact to what they said,” she said.
A manual explained how to annotate terms like “uh-huh,” “uh-uh” and uh oh,” Wilke said, “so we’d spell it consistently.”
But capturing humor wasn’t easy. Wilke recalled a line by Robin Williams in “Good Morning, Vietnam”:
“Seeing as how the V.P. is such a V.I.P., shouldn’t we keep the P.C. on the Q.T.? ‘Cause if it leaks to the V.C. he could end up M.I.A., and then we’d all be put out in K.P.”
“Well, how do you translate that into Spanish?” Wilke asked.
Wilke studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California in the 1980s and met some of the writers responsible for creating phrases permanently etched in cultural history.
It’s there that she developed a beef with a little-known practice at the Academy Awards.
For the top pieces of movie writing, Wilke said, it’s the original screenplay that leads a movie to be produced.
But in awarding Oscars for original and adapted screenplays, the Academy only watches the movies; it doesn’t read the scripts.
A bit of a controversy surrounds a script for one of the most legendary films of all time.
Twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein shared the Oscar for best adapted screenplay with Howard Koch for “Casablanca,” though how much either party wrote remains in question. Shortly after starting on the film, the Epsteins got called to Washington, D.C., to work on “Why We Fight,” an American propaganda series during World War II.
In the meantime, Koch wrote some pages for the film. When the Epsteins returned a month later, they threw out Koch’s work, though Koch denies it.
Regardless, their combined efforts helped make the classic.
“Koch’s political mind shaped the plot. The Epsteins were known for their wit,” Wilke said.
Wilke got to meet Julius Epstein when he was 80. She said he told her he didn’t think “Casablanca” was a good movie, in part because the plot was based on things that didn’t exist.
It was those kinds of anecdotes Wilke shared at the Port Exploreum April 7 at First Friday of the Month Movie Night.
Wilke wrote a couple of scripts herself but never had any made into movies. She also wrote a historical novel but never sold it.
Now, she’s working on her latest passion, a memoir about blacklisted screenwriters during “the Red Scare” of the late 1940s and 1950s.
After being subpoenaed by the House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee, 10 screenwriters pleaded the Fifth Amendment when asked about their connections to the Communist Party, and were jailed and blacklisted by Hollywood. Some were accused of sneaking communist propaganda into their films.
“You were guilty by suspicion,” Wilke said. “It was just total paranoia.”
The Epsteins didn’t get blacklisted because of their work on “Why We Fight,” Wilke said.
The most famous of the 10 who did, Dalton Trumbo, later directed “Spartacus.” When director Kirk Douglas decided to use Trumbo’s name in the credits, the blacklist, for the most part, came to a close.
In addition to being enthralled by movies from those eras, Wilke is fascinated by the blacklist period.
“I’m really intrigued about ‘them’ and ‘us.’ Does it really have to be about them and us?” she said.
Wilke was born in Milwaukee and moved to Alaska at an early age. At one point, she wanted to join Greenpeace. She remembers one of its ships trying to stop an atomic bomb test on the island of Amchitka in Alaska.
“That’s the ultimate in responsible courage,” she said.
In 1988, Wilke was a participant in the American-Soviet Peace Walk from Odessa to Kiev, a fascinating experience of camping and staying in residents’ houses along the way. Soviet Union residents, she said, knew poets and could recite their work. Wilke said she’d like to write about that in context of the blacklist.
But Wilke also was taken with film as a child.
“You could sit in the dark and feel all these things you wouldn’t encounter in your real life,” she said.
“It didn’t seem like an escape. It seemed like an invitation to an adventure.”
Wilke said she fell in love with flim while watching “The Ten Commandments.” She remembers seeing Holy Scripture in the list of credits.
“Even God can write the movies,” she said.
After working on educational TV in Alaska, Wilke went to USC as a nontraditional student.
There, she met famous director John Singleton (“Boyz in the Hood”), who she said didn’t have many friends but wrote scripts that blew everyone away, and she met old screenwriters who were generous with their time. One of her jobs was to drive the screenwriters to and from school.
She remembers a lecture by Ray Bradbury, who said, “George Lucas was brilliant to put sound in ‘Star Wars’ because there is no sound in outer space.”
Wilke later moved to Bellingham, Wash., and earned a degree in communication disabilities from Western Washington University. In working with people with disabilities, she acquired one key piece of knowledge.
“Everyone with a disability has their own language. If you can learn it, you can communicate with them,” she said.
Wilke came to Port Washington a year ago to be closer to family scattered across Wisconsin, including cousins in Grafton.
A walking resource of film history, she can fire off the names of directors, movies and writers, along with detailing the key points of movie plots.
Wilke likes watching old movies on TV and spends most of January and February watching Oscar-nominated films. Her favorites are movies that have “substantive and dramatic storytelling” such as “Lion.”
She enjoys sharing her film knowledge with Port Washington. Her next discussion will be May 5 at the Port Exploreum after “The Awful Truth.” The movie starts at 6 p.m. and stars Cary Grant in his first leading role. Wilke said Grant was apprehensive to try a comedy since he didn’t think he could pull it off.
Wilke is also teaching a several-week memoir writing class at the Port Washington Senior Center starting at 2 p.m. Tuesday, May 2. The first session is free.