Fever for Film


Hollywood? "No thank you."

New York? "Nah, I like Philly."

The East and West coast bastions of the movie industry are not beckoning award-winning screenwriter Jessica Parenti — at least not yet.

The recipient of the Greater Philadelphia Film Festival’s prestigious regional award for best screenplay claims she has no desire to leave her native South Philly.

Actually, three of the 26-year-old’s four screenplays have garnered some type of honor. Not bad for someone who writes in her spare time. Parenti’s full-time job is Web master and technical support analyst for the Philadelphia Gas Works.

The Greater Philadelphia Film Festival is sponsored annually by the Greater Philadelphia Film Office. At an April 6 awards ceremony, Parenti received $2,500, in-kind services and more for her screenplay, In Flew Enza.

"I was really, really happy to get recognition for something I worked so hard and long for," the self-taught screenwriter says of her craft.

In Flew Enza — wordplay on the deadly Spanish flu virus — is about a young woman who loses her daughter in a terrible car accident and reconciles her bitterness by helping the spirit of a child buried alive during the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic in Philadelphia.

Some people stricken with the virus had a barely detectable heartbeat, Parenti notes. As a result, it was not uncommon for a flu victim to be buried alive.

Parenti says she was inspired to write the screenplay after watching a documentary on influenza. Fascinated with what she learned, she began researching the subject and discovered that Philadelphia was the hardest-hit city in America. "Sixteen-thousand Philadelphians died in seven months," Parenti says.

Influenza hit the United States during World War I — and its timing couldn’t have been worse in reaching Philadelphia. More than one-quarter of the city’s doctors and nurses had been called to the battlefields of Europe to aid America’s war efforts. At Pennsylvania Hospital alone, more than three-quarters of the staff were overseas. Historians documented corpses stacked in the streets, among other places.

The clever title of Parenti’s screenplay comes from a children’s song that was popular during the epidemic’s stronghold on the city, she notes. The lyrics go, "I had a little bird, its name was Enza. I opened the door and in flew Enza."

One of the many myths about Spanish Influenza is that it was transmitted by strange-looking birds that residents supposedly reported seeing around town, the screenwriter says.

Parenti’s thirst for knowledge surfaced during her college years as she majored in elementary education. The 1998 graduate of West Chester University taught at two middle schools — Tilden in Southwest Philly and Barry in West Philly — before deciding that teaching was not for her.

"I loved the kids, I just didn’t like teaching," she recalls. "I didn’t want to be responsible for the education of 35 kids."

She wrote and published a book about her experiences, The First Year Urban Teacher, a survival guide for rookie educators.

Parenti grew up on the 2300 block of South Percy Street. She still lives in the neighborhood with her son, Anthony, a fourth-grader at A.S. Jenks Elementary. Much of her family still lives close by. "I had my whole family within walking distance — grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. That’s why I don’t want to leave," she says.

The screenwriter attended Calvary Temple Christian Academy in Packer Park, then went on to Girls’ High School for one year before her family moved. Parenti graduated in 1994 from Bodine High School for International Affairs.

Growing up, a pen and paper were never far from reach, as Parenti enjoyed creating characters and situations. Then in college, she read a screenplay. She can’t remember the title, but it made an impression nonetheless.

"I loved the way it read. I could see the images in my mind and I said, ‘I want to do that,’" Parenti recalls.

Rather than return to school for several more years to study filmmaking, the enterprising young woman taught herself screenwriting from books.

Screenwriting is very different from other forms of writing, Parenti notes. "You have to be all these different people. You have to think like them, you have to talk like them. You have to know the characters so intimately because you’re going on this ride with them. Every personality has to be depicted in the movie."

In the summer of 2000, Parenti studied filmmaking at the New York Film Academy at Princeton University. At the ripe old age of 22, she completed her first screenplay, Ill Fated. Parenti describes it as a "dark movie" about a girl trying to figure out if her life is destined for negativity. Parenti’s next screenplay, the romantic comedy Gotta Have Him, was picked as a Hollywood Scriptwriting Institute winner in January 2001.

Despite the initial promise, Parenti had a tough time selling the screenplay to the film industry. Her Los Angeles agent at the time loved the script and even had a few film producers gunning to develop it. Everybody was really "gung-ho" but things sort of fizzled, she recalls. The last Parenti heard from the agent, the screenplay was on the shelf.

Another project, Cherry Street, is about a woman who moves away from West Philly, only to return when she inherits her grandmother’s house. The character goes from hating city life to eventually loving it, thanks to some chance encounters. Cherry Street was named regional finalist for Best Screenplay by a Philadelphian in last year’s Greater Philadelphia Film Festival.

Parenti considers In Flew Enza her best work by far because she believes she has made so much progress since she began writing scripts. Remarkably, it was the first draft of the screenplay that won the competition. The ending has since changed — for the better, Parenti notes.

"I loved writing it. I would love to see it on the screen and find a producer and director who are as passionate about it as me," she says.

The screenwriter has just the guy in mind — and he’s local. Only trouble is, he’s not for hire. M. Night Shyamalan of Sixth Sense fame only produces and directs his own work, Parenti explains. The screenwriter says she admires his Hitchcockian approach and thinks the method would lend itself well to her screenplay.

In the meantime, Parenti will keep churning out screenplays; she claims she has no choice. Like most creative types, she just feels compelled to bring her ideas to life.