Retired lawyer turned playwright wins screenplay competition

· The Pulse

A program to turn an emerging screenwriter's work into a short film has awarded its top prize to David Haas, a retired lawyer who owes his writing career to anger in the courtroom and a penchant for winning competitions.

Haas, 77, had never written a screenplay before. But when COVID-19 put a crimp in his playwriting, he turned his attention to the Alberta Screenwriter Accelerator Program, created by the Edmonton Short Film Festival.

Of the 67 scripts that were submitted, Haas's Stage-Door Johnny won the $20,000 prize, which covers everything from script editing to shooting to post-production and mentorship from writer Neil Chase and director Gilbert Allan. The film will premiere at the festival on Oct. 15.

"I was delighted to win this competition," Haas told Taproot. "At root, I consider myself a yarn spinner, a creator of stories. Screenplays and stage plays are just different ways of getting the story out."

Haas first got the writing bug in 1978 when something in the courtroom set him off.

"When they read the charges to people, they had this legal document that was babble to most people. They didn't know what it was, and they would be asked to make choices that were fairly important," he said.

He needed an outlet for his frustration. And an unusual one emerged.

"I spotted an advertisement in the Edmonton Journal for a one-act play contest," he said. "At this point, I had taken in a number of plays. I read one. I was kind of excited about that."

David Haas, enjoying a meal at the Route 99 Café, smiles to the camera

David Haas is well-known for his creative work in St. Albert and Edmonton. (Supplied)

The resulting play, His Day in Court, won the Journal contest. He also won an Alberta Culture Award in 1983. Then he didn't write another play for 26 years.

"I was busy," Haas said. "And never intended to be a writer."

But he got back into it, with encouragement from his novelist cousin, in 2009. The "real breakthrough" came in 2014 when Haas submitted Pacific Time — a sci-fi love story about a time-traveling café with a portal to 1964 Edmonton — to the Graffiti Mix Arts Festival. Again, he won.

"I watched [the play] three times. I cried three times," Haas laughed. "It's ridiculous! I wrote it, I know what's coming!"

Pacific Time ran at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival in 2015, and he staged three other Fringe plays after that. But a production planned for 2020 was kiboshed by COVID. Then another door opened.

"I got a note from my producer," Haas told Taproot. "It was a write-up about this organization, the Edmonton Short Film Festival ... Lo and behold they're going to be running a competition for plays."

The film festival introduced the screenplay accelerator program to mark its 10th anniversary.

"The concept of taking an emerging screenwriter, who was new to filmmaking, and then giving them all of the tools to take their script to finished film for free is something that we felt was vitally important in building the film community in Alberta," the ESFF said.

Stage-Door Johnny is set to be filmed in February with post-production in March. It explores a mysterious relationship between a star and an old man waiting for her to emerge from a theatre.

"As an author, it is always a thrill to have one of my works come to life in the particular performance venue," Haas said. "I look forward to watching Stage Door Johnny on the screen."

This story has been updated to correct the name of the competition, which is the Alberta Screenwriter Accelerator Program.