Foot in door: Cordell's skill fills his classes

Garden Ecology isn't full; nor is Trees of Central Virginia, although Culture and Romance of Western Europe has been canceled. Introduction to Screenwriting, on the other hand, is maxed out with a waiting list– as it has been since about 15 minutes after the enrollment period started.

Could the popularity of this UVA continuing education course have something to do with changing literary goals?

"It used to be, 20-30 years ago, it was the great American novel," says course instructor Michael Cordell. "Now everybody wants to write the great screenplay."

Students of the class count themselves lucky. Frances Furlong, a cofounder of the Old Michie Theatre, signed up last fall.

"I got the most wonderful two pages of feedback from this guy. I kind of felt like, 'Oh, I'm not worthy!'" she says.

Cordell, 44, is tall and lanky, with the affable good looks of a man who could be Tim Robbins' cousin. Cordell's start as a screenwriter began several years ago when he took film classes and wrote scripts while an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska.

"My goal in life was always to sell a screenplay. Whereas some people want to feed the hungry or cure cancer, I'm very shallow. I just wanted to sell a screenplay," laughs Cordell.

After graduating and getting a masters degree in Health Care Administration, he realized on his 34th birthday he wasn't doing anything about it. "I set myself a goal of six years to sell my first movie because that's about how long it often takes when I read interviews," he says.

Well how'd he do?

"It was actually seven years from that date that I sold my first movie, so I was off by a year," he says.

Although most of his Hollywood work is writing romantic comedies, Cordell's first movie was actually an action thriller called Beeper starring Harvey Keitel and Joey Lauren Adams that has yet to be released. Artisan Pictures and Shoreline Entertainment have both bought Cordell screenplays; Sony Pictures hired him to write one.

Even though novice screenwriters can make anywhere from $50,000 to $600,000 a picture, Cordell isn't giving up his day job as the director of outpatient satellite practices at Martha Jefferson Hospital.

"I could be working on a spreadsheet and a budget and doing some presentation preparation, and Eddie Murphy's production company may call. And so I'll talk for a few minutes, and then hang up, and then go back to it," he says.

"It's always nice," says student Furlong, "to have a teacher who has not just the skills, but a foot in the door."