Interview (Part 5): Michele Atkins (2016 Nicholl Winner)

A 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script “Talking About the Sky”.

Michele Atkins wrote the original screenplay “Talking About the Sky” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Michele about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.

Today in Part 5, Michele answers some of my craft questions:

Scott: Let’s jump in to some of those talent‑related questions about craft. In your Nicholl acceptance speech, you mentioned writer’s groups and teachers. You had mentioned it earlier here too. How important have they been for you in learning the craft and then in writing the script?

Michele: The writer’s groups were terrific. I met a man named Howard Casner. He has a blog and he does script notes. He ran a writer’s group in Hollywood that I went to for a couple of years. It’s defunct now.

I still have a relationship with him. I get notes from him. What Stephen King would call your ideal reader, that person who likes the same films that I like and the same projects that I like, he likes.

This is someone that I have a relationship with now that I can notes from and show my work to. As well as other folks in the classes and the groups that I read their scripts and they read my scripts.

There is also a producer named Andy Fraser who gives me awesome notes. He was interested in my projects when no one else really cared. It takes time to read and give notes. I was fortunate that Andy gave me his time.

You have to give to get. You have to read and give notes and spend some time with other people’s work. Those writing groups taught me that that you just don’t go in and show your work and never show up again.

It’s something that week after week you go to and you read other people’s work, and you try to be helpful to them as well. Not only that but, learn how to give notes that are constructive and not overly critical, so that the person receiving the notes can actually hear them.

Scott: I always tell my students when we do workshops it’s really valuable for you to provide feedback to other people on their work because you’re developing your own critical analytical skills.

Michele: Absolutely. No, I agree with that.

Scott: Let’s talk a little bit about because I’d the rest to hear you path in terms of we’re doing commercials. Is there a cross‑pollination for you from working in the storytelling world of commercials and screenwriting? Have you found some cross‑pollination there?

Michele: I wanted to get better, and I wanted to work on my directing. I’m very familiar with the commercial world, so I ended up getting a project through Levi’s. They did this contest with AFI.

I did a short film for Levi’s that essentially I won money to do a short film for them. It was shown at AFI fest 2012. It was more about commercial advertising type of a short than the actual film narrative short.

After that, I ended up getting that spot got some press. I ended up being in this commercial magazine called Shoot Magazine, up‑and‑coming director to watch.

I got signed shortly after that. Every time I go out, and I shoot and I direct a commercial, I’m just working on my craft and to be a better feature director. I would like to direct TALKING ABOUT THE SKY.

Scott: Is that your goal with the Nicholl script?

Michele: Yes, it is my goal.

Scott: Eva Marie Saint, who you mentioned, was your champion in terms of the script and introduced you at the award ceremony had an interesting comment.

She said, “When reading a script, you hope to find truth, reality, well‑defined characters, and a good story. I found all of the above in talking about the sky.” What do you think when you hear that comment?

Michele: Wow, it was something. I felt really lucky that that script got to her, that she was able to read it, that the Nicholl committee read it, and that they liked it as much as I did. I’m glad the script spoke to them. You never know what the ultimate end is going to be for anything. Eva is a class act and I am trying to find the right words to describe the thrill it was to have her like my writing, but there aren’t good enough ones! If you look at her career it is amazing and not many people have the talent and successes she has. It is remarkable.

When I wrote that script, and was driving for rideshare I was making the transition from producing commercials to directing commercials. I put myself on a strict schedule every day.

This is how long I’m going to drive. I’m going to come home and write.

I was excited every day to get home and be able to write. At the end of the day to find out a good outcome happened to something that I put an immense amount of work into is very pleasing.

Scott: One thing that jumped out to me was the idea of well‑defined character. Maybe you could drill down to that a little bit because the characters in your script are very strong. How do you go about developing characters?

Michele: I have a picture in my head, or it’s something that I see on the street, or just a little snippet, a little slice of life.

I’m one of those people watchers that when you go to the airport, or you’re taking a train, or you are waiting for a coffee. I like to watch people and how they interact.

I start off with something like that, and then you start painting layers.

At first, you have a little sketch and an outline, and then you pick up something else, a certain speech pattern or word that somebody repeats over and over again. You think, that would be good for my character.

A lot of times when I was driving around or even now I have my phone, and I will dictate notes into the notes app or the voice app.

I’ll run dialogue back and forth, or I’ll hear something, a response, or a certain way a voice sounds. I’ll put it into my phone as notes for a certain character, and then I’ll go back and see how it works.

The going back to your script over and over again creating layer after layer after layer really enriches your characters.

I know some people suggest you do that character outlines in the back story, and I did do that a lot of times in the treatment. For instance, I just wrote a treatment for a script that I’m working on now and it was 50 pages, which is far too long for a treatment.

A lot of it is dialogue and a lot of it is history that I very well may not put in the screenplay.

Scott: Reminds me of that Tarantino quote. He said, “The audience doesn’t need to know everything about the characters, but they need to know that I know everything about the characters.”

Michele: That makes a lot of sense.

Eva Marie Saint, Michele Atkins

Tomorrow in Part 6, Michele provides some advice to aspiring screenwriters.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, here.

For Michele’s commercial reel, go here.

For my interviews with 24 other Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting winners, go here.


Interview (Part 5): Michele Atkins (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

Interview (Part 4): Michele Atkins (2016 Nicholl Winner)

A 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script “Talking About the Sky”.

Michele Atkins

Michele Atkins wrote the original screenplay “Talking About the Sky” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Michele about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.

Today in Part 4, Michele and I discuss the structure of her script:

Scott: I want to ask you about the structure of the story. There’s a mystery quality to it where there’s a series of these questions that arise as we follow Walter along in his pursuit of Delilah.

Who is Delilah? What happened with he and Lin? Why did they use to drink? Why did he stop? How did he lose his musical career, or what did they do to end up in prison?

How conscious were you of it that it does play out like a mystery? How challenging was that, for you to structure each one of those moments of revelation, so they built on one another leading up to essentially a confession at the end?

Michele: I wanted Walter himself not to be able to face his past. That I wanted as the story was to be revealed to us as it was being discovered by Walter. I wanted it to be at a place where Walter could actually take it in and understand it. Then the audience could know what it took for Walter to confront his demons, his mistakes.

As I was writing it, although you do see him go to the graveyard, I didn’t want that to be revealed as to why he was going there. It was too dark and painful for Walter to discuss, therefore the reader could not know either. I also did not want his musical past to be brought up a lot because I wanted that to be something that Walter put behind him.

I don’t think Walter was able to face a lot of his secrets along the way until he was emotionally ready. Until he ended up growing stronger. When we first met Walter he was not able to face many of these problems he had buried.

Little by little, he was able to reveal to us and revealed to himself what actually had been going on.

I don’t know if you realized, but in the opening when the two younger cowboys working at the slaughter house, they were listening to the Walter’s music. It was actually a song that he and Lin Lynn sang at the opening on the radio.

He didn’t even bring it up to them. Most people who would be in that situation would probably say, “Hey, yeah, that’s me. That’s me on the radio. You want to be a big country star. Well, you hear that song? I’m singing it.”

He didn’t even want to do that. He wasn’t at that place. He was so beaten down that something like that wouldn’t even had nurtured him.

He was somewhat forced to tell Lily and Hank that he was famous because they discovered he was famous. It wasn’t something that he ran around telling everyone.

Scott: That brings up the last thing I want to talk about in terms of the script, which is music, obviously a key component. You’ve got a lot of lyrics in there. I’m guessing some of those are original.

Michele: I wrote all of them except for one set, but all the other lyrics I wrote.

Scott: One of them, “The wheels turn below me as I’m looking for the light. When I hear a voice that’s calling, I know I’m going toward the light.” That’s an original?

Michele: Yes, I wrote that.

Scott: That’s symbolic of what he is trying to do, trying to find the light.

Michele: Yes, very much so.

Scott: It’s a great script. I really enjoyed reading. Let’s get to the fun part here, which is Nicholl Fellowship in screenwriting. How did that all go down?

Michele: I got an email from someone that I had met briefly last year at a dinner. He was a young.

He asked me what were the final, he said, not your process, or not that you got notes, but the final thing that you did to your script before you turned it in? Was there anything special?

I thought back to when I actually enrolled in the Nicholl Fellowship. I really didn’t think that much about it. I had spent so much time on my script I just lived and breathe the characters so that all of them made sense to me.

I was fond of them I really enjoyed visiting each and every one of them every time I had to do a rewrite. I just really loved those characters.

When I sent my script in. It was just a last minute. Oh boy, better send this in, the Nicholl Fellowship is going right now. Why don’t I just push this baby through?

It was quite shocking that I kept moving forward into the semifinals, or the quarterfinals, and then the finalist. I really was not prepared for that.

Scott: Where were you when you got the call?

Michele: Visiting my dad in North Carolina. They set you up on Skype and just tell you to be on Skype during the certain time.

I was there with my dad, one of my sister lives in Durham, and the other lives over in High Point Archdale area. My husband was there, so we had a house full of people. This day that I was going to be with my family was predetermined months in advance. It wasn’t anything that I could shift.

I just told them that morning, “Hey, this call may or may not come through, so I’m going to have my Skype on just so you all know.” They all ended up being on the phone call as well.

We got a little bit of feedback on the phone call. There was some reverb going on. We had the Facebook opened, so we kept hearing what we were saying and what the Nicholl committee was saying twice. It was a little bit chaotic, but it was nice to have my family around.

Scott: What was the experience like doing the whole Nicholl week?

Michele: It was wonderful. They have quite the week setup for all of the winners, and very informational, and quite nice, and a lunch in with, I got to hang out with Eva Marie Saint, who championed my script, which was amazing.

I’ve talked to her about a lot of her stories, and I’m a huge admirer of her work. I was over the moon about that, not to mention that she was my grandmother’s favorite actress. My mom was just in a tizzy about that, so that was quite fun.

To be able to talk to all of the writers and writer directors who have massive amounts of experience.

It was just incredible, and not to mention all of the other Nicholl winners. They were a lovely crowd. It’s not just saying, oh, well, I was with these people for a week and we all got along.

The other winners were just fantastic and nice people. We had a lot of laughs. The laughs, that you’re actually crying by the end of it, because they were just so funny and so lovely.

Scott: I’ve interviewed all of you now for the 2016 class and it’s just a terrific group of people.

Michele: Yes. I feel really fortunate. You just don’t know when you’re walking into a situation where you’re going to spend a lot of time with folks. You never know, but they’re just really nice. It was a good time, very nice and very talented as well.

Here is a script reading from “Talking About the Sky”:

Tomorrow in Part 5, Michele discusses what it was like to win a Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

For Michele’s commercial reel, go here.

For my interviews with 24 other Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting winners, go here.


Interview (Part 4): Michele Atkins (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

Interview (Part 3): Elizabeth Oyebode (2016 Nicholl Winner)

My 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script “Tween the Ropes”.

Elizabeth Oyebode wrote the original screenplay “Tween the Ropes” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Elizabeth about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.

Today in Part 3 of a 6 part series to run each day through Saturday, Elizabeth and I discuss some of the themes weaving through her script “Tween the Ropes” and how she chose the sport of double dutch jump-roping:

Scott: I was on the fence about asking you this, but since you’ve been talking about Nidi’s like a rock and then, some other times, she’s more like a leaf. I’m going to throw this out to you. [laughs]

The toolbox and the fact that she is this resident manager or superintendent of the building, and actually Nidi even does some repairs around the thing. The toolbox is actually in the last scene. I’m wondering, were you going for some sort of symbolic or metaphorical thing about repair? The family needs repair or under repair, or was that just an extension of the job and has no deeper meaning?

Elizabeth: Of course, it’s a story about a broken family and whether or not they have the tools to mend themselves on their own. The toolbox entered in because I thought it was very important to highlight externally this idea that all this family really has to do to get itself on the road to repair is to stop turning a blind eye, to look to themselves.

By addressing some family conflicts head on, taking the hammer and banging it into the nail. Instead of the alternative, you know, keeping the box locked, all those family secrets locked away.

Scott: The major complicating factor in the story, I think you would have to say in terms of character, is Frankie. The father who has rejoined the family after several years, he’s been away in prison.

Elizabeth: Yes, for three years.

Scott: He’s a rather loose cannon at times. Present, and then at times not around. There are occasions where you see a paternal side to him, though pretty largely, I’d say, very toward narcissism because it’s all about his own experience, but there are other times where he’s increasingly drawn toward negative impulses born out of his own desperation and drug dependency.

How did that character emerge in this process? Was that early on that you had that father figure, or is that something that evolved over time?

Elizabeth: The father figure was there from the beginning. He was central to the dynamic of the family bond and, of course, to the plot.

Scott: You’ve got a couple of other people. There’s Old Lady Smith, who lives in the same apartment building. She’s got a rather negative view of Nidi.

Elizabeth: She does. I wrote Old Lady Smith in to introduce a generational perspective on self-imposed limits and denial. She strongly disapproves of Nidi’s aspirations. Again, I think that speaks to her own life experience and perhaps not being given opportunities herself.

And, now, to see this next generation of child daring to ask for things really gets under her skin because, of course, no one bothered asking her and she never got the chance to ask. I really wanted to explore the questions of who deserves love and how much of it do they deserve, and who deserves opportunity and how much of it do they deserve.

Scott: Then there’s Mr. Yee, the next door neighbor who opens up love in a very disturbing way for Nidi. I don’t want to get into that terribly much because I don’t want to give away where that goes ‑‑ in sum, that little world inside that building.

If we say that the best way to create an emotional connection with the script reader and audience member is give them a sympathetic protagonist, then you succeed 10 times over in your script because Nidi is all that. Her personality, her potential, her intelligence, her grit, her determination and then, amidst all this other stuff around her, you’re really, really grabbed by this character. And all of ten years old.

Elizabeth: Thank you. Yes, there’s this intellectually unsupportive environment for her at home and, of course, this mixed bag at school, and, in both settings, everyone’s just trying to get by, to get from one day to the next. These are the examples that she’s presented with for what adults are like. Right?

Scott: Right.

Elizabeth: Then, of course, she’s looking at her classmates and just trying to figure out…As you said, she’s an outsider. She’s just trying to figure out how she fits in to all of this, because her needs and wants are being dismissed over and over again.

There’s no real reason given as to why, especially because most of these desires are not particularly complex. The conflicts that lay before her are very challenging given, as you said, she seems to have an internal strength that a lot of the characters she encounters don’t possess.

Scott: There’s that. Then there’s this, as we’ve said earlier, surrogate family, this double dutch jump-roping team led by Miss Harper. Why that particular sport? How’d that come about?

Elizabeth: It’s interesting in that it’s this three‑pronged reliance system. The person that’s center stage is the jumper in the middle and then there’s these two turners who have to mirror each other to help ensure the jumper’s success.

It’s this team dynamic that I think is really unusual in sports. Typically, it’s either a bigger team or one person. In this, there’s three people, occasionally four or five, but three people who really have to work together. I wanted to portray what might happen when one of those people is the bully and the other is the one getting bullied.

Scott: That’s interesting because, again, if we’re going to talk about physical objects with potential symbolic meaning, a rope can be a useful tool. You can climb a rope. You can also get tripped up in the jumping, which is what one of the bullies does to Nidi.

You can also be strangled by a rope. The title of the script is “Tween the Ropes,” so there’s something symbolic going on there, yeah?

Elizabeth: Absolutely. It’s a constant balancing act for Nidi. When she’s jumping between these ropes, there’s this constant wavering, one foot going up and the other going down. I wanted to convey that feeling of swaying back and forth, not really knowing whether the ground beneath you was firm enough to stand on.

There’s a scene as well in which the ropes take on this cocoon shape because they are turning so quickly. I employed that imagery because a cocoon is supposed to be this safe space in which a caterpillar can grow strong enough to transform then break free. But, until that is possible, it has to be encased in this shell.

For Nidi, this sport is the closest thing she has to that shell.

Tomorrow in Part 4, Elizabeth talks about what it was like to win the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

For Part 2, here.


Interview (Part 3): Elizabeth Oyebode (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

Interview (Part 2): Elizabeth Oyebode (2016 Nicholl Winner)

My 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script “Tween the Ropes”

2016 Nicholl winners: Justin Piasecki, Michele Atkins, Elizabeth Oyebode, Lloyd Harvey, Spencer Harvey, Geeta Malik

Elizabeth Oyebode wrote the original screenplay “Tween the Ropes” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Elizabeth about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.

Today in Part 2 of a 6 part series to run each day through Saturday, Elizabeth and I delve into her script “Tween the Ropes”.

Scott: How did you make that transition into screenwriting?

Elizabeth: After college ‑‑ I think I told you this before ‑‑ I became a stand‑up comedian in the Washington, DC area and I loved it, but a lot of my bits weren’t really bits. They were stories. They were much more expansive. A few people commented that I should perform a one‑woman show just because my sets were almost like an episode of TV.

That’s when I started thinking differently about it. I was trying to write this one‑woman show. Then I just started thinking about plays. Then I saw a book about screenwriting, opened it up, and…

Scott: Here we are.

Elizabeth: Yep.

Scott: Once you discovered the screenwriting, that was it?

Elizabeth: Absolutely it. Then I read as many scripts as possible from the library and online. And I read Syd Field, Chris Vogler, Joseph Campbell. I really loved understanding the psychology behind it.

Scott: Read some books, and then reading scripts and writing pages, that was pretty much your education?

Elizabeth: Yes. I entered the occasional competition for feedback but, for the most part, it was reading and writing. Your blog is such a great repository of information as well.

Scott: Let’s talk about the script “Tween the Ropes,” a compelling drama that won the 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting.

Here’s a plot summary: “A brainy, young double dutcher contends with the hardships of her life in inner-city Baltimore.” The final words in the script, at least the version I’ve read is a card. It says, “For a real Nidi,” the name of the story’s protagonist. Is this story based on an actual person you know or an amalgamation of characters?

Elizabeth: It’s inspired by a person I knew and several I have read about.

Scott: Nidi Toth, a 10‑year‑old girl, how would you describe her as a character?

Elizabeth: She’s intelligent, resourceful, and determined but also wary of external conflict. I think, for her, there’s this pride of being a rock for her family and her brother in particular. But, at the same time, when she’s outside of her home, she becomes much more like a leaf and subject to the whims of her outer environment.

Scott: She’s growing up in an impoverished neighborhood. There’s the threat of violence all around. You have to live with that, literally. In the apartment complex she’s in, I remember there’s a scene where she’s talking early on to someone about how you’ve got to stay away from the windows. It’s that kind of an environment.

There is that dualistic thing where with her family, she applies one mask. That kind of, as you said, rock, but when she’s outside and in the world with the vicissitudes of life out there, it’s interesting you say she’s more like a leaf.

Elizabeth: It’s a tough environment in which to grow up. It’s one that I wanted to explore from the point of view of a character who gets left in the background often in films.

I wanted to have an audience see the world through her eyes and to feel what she feels on a daily basis, see what her highs and lows might be like, rather than just seeing her as this, maybe, cliché ‑‑ a little black girl jumping double dutch. I wanted them to see her as a three‑dimensional, complicated human being with hopes and dreams, but also these realities and worries.

Scott: Let’s look at the family unit, and then we’ll expand out and consider the surrogate family, which she has at school with the double dutch thing. She has a younger brother, Wayne, who’s seven. They have an interesting relationship.

Generally speaking, Nidi acts much like a mother in protecting him and making sure he has something to eat, but there other times where he jumps to her defense. Could you maybe talk a bit about that sibling relationship between the two of them?

Elizabeth: It’s an interesting symbiosis. They have just each other to depend on for much of the script. Even though Nidi is a bit worried about her brother’s intellectual capabilities, she relies on him for emotional support and, to a certain extent, to keep her grounded and focused on getting through the day.

For Wayne, I think she serves more as a mother figure, a stalwart support system where, without her in his existence, I’m not sure that he’d be able to make it on his own. There’s a connection that keeps them wanting to fight for and be there for one another. They’re always thinking of each other.

Scott: They’ve been forced to by virtue of not only their local environment, but specifically the relationship that they have with their mother and father. Mom is 26. She’s known as Mom‑mom. How would you describe her as a character?

Elizabeth: Mom-mom is physically present for them, but she’s also rather neglectful and unwilling to listen to their needs or their interests. I think some of what she brings to the table as a mother is a consequence of her getting pregnant at such an early age. As a result, she often uses humor to mask a feeling of helplessness and uncertainty.

Also, she knows what it looks like to have one’s hopes dashed and she prefers to be the one to shut Nidi and Wayne down almost out of a desire to protect them. So she’s flawed but not a lost cause.

Scott: And she works a lot.

Elizabeth: Yes, very hard‑working. She’s the resident manager and handles all the maintenance for the building. She has another job working at a fast food restaurant. That’s true.

I think that added dimension of her working so much highlights that though she can’t be a wholly positive figure, she can contribute in the way she knows best. In this case, it’s either financially or just by feeling like, “I go to work. I do my job. Therefore, I’m a good mother.” The emotional component doesn’t really factor in.

Tomorrow in Part 3, Elizabeth and I discuss some of the themes weaving through her script “Tween the Ropes” and how she chose the sport of double dutch jump-roping.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.


Interview (Part 2): Elizabeth Oyebode (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

Interview (Part 1): Elizabeth Oyebode (2016 Nicholl Winner)

My 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script “Tween the Ropes”

Elizabeth Oyebode wrote the original screenplay “Tween the Ropes” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Elizabeth about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.

Today in Part 1 of a 6 part series to run each day through Saturday, Elizabeth talks about moving to Nigeria as a child and how that influenced her to write stories about outsiders, and how her background studying physics has been relevant to her screenwriting.

Scott Myers: Elizabeth, I’d like to start toward the end of the journey, for this particular interview. The night you received the 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting Award, in your acceptance speech you said this ‑‑ “We watch films because our curious minds seek connection, higher truths and adventure.”

I was really struck by that, because I think it’s such a great way to describe the draw that movies have for an audience. Connection, higher truth and adventure. I was wondering, could you elaborate on that. How did you come to that way of thinking about it and what does that mean to you?

Elizabeth Oyebode: After I was born in America, my family moved to Nigeria for a few years. When I moved back here as a little kid, I didn’t speak English, so I felt really disconnected from my surroundings.

Watching films re-introduced me to how people here speak and interact, much more so, actually, than how real people interact. [laughs] And they helped open my eyes to what was possible and to what, in the end, matters most in life.

Scott: Do you remember some of those movies from your childhood that were most particularly evocative, ones you remember the most?

Elizabeth: Oh, yes. Usually, the name Spielberg is in the credits.

[laughter]

Elizabeth: “E.T.,” is the first film that I watched. It still gets me because I could relate to the feeling E.T. had of being displaced from his planet. [laughs] I felt that way too.

“The Color Purple” was another one that really resonated with me. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” as well. Each one is epic in its own way. Each is a visual wonderland that lures you into thinking bigger than yourself.

Scott: That reference to “E.T.,” the fact that that’s the first movie you remember seeing. A pretty remarkable film to see as your first film. Julia Chasman, the producer who gave you the award at the Nicholl ceremony said when you came back to the United States, it was almost like you felt like an immigrant in your homeland.

I was wondering if that impacted you in terms of a special affinity or connection to writing characters who are, in a way, outsiders set apart from the others. Of course E.T. is an outsider. He’s like an immigrant on Earth while he’s here, right?

Elizabeth: Yes. I do tend to write about outsiders who are singular in their abilities or misfits who defy expectations. I’m sure that relates to feeling like an outsider at such a young age.

Scott: You mentioned, too, in your comments at the Nicholl ceremony you spent a lot of time daydreaming as a child and that at some point, you discovered you could put those images into words and create things. Is that how you got into writing?

Elizabeth: It is. I got into so much trouble for daydreaming during classes. I didn’t really come to the realization that I could channel my imagination into words and have that be my career until I was into my 20s probably.

Scott: My wife does research on this and has written some articles. They call it mind wandering now, that’s the preferred term to daydreaming. Scientists think it’s incredibly important for the creative process that we allow ourselves that freedom to let our mind wander.

Elizabeth: Absolutely, and I wish I could’ve told that to my teachers back then.

[laughter]

Scott: It wasn’t until your 20s when you made this connection about writing? Where’d you go to college?

Elizabeth: I went to Tufts. There wasn’t a film program, but I did first learn about a number of films while I was there. For instance, Stanley Kubrick films such as “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dr. Strangelove.” That was a kaboom kind of moment for me that you were even allowed to approach film in such a dystopian fashion. It really expanded my thinking.

I actually majored in physics with a minor in history, and part of the reason I loved physics was because there’s an order to how the universe works. A structure. At the time, I found that really compelling and it just gave me comfort.

Scott: That’s an interesting observation that you were drawn to physics initially, in some respects because of its structure, the appeal of structure when, of course, screenwriting, screenplays, is one of the more heavily structured narrative forms. Maybe you had a natural affinity for it.

Elizabeth: Oh, yes. I have this background in science and editing, so when I first started screenwriting I was very exacting, analytical, and rigid. Although there are aspects to screenwriting that require that high degree of structure, there’s this other side to it.

It’s the side that, as a kid, I craved — the creative side, the possibilities. I think it’s one of those careers where you get to utilize both left brain and right brain.

Here is video of Elizabeth accepting her 2016 Nicholl Award in December of last year:

Tomorrow in Part 2, Elizabeth and I delve into her script “Tween the Ropes”.

I had the good fortune to work as mentor with Elizabth in a 2015 Black List Lab for Screenwriters in San Francisco. You can read her reflections on that experience here.


Interview (Part 1): Elizabeth Oyebode (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

2016 Spec Script Deals and Analysis

Download free 24 page PDF to learn about Hollywood development market.

As with every year since I launched the blog in 2008, I covered the 2016 spec script market. Inside this PDF, you will find 75 spec script deals from 2016 broken down and analyzed on multiple levels:

  • Deal List
  • Genres
  • Studios
  • Agents & Managers
  • Top Sales
  • First-Timers

It’s solid information any writer serious about learning the craft will find helpful in understanding the current buying marketplace.

You may download the PDF here.


2016 Spec Script Deals and Analysis was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

The 19 Best Movies That You Didn’t See in 2016 – Find & Watch These

19 Best Movies That You Didn't See in 2016

The best of the best – that you didn’t see last year. We have returned with another set of worth watching, underseen films from 2016. Back again is our annual list of the 19 Best Movies That You Didn’t See in 2016 (find all the past lists here: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007). Featured below is a hand-picked, double-checked line-up of the best independent and/or mainstream films that were either quietly dumped, ignored by audiences, or not marketed well enough. There’s a mix of documentaries and features, all of them criminally underseen. So to give them some extra attention in the spotlight, and to support some of the finest filmmakers out there, here’s our best you didn’t see in 2016 recap. Full list below! ›››

Continue reading The 19 Best Movies That You Didn’t See in 2016 – Find & Watch These


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Interview (Part 4): Geeta Malik (2016 Nicholl Winner)

My 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script “Dinner With Friends”.

Geeta Malik wrote the original screenplay “Dinner With Friends” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Geeta about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.

Today in Part 4, Geeta and I discuss the daughter-mother relationship which lies at the heart of “Dinner With Friends” and some movie associations with the story:

Scott: It’s really quite an interesting structure that you have because it is at the end of the day, if you were to look back on it it’s a mother-daughter story or a daughter-mother story, I guess, from the perspective of the protagonist. Yet, the way you handle it, its very depth, it’s not obvious that that’s the story.

There are movies where it’s right up front you know it’s a mother-daughter thing. But, there’s all this other stuff that’s going on in Alia’s life. It doesn’t become quite apparent that that’s the central focus, in terms of relationships and, actually, the plot until about midway, when she starts I think it’s around 65 or something she starts to discover this past about her mother.

Was that a conscious choice on your part to soft pedal or ease your way into that mother-daughter thing, or was that just an organic thing?

Geeta: I think it was organic. It wasn’t an initial choice to do it that way. I think it just flowed that way because I was telling Alia’s story, initially. There was a lot more emphasis on her with these two guys, and her coming back from college, and trying to deal with her parents’ failing relationship.

With the discovery of Sheila’s back story, I thought a lot about Monsoon Wedding, which is one of my favorite Mira Nair films. Structurally, the big relationship reveal happens well into the second act — maybe even the beginning of the third act. It’s so interesting because you get to know these characters intimately before you realize how deep the conflict goes in their lives.

Then, when the reveal happens, the relationships are strong enough to withstand it, which I thought was very cool and very clever writing (and directing). It was a gutsy way to structure it. It’s tricky because you also don’t want these plot points to feel like they’re coming out of nowhere. In Dinner With Friends, it’s important that Sheila’s back story doesn’t feel like it’s coming out of left field.

Scott: I think it worked. It’s one of those things where I was sitting and reflecting on it after I read the script and going, “You know what? I could look back and stitch together those scenes between Alia and her mom that were taking place during the first act and the first half of the second act,” where you’re really establishing the mom’s character.

At first, she’s seemingly very surface oriented but, slowly but surely, you dimensionalize it. In a way, the way you said it is the way I experienced it. You gave us enough of the relationship so that when the reveal came, this big reveal that she was a feminist, a really ardent feminist way back when in the past, I think it works. It wasn’t a surprise. It didn’t come out of left field.

It felt like it was supported very well. Again, what I’m saying, I guess the larger point, I would say, is just one writer to another is it didn’t come off as this heavy-handed thing. It was very depth. It felt like it was this…I said soft pedal. I don’t know if that’s the right phrase, but it feels like…It worked very, very well on the page.

Geeta: That’s good! Good to know.

Scott: Another movie association, which…Now you got the little girl, so maybe you’re familiar with this. May seem a bit of a stretch to you. I’m a big Pixar freak. I love Pixar movies, so the mother-daughter relationship brings to mind their movie Brave.

Geeta: I love Brave. Yeah.

Scott: The relationship between Alia and her mother, Sheila, versus the relationship of Merida and Lady Elinor. Any resonance there?

Geeta: I haven’t seen Brave for a long time — I think I actually saw it pre-kids! I didn’t reference it consciously, but if that French critic ever asks, I’ll say that I did!

Scott: No, but it might be fun for you to go and watch that movie again, particularly with your girls, because there is that thing where Merida says, “I don’t want to be like my mom,” and she thinks her mom is a certain way. Then, they go on this journey together where she realizes that her mother does have this kind of power inside of her, this inner strength.

Anyhow, it just was an interesting point of comparison. I think you might find an interesting kind of a resonance there.

Geeta: Yeah! I should watch it again.

Scott: There’s a quote that Sheila has when it’s uncovered that she had this activist, feminist background. Of course, Alia thinks it’s awesome. Sheila says, “Yes,” this is to the society that she was a member of. “Yes, the society meant something to me. It meant everything to me, and I lost everything because of it.

“You do these things when you’re stupid, and reckless, and young, and then you get tired, and then, you grow up. Grow up, Alia.” Do you remember writing that?

Geeta: Oh, yeah. [laughs] I do, yeah.

Scott: You could sympathize with her at that point?

Geeta: Yes, definitely. For some of us, after having kids, things do end up seeming less important — things that you once considered to be a permanent part of your identity. It’s exactly as Sheila said: when you’re young, you’re full of idealism. I was, anyway. In college, you think you can change the world. You’re powerful. You have time and energy on your side. And Sheila was actually fighting for something real. Me, I was at UC Irvine, yelling about them closing down our local bar! We just wanted to drink and go clubbing. Sheila was in India in the ’80s, and the political situation was intense, and the rampant violence and sexism were real.

But because she was so militant about what she stood for, she ended up losing her family, her community, her friends. She got tired of fighting. She gave up that part of her identity to live a peaceful, pampered life, and to avoid the conflict that had earlier torn her apart.

Scott: You’ve got a fun little inversion, there, because after that comment from Sheila, Alia says, “You were bad ass once. And, God as my witness, you’ll be bad ass again.”

Geeta: [laughs] Yeah. She wants her mom to reclaim that power and to remember who she was and get that integrity of character back.

Scott: Yeah, that’s my theory about movies, is that so many of them, there’s a central question and it’s “Who are you?” and both of these women confront that question. That the mom discovers that it may have been in her past, but it’s still there, right?

Geeta: Absolutely. It’s buried deep inside her, but it’s still a fundamental part of who she is.

Scott: At least there’s a very nice twist in act three, at the ending. It’s just terrific. Was that the ending you always had in mind, particularly where Alia inspires her mom when she does the thing with the hair and all that?

Geeta: Yeah, that ending has been there since the earliest drafts.

Scott: The last side, that was quite interesting. Alia says: “Words are powerful. Sometimes, it’s nice to just be quiet.” She’s been so verbal throughout that I thought that was such an interesting place for her to end up. Almost like, “I’ve said everything I need to say. I can just kind of settle in and be.”

Geeta: Absolutely.

Scott: Is that kind of where you were at?

Geeta: Yes, for sure. The movie begins with Alia’s voiceover, talking about the gossip that permeates her community, and how words have a lot of power. This constant worrying about what other people will say — that keeps people trapped, and that’s what she ends up seeing with Sheila. First, Sheila was punished for speaking her mind as an activist, and then she herself used words to cut other people down to size. At the end, everyone settles down in the security of knowing that it’s okay not to talk — that they can just be who they are and live their own lives.

Scott: I hope that when you make the movie, you can keep that side. I’ve interviewed a lot of screenwriters where I’ve said, “Wow! That was such a great line,” and they go, “Yeah, we had to cut it.” “Oh, no!”

[laughter]

Geeta: Hopefully not.

Tomorrow in Part 5, Geeta goes into detail about her Nicholl Fellowship experience including what she was doing when she received ‘the call’.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Geeta is repped by Paradigm and Luber Roklin.


Interview (Part 4): Geeta Malik (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

Interview (Part 3): Geeta Malik (2016 Nicholl Winner)

My 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script “Dinner With Friends”.

Geeta Malik wrote the original screenplay “Dinner With Friends” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Geeta about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.

Today in Part 3 of 6 part series to run each day through Saturday, Geeta and I explore some of the key characters in “Dinner With Friends”, those who surround and interface with the script’s Protagonist figure, Alia:

Scott: It’s really quite an interesting structure that you have because it is at the end of the day, if you were to look back on it it’s a mother-daughter story or a daughter-mother story, I guess, from the perspective of the protagonist. Yet, the way you handle it, its very depth, it’s not obvious that that’s the story.

There are movies where it’s right up front you know it’s a mother-daughter thing. But, there’s all this other stuff that’s going on in Alia’s life. It doesn’t become quite apparent that that’s the central focus, in terms of relationships and, actually, the plot until about midway, when she starts I think it’s around 65 or something she starts to discover this past about her mother.

Was that a conscious choice on your part to soft pedal or ease your way into that mother-daughter thing, or was that just an organic thing?

Geeta: I think it was organic. It wasn’t an initial choice to do it that way. I think it just flowed that way because I was telling Alia’s story, initially. There was a lot more emphasis on her with these two guys, and her coming back from college, and trying to deal with her parents’ failing relationship.

With the discovery of Sheila’s back story, I thought a lot about Monsoon Wedding, which is one of my favorite Mira Nair films. Structurally, the big relationship reveal happens well into the second act — maybe even the beginning of the third act. It’s so interesting because you get to know these characters intimately before you realize how deep the conflict goes in their lives.

Then, when the reveal happens, the relationships are strong enough to withstand it, which I thought was very cool and very clever writing (and directing). It was a gutsy way to structure it. It’s tricky because you also don’t want these plot points to feel like they’re coming out of nowhere. In Dinner With Friends, it’s important that Sheila’s back story doesn’t feel like it’s coming out of left field.

Scott: I think it worked. It’s one of those things where I was sitting and reflecting on it after I read the script and going, “You know what? I could look back and stitch together those scenes between Alia and her mom that were taking place during the first act and the first half of the second act,” where you’re really establishing the mom’s character.

At first, she’s seemingly very surface oriented but, slowly but surely, you dimensionalize it. In a way, the way you said it is the way I experienced it. You gave us enough of the relationship so that when the reveal came, this big reveal that she was a feminist, a really ardent feminist way back when in the past, I think it works. It wasn’t a surprise. It didn’t come out of left field.

It felt like it was supported very well. Again, what I’m saying, I guess the larger point, I would say, is just one writer to another is it didn’t come off as this heavy-handed thing. It was very depth. It felt like it was this…I said soft pedal. I don’t know if that’s the right phrase, but it feels like…It worked very, very well on the page.

Geeta: That’s good! Good to know.

Scott: Another movie association, which…Now you got the little girl, so maybe you’re familiar with this. May seem a bit of a stretch to you. I’m a big Pixar freak. I love Pixar movies, so the mother-daughter relationship brings to mind their movie Brave.

Geeta: I love Brave. Yeah.

Scott: The relationship between Alia and her mother, Sheila, versus the relationship of Merida and Lady Elinor. Any resonance there?

Geeta: I haven’t seen Brave for a long time — I think I actually saw it pre-kids! I didn’t reference it consciously, but if that French critic ever asks, I’ll say that I did!

Scott: No, but it might be fun for you to go and watch that movie again, particularly with your girls, because there is that thing where Merida says, “I don’t want to be like my mom,” and she thinks her mom is a certain way. Then, they go on this journey together where she realizes that her mother does have this kind of power inside of her, this inner strength.

Anyhow, it just was an interesting point of comparison. I think you might find an interesting kind of a resonance there.

Geeta: Yeah! I should watch it again.

Scott: There’s a quote that Sheila has when it’s uncovered that she had this activist, feminist background. Of course, Alia thinks it’s awesome. Sheila says, “Yes,” this is to the society that she was a member of. “Yes, the society meant something to me. It meant everything to me, and I lost everything because of it.

“You do these things when you’re stupid, and reckless, and young, and then you get tired, and then, you grow up. Grow up, Alia.” Do you remember writing that?

Geeta: Oh, yeah. [laughs] I do, yeah.

Scott: You could sympathize with her at that point?

Geeta: Yes, definitely. For some of us, after having kids, things do end up seeming less important — things that you once considered to be a permanent part of your identity. It’s exactly as Sheila said: when you’re young, you’re full of idealism. I was, anyway. In college, you think you can change the world. You’re powerful. You have time and energy on your side. And Sheila was actually fighting for something real. Me, I was at UC Irvine, yelling about them closing down our local bar! We just wanted to drink and go clubbing. Sheila was in India in the ’80s, and the political situation was intense, and the rampant violence and sexism were real.

But because she was so militant about what she stood for, she ended up losing her family, her community, her friends. She got tired of fighting. She gave up that part of her identity to live a peaceful, pampered life, and to avoid the conflict that had earlier torn her apart.

Scott: You’ve got a fun little inversion, there, because after that comment from Sheila, Alia says, “You were badass once. And, God as my witness, you’ll be badass again.”

Geeta: [laughs] Yeah. She wants her mom to reclaim that power and to remember who she was and get that integrity of character back.

Scott: Yeah, that’s my theory about movies, is that so many of them, there’s a central question and it’s “Who are you?” and both of these women confront that question. That the mom discovers that it may have been in her past, but it’s still there, right?

Geeta: Absolutely. It’s buried deep inside her, but it’s still a fundamental part of who she is.

Scott: At least there’s a very nice twist in act three, at the ending. It’s just terrific. Was that the ending you always had in mind, particularly where Alia inspires her mom when she does the thing with the hair and all that?

Geeta: Yeah, that ending has been there since the earliest drafts.

Scott: The last side, that was quite interesting. Alia says: “Words are powerful. Sometimes, it’s nice to just be quiet.” She’s been so verbal throughout that I thought that was such an interesting place for her to end up. Almost like, “I’ve said everything I need to say. I can just kind of settle in and be.”

Geeta: Absolutely.

Scott: Is that kind of where you were at?

Geeta: Yes, for sure. The movie begins with Alia’s voiceover, talking about the gossip that permeates her community, and how words have a lot of power. This constant worrying about what other people will say — that keeps people trapped, and that’s what she ends up seeing with Sheila. First, Sheila was punished for speaking her mind as an activist, and then she herself used words to cut other people down to size. At the end, everyone settles down in the security of knowing that it’s okay not to talk — that they can just be who they are and live their own lives.

Scott: I hope that when you make the movie, you can keep that side. I’ve interviewed a lot of screenwriters where I’ve said, “Wow! That was such a great line,” and they go, “Yeah, we had to cut it.” “Oh, no!”

[laughter]

Geeta: Hopefully not.

Here is a script reading from “Dinner With Friends”:

Tomorrow in Part 4, Geeta and I discuss the daughter-mother relationship which lies at the heart of “Dinner With Friends” and some movie associations with the story.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Geeta is repped by Paradigm and Luber Roklin.


Interview (Part 3): Geeta Malik (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

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