Interview (Audio): Adam Kolbrenner

A half-hour conversation with Madhouse Entertainment manager.

A Final Draft interview with Adam Kolbrenner, manager-producer and founder of Madhouse Entertainment.

I know a bunch of Madhouse writer clients: Carter Blanchard, Liz W. Garcia, David Guggenheim, Aaron Guzikowski, Justin Kremer, Daniel Kunka, Justin Marks, Greg Russo, probably some others.

Think you’ve written a great spec script? You can send a paragraph description of your story to Madhouse Entertainment by going here.

To listen to the podcast Adam Kolbrenner, go here.

To read my 2013 interview with Adam, go here.

Interview (Audio): Adam Kolbrenner 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): Stephanie Shannon

2013 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting winner and Black List honoree.

Stephanie Shannon not only is one of five recipients of the 2013 Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, she did it with her very first full-length screenplay: “Queen of Hearts.” Beyond that, the script landed on the 2013 Black List. And just last week it was announced that Seth Gordon is going to direct “Life in Rewind”, based on a script Stephanie wrote. A great opportunity to reprise my March 2014 interview with Stephanie.

Today in Part 2, Stephanie discusses how she made a plan to write “Queen of Hearts” for the Nicholl competition deadline… and followed through with it:

Scott: When did you start picking up the screenwriting again in that process? Was it when you went to Los Angeles?

Stephanie: When I got out here I decided I wanted to give it a real shot, because I hadn’t allowed myself to before. Ever since I graduated college I had kind of put it out of my mind as something that I couldn’t realistically do. I was afraid that if I really tried to go for it, I wouldn’t be able to, that I would prove to myself that I couldn’t do it. That was just a fear of mine, I think.

When I got out here I was like, “I’m going to be 28. I need to do it now if I’m going to do it.” I started talking to some friends in the industry who put me in touch with their writer friends. So I started setting up coffees with several TV writers. They were all so gracious to meet with me and give me advice. It was really eye opening to talk to so many people who were my age who had made it as professional writers. I thought, “Wow, this is really possible.”

I made a promise to myself that I would write a screenplay that year and enter the Nicholl. This was around November of last year. I started researching in December. Then I started writing in February.

Scott: Assistant gigs, from everything I’ve heard, a great way to learn the business, but they’re notoriously challenging, especially hours. How did you carve out time to write?

Stephanie: I just became really singularly focused. I was determined I wasn’t going to let another year go by without finishing a feature. I told myself there was no way I was going to miss the Nicholl deadline. I have never been more determined to do anything in my life.

It was a pretty isolating time for me, though. I’d work all day as an assistant, I’d get home at night, and I would write. I’d wake up and work a little in the morning, then go to work. Sometimes I’d just pull out my laptop and write at my desk while answering phones, or in my boss’ office while he was out at lunch. Then on Fridays I would go home after work, and I wouldn’t really reemerge until Monday. I was so into the story that it didn’t feel like I was torturing myself. I was excited, and I looked forward to working on it, which was a really great feeling.

Scott: I’d like to talk to you more in depth about the script, but let’s cover the fun part. You write the script “Queen of Hearts,” and it wins the Nicholl competition. How did you learn you had won? What was that feeling?

Stephanie: It was amazing! They notify you throughout the summer via email saying, “You’ve advanced to the quarter finals. You’ve advanced to the semi-finals.” I tried to put it out of my mind, because I didn’t want to obsess.

What was actually great about my situation was I had given my boss the script to read the day before I submitted it to the competition. As his assistant, I was like, “I’d really appreciate it if you took a look at this. I’m going to turn it into this competition. I’d love to know your thoughts.”

I was really scared to do this because I didn’t want to be that assistant that’s like, “Hey boss, so I’ve got this script…” I was always hesitant to be that person, but I felt like I had worked for him long enough and I really wanted his opinion. I remember the day I gave it to him, I went into his office after he left for the night and noticed that the script wasn’t on his desk. I literally checked the trash. Turns out he had taken it home and read it over the weekend. He was really, really great.

On Monday morning he brought me into his office and told me to shut the door. I literally thought I had done something terrible and was about to be fired. I kept trying to figure out what I had screwed up. He sat down and was like, “I read your script. It’s really good. We’re going to put this out there and get you an agent”. He asked me if I was ready to start my writing career. It was just the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard.

So, because of that, over the summer, while the competition was going on, I signed with CAA and my boss became my manager. I was leaving my assistant desk pretty frequently to go on general meetings around town. I was coming out of a meeting on the Disney lot when I got the call that I was a Finalist. It was just very surreal, to look down at your phone and have a missed called from The Academy (I had the number because I had all my boss’ contacts saved on my phone). I think I said this in my speech — the voicemail was in between like 15 missed called from debt collectors, which I thought was so ironic. It’s just a very surreal moment. You think that there are over 7,000 other people that didn’t get this call. You just feel very, very lucky. I held my breath until a few weeks later. Then they called me that I had won.

I was at work, it was lunchtime. I got the call, and I went into my boss’s office to take it. And they have everyone on speaker phone when they call you: Gale Anne Hurd, the whole Fellowship committee, and all the judges. Eric Roth is on the phone and Robin Swicord, these legendary writers that I’ve spent my life worshipping. It was so amazing to hear those people clapping for you on the phone, one of the best moments of my life, to be recognized by people of that caliber, for my first script, too. It was just incredible. I’ll never forget it.

Stephanie with a super-sized version of Oscar

Tomorrow in Part 3, Stephanie reveals what inspired her to write “Queen of Hearts” and how she worked with the story’s Protagonist Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll.

For Part 1, go here.

Stephanie is repped by CAA and Brillstein Entertainment Partners.

Twitter: @stephshanz.

Comment Archive

Interview (Part 2): Stephanie Shannon 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 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.


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.


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

Interview (Written): Noah Hawley

A Q&A with the executive producer of the TV series ‘Fargo’.

A THR interview with Noah Hawley who for three seasons has exec produced and been the showrunner of the FX series ‘Fargo’. His other TV credits include ‘Bones’, ‘The Unusuals’, and ‘Legion’.

The first two seasons started with these actions of shockingly serious violence that felt very unplanned and spontaneous. But the big act of instigating violence here is both precise and almost kind of Looney Tunes-y in its humor. Does that sound right to you, and is that part of the tone of the season in your mind?

The Looney Tunes tone? No. I knew from that first year that because we’re making a 10-hour movie and not a two-hour that if we did the actual tone of Fargo — which is a more comic movie than people remember — then people might think we got the tone wrong. I said to myself, “If you look at the whole array, tonally from Ladykillers or Raising Arizona on the one side to Miller’s Crossing to the other side, I think we have to lop off each end.” We shouldn’t ever devolve into farce, but I also don’t think we want to be earnest at any real point. What I ended up settling on is this idea of making No Country for Old Fargo, where we need a dramatic crime infrastructure that sustains the level of threat throughout, where you’re always a little worried about everybody and the threat of violence is always there. And within that, you can have these comic moments.

This year, there is whimsy to the setup and Ray and Nikki have a certain lightness to them that makes us really like them. And obviously, what happens at the end of that first hour between them is both horrific and entertaining. So it’s a balance, but you’ll find overall that there is a lot of comedy this year but the stakes are really high as well.

In terms of storytelling and experiencing the way that a TV story can be told, how did the Legion experience bleed into Fargo?

I deliberately kept it out. When I was behind the camera shooting the first hour of this year’s Fargo, there were a couple of moments where I thought, “Oh, the camera can do this,” and then I thought “No, that’s not a Coen brothers move.” The great thing about Fargo is that it’s a more objective style of filmmaking, the camera moves in very classical ways and the most interesting things normally are the characters. And that said, I started in season two to enhance some moments with a more obvious camera move, but in general, it was nice to go back to that language, the cinematic language of just trusting your story and using the camera to tell the story but not drawing attention to it.

So even after two, into three seasons now, the What Would the Coen Brothers Do? bracelet is still something you look at? It’s not something where it’s become your Fargo at this point in your mind? Or at least not completely?

Every year there is a little bit of a relaxation, I would imagine. For two years, I never allowed us to pull focus between characters in the sequence. I always thought, “Well, we’ll do two passes and we’ll have the focus deep on one and focus near on another and we’ll find a way to cut around that.” But this year because so much of this show is about pairs of people, it was just natural. I mean, the story was in the focus shift, the story was when Emmit and Sy are facing off against [David Thewlis’] Varga, and Varga is saying, “It’s an investment, not a loan.” And Emmit looks over at Sy, the story is what happens on Sy’s face. You want the camera, the focus to shift. So, I relaxed that. We still shouldn’t do it melodramatically or anything. But yeah, I’m always trying to think about. It has to be consistent with the filmmaking of No Country for Old Men or the filmmaking of Fargo or A Serious Man. This isn’t about pyrotechnics of the camera, it’s about telling a story.

For the rest of the interview, go here.

Interview (Written): Noah Hawley 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 (Written): Ben Wheatley

The writer-director on his latest movie Free Fire.

A Film Inquiry interview with Ben Wheatley who directed the movie Free Fire starring Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, and Armie Hammer. He co-wrote the screenplay along with his wife Amy Jump. Wheatley’s other writing-directing credits include Kill List, Sightseers, and High Rise.

Each one of your films feels completely different to the last. Where do you think Free Fire fits into your eclectic filmography?

Ben Wheatley: They seem different on the outside, but there’s themes that run through all the films that are similar and link together in a jaggedy way. I think Free Fire has elements of A Field in England in it, in some respects: the enclosed space, the limited cast, while the final scene in A Field in England feels to me like a shorter version of the central action sequence that takes up the bulk of Free Fire.

As a director who makes violent movies, I was wondering if there are any portrayals of violence in cinema that disturb you?

Ben Wheatley: For me, it’s all about tone, not necessarily what you see. I mean, even I find Kill List disturbing, but it’s meant to be; it’s a horror film. I think the violence in Free Fire is considerably less disturbing because it’s slapstick and the general tone is comedic. It all relies on the individual scale of what each audience member finds offensive or what you find difficult. Mine’s obviously quite high because I’ve seen a lot of movies, but Free Fire definitely packs less of a horrific punch than something like Kill List, or even something like High Rise.

For the rest of the interview, go here.

I attended an early screening of Free Fire. You can read my thoughts about the movie here. Bottom line: It’s a hugely entertaining, bat-shit crazy movie.

Interview (Written): Ben Wheatley 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: Fate of the Furious Producer Neal Moritz on the Franchise

CS: Interview: Fate of the Furious Producer Neal Moritz on the Franchise

Interview: Fate of the Furious Producer Neal Moritz on the Franchise

Original Film head honcho Neal H. Moritz has produced every film in the Fast & Furious franchise, guiding it from a small street racer movie to a global phenomenon. He just produced the eighth film in the series, The Fate of the Furious, and after this weekend’s record-breaking worldwide haul of $ 532 million dollars it seemed like a good time for to have an exclusive 1-on-1 with Furious producer Moritz about making the hit film, the Jason Statham controversy, the future of the franchise and a little bit about Shane Black’s Doc Savage movie starring Dwayne Johnson.

RELATED: The Fate of the Furious Sets New Global Opening Record As a producer, it’s your job to scout material that has serious potential. When you optioned the original article that the first movie was based on, did you ever dream that you would get eight movies deep into this?

Neal Moritz: No, absolutely no way. Anybody who would tell you any different is a liar. No. Honestly, I thought we were making a really cool kind of B-movie. And when I say B, I don’t use that as a negative way, but a really cool genre movie that was going to break the mold a little bit. The first time we screened the movie I walked out of the theater and walked into the parking lot and saw kids going crazy in their cars, I was like, “Wow. I think we have something special there.”

CS: It’s always had that kind of B-movie energy. It’s named after a Roger Corman movie.

Moritz: Yeah, and you know how we got the Roger title, right?

CS: No, how’d you get it?

Moritz: Okay. In fact, what’s funny is, my house is in LA. I can see Roger’s office 100 yards up the street from me, but I’m from a show biz family and was always going to movie theaters. My family was involved in the American Internationals Pictures, which made the Roger Corman movies, and I was always a huge fan of Roger Corman. I loved the movies he made and how he marketed the movies and so on. I went to go see a documentary with my father on AIP and Roger Corman. We were making “Fast and the Furious” at the time we had gone back and forth between a number of titles: “Race Wars,” “Red Line.” I can’t remember what the titles were, but they were all kind of, “Street Wars,” they were all bad titles. We were looking for a title, and I was sitting there watching a documentary, and I went, “I need to come up with a title like Roger Corman would.” I’m watching the documentary, and there was a movie called “Fast and Furious” that he had made, and I was like, “That is a f*cking great title.” I called Universal and I said, “I got the title” and I said, “The Fast and the Furious.” There’s just silence on that end. I go, “Ugh, maybe that’s a terrible title,” and he goes, “Well, let me think about that,” the marketing guy. The next morning, he called me and he goes, “You know what? I’ve been thinking about that title all night and that’s a great title.” So then we went to Roger Corman, and we tried to get the title and the deal that we made is, we gave him stock footage. Universal gives stock to a bunch of movies they’ve done, and in return, he gave us the title. He gave us the title.

CS: And then he used that stock on his movies?

Moritz: Yeah.

CS: Awesome.

Moritz: It’s fitting, very fitting.

The Fate of the Furious Reviews - What Did You Think?

CS: Now that you’re eight movies in, the actors themselves must feel some sense of ownership over these characters. How do you cater to their creative impulses while making sure the audience and the fans also get what they want?

Moritz: Well, look, I think that they know their characters as well as anybody. Obviously, we would be idiots to not take all that into account, and we work closely, developing these characters and the storylines that encompass them. It’s not like we’re off working and then we just hand them things and say, “Here it is.” We work closely along the way. And as somebody says, “My character wouldn’t do that,” we think long and hard and probably end up changing it because they know it as well or better than we do. So it’s a very collaborative process, and they feel an incredible amount of ownership on each of their characters and obviously, we respect that.

CS: Logistically, what do you think was the most difficult set piece to mount from your end?

Moritz: Cuba. Cuba, just because no studio had shot a movie there in 50 years or whatever it was, and we were going into—we had to deal with the US government, the Cuban government, and then all the practicalities of trying to make a movie where there were very few hotel rooms for an entire crew. We had to bring in everything from the toilet paper to the camera to shoot the movie there. I think that it was the most difficult, but it was definitely worth every ounce of difficult. To me it’s the soul of the movie, Cuba. The car culture there, the lifestyle there, the people there, the ingenuity of the people there, just to me, completely embody what “Fast and Furious” is.

CS: It’s a fantastic sequence, very well directed. I joked with Gary that it seemed like it was fate for him to direct this movie, since he’d worked with four of the actors before, and he’d done another car chase movie. Besides that surface career stuff, what do you think Gary really brought to the series?

Moritz: I think what he talked about the whole time was that he wanted to get the best performances out of each of these characters that we’ve ever had in “Fast,” and I think that he spent a lot of time and effort to make that happen. I think that that’s what makes the film different. There’s an incredible amount of heart, humor, empathy, drama, you know what’s going on. Being able to mix the qualities of all those different things is really a hard thing to do, and I think that he was able to do. Even though the scenes are very different tone-wise, he was able to keep a consistent tone through the movie, and there was just enough on each character. I think he wanted the drama, but when the drama got too much, they wanted comedy and action, and we were able to mix some stuff, and it just really helped.

The Fate of the Furious Rockets to $  ?? Worldwide

CS: The tone of the movie was pretty perfect throughout, but something I talked to Gary and Chris about was a little twinge of unease after seeing the movie about Statham’s character being welcomed within the group after he just killed Han one movie ago. In the reviews since that has become a target of criticism. Was that something you and Chris and Gary anticipated?

Moritz: Well, we definitely talked about it. Our feeling is that if that is the case I understand why there’s a criticism. But what I really believe is whether you’re Vin, whether you’re Statham, whether you’re The Rock, any of these characters, you could have a code. Okay? And the one thing that they all have in common is, is “family first.” The reason Statham did all this was to protect his family, and I think that that was the reason that there’s an understanding. It’s something that I think in future films we will probably talk a lot about it. We have some surprises up our sleeve, I think.

CS: It didn’t bother me personally as much as it did other people, because I sort of see these movies as big budget soap operas. It is amazing how attached people get to these characters. How do you and Chris, as the caretakers of this series, sort of thread the line between self aware and tongue in cheek? Like, what’s the line you don’t cross to avoid going into camp?

Moritz: I mean, we don’t want to jump the shark and we don’t want to do something that is not organic to who each of the characters are, and that’s really the guiding principle. They get tired of me saying it in a lot of meetings: I’ll be sitting in and something will come up and I’m like, “That’s not ‘Fast and Furious.’ That’s not a ‘Fast and Furious’ movie.” Everybody gets tired of it and they mock me and ignore it. But I really am serious about that.

CS: Yeah, well that is your job. You’re there for quality control and you’re there to keep it consistent and make sure it doesn’t jump the shark.

Moritz: Yeah, we try! We’re trying to grow and stay the same at the same time, because we want for people to get what they expect out of a “Fast and Furious” film, but surprise them at the same time.

CS: Vin has called these last three movies a concluding trilogy. What is it that makes them specifically a trilogy and not just another series of sequels, 8, 9, 10?

Moritz: I think it’s because of the way we’re going to end the whole thing. I think it’s all leading up to something that will be really, really interesting and cool and emotional.

CS: Are there treatments or full drafts of the next two?

Moritz: No, nope. We have a lot of ideas, but to be honest, I kind of am the one constantly saying to people, “One great movie at a time. Let’s make it great and then work on 9.” Other people want to think farther ahead. I really want to just concentrate on them one at a time. I don’t even believe there’s a nine until eight comes out, or there’ll be 10 until nine comes out. That is not the mindset. I believe that we’ve got to prove to the audience each time that there’s a reason for them to come back for the next one.


CS: Absolutely. And I also wanted to let you know, I’m a huge Shane Black fan. Since it was announced, I’ve been very jazzed about him doing “Doc Savage.”

Moritz: Yeah, we love him. We’re just waiting on the draft.

CS: It seems like a perfect fit for his sensibilities.

Moritz: It’ll be amazing. Amazing.

CS: And I know you guys are sort of waiting on Dwayne, but what kind of spin would you expect Shane to put on that character?

Moritz: Well, I just think Shane does everything with attitude, you know? He just has an ear for the best dialogue, idiosyncratic, interesting, funny, dark. He’s just a unique talent. I don’t think there’s any other writer who can write dialogue like he can.

CS: Yeah, no, absolutely. But it’s interesting because Doc Savage was in a lot of ways kind of a superhero prototype, back in the day.

Moritz: I mean, we look at him that he’s the first superhero.

CS: Absolutely. I mean, as we’ve seen in the past, with things like, for example, like “John Carter,” obviously existed before “Star Wars.” But by the time it came out, people were like, “Oh, this is too much like ‘Star Wars.’” How do you sort of avoid that pitfall of having a property where a lot of these things sprang from, but sort of make it more contemporary and avoid those comparisons?

Moritz: I just think that that’s what Shane knows how to do. He just knows how to do that. We’ve entrusted it with him. I’m a huge believer in him, and I think he’s going to make an amazing film. I think he’s going to make a film that’s going to be unlike any other superhero film.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

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