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Interviews

Skyler Lawson

By | Interviews

 

Finalist in the 2017 Script Pipeline First Look Project with his short film Nora, writer/director Skyler Lawson was praised by Pipeline execs for his distinctive approach to filmmaking and his striking ability to combine classic cinematic technique with a definitively modern sense of storytelling.

Nora stunned us a little. Predominantly with its style. Not sure many directors have this type of look and feel anymore. Across the board, too: the directing, the score, the cinematography, the locations. . . . As you know, we’ve affectionately labeled it “Neo-Americana” (if that term has already been taken, so be it—we’re giving it a new definition). What gravitated you toward this approach? Did it happen organically, through a direct influence of classic cinema and the rural areas you were accustomed to? Or was it a conscious decision to give your work an identity unlike other filmmakers?

Thank you so much for all of your kind words toward my work. It makes me so happy when people connect with it, because I’m only trying to tell the stories the way I know how. From my heart and my gut. I always follow a gut feeling on things, and once I commit to that personal vision, no one can stop me. I like to follow through and make the best piece of cinema I can and embrace the restrictions of the production.

The most important thing is letting my true feelings out. That is what every director should be doing, in my opinion. No artist should be afraid to let their heritage and identity take center stage in their work. I’m from Indiana. I grew up on a grain farm that has been in my family for over 100 years. I didn’t take over for my father, as he did for his, and so on, so I take this opportunity very seriously. The moment I decided to honor that history and put it at the forefront of my work, whether that be location or tonality, everything changed for me. I don’t hide from the intuition that has been gifted to me from my family. It’s a unique voice. That of pride and handwork, but also faith that when you put the work in, it’s going to rain and something will come of it. It’s all about timing and bloodying your knuckles when no one is looking. That farm is not too far off from the mentality you have to have as a filmmaker, in my opinion.

We see it even more in the feature screenplay of Nora, this aura of nostalgia with a modern slant. It’s a romantic yet brutally stark portrayal of Middle America. The realities of a changing world colliding with the familiar conventions of the past. Like the style of the short, few are willing to grapple with this subject matter. What was your intent with the script, thematically speaking? Why is this story so important?

That is such a flattering breakdown of what I tried to accomplish with that script! You are spot on. Nora is the most personal thing I have ever written. Everything in that script is based on real life in some way or another. And not just my own life, but my mother and father’s as well. Nora takes place 15 years in the future. . . . I did that so people would accept some of the struggles of the small-time farmer, what small towns are facing now and not pass judgment. It’s about the burden of lifetimes of work and land changing hands between generations. It’s about committing to keep what your family built even though the world is turning its back. It’s about two brothers squeezing every bit of youth they can out of their lives before they are thrown into the riggers of running the farm for their father. They build and race cars to distract themselves, they get mixed into some dark business operations, their hands are never clean and made of stone. . . . This is Middle America.

A line from the film is “In this country, if you’re gonna own anything, own land. . . . They stopped making that a long time ago.” That is a direct quote from my father, and it’s 100 percent true. But the game is rigged against a small-time farmer in a lot of ways. It’s hard to make money, as production costs go up but the market goes down. The most interesting thing about this script, though, is that the struggle is experienced by an immigrant girl who is seeking refuge from deportation. The audience sees it through her eyes, a fresh take that suggests that the immigrant and the blue collar worker are after the same thing, no matter the politics involved. It’s called the American Dream. I’m trying to put an authentic portrait on the screen, the good and the bad of that place, and let the audience decide what’s right. That’s all I can do is hold up a mirror to that theater and take them to a place they’ve never been.

You’re obviously a talented director. However, you’re also a composer—and already finished literally the entire score to Nora. Pretty ambitious. And it’s a brilliant score, to be honest. Why was it important for you to lay the groundwork for the music? Did you do it before or after you completed the feature?

Well, let me just say that this means a lot. Most people don’t know that I am a composer as well. I quit my design agency and freelance jobs cold turkey to write Nora, so it was a six month battle with myself to put the most authentic portrayal I could on those pages. Everyday, all day, I was pouring my soul out, and for the first time in my life, I was focusing all of my energy on one project. If I’d get stuck in the script, I’d turn off Final Draft and start composing. Letting all of that organic flow into the music without passing judgment. In a lot of ways, it would help inform the cinematic language of the project. It was unlike any score I had heard because I was relentlessly chasing down the “sound” of my home and my version of it. There aren’t movies about where I grew up, so I was freed of expectation. A script is meant to be performed, not read so it helps the reader get a sense of where I’m headed as well.

My only objective was to convey this intangible connection I have with that place and those characters. I’m sure a bunch of those tracks won’t make it into the movie, but I know some of them will. It is an incredibly powerful tool to have as I switch modes from writer to director. My job is to inspire everyone involved to do their best work. Having the score lets me offer a tonality to anyone who wants it to be a part of their process. It’s a good way to make sure we’re all headed in the same direction. It keeps the vision tight, but also allows for organic reactions when the scenes come alive for the first time on that celluloid.

What composers have impacted you most?

Man, you’re putting me on the spot. . . . I guess I can only answer as to who I listen to most: Jonny Greenwood, Hans Zimmer, Arvo Part, Chris Dudley, Fabio D’Andrea, Aaron Michael Smith, Ryan Taubert, Olafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm, Krzysztof Penderecki, Joep Beving, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, and the late Johan Johansson.

You’re shooting your first independent feature soon (on film, no less), Whelm. How did it come together? From idea to securing financing?

I had been shopping around a couple films, trying to find the right financial partners who could get on board with my vision and got really close a couple of times, but it wasn’t quite right. So after I got a phone call about some money falling through, I decided to not ask permission to make something good and write exactly what I knew I could pull off with the resources I had. I called up my DP and great friend Kassim Norris and ran an idea past him, and he was all in. I did the same with the actors that are in my last film (a WWII short called Left Hand), and they were all in. So I threw caution to the wind and started to write.

Whelm is an American Depression Era thriller and heist film, where a small family in Indiana gets tangled between a legendary bank robber and an eccentric and dangerous rival criminal. It’s based where I grew up as well and is a culmination of some local legends that I grew up with, but also me just making the movie I wanted to watch with my best friends. But don’t get me wrong, it is incredibly personal as well. You won’t have to dig very deep to find that it is a commentary on chasing fame and celebrity. It’s a cautionary tale about finding out just how hollow of an endeavor that is opposed to the people you have in your life. We need to shift our thinking to how we can serve rather than how we can gain. The spirit of the production is that we are all going to push each other as far as we can, with the promise that I have their back.

It’s just a bunch of people that I’ve worked with who are world class, but the industry hasn’t caught hold of them yet. Delil Baran in particular. I wrote the best character I could for him, he is an enigma and audiences should be ready to hear that name. He is a force to be reckoned with, as are the rest of the actors in the film: Ronan Colfer, Dylan Grunn, Francesca Anderson and Grant Schumacher. I have been telling everyone that the film is going down in October, no matter what financing comes through. . . because even if we fulfill our perfect budget or not, I know that I can pull off an impactful story with the ingredients that I have access to. Ten years of building relationships and constantly over-committing and delivering have led me to make this film, and I’m more than ready. That being said, I’ve been betting on myself my whole career, and if anyone wants to go on that ride with me and support my feature debut, my line is always open. All I can promise is my passion for the work and hopefully a great piece of cinema.

The best choices you’ve made thus far in pursuing a career as a writer/director? The worst? If you had to change anything or had to tell a fellow filmmaker what to do and what not to do. . . ?

The number one best choice I’ve ever made in pursuing this career is not waiting for approval from someone else. There is no one waiting to hand you a golden ticket, and you’ve got to earn it. I make only the films I can make, so hopefully, they will know me, for me.

I’ve made a habit of Over-Committing and Delivering. I constantly go outside my comfort zone and burn the boats after I take the island. I give myself no choice but to move forward. I think that’s how we have to be. I couldn’t do that without the support of my wife, Natalie. I’ve known and loved her since I was in high school, and she is down to get in the trenches with me when the money isn’t coming in. She knows how much it means to me, and I want to pay her back with all I have. If I can make a living doing what I love, that is what I’m chasing.

I would say to fellow filmmakers, surround yourself with people you want to go to battle with, people who are brutally honest, and people whose taste you admire. Talent is great, but has to be equal with taste and honesty or it doesn’t work. You can learn that the hard way. Always bring value to the equation, and never come to a conversation with your palms up. If you stick to your identity, personally and as an artist, you’ll attract the right people. This goes for audiences as well, especially since everyone can hide behind a cell phone. If it’s not for them, then that’s okay, everyone is different and it’s not Burger King.

Don’t ever change your voice to try and hit the zeitgeist. If you do, you will be late. Art isn’t sports, so please, I beg you, put authenticity into the world with your work. We are all starved for it at the moment!


 

Skyler Lawson

Skyler Lawson is an award-winning writer and director known for his films Clayfist, Nora, and Left Hand. His sights set on telling visceral stories that reflect American culture as he sees it. Each one of Lawson’s films are trademarked with lush and evocative camera work, paired with challenging and personal narratives. His unflinching honesty often serves as a mirror of culture in the United States, but also offers an optimistic hand as it challenges the audience to look inward. His work is quickly emerging as a cinematic force to watch for as his focus is now on feature filmmaking.

Follow Skyler: Twitter

Amir Motlagh & Charles Borg

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Charles Borg is a two-time Script Pipeline Screenwriting finalist. He partnered with director Amir Motlagh for the indie feature MAN in 2017.

We live in an era now where screenwriters are oftentimes told to “write to the market” (which I think is ambiguous and largely misinterpreted advice, but. . . the catchphrase persists). MAN is clearly a passion project that takes a fresher approach to character—and audience—perspective, putting us literally into the lens of the lead with a camera mounted to the actor. As a script, there’s no real way this could work on paper. It has to be seen to be appreciated.

What made you decide to pursue this idea and this approach, seemingly counter to the norms of Advice Factories who’d likely recommend against producing such an experimental film?

Amir: Possibly the easiest analogous I have to this question is a non-fiction 1970s book by Studs Terkel called Working. In it, he describes everyday Americans going to work. This book, on paper, or as a pitch, would seem completely uninspired. But once you read it, it’s a compelling, engaging look at ordinary American lives that is hard to put down. With MAN, the outline and original genesis of the idea were strong for us, and we knew that we could rely on other cinematic things to keep it engaging.

One of the initial questions was, “what if this movie was made in the 1950s?” Both Charles and I concluded that it would age well as it would act like a specific timestamp for a specific zeitgeist and culture. We took a leap of faith and structured it around an idea of “experiential hypnosis” to keep a viewer compelled to continue watching. Over the last two decades, as digital took over traditional film, and with that, a whole new audience completely understanding of visual language, I’ve become exceedingly drawn to works that do things a bit differently and approach the process of media creation bottom up. If you believe in a vision and have the drive to see through its execution, it’s worth the effort. But I think it must be in your blood to go this route, or even a learned behavior. My background was foreign cinema, and internationally, scripts function a bit different. Whereas in the West the script is always a starting point, in much great foreign cinema, the script is one component of the whole. Every story has interesting possibilities.

Charles: Amir and I wanted to make a film nobody had seen before. We never worried about whether or not people would like MAN. Our aim was to affect people and subvert a very familiar medium, hence the POV camera mount on the main character. We knew if we couldn’t meet our own expectations that we weren’t going to make MAN. It was that simple. You live with a film for a long time, and we knew it had to be made without comprise. Developing the story had nothing to do with thinking outside-the-box. We were already doing that. We knew what we wanted to say, it was simply a matter of figuring out the most inspired way of communicating the idea for an audience we knew would be marginal, but appreciative.

With such an intimate, contained story, it almost seems like the script was built around this would-be couple. Was that the case? And Amir, did you need to click with the actress, or perhaps it was better-suited if you didn’t, given the on-screen relationship?

Amir: Charles and I knew that without a female lead who was completely in the moment, this would never work. Having worked with Rachel Sciacca many years prior, I knew she would be the right person to cast as Des, as she has an effortless way in front of the camera. When we knew she would commit to the project, we went about outlining points of movement between the characters. We borrowed personalities and preferences and built it around that.

Two things were necessary: trust between Rachel and me, and her ability to build a new identity between us in the film. I think in this scenario, we had to click in real life before we could re-create the other fictional one in the film.

Charles: The human interaction in the story, midway, is the culmination. The film’s primary focus is on exploring man’s relationship with technology, on a macro level. We start with nature, then introduce technology. It’s a build until the lead character is present with another human being and we see how technology has become an integral part of their interaction. I mentioned this was a time-capsule piece, reflecting OUR time. The choice to have HER come over to HIS house wasn’t one of convenience. It HAD to be this way to properly reflect the modern dynamic that exists between men and women that wouldn’t have existed, say, 40 years ago. It’s likely the man would have gone to see the woman, and it would have been a bit more formal. Probably dinner and drinks, then a movie. They probably would have met each other at a barbecue or an office party, definitely not an online app. The seemingly unimportant details of the film, like the characters constantly on their phones, is capturing, precisely, what we are today as people intertwined with technology. If we made a follow up to MAN 40 years from now I wonder what that reality would look like. . . .

Whether you call it cinéma vérité, neo-realism, or any other variation, the hurdle every writer and director faces in this genre is how to make it compelling without a lot of the conventions of typical genre structure. Was the film meticulously planned, or was a lot of it improvised? How much traditional “directing” was implemented, since Amir had to shoulder both roles, lead actor and director?

Amir: The film’s structure and progression was planned. Points and areas of importance were written. And within the conversational aspects, areas were primed, but then largely improvised in chunks. One of the reasons Charles and I thought Rachel was perfect for this is because of her ability to improvise in real-time. Again, totally in-the-moment. My job here was to dictate the direction as subtly as possible, while never getting in the way.

Charles: The theme of man and technology and this being a sort of time-capsule piece was heavily considered and carefully plotted in terms of what you’re seeing on-screen and when. Nothing is totally off-the-cuff, but improvisation was encouraged. In order to buy into the reality, it was essential to know where the story was going. Even conversation topics were plotted out, but much of the dialogue is free-form, in order to get that authenticity that’s often missing in movies. Our aim was for the audience to ask themselves “Is this actually just a conversation?” Even some improvisational lines feel like they might have been scripted. All of this was discussed and examined and ultimately executed in such a way that it’s difficult to differentiate.

Dispel the notion that you need a ton of money to produce a worthwhile film. New filmmakers can sometimes (although it’s getting rarer and rarer) fall in love with the romanticism of making a movie and lose sight of the logistics. MAN feels so simple, but what are the traps you can fall into? The overlooked details in producing microbudget content.

Amir: I don’t think of this film in terms of a traditional structure of commerce, and I never even thought of it as a microbudget effort, though certainly it is one. I think of it more in terms of what is possible within all the changes of capture mediums and storytelling in general. In the same way, as music went from overproduced to lo-fi, in the postmodern view, they all sit in the same space and all vie for similar attention. Whether a blockbuster movie, or a YouTube video, or even a tweet, they all demand the attention currency, and we think of these things as much less compartmentalized as before. I hate the term, but tech has moved these things into “content,” and with that said, this is the most valued time to make art using ground-up methodologies, as opposed to a strict, traditional shoot structure. Though I enjoy those as well. Options and possibilities have opened quite a bit. Filmmakers tend to idolize the big names because they like the toys and scale that comes with moviemaking. Most of the time, that’s just a hindrance because it gets in the way of truth.

Charles: Location is key to a project like this. And I’m not just referring to the lead character’s bungalow. Laurel Canyon, the surrounding area, lends such a unique quality to the story. Laurel Canyon is a character, too, given its paradox, being so private and serene, yet so close to Sunset Boulevard and a bustling city center. This relationship between man and technology carries over into the landscape. We had this resource at our fingertips and knew that between the surrounding area and the main home that the story could be executed in a lean fashion.

Filmmakers need to consider all elements: location, access, the number of characters they are writing for, etc. Even the “simplest” of projects can be difficult to pull off. It’s key to think about how you want to shoot something as opposed to how you’ve seen something captured in the past. Figure out how to see it in a new way. If two characters are sitting at a table, maybe you don’t have the luxury of shooting coverage for a scene. That’s time-consuming. Maybe you don’t have the resources to shoot a 360 Steadicam shot, because that’s logistically tricky. There are always multiple alternatives to an approach, and sometimes a restricted approach renders a much more interesting result.

Marrying worthwhile themes and commentary with universal marketability and broad storytelling is no small task. A film can be a commercial success, but an artistic failure. Or, commonly, vice versa. In your experience, how fine is that line to walk? Should we bow to the fact that, in the modern era, if something isn’t “normal,” it’s destined to find a smaller audience? And, well, should we even care?

Amir: I think the reverse here in terms of novel work, in that, it’s the best time to reach the broadest audience possible with things that might have never gotten the eyeballs. But, one thing with MAN is that we tried never relegating the work to “experimental” (even though that is one thing it is) by creating an experience that is honest, with no tricks. We have no idea how far and how many people the project will reach, but, I think both Charles and I needed to make it regardless of where it ends up. It’s essentially an ANIMALS (our in-house production) project that checks the boxes of our mission.

Charles: A film like MAN could never be realized if we were concerned with commercial viability. Nothing about the story lends itself to the mainstream. We’re not against commercial films, but we avoided the process involved with making that kind of product. Our similar creative dispositions and appreciation for film innovators like Herzog, Ozu, Akerman, and Kiarostami, were reminders that attempting to create something personal and unique sometimes demands a trade-off.

In this case, we made art that could be appreciated as a time-capsule piece that reflects OUR time and can be appreciated OVER time, as opposed to something recognizable and fleeting.


 

Amir Motlagh

Amir Motlagh strives for an increasingly interdisciplinary approach to creating media and telling stories. He is a filmmaker by trade and practice, having written and directed over 15 narrative and non-fiction projects that have screened all over the world, in every facet of distribution. This includes an early DIY short film that went “viral” before the term was popularized. He received a BA in Psychology from UCLA, and an MFA in Production with an emphasis in Directing at Chapman University. He also studied at the Stella Adler Academy in Hollywood. He leads the media labs startup, ANIMALS, which creates distinctly artful motion picture and television projects as well as web and VR content. He believes that the future is bright and we are responsible for leading humanity with creative insightfulness. 2018 saw the commercial release of two features he directed: MAN (2017) and Three Worlds (2018).

Charles Borg

Charles Borg is an award-winning writer/producer with an MFA in Screenwriting from Chapman University. He runs Smash To: Script Consulting, where he provides professional script coverage and works with filmmakers affiliated with the likes of CAA, Circle of Confusion, and Nasdaq Studios. Charles writes and ghostwrites feature films and pilots, as well as develops treatments and reality show pitch-packages. In the Film/TV realm, Charles story-produced 3 seasons of the reality boxing docu-series, Knockout for NUVO + FUSE and has recently co-produced two features: Three Worlds (2018) and MAN (2017). He currently teaches screenwriting at Chicago Filmmakers and Flashpoint Chicago. He believes in storytelling that pushes creative boundaries and supports the idea that, as a storyteller, one must find their unique voice.

Gianluca Minucci

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Gianluca won the 2017 Script Pipeline First Look Project with his short film Chimeras, a crime/thriller. The short served as inspiration toward a feature screenplay version, which received a “Recommend” from Script Pipeline in 2018.

Chimeras is such an incredibly well-put-together short film. While the subject matter might be uncomfortable—relinquishing one’s child for survival—the themes you’re going for here land hard. What sparked the idea? What were some of the underlying commentaries you were aiming for?

I remember reading some old news articles back in my hometown (Trieste, north-east Italy, at the border by Slovenia), where a lot of different illegal trafficking took place, especially before Slovenia entered the UE in 2004. That being said, I wasn’t really interested in the social issue itself, but I thought it could have been a great background for something very personal in terms of themes and characters: fatherhood and father/son relationships.

The feature script version of Chimeras is just as immersive and tonally defined as the short. Did you always see the short as a proof-of-concept for the feature? What came first?

No, that wasn’t the intention. I just wanted to make the short at the beginning, but while we were filming, there was a genuine excitement with everybody involved. Everything was coming along so well that I realized that these characters and atmospheres had a great potential for a longer, expanded version.

The feature screenplay felt like the right consequence of it, and the writing process has been very natural and alive, which makes me extremely happy because I always thought (and experienced) that result-based writing is a failure most of the time.

You’ve done a few other shorts and a magnificent music video for the band Phantogram. Do you consciously go into each project, scripted or unscripted, knowing it’ll have a specific Gianluca Minucci look and feel? If so, what are some of the ingredients that mark your content as unique and identifiable?

I’m very glad you mentioned the Phantogram video because I have a fond attachment to it. I consciously go into each project trying to make it as personal as possible. Another factor that I consider before doing a job (especially a music video) is how pleasant is that going to be. And with pleasant, I don’t mean easy, but a sweet collaboration between everybody involved, from the client to any crew member.

To answer your second question, I don’t know if there are specific ingredients of my content. I go with what feels right to me and what I would love to see as a viewer. I have kind of a weird working method, which is a mix of meticulous, obsessive preparation (researching, pre-visualization, pre-production) and a sort of crazy freedom on set, especially when working with actors. In terms of film grammar (both as a screenwriter and a director), I try to avoid anything that feels “writerly” and descriptive, always looking for something more elliptical and metonymic. I don’t do a lot of coverage and I concentrate more on actors and on camera movements that can convey specific feelings in a subtle way. Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Haneke are masters in this kind of storytelling.

With that in mind, will safely assume you were influenced by some well-known films and directors when you first started studying cinema. Who were the major influencers? Growing up in Italy, though, were there Italian directors and writers that helped inspire you or push you toward a particular genre?

I have many influences, it’s really hard to say.

As a director, besides the two aforementioned directors, I’d say Cimino, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson, just to mention some. As a viewer, Truffaut will always have a big piece of my heart. My influences come from several places, like the cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay (especially on James Gray’s We Own The Night and Two Lovers); the composer George Delerue; the theatre directors Carmelo Bene and Eimuntas Necrošius, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Regarding the latter, I highly recommend any young director and screenwriter to read his two books: The Movement-Image and The Time-Image: they’re way more illuminating and enriching than any screenwriting manual (which feels like a recipe cookbook to me).

I love a certain Italian Cinema. I aways loved Antonioni, Fellini, and Elio Petri, but on the top of my list there’s a movie called The Best Of Youth by Marco Tullio Giordana. There are two wonderful writers that are great inspirations—Ugo Pirro (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) and Franco Solinas (The Battle Of Algiers, State of Siege, Mr. Klein)—but also everything the great actor Gianmaria Volontè did. Right now we have a wonderful young Italian actor, Luca Marinelli, and everything he does is extraordinary and unique.

When producing anything, a short or feature, documentary or music video, all the core components are imperative. The actors, the DP, the crew, the editor. . . . However, what are other important elements on the periphery that some new writer/directors might miss their first time around? The intangibles that can make or break the success of a film.

Working with the people you know, trust, and love. Having a good producer who supports you and trusts your vision, especially if it stands out from the crowd, can really make the difference. Having a good amount of time for pre-production, especially scouting (the right location is as important as casting). Fight for the actors you want and trust them on set , don’t “direct” them—let them do their thing and be hands off—the only thing you can do is give them some prop to play around or tell them to improvise.

Pay attention to every single detail—set design, props, costumes, light, make-up, chromatic palette—in terms of dramatic results, not aesthetic. For instance, a linen jacket makes a different sound and has a different feeling than a leather one. Pick the one that better serves the dramaturgy and your character. A rug might “look better” than a tile floor, but maybe the sound of steps on the tile floor is what is needed for a specific scene. Directors should consider all this and more to create their atmosphere with the support and help of the other department heads.

The biggest obstacle, in your eyes, facing young directors who wish to enter the world of scripted content?

Most of the time, we are our biggest obstacle.

It’s very hard to get a script optioned, or a movie completed, and I know that frustration. No matter what, we need to keep writing, studying, and researching. That’s where the real pleasure is.


Gianluca Minucci

Born in Trieste, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy, Gianluca studied Film History at University La Sapienza in Rome, his thesis being on Robert Altman’s cinema. He went on to achieve his MFA in Film Analysis, with a monographic essay on PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.

His short/promo Chimeras has won several awards and has been published in American Cinematographer Magazine. In addition, his music video Funeral Pyre for Phantogram was selected on Videostatic as one of the best music videos of 2017.

Jane Baker

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Jane placed as a finalist in the 2017 Script Pipeline First Look Project with her short film (and series pilot episode) The Parker Tribe, an introspective, autobiographical dramedy. She’s currently writing for both film and TV.

You were a finalist in the Script Pipeline First Look Project with your short film The Parker Tribe, which also doubles as essentially the first episode of a dramedy series you’re shopping. The story itself is personal, correct? What compelled you to bring this one to life?

I’ve been writing about my life since 2002 when my mother passed away. I realized that I knew very little about my mother before we seven kids came along. Having two boys myself, I was damned if I was going to leave them without a backstory on their mom.

So I began writing about all the things that happened in my childhood that people thought bizarre or hard to believe.  In writing more and more, I realized that maybe people did have reason to question because on the surface it does seem like a lot for one family.

I got busy with life and the writing fell to the side for a bit. In 2005, my eldest son was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and I returned to writing this time more to keep my sanity. My sons have always liked hearing about my crazy family, and I was writing to remember more stories to tell him while we went through treatment. He is well now, and I keep writing.

The particular story that is told in my pilot is a consolidation of events that took place over a summer where my life was forever changed by information about my family and myself.

As primarily a theater person, director and writer, writing for film was new to me but it was clear to me that this story was not meant for the stage but for the screen. Writing and directing for the screen has now become a passion.

And writing something so close to reality–and so close to the heart–did you try and depict events as they happened for the sake of chronicling the truth, or did you need to take liberties to make it more “cinematic,” in a sense?

The only liberties I took were in the condensing of events. Everything in the film happened and the conversations are exactly as I remember them. I have written a memoir called Nobody Ever Dies When I’m Around, a lifetime of feeling left out, and I note in the preface that these are all my memories and my opinions. I don’t doubt that others who were there may have interpreted things differently, as we all have our perspectives.

One other thing that changed in the film was at the end when one brother is holding the other up. The actor playing the brother who actually held my other brother up was too close in physical size to be able to hold him, so at the last moment we switched to the actor playing the oldest brother. My brother Tim, who was the real Tommy, has not let me forget that inaccuracy.

The cast of The Parker Tribe is so remarkably well-matched that it feels as though we’re watching a documentary. Such incredible young talent, paired with veteran actors. Tell us about the casting process, how it all came together.

One of my jobs is that I work at The New England Youth Theatre. I teach improv and acting, and direct and write shows for young actors. I knew all of the child actors as former students. Casting was a fun and serendipitous process. I had made a Facebook friend and noticed in the background of a picture she posted that the fella looked just like David Koechner. David was the only actor I felt could capture the wacky and loving nature of my father. I mentioned to this friend that the guy in the photo looked like David, and she said that it was David. In fact, it was her husband. I told her about my project and script, and she said she would be happy to pass it along. David called the next day and said he would be happy to play the father.

I immediately called Tina Fey, who is a friend and former student, and asked her who could play the mother opposite David and she said “Paula Pell.” I looked her up and asked Tina to get her the script. Paula then signed on and everything fell into place.

The kids were easy to cast as I had known them all since they were very young. The young lady that plays Jo auditioned twice. The first time she was very girly and it just didn’t fit. The next week she auditioned again and was totally “Jo.” The film would be such a lesser work without her. I expect she will be a big force pretty soon.

Your background working with actors: does that help shape what you write, what kinds of projects you like to take on? Casting can be tricky. Is there a secret to creating chemistry as a director, or is it all about finding the right people for the right roles and everything clicks?

I love directing actors, and young actors are a real joy. I think I shape what I write in knowing there are child actors who can relay what I am hoping to create. For me, I watch how people interact in auditions and rarely only see one person audition at a time. It isn’t that they have to have chemistry with everyone right away, but you can see the potential in how they engage other actors and if they are kind to one another. All of the kids I cast were helping each other during the auditions, and that told me a lot.

What were some of the predominant, positive moments in your career that have led you to where you are now? The stumbling blocks?

The thing that has always made me feel successful, even if I was not, was always knowing that someone thought I was the bomb. That person for me was my dad. That gave me perhaps too much confidence that I was the funniest, best person for whatever it was I was trying to do.

The biggest stumbling block for me has been anxiety. When I was 19, I was at college and sorta right in-between mourning my brother David and anticipating and worrying about my brother Patrick. I was also truly accepting that I was not at all straight. I worried about what that would do to my Irish Catholic family. Spoiler Alert: it did not go well. I think due to all this stress, I began having panic attacks that pushed me off the stage for twenty years. Nobody knew what panic attacks were, and I was ashamed and embarrassed to admit that I was suffering in this way.

I had kept that as something I only told very few people until the last couple years when circumstances arose which forced me to publicly talk about it. Being open about my anxiety has been very freeing, and it’s made people connect with me when they previously might have thought we had nothing in common.

What was it for you that you wanted to establish in your directorial debut? Did it come naturally, or was it the end result of years of working in entertainment?

I have directed theater for what feels like forever, and my goal is always the same no matter what I am directing, theater or film. The question is what do I want the audience to feel and how can I accomplish that.

What I hoped to establish in my film debut was that I have a voice, something to say that I care very much about and a unique way of saying it.

Many filmmakers aren’t looking to become multi-millionaires (though most are probably open to the idea. . . .). What is it that drives you toward visual storytelling? Is there something about filmmaking that’s more rewarding than, say, writing a book, or a play?

I don’t need to be a multi-millionaire. I only need one million dollars. I have become more and more drawn to film as a way of telling my stories, and one thing that I like over theater is the permanence of it.  Theater is awesome and quite a different experience, but when it’s over, it’s over.

Film allows you to do more that a book, showing not telling. It’s the form I want to see The Parker Tribe series in. Not a book series, not a play.

When it comes to producing an indie, what are the broad takeaways every up-and-coming producer, writer, and director should keep in mind? *besides being patient and lowering all expectations

The biggest issue is probably the hardest: be picky. Don’t take the first producer that shows some interest, find out if it’s a good match for your style. Get references. If you find someone you think you want to work with, look them up on IMDB. Contact the people they have worked with before. Ask how the process went, most will talk to you. And if they won’t talk about a particular person or company, that should tell you something. Same with your key crew members, although I was very lucky in that I absolutely loved every member of my film crew.

Also, never forget, as Michelle Lawler, my incredible DP said, “Film is a very collaborative process.” You need to lead the project, but you need to allow for people’s ideas to be heard. I would not have the film I have if I always thought my idea was best. Lawler took some of the most beautiful shots as a result of telling me her “better idea.” It was better!

For the emerging directors and writer/directors, the first step of course is to make a short. Get something made that defines who they are and why they’re different. This is an identity business just like anything else in the arts. How does a young or new director craft a style that allows them to get noticed?

I really feel that what will get you noticed is what you are passionate about. I wanted so much to make art that would be a tribute to my wacky family, and that drive brought out creative ideas on how to show what I felt.

The key is to not waste time on things you really don’t care about and hone in on what matters to you.


Jane Baker

Jane Baker is a 30-year theatre dramaturge, writer, and performer. Jane has a BA in Theater from Hofstra University and a MA in Education from West Chester University of Pennsylvania. She has taught hundreds the craft of improv, acting, and writing at various institutions including Upper Darby Performing Arts Center and currently at The New England Youth Theatre in Vermont. Jane has written and published melodramas written specifically for NEYT’s Melodrama Program. She also penned her memoir Nobody Ever Dies When I’m Around.

The Parker Tribe, her directorial debut,based on her childhood, premiered at the 2015 TriBeCa Film Festival. The film has won several awards including the New York Television Festival’s Best of Fest, NY Critics Award, and Best Actor (Drama) for David Koechner. She is currently working on a feature script.

Jane lives in Vermont with her partner Sharon, and their objectively beautiful boys, Max and Sam.

Follow Jane: Twitter

Evan Cooper

By | Interviews

A top 10 finalist in the 2016 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition with the thriller Ballerina Girl, writer/director Evan Cooper will make his feature directorial debut with The Will O Wisp, starring Chrissy Metz (This is Us).

Your screenplay The Will O Wisp attached Chrissy Metz in 2017. Fill us in on the process from concept, to development, to getting a name attachment (and in our opinion, a stellar actress). How did it all come about?

The Will O Wisp actually came from a nightmare, believe it or not. I tend not to remember my dreams, and rarely wake up in a panic, but I had this frightening image of a man and his dog watching an endless tree line of phosphorescent lights. It sounds silly, but it was really haunting at the time, so when I woke up, I immediately started writing. Who was this guy? The dog? Why the lights? It took me the better part of 2017 to write, but got a great response.

Chrissy Metz is an incredible human being and a wonderful actress. We spoke over the phone about the script, then grabbed lunch. She was so in tune with the material, and her passion for what she does is infectious. I’m lucky to have her on board.

Your short The Armoire was well-received at fests. How big of a factor was that in shopping Wisp, showing that you could handle the genre on paper and on screen?

A lot of people told me not to direct. But it was getting to the point where my scripts just weren’t getting made–or they were being rewritten by morons. Out of frustration, my brother Brodie and I sat down together to write The Armoire, and we knew we had something special. We got double lucky with the cast and crew we found, and the film has since been circulated all over Hollywood. It’s what got me my director’s foothold for The Will O Wisp.

The key was just to shake things up and believe in my gut. When I say a lot of people told me not to direct, I mean A LOT of people. Fantastically discouraging, I know. Especially for an industry that’s supposed to be so positive. But fuck it, do things the way you wanna do things. Enough people are going to doubt you, so you might as well not doubt yourself. Or, if you’re like me and you do doubt yourself at times, just push forward with the discomfort. We self-financed the thing. Anyone can do it.

The Will O Wisp combines elements of supernatural horror and science fiction, yet the script still feels cohesive and neither component detracts from the other. Was it difficult balancing those elements while writing?

Writing a script in general is always difficult for me, especially when you’re not getting paid.

But it comes down to what your characters want. I think if you can unearth honesty, then you’re set. The whole balancing of situations really comes from them and what they’re going through. I think the horror matches up well with each individual’s internal struggle. Even the dog’s!

As a low-budget thriller with limited characters and locations, was the script’s budget always a consideration, and did that present any challenges while writing?

Never. I never think about budget constraints when I’m writing. I find that kind of stuff pulls me out of the material. I know some people can do it, just not me. If things get too pricey on set, we’ll just fire someone [winks].

Did the rewriting process change once you started targeting talent? Or was rewriting even necessary at that point?

I’m really lucky to have an awesome manager and agent, both of whom gave indispensable feedback on early drafts of the script. So by the time we started going out with it, it was in a pretty tight place.

The fun now is looking at locations and seeing how that might alter the story in some areas. Fun times ahead (sigh).

Every writer takes a different route into the industry. We’ll talk to 20 writers and get 20 completely different stories, with a few similar threads: starting with a solid writing foundation and hitting on a unique story, then setting yourself up for opportunity by making the right types of connections, whether it’s through competitions, referrals, and so forth.

In your view, what are some other commonalities all writers must check the box for? Looking back, what were the crucial decisions (or single decision) you made that propelled your career forward?

I’m a big believer in someone’s thumbprint. You pick up a script by James Cameron, and you just know it’s his. Same goes for writers like Steven Knight, or S. Craig Zahler. These guys are on a different level because they put their individuality onto the page–it’s what makes their material so unique and interesting to read.

I try to do the same. I think anyone can, they just have to be willing to throw down with themselves. It’s what’s key to getting read, or at least having someone want to read your whole script. A lot of readers give up after ten pages because the script is like every other script churned out by the Hollywood film school system. It’s important for me to write what I want to write and do it my way.

Future Evan Cooper: sticking with film or branching out to TV as well? Do you think it’s good for all writers to find their niche and stick with it if it’s working out, or that adapting to the landscape is necessary?

I’m definitely more partial to film. As far as directing, we’ll see what happens. Writing is something I’ll probably always do. I’m not sure I’m in a place to give advice to other writers, but my feeling is that you should always put your own thumbprint on things. You may think you have to conform to a way of writing or “being” in Hollywood, but that’s what sheep do. . . and that’s pretty boring.


Evan Cooper

Originally from Canada, Evan Cooper is an award-winning director and screenwriter. His debut film, the horror The Armoire, screened at more than 20 festivals across North America, creeped out packed audiences, and won multiple awards. The film tells the story of a fresh-off-the-bus, aspiring actress who discovers a piece of furniture in her apartment to be unnervingly haunted. Will O’ Wisp starring Chrissy Metz will be his first feature. He’s repped by manager Kailey Marsh and UTA.

Prarthana Mohan & Kay Tuxford

By | Interviews

Writers Prarthana Mohan and Kay Tuxford collaborated on their first film, The MisEducation of Bindu, a coming-of-age dramedy offering a fresh perspective on the dynamics of high school identity and integration, seen through the lens of a 14-year-old Indian girl living in Midwest America. Prarthana and Kay were selected for Seed & Spark’s #HometownHeroes campaign, which allowed Mark and Jay Duplass to come on board as executive producers in 2017. Kay previously won the Script Pipeline TV Writing Competition, and Bindu is Prarthana’s feature directorial debut. Both are graduates from Chapman University’s film program.

Who pitched the idea to who, and why did you feel this was the kind of story to pursue? Did the co-writing and co-development partnership come naturally, or were there some hurdles (there are always hurdles, right?)?

Kay: The nugget of this came to me in film school for an assignment in my screenwriting class with Paul Wolansky. It featured two unlikely partners in high school biology, including a homeschool kid who was booksmart, but socially tone deaf. Directors in our program could pick shorts they liked by the screenwriting students to film—and Prarthana picked mine. She hasn’t be able to get rid of me since.

Prarthana: Kay writes like how I feel inside, so finding her in film school was wonderfully serendipitous. When I read the short I fell in love with it. It was dark, funny, edgy, and I couldn’t wait to direct it. Kay is a wonderful collaborator, and I would say our partnership was natural. I’m sure we’ve had hurdles, but none that couldn’t be resolved with a couple of glasses of wine.

When you first began the crowdfunding process, you got off to an incredible start and never looked back, it seems. The film was fully funded rather quickly. Plenty of filmmakers fall short of the mark, though. Is there a trick to it? Or is it karma—years of pitching in money and services on friends’ projects came full-circle? It would surely vary from project to project, but what are some of the things you learned along the way?

Kay: The trick is to be non-stop. Which is not a trick at all, but exhausting. You have to be promoting around the clock. And not just the same post—you have to turn it into an event with your audience, something they can participate in. We did a ton of contests, dollar for dollar matching with some of our donors, had video blogs about the project, and made huge graphics when we moved on up to our next achievement (and thanking everyone for getting us there). I’m sure for some it was a little much (I’m sorry, guys!) but it definitely paid off. I still have people that talk to me, overjoyed they helped our team win #HometownHeroes. For a few dollars donation, we offered a hell of a ride to be a part of it.

Also, yes, we’ve all tried to donate and help friends on their projects throughout the years not expecting an eventual payout, but it just feels good to help talented people we know achieve their dream. Even giving a few bucks might help them over a slump, and they’ll be grateful. We certainly were when they returned the favor. If you can’t donate to your friends projects, shout-outs on social media on their behalf is definitely appreciated.

Prarthana: I’m not kidding when I say that crowdfunding is in the top 10 most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s not easy asking people for money, and it’s certainly not easy asking them to stay engage and be involved. We had to use every trick in the book. We learned from friends who were both successful and unsuccessful in their crowdfunding efforts. Seed & Spark was also helpful with metrics we should be mindful of. Kay and I geeked out on data, analyzing what posts worked and what did not. We had some incredible support right off the bat, and that’s needed to get momentum going. You absolutely cannot go it alone, and we had a core team of 3-4 people who were constantly reaching out. We were reaching out in two different time continents (and sometimes a third), so there was no downtime, and I think that helped keep the project in everyone’s newsfeeds.

What made you decide to go the crowdfunding route instead of seeking out potential production companies?

Kay: Originally, this script did go out to production companies. It featured a white main character and we had been locked into that idea for a while because we felt we needed a name to raise funding. The project hit cycles of interest, but we were losing time waiting for that “yes.” Once the topic of making this ourselves came up, it felt right. And that also gave us the freedom to ask. . . what if our main character isn’t white? What if she’s an Indian immigrant? Over a year of rewrites and re-imagining, we excitedly now have the best version of this story we’ve written. Indie Filmmaking set us free.

Prarthana: Crowdfunding is insanely hard, and we really had to do some soul searching before we were ready to fully commit. The timing felt right to explore this film with an Indian lead and shed light on the immigrant experience. I don’t think we could have done this 5-10 years ago when we were shopping this script around. Going the crowdfunding route gave us control over how this film is going to be made. The competition on Seed & Spark gave us the impetus to make it happen.

Kay, you went to school for something other than film. Regrets in that arena? Or did that actually help gear you into the entertainment industry? Ask a hundred writers, and you’ll get a hundred different answers, but for either of you, do you think a traditional film school education would have helped?

Kay: Nah. My background education is just proof I really like education. My bachelors are in Biology and English and I stopped myself from another in Chemistry (I had to admit to myself I had no intention of a career in Chemistry, I just liked the classes). My senior year, I signed up for a creative writing class, which I’ve always enjoyed, but it turned out to be a screenwriting class. It was in the classroom with the really comfy chairs, so I stayed. I stayed and I got hooked. So there’s no other way I’d be here if I didn’t go to school for something other than film. I did eventually go to Chapman for a Screenwriting MFA program, they really seemed to relish that I had a less-than-typical film background. Sometimes the equipment and technique still intimidates me, but with the advantage of so much digital information and YouTube how-tos, it never takes me long to get up to speed.

Prarthana: I was on my way to medical school like most Indian kids. Somewhere in high school, I was bitten by the theatre bug and waited until after I was admitted into medical school to let my family know I did not want medicine but film instead. I come from a film family in India. My grandpa is a renowned music composer, M.S Viswanathan. While my family was supportive, they thought the jump from medicine to film was a little extreme. After a lot of negotiating, I went to the only communications program in my city that had film courses. Like Kay, I was hooked and applied to Chapman’s MFA in Film program as soon as I could and haven’t looked back since.

This is a question no one ever addresses in the creative industry, but they should: what kind of support have you had now and in the past from friends and family? Were there hindrances—shall we say “demotivating influences”—when forming your niche in the arts? If so, how’d you overcome that? Financially, mentally, or otherwise.

Kay: I’m glad you asked this! I’ll say, honestly, my family had concerns over a seemingly well-put-together daughter/sister running off for show business, but while they don’t always understand the ins and outs of the industry, they always hope I do well and I’m happy. Where I think I get that “demotivating influence” comes from other filmmakers right here in LA. Even when I told peers I was crowdfunding, a lot of them who didn’t know me too well were inclined to hint that I set my sights too big, or I was destined for failure. I had one screenwriter tell me point blank that he didn’t think crowdfunding worked at all without A-List talent attached. I think it’s easy for us to do this to other people in our field without meaning to, just because it can be really rough and demoralizing out there, and we project those experiences on each other.

Wow, that was a really long-hand way of saying misery loves company, wasn’t it?

Prarthana: I’ve been lucky to have really supportive family and friends. They had their concerns and voiced them, but once they saw that I was unwavering in my commitment to see this through they got behind me one hundred percent. My father was our honorary campaign manager during the crowdfunding phase. He was so gung-ho about us making our goal, I think he may have talked to every single person in India!

Assuming all goes as planned with The MisEducation of Bindu, would you produce another film, or use this as a springboard to other opportunities?

*Forgive us for asking two overworked filmmakers, “Hey, so what about the NEXT thing?” when they’re focused on the current thing.

Kay: You are not forgiven.

But in truth, the more you start working on your films, the more you are thinking in the back of your head about the next one. It’s like tattoos, right? Bindu has given me a really strong desire to go further into indie filmmaking and be more hands on. Too often I’ve felt like. . . well, I’m the writer, I did my part, and it’s out of my hands. However, now I’m writing projects with the expectation in mind they will be made by me. My next project I feel I must do is an indie romance centered on a hotel in Phoenix, my hometown. I love the challenge of minimizing characters and locations and just making the story as rich as possible.

Prarthana: Yes! The plan is that this will springboard into many different things. I have a couple of other stories I’d like to tell. Would love to collaborate with Kay on something else as well. This is an exciting time for us!

Writers and directors and actors. . . they’re told all the time “never give up.” And they shouldn’t, if they’re 100% dedicated to sharpening their skills. But do you think some take a while to find their place in the industry? In an area they’re most talented in? Was that the case with either of you? Is it possible to leapfrog something you’re interested in—say, directing—to something you’re better in, like writing. 

Kay: Yes, no, maybe? Maybe it’s just because I was almost a Biology English Chemist at some point in my life, but I don’t think we as human beings only have to have one thing we’re good at. And even if we find it, it doesn’t mean we’ll be happy doing that skill the rest of our lives. Sure, it would benefit our branding and we’d be known for it the more we do it, but I feel that we owe it to ourselves as filmmakers to also pursue some personal happiness. Most filmmakers I know work very hard to achieve a modicum of success. The amount of toil and hard work will never translate properly in their paychecks. So it should at least make you happy doing it. If you have a niche in writing but you find yourself drawn to directing and learning more about that. . . no need to stay in your lane. Explore that, and at bare minimum, it’ll make you a better writer. Personally, I’m trying to expand my producer skills and experience because it gives me more control over the material I’m working on.

Prarthana: I graduated from film schools when the markets crashed, an international student who needed a visa to stay here, and all sorts of uncertainty ahead. That was nine years ago and I’m still here, working on it everyday.

Pretty much everyone I know that’s still here are overcoming crazy challenges every day to be able to continue to find a way to tell stories. I think it’s about being resourceful—and yes, maybe not giving up as well.

Kay: I like Prarthana’s answer better here. Can I switch mine to this? Thanks.


 

Prarthana Mohan

Born and raised in Chennai, India, Prarthana Mohan has always been interested in the arts. Hailing from a film family, her grandfather’s (renowned composer M.S. Viswanathan) stories about the film industry ignited her imagination. In college, Prarthana pursued Visual Communication and her documentary, Hush, won the state award for best film.

Prarthana completed her MFA in Film Production with an emphasis in Directing at Chapman University in California. She was the recipient of the Leo Freedman Award for excellence in visual storytelling, and her thesis film, Turn Around, showcased in the Cannes Short Film Corner and screened in multiple film festivals.

The MisEducation of Bindu, executive produced by Mark and Jay Duplass, marks her feature directorial debut.

Kay Tuxford

Kay is an Arizonan who’s wandered west until she reached the ocean, peeling away her Northern Arizona University Bachelors of Science degree in Biology for a pen and paper. A graduate of Chapman University’s Screenwriting MFA program and a prestigious Knott Scholar, Kay co-created a one-on-one writing coach program through Writersstore.com and assists writers, from novices to showrunners, on their passion projects.

Her writing has screened at Cucalorus Film Festival, deadCenter Film Festival, and Portland Women’s Film Festival. Writing placements and wins include Austin Film Festival, the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowships, and the Script Pipeline TV Writing Competition for her true story drama pilot Queen of Thieves, co-written with Lily Dahl.

She produced The Awareness, which premiered on Shortoftheweek.com and selected as a Vimeo Staff Pick. Her feature film, The MisEducation of Bindu was crowdfunded on Seed & Spark and selected by Mark and Jay Duplass to executive produce.