Since being home from the Austin Film Festival I’ve had to answer a lot of questions. Before I explain, let me say this — I attended the festival with a Producer’s Badge and a script in the second round of the competition. To parents, friends, and neighbors this is impressive, only because they have no idea what it really means. I’m still deliberating on what it means myself.
So, these questions. They all came from kind faces. Bright eyed friends, excited, hoping for great news from me and my time in Austin. I tell them, ‘I met a ton of great people.’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘A few.’
What I mean by ‘great people’ are the other writers at the festival, the ones like me who have a regular job. The ones who find time in their day to write the nonsense that we write. The ones with improbable, but not impossible, dreams.
The first writer that I met in Austin was Jenni Prange Boran. She had flown in from Tacoma, Washington all by her lonesome. We met at the bar on the first day, before I had any idea what was going on. This was her third visit to the Austin Film Festival and her level of enthusiasm was easily contagious.
I asked Jenni if she would be willing to discuss her writing, life, and experiences with me and she was kind enough to play along with an interview.
You mentioned that you make a living mainly with freelance writing and painting work. What’s your workday like? Do you have staff writing jobs or is most of your work commission based?
Ahhh, I like the sound of ‘staff writing job.’ It sounds so secure and consistent! All of my writing is freelance, so it can be spotty and scary at times. The shiny flip side to that coin is being able to manage my own time and make sure I have the time to do my own work as well as the stuff I get paid to write. It becomes a juggling act, but I like it. Most of my painting is on my own time, very rarely do commissions have the same strict deadlines that the writing work has.
Beyond working for yourself you’re also a mother and wife so that’s got to take priority, but how do you make time to work on your own projects?
I have an amazing support system. If there were a husband store, I would have found mine in the ‘crazy people who will marry you and then deal with the ups and downs of those who wish to write movies for a living’ section. He’s outlandishly supportive and encouraging and I think he even kind of likes my work.
Additionally, my mom lives mercifully nearby and picks up my slack with my five-year-old son when I need to go out of town. Beyond being a life-saver for me, this is all actually very good news for my son, who has been stuck with me at home for the past five years, watching me tear my hair out of my head. The more people telling him what to do who aren’t me can only serve to enrich him. We have a great relationship, but there is a strong likelihood that he will write a best-selling autobiography one day concerning his colorful childhood.
As far as balancing time: I once asked what I thought was a rhetorical question of my Facebook friends (because that’s how I get answers to the important questions in my life), “How do I keep up with all of this? Between writing for work and writing for me, painting for work and painting for me, keeping my house livable, being a tolerable wife and a decent mom, how do I do it?”
The resounding answer was: SLEEP LESS.
That was a tall order at the time, a time when I was mired in rewrites and writing projects for pay that meant very little to me beyond my natural gold-star student mentality of doing a good job. But recently I’ve been waking up at 5:30 am, with or without an alarm, because I’m working on several things I am excited about. When I’m energized, as I am now, losing sleep is not a problem. When I don’t have a project, sleep is this amazing escape, but when I’m working on something compelling, it’s like being in love and I’ll do anything to be with the work.
Your script ‘THE FALLS’ won Best in Drama at this year’s Just Effing Entertain Me Screenplay Competition, For you, what does that mean? Do you think you’ll be seeing any career benefit?
Well, the first thing it means to me is that someone else, someone I don’t know, whom I’ve never met, gets what I’ve been trying to express for the last five years of my life. Five years. That’s how long I’ve been working on this script. I mean, it always meant a lot that, you know, my dad thought the script was good, but it sure is nice to experience my story translating to people beyond those that gave me life. With that said, my dad is a tough critic, so his praise was never taken lightly.
On another level, advancing in a competition gives you (as an editor of mine pointed out recently) ‘some real currency.’ I’ve had some requests to read my script as an effect of advancing in that, and other comps (THE FALLS also made semi-finalist in Final Draft’s Big Break Competition last year, the Act One screenwriting competition this year, and was chosen as part of the professional reading program at Seattle’s Caught in the ACT series). Stuff like that gives you not only confidence and validation but a little something to set you apart in query letters, pitchfests, when introducing yourself in networking or social situations, whatever it may be. As well as a little secret smile when you feel blue.
I’ve also had the chance to get to know Just Effing Entertain Me director Julie Gray. She’s extremely knowledgeable, extraordinarily warm and generous and just basically a treat. Her blog is a must-visit for screenwriters.
You recently finished a stint as an ‘artist in residence’ at the New Artist Series sponsored by Silverton’s A Theatre Group. How did you get that opportunity? What exactly does it mean to be an ‘artist in residence’?
Silverton is this tiny picturesque town in the Rocky Mountains (at over 9,000 feet altitude it’s got the highest elevation of any township in the country!) that, generally speaking, turns into a community theatre festival during the summer. The New Artists Series consists of their bringing in playwrights from across the country to showcase their work. The artist in residence series in which I took part was a sort of progressive project, a play created over the course of, in my case, 5 days.
A friend of mine, gifted actor, writer, director and teacher, Mollie Mook Fiddler, a shining example of what theatre should be, has been working with the Silverton program for nearly 20 years. She’s been trying to bring me in as a writer for several seasons, but “life got in the way.” On each of our ends. This was the summer that we both realized that if we didn’t finally do it, it might never happen. I really and truly believe that the reason it took so long to get it done between us was that we were waiting for the particular group of actors we ended up with for the improvisational development of the piece we created. Without them I would not have the piece I have, a piece that was formed, under Mollie’s direction, through improvisation over four days (I’d observe the exercises during the day then go home and write at night) and on the fifth day, the actors staged and performed the piece to a full house.
As if that whirlwind experience wasn’t surreal enough, Silverton is the kind of town that, when you walk out of the theatre after the show, you might come upon a brown bear in the middle of the street. Which we did. You might stay in a Victorian era hotel that used to be a brothel. Which I did. The whole experience was magical and dreamlike and was this incredible week of immersion in writing and art. It was amazing.
Your scripts have gotten a lot attention from competitions and festivals, but have you tried any other outlets for getting into the industry? Ever lived in Los Angeles or thought of making that move?
Why, yes, yes I have thought about that. In fact, I lived in LA between the years of 1997 and 2001 and had a great time working in an art gallery and then, eventually, in Set Decorating (HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS, BANDITS). In 2001 there was a writers’ strike that coincided with some personal life junk that sent me away from what I consider my favorite city in the world. Definitely my favorite city in which I’ve lived. For now, I’m content with living in Tacoma and flying back and forth to LA when need be. I just hope that ‘when need be’ eventually trumps the current state of ‘it makes sense to stay here.’ Soon would be nice. I love me some palm trees. L.A. is where I feel at home.
I’ve totally been there. My short stint in L.A. was over when ‘life got in the way.’ Do you see yourself as mainly a screenwriter or do you ever think of producing / directing one of your own scripts as a way of getting attention?
I had never considered that until I realized just how insanely not commercial THE FALLS is on paper. It occurred to me that, quite possibly, if I want to get this thing made, I’ll have to do it myself. The only trouble is, I don’t have the bug to direct. I think directing is one of those things, you know, like having kids, where you better be goddamn sure you want to do it.
Beyond that, there’s another issue. One of the reasons I write is to see how my vision translates through other minds. If I wrote it, and then directed it, it would all be one vision. More gratifying for me would be to see someone connect with the material and then interpret it. I would like to see how another person takes my words and makes them their own. That would be the ultimate communication of story for me.
My real hope would be that someone who has some weight to ‘make it commercial’ connects with it and it becomes a passion project. I have all sorts of fantasies of Jodie Foster reading it, or Emma Stone falling in love with the character of Lee. Holly Hunter in the role of Gigi – don’t mind me while I daydream…sigh. When I finally finished it, I was so proud of being proud of it. But writing something and keeping it in a pretty box with an award or two tying it up is never the ultimate desired outcome. There’s no question that seeing it materialize on screen would be a dream come true. That’s putting it lightly. Frankly though, to answer your question, I do not believe I would be the right person to direct it.
When choosing a story to write, how concerned are you with the appeal it will have to an audience? Do you try to write with the aim of getting attention in competitions?
Oh, if only I were concerned about that when I wrote. I suppose I am kind of my own worst enemy where that is concerned. I would love to come up with a high concept story, I know there’s got to be one in me, but for me it’s all about character. All I need is a high concept story into which I can plug really compelling and layered characters. I do realize that high concept and good character development are not mutually exclusive. Max Landis’ CHRONICLE is an excellent example of this truth. In CHRONICLE, you’ve got your cars blowing up, you have the handheld camera element, you have folks flying around and killing people, you have all the goodies of a high concept visual freakfest, but Max Landis nails the story to the wall with his control of dialogue and his mastery of character. Damn, he’s good.
You’d been to the Austin Film Festival before. What made it worth while to make the trek from Tacoma to Austin again?
I’m not sure how to explain this phenomenon. This was my third year at Austin. The first year I went was meant to be a ‘been there, done that’ type of experience. I challenge anyone who’s been to the festival to say it’s that easy. Not only does the festival host the best panels in writing and business, you get a chance to chat with the panelists, maybe even have a drink with them at one of the many after hours parties, make connections.
By FAR, my most valued connections at the Austin Film Festival have been made not with the big-time writers, but with those who are my peers. It’s so energizing to be with people who are in the same situation as me; jobless, passionate about storytelling, hungry for recognition, excited about ideas. Sitting at the Driskill with these people makes me feel like I’m at the Algonquin round table.
Have you attended any other festivals worthy of mentioning? Good or bad. I know I’ve had my share of poorly organized festivals where I thought, ‘Why am I even here?’
I’m somewhat ashamed to say that, beyond the Austin Film Festival, the only two I’ve attended are Seattle International Film Festival and Tacoma Film Festival. SIFF is a giant freaky film fest that takes tons of coordination and programming and I have to hand it to the folks that run it, but there is, at least to me, a personal touch that isn’t present the way I’m used to with Austin and with the Tacoma Film Festival.
The Tacoma Film Festival, for which I’m a screener, is a really intimate, well thought out and skillfully programmed festival. The Festival Director, Emily Alm, is like the Karate Kid of film festival programming. She started out, just a few years ago, I think, as an assistant wearing several hats at the budding festival, and has built it into a presence that even made Movie Maker Magazine’s top 25 most worthwhile festivals to enter list. She’s helped the festival really take off, style-wise, quality-wise, in every way possible.
When I think about screenwriting and what it is we are actually doing it can be like staring into the darkness – sitting alone to write stories in a format not meant to be read for enjoyment AND there’s very little chance we’ll ever make money at it doing it. What motivates you to keep at it? How concerned are you with making it your career?
A friend of mine and I, a really talented horror and sci-fi writer who is being confronted with a lot of new responsibilities in his life that have nothing to do with screenwriting or filmmaking, were just talking about this. He asked me how long I would push for this before I gave up. The truth is, I’ve tried giving up before and the ‘staring into the darkness’ as you say was so much more profound when I gave screenwriting up for a more secure job than it is when I’m dreaming and writing and hoping. I will never give up again. I make absolutely no apologies for it and I do not pay attention to statistics. I can only do what it is I’m supposed to and anything less would be unacceptable. I don’t see the point. Continuing to strive for it is hard. Giving up would be hard. I would rather have the hardship come from trying.