Taking The Industry By Storm: An Interview with Screenwriter Anna Klassen

Wednesday 26 June 2019

Meet today's guest at Into The Script - Screenwriter, Anna Klassen, whose story is inspiring for many of us - taking the industry by storm after winning the Screencraft Screenwriting Fellowship and now writing a feature film for Netflix - Alice and Dorothy. 

Before she entered the world of screenwriting, Anna worked as an entertainment journalist and had written for platforms such as Buzzfeed, Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Her spec, When Lightning Strikes - a biopic about J.K. Rowling focusing on the years leading up to her creating Harry Potter garnered her even more notoriety as one to watch.

Listed as one of the top unproduced scripts on the Black List and Hit List, Anna’s biopic has helped Anna get major industry attention being a “first-time writer.”

Anna’s accomplished all of this in just over two years and has most recently released an ebook: “How to Succeed as a Screenwriter” on Amazon.

So, if you would like to find out how Anna has taken the industry by storm, and learn some of her top tips when it comes to writing a great spec, tackling biopics and adapting major literary works for the screen - carry on reading!

Photo Credit to Anna Klassen

As a previous winner of the ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship, you are a prime example of what competitions like these can do to kickstart your career. 

As a result, you got representation and now you’re currently writing a film for Netflix, Dorothy and Alice. 

What advice would you give to upcoming writers who are considering entering competitions, such as the ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship? What should a writer look at choosing which competition to enter in your opinion?

Do your research. 

Contests and competitions are not created equally, so make sure it’s worth the price of admission to enter. 

Competitions can be pricey, especially if you’re entering a handful every year. 

For me, worthwhile contests offer prizes that are more than cash and bragging rights. I sought out fellowships and writing programs specifically, programs that promised to introduce me to industry gatekeepers, managers, studio executives, and producers. 

Contests that can help you make industry introductions are worthwhile.

It’s important to be picky. 

There are so many contests that exist it’s tempting to enter all of them, but make sure you know the history behind each competition.

Research where past winners have ended up, what they’re doing now. 

There’s a huge difference between winning the Nicholl Fellowship and winning some contest no one has heard of — one will jumpstart your career while the other will drain your bank account. 

You are prolific on social media. With over 13,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram combined, how important is it for a writer at any stage in their career is to have a social media presence?

For those skeptical about social media, what tips and advice can you share that have gained you contacts or work solely through social media that you otherwise wouldn’t have?

Ha! I certainly wouldn’t call myself prolific, but I very much appreciate the sentiment. I have a love/hate relationship with social media. 

On one hand, I've never felt more connected to other writers. 

Twitter, specifically, has created a discourse between writers who are both struggling and celebrating. Screenwriting is an often isolating and mentally challenging field. 

We deal with constant rejection, self-doubt, and criticism. And most of us do it alone, trapped in a cage of our own thoughts. 

It’s easy to feel fearful as a screenwriter. But as Frank Herbert aptly wrote, “Fear is the mind killer.” Social media makes it possible to talk about our fears. It normalizes them. 

It creates community and open dialogue around otherwise scary subjects. 

I am so thankful for this.    

At the same time, social media is a drug many of us are addicted to. I despise how much time I spend on twitter and instagram.

Social media prevents us from becoming bored, and this is detrimental to the creative. 

Writers need space and time to think on our own without constant distraction. 

We are engaging less and less with the world around us. 

Being bored used to be an opportunity to daydream, to muse on ideas, to reflect, to problem solve. But now, being bored is uncomfortable. 

We don’t like to be alone in our heads for too long. But this time away from phones is crucial. We need to learn to be patient again and to embrace being bored. 

But these two ideas are at conflict with one another.

I don’t know how to reconcile this. 

I don’t know how to have my cake and eat it too. I am a huge hypocrite when it comes to social media — I want the benefits without the pitfalls. 

In the end, It’s up to the individual to decide if social media is a worthwhile presence in his or her life, or to set perimeters around how he or she uses it. 

I’m trying to find the balance myself. 

With a background in journalism, do you think this gave you an edge whilst working on your own writing projects?

Photo Credit to Anna Klassen

Absolutely. Having a background in journalism helps demonstrate my love of research, attention to detail, deadlines, and solid work ethic.

If you have a background in anything other than screenwriting, it will help you. 
Having life experience outside of scriptwriting is hugely beneficial. 

It makes you a unique asset. 

In the 100+ meetings I’ve taken with studio execs and production companies, I’ve found that more than anything they are looking for writers with a unique background and voice.

Writers who haven’t necessarily spent their entire lives writing scripts. 

Ultimately, many people can write a good script, but it’s a writer’s perspective that is what’s desirable and hireable.

Your J.K. Rowling biopic spec garnered a great response. 

What advice can you give to writers who are interested in writing biopics/ real live events, and can you share your top 3 tips when it comes to tackling this subject?

I can’t choose three, but here are my top four tips. 

1. Avoid crib-to-coffin narratives. 

I can’t easily connect with a story about someone if I try to take in their entire life over the course of two hours. It usually feels disjointed and episodic. 

With When Lightning Strikes I chose to focus on the few years of Joanne Rowling’s life before she wrote Harry Potter, before she became known as J.K. Rowling.

I wanted to narrow in on the specific time in her life that most influenced her creation of Harry Potter. The script ends as she sits down to write the first chapter. 

By focusing on a particular time in her life instead of her entire life, I was able to create empathy for her. 

I was able to dive deeper into the woman she was, so audiences could see how she became the woman she is today. 

2. Show us the unexpected. 

Most of us watch biopics because we are already interested in the person the biopic is about. 

This means we already know a certain amount about them.

In setting out to write When Lightning Strikes I knew I didn’t want to include any scenes of Joanne writing. 

Seeing an author write is exactly what you would expect, and so I avoided it. (Also, it’s incredibly boring to watch someone write on screen.) 

I realized most people knew certain things about her going into reading the script, so I focused on the elements of her life that might not be as obvious: Her relationship with her father and ex-husband, her time working for Amnesty International. 

Audiences want to be awakened to things they don’t already know. 

The element of surprise is your friend. 

3. Keep track of your sources as you write. 

Your ultimate goal in writing any script is likely to sell it. 

But when selling a biopic, fact checkers and lawyers get involved. 

In order to speed up the evaluation process, have a bibliography of your sources on hand. As you’re writing, keep a list of these sources and what elements of your script they inspired.

4. Know why your biopic is relevant to today. 

Many people’s lives can make interesting movies, but few hold the power to have a meaningful relevance to today. 

Even if your movie’s subject is fascinating or beloved, the narrative will fall flat if you can’t express how their life, what they went through, speaks to today.

Also, if you’re pitching this movie, it will undoubtably be a question you’ll be asked by producers, execs, and studios. I guarantee it. 

Recently, you released an ebook: “How to Succeed as a Screenwriter” on Amazon whilst being a working writer. 

Many writers, myself included, can find it hard working on multiple projects without feeling deflated or burnt out. 

How did you keep yourself motivated whilst working on multiple projects?

Working on multiple projects at once is taxing but necessary. 

As we all know screenwriting comes with a lot of uncertainty. 

Working on multiple projects at once helps me not put all of my eggs in one basket. 

I’m currently writing two movies for Netflix, I’m out pitching an original feature idea, I’m pitching on select open assignments, and I’m writing a passion project on spec. 

I also try to keep a hand in the journalism world. 

I don’t work on all of these things every day, and obviously the movies I’ve been hired to write come first, but training my brain to be able to juggle multiple narratives is a necessary skill. 

It’s easy to become obsessed with a particular project, it’s easy to pour your heart and soul into something. And yet just as easily that project can fall apart. 

For the sake of my mental health and sanity I prefer to work on many things at once. It makes the inevitable heartbreak less soul crushing. 

Can you talk about your creative process, whether it’s working on a book or a script. How and where do you begin from idea concept to the final page?

My process has changed drastically over the years.

I used to be unconcerned with structure and theme.

I used to incept the kernel of an idea and begin writing immediately. But this has rarely, if ever, worked in my favor. Now I’m a big supporter of the outline — the more detailed and thoughtful the better. 

I’ll often spend longer writing the outline than I do writing the script. 

Rewriting can be painful, and I’ve found the more detailed of an outline I’m working from, the more problems I’ve worked out before I put pen to paper, and the less darlings I’m forced to kill. 

My outlines begin as a page of random thoughts associated with a bigger idea. 

This slowly transforms into bits of research I find interesting, character bios, thoughts about theme, set pieces, bits of dialogue, and eventually becomes a scene-by-scene document that guides me from Fade In to Fade Out.  

Alice and Dorothy, the film you’re currently writing for Netflix, is a mash up of two of the most famous female literary characters. 

How did you go about adapting such well known fairy tales to a modern audience as a story that they can engage and relate to?

Dorothy and Alice has been incredibly fun to write for all the reasons you pointed out.

I grew up reading both the Alice series and the Oz series, so to have these wildly popular pieces of IP in my possession, to be tasked with transforming them, is surreal and wholly exciting. 

In terms of making it engaging for a modern audience, it isn’t as difficult as you might think. The reason these books are still widely read today is because they are evergreen. The adventures, themes, and characters remain relevant. 

The narratives are timeless, so it’s less about making it accessible for a modern audience as it is offering a fresh perspective while remaining true to who these heroes are. 

Fantasy as a genre endures because it deals with imagination and creativity, something we can all tap into, regardless of our age or what time we’re living in. 

Scott Baker is a screenwriter and producer with a passion for the horror genre. 

You can find Scott on Instagram and on his Twitter

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