Thursday, 16 January 2020

Everything You Wanted To Know About Entering The Nicholl Fellowships With 2019 Winners Sean Malcolm & Walker McKnight

If you’re pursuing a career as a screenwriter, you’ve probably heard of the Nicholl Fellowships. One of the most respected competitions in the world for screenwriters. Every year over 7,400 screenplays are submitted to the Nicholl Fellowships. Out of 7,400, only 10 contestants make it to the finals.  And there’s only 5 winners. The Academy Awards up to $35,000 fellowships to amateur screenwriters. Everyone can participate if they submit an original piece and made less $25,000 from their writing.

Last year, I was honored to attend the 2019 Nicholl Fellowships ceremony where selected scenes from the five winning scripts were read. In 2019 it was Amandla Stenberg, Rosa Salazar, Wes Studi and Tyrese Gibson who performed on stage.

Following this event, we were lucky enough to interview two of the five winners: Sean Malcolm for his script “Mother” and Walker McKnight for his script “Street Rat Allie Punches Her Ticket”. 

Congratulations on winning the Nicholl Fellowships 2019! What struck me the most when I attended the ceremony is that every winner has a different story on how they became a Nicholl Fellow. Can you tell our readers a bit more about your journey?

WM : It’s a funny word, journey, because it makes me think of something epic with lots of twists and turns, and my experience feels more straightforward (and rather un-epic). One relatively unique thing is that I came to writing late; I didn’t find my way to creative writing of any kind until I was about 30, when a friend put a screenwriting book in my hand.

I fell in love with in instantly, to a degree that makes me wonder how I didn’t manage to start earlier. From there I mixed workshops and classes on screenwriting with a lot of writing on my own, and it’s been a steady progression of that ever since (though I haven’t done any classes in the last five years or so)…just daydreaming, writing, finding my way to ideas that excite and inspire me, and getting them written. 

SM : That’s certainly true – everyone has a different journey, and I’ve been saying that a lot lately. And of course, it’s true in all endeavors. But for me, regarding screenwriting, it’s been a pretty long road. I wrote my first script around 1993. I wrote three or four, from 1993 to 1998, when I first entered the Nicholl. Then I basically entered one or more scripts every year from 1998 to 2019, so probably 9 or 10 scripts, over twenty-one years in all.

I wrote lots of different genres. Sci-fi, thrillers, dramas. Some years I was busy with other pursuits and just entered re-writes. Some were good, some were crap. Most were decent, but the vision in my head was usually greater than my ability to execute at the time. So it was a slog, but a fun one. I didn’t know it at the time, but I guess I taught myself how to write screenplays just because of trying to win the damn Nicholl.

Some people win the first time they enter. Unbelievable and must be so cool. But not me. Different journey. And the truth is, I feel I’m just getting started. This has put some wind in my sails again, right when I thought I might throw in the towel. Or the sail. Wait, am I mixing my metaphors? Here’s the point: now I have to keep going. Again.
And my advice to anyone out there, frustrated or feeling burned out, and yet trying to stay motived… my advice is to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and go back to what drove you to write in the first place. Follow the advice of Sir Winston Churchill, which is posted on a magnet on my refrigerator: “Keep Going.”

So simple. So true. Just keep going. I mean, if you love writing, what choice do you really have?

 Can you tell us more about how the project “Street Rat Allie Punches Her Ticket” started and  how long you worked on it before submitting to the Nicholl Fellowships?

WM: I rarely begin with a “big idea” or high concept. Typically my stuff starts with random daydreams, and that was the case here—imagining snippets of scenes, Allie on her skateboard, making her way through this environment, etc. After enough time passes with these specific daydreams recurring over and over, I realize they must mean something to me, so I start asking questions. Who is she? Where is she? What does she want and why? Why do I care? There are also themes and ideas in this script I enjoy playing with, like the capacity for fun and humor and resiliency in an objectively terrible dystopia (though a colorful one).

 Sometimes I feel like a script is halfway written just in my head before I ever actually break out the notebook to get stuff on paper, so I can’t say quite how long I was constructing parts of it before I started writing.

Once I went to my notebook, I probably worked for several months in concept development and outlining. Then another six months in drafts, getting what I had to beta readers, and rewriting based on their notes.

 Can you tell us more about how the project “Mother” started and  how long you worked on it before submitting to the Nicholl Fellowships?

SM:  Mother started one night when I was supposed to be writing something else, but I was captivated by a war photographer’s work in the New York Times, and came across a photo of a young boy in Aleppo. He had just survived an airstrike.

He was covered in dust, and looked about my son’s age, maybe seven or eight. His big dark eyes were just staring into the camera, and he reminded me so much of my son, and honestly, I kind of lost it. 

I couldn’t believe that innocent civilians were being bombed – and continue to be as I write this - by the most sophisticated, and also the most savage, weapons of war. And they were tweeting about it, in real-time… literally asking if the world would come help them… they still had some internet access, while Syrian and Russian fighters bombed hospitals full of wounded children. 

I knew I had to tell his story. But I didn’t know how. So, I started doing research. Then I came across the story of a Syrian mother who had lost both her children in an airstrike, and with nothing left to lose, became a sniper for the rebels. And then I knew I had a way in, by combining their two stories. A mother and child.  

The Nicholl deadline was a month away. I told my wife I could see the whole thing and I was going to write it, and she sort of laughed at the thought that I could write it in a month, which was totally appropriate, because I had never come within eleven months of doing that. But I said I was serious; I could see it.

She challenged me to prove it. And of course, that lit my fire. I had to try. And I wrote the first draft in three-and-a-half weeks and submitted it on the night of the Nicholl deadline. 

That draft went to the semi-finals. Farther than anything I had ever written before, some of which I had spent years on. That alone was eye-opening. I then did two polishes in 2017 and 2018 and kept cracking the Top 50. I was consistently within striking distance of the finals, but I knew something was missing.

I still couldn’t crack the missing part of the story. 

My father passed away, and I took some time off, and tried writing a novel instead, partly in tribute to him, because of his love of books, and because I had something to say which I knew he would appreciate.  

Then earlier this year I came back to Mother, and finally figured out what was missing, and did a re-write over about three months. And that draft went on to win. I guess the lesson in all of that is there is not much correlation between time and result. If the idea is there, it doesn’t need as much to come through as you think it might. And the inverse is also true: you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit, no matter how much mayonnaise you add. And I like mayo, trust me.

In your screenwriting career, is this your first time submitting to The Nicholl Fellowships? If not, what do you think was different about this draft?

WM : I believe it’s the ninth time submitting to Nicholl, but the first time submitting Street Rat Allie. It’s hard to say what was different about this script. Although Allie has her issues, she’s probably the most good-hearted and caring of my protagonists from page one. A number of people have talked to me about the heart in this script, and there’s something to that—I’ve never quite written about a found family and the love they have for each other like this before.

SM: See above. 

The Nicholl Fellowships is highly regarded worldwide. What realistically happens when you win the Fellowship? From the announcement to the ceremony and after that?

WM: Probably too much to cover here.

A lot of disbelief. Even at the semifinal stage (which I hit twice before), you start getting requests to read your script from producers, managers, and agents, which is one of the wonderful things about this competition. At the winner level, you just get more of those. The Fellowship week is encouraging and valuable; the program managers go to great lengths to help you meet with previous fellows and other working screenwriters to hear their stories and advice.

The ceremony itself was humbling, and for me it was in large part about survival—I’m about as introverted as it gets, so any kind of spotlight is difficult.

As for after the ceremony—it’s only been about a week, so I probably can’t say yet. Winning did help me get a manager, so I’m working with that team now. 

SM: It’s been head-spinning. I still haven’t come down.  I’m taking a lot of meetings, trying to get Mother made, and I think we can; but also, I can feel how fast it all might fade. 
Ask me in a year, but right now, I’m thinking you have to somehow straddle the line between taking advantage of the heat the Nicholl has brought, and not losing focus on what your thing is, what you write for, what makes your voice unique. I can tell it’s probably easy to lose track of that amidst all the noise. 

Fun as it was, I’m actually glad the glitzy part is over, and I can get back to regular life, and trying to dig deep and write something good again. To me that’s where the real pain and joy of writing is, waiting hand in hand. Each the perfect complement to the other. And of course, no pressure now, right? 

Some of us have joked about quitting now, going out on top of the amateur’s mountain, so to speak. And of course, there’s real value knowing when to quit certain things. Take your chips and go to the cage and cash out and walk away.

 But of course, if you love to tell stories, that’s never really going to be an option.

You got the incredible honor of having Amandla Stenberg, Rosa Salazar, Wes Studi and Tyrese Gibson perform scenes from your script on stage. How does that feel? What do you think writers can learn from table reads?

WM: It’s wild! They bring so much to the dialogue I didn’t imagine in the writing. Different line readings, cadences, pacing, voice, all of it. Even just watching the stage read, you are reminded that screenwriting is ultimately a collaborative art (if you’re lucky enough to get something made).

You’re the first part of a very long process in which hundreds more people will come along and reshape the story with their unique talents. Seeing the stage read is like a microcosm of that, and it gives you respect for every artistic component others have to add.

SM: It was a huge thrill to hear them speak our words. I personally have never done table reads, so I’d never heard anyone run through a full scene of mine like that. And of course, this wasn’t in someone’s kitchen.

And they really killed it.

You could cut the tension with a knife. Tyrese, with that gorgeous baritone, and really milking the space between his lines, to build it up, with Amandla playing it so cool against him, until the moment begins to unravel, and Wes being so fearless to play any and all roles that night needed, including an eight-year-old boy. And Rosa really set it all up flawlessly with her smooth, thoughtful and concise narration.

I could not have been more thrilled. And when Tyrese pulled the trigger – and you can watch the scene on YouTube – but the thing you probably won’t see is how much the whole theater jumped. It was amazing. 

And the scene cuts right at a natural cliffhanger – not in the script, where the rest gets too heavy for that setting – but perfectly in a theater -- and our director Geeta Malik, who won her Nicholl in 2016, agreed with that cut, and it played out really well, I think.

Makes you want to try writing theater, actually.

Which I never have. But regardless, now I’m thinking table reads of some kind are mandatory, especially for dialogue-heavy scripts and when prepping to re-write. But obviously, none of us would have access to that kind of talent for a casual table read, that’s extreme fortune, maybe one time, ever.  

But I do know a lot of the Nicholl winners are big believers in the process and swear by it. So definitely something to think about, especially when considering a writer’s group. 
Hell, even if the other writers can’t write, and you think they can’t help you, if it turns out they’re all actors that think they’re writers, that would be brilliant, and beyond worth your time!

Much more helpful than writers, actually. 

You obviously know the other winners of the 2019 Nicholl Fellowships. But you’ve also met all the finalists. In your opinion, what do they all have in common? What does it take to win the Nicholl Fellowships?

WM: Consistency is one.

All the finalist and fellows I’ve met have just kept writing, submitting, rewriting, learning, keeping at it. And they all love movies, love the craft, and are always seeking out new and interesting things to see and learn from. But as for what it takes to win, I still couldn’t say. I certainly didn’t expect to win this year.

I think you just have to find an idea you love, pour your heart and hard work into it, and hope for the best. Make it something you would want to see, and make your characters into people you truly care about.

All the winners this year had an emotional connection to their stories.

SM : I’ve been lucky enough to get to know many of the finalists, not just the winners. Maybe I’m biased, but I think this year’s crop is kind of special. I think we’ll stay in touch. I don’t know that’s happened in every year.

Maybe it’s a reaction to all the division in our world, but there seemed to be an extra willingness on all our parts to see ourselves as one and the same, a small team fighting the world, rather than as competitors.

We put all our scripts in a Dropbox folder to share with each other before we knew which ones would become Fellows, and agreed we would all treat each other as equals forever, before the final outcome and beyond. We have a little WhatsApp group called Club19 to stay in touch, and that’s been super cool. 

Every one of the scripts I read is amazing, and they’re all so different. What I would say they all have in common is commitment to their unique vision. Each one of them, when you read them, you are just right there in it.

Each its own world. Unique, but the voice is consistent throughout. They’re brilliant. And literally at this point in the competition, when you’ve gone from 7,300 scripts to 12, I think the things they have in common far outweigh the differences.

Walker, we recently had an article about Film School and how to stay proactive and achieve goals once you graduate. You’re a UCLA graduate. What is your take on film schools and is there anything you learned you still apply to your work today?

WM: I should clarify that I did the UCLA Professional Program, not full UCLA film school or an MFA. I really couldn’t speak to the value or experience of MFA programs, though I think if you find a good one and you are fully committed to the path, it’s probably a good thing.

I loved the UCLA professional program and learned a ton there—lots about structure, character transformations, how to write fast, how to ask the right questions about what you’re writing. I also met other students that I continue to have relationships with and with whom I still get and give notes.

That’s one of the big benefits of any film school program—the connections you make with other students. 

Sean, you’re also a novel writer, can you tell us more about going from novels to screenplays? Is it challenging to go from a medium that is very much about feels to a medium that is visual?

SM : Actually, I’ve only written one novel. I did it because I had an idea that I wanted to get out, and lots of things to say about it, and it didn’t fit in 120 pages or less, and I was tired of people telling me they liked my writing, but couldn’t spend $60 million to bring it to life. 

I wanted the immediate gratification of holding the final product in my hand. Going straight to the audience, without anyone’s approval. And with self-publishing on demand, and e-books, you can do that now. It’s crazy.

So for me, the first time was just an experiment, in form and process and execution and feedback.

The challenge was moving from the present-tense, the “show-don’t-tell” mode of screenwriting, to the unlimited possibilities of a novel. Where to even begin? Multiple character narration? Internal monologues? First person? Second? Present or past tense? It’s just unlimited what you can do vs. screenwriting. Very hard not to just start spraying words all over the place. 

For me, the challenge was going from the very restricted and concise visual medium, to the open possibilities of purely literary. It’s really hard, but also freeing. I can’t wait to screw it up again. 

Any advice for writers that consider entering the Nicholl Fellowships?

WM : Oh gosh – just do it, for one. It’s worth it, every year.

Invest in relationships with other really talented people who can give you great notes. My script went through several big versions, and that was thanks to notes from readers. Don’t give up, and don’t get discouraged if a script doesn’t advance in any given year.

Just make it better, or find the next story you’re excited about, keep exploring and brainstorming and writing. I’m sure that all sounded very generic, but it’s true!

SM: Don’t try to guess what they’re looking for. Write what resonates with you, emotionally, on the page. That can be done in any genre. People think Nicholl judges look for certain, more character-driven and less commercial material, and maybe they can game the system by focusing on that. That’s wrong. 

The truth is, there is no “conspiracy of genre preference.” Each script is being judged anonymously, over and over in each round, by individual readers.

So I think you have to focus on the experience you have as a writer. Because you are the only judge you have unlimited access to the thoughts of.

Guessing what anyone else will think is just conjecture and frankly pointless.

What moves you? Write that, and you’re likely to move others. At the end of the day, it will be the emotions of the reader that count.

Capture your emotions, transmute them onto the page, and pass them on to the reader, if you can. Not easy, but you have to keep going after that. That’s where the magic lies. 

All the complex plot points and elegant structure and poetic description and flawless format and clever dialogue in the world might get you really, really close…. but emotion is what gets you over the edge.

That’s what we all want from movies. Yes, we want to see them, but really, we want to feel them.

“Hey, you want to go see a movie?” 

Yes, but what I’d really like is to go feel one.

Lena Murisier speaks and writes in four languages. She’s originally from Switzerland and graduated the New York Film Academy of Los Angeles in September 2019. 

She’s been crewing (DP, PA, 1st AD) on many short films and has directed several times. Don’t be surprised if you turn on the TV and see her play extras once or twice (like in the upcoming independent TV show Everyone is Doing Great).

What she loves most is writing. Features and TV.

Currently, she’s pitching a Female Driven police drama pilot she wrote during her time in film school. Hit her up on Instagram: @lenamurisier (tip: send her a meme, she’ll answer immediately).

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