PERSON TO PERSON: A Conversation with Writer/Director Dustin Guy Defa

Abbi Jacobson and Michael Cera in PERSON TO PERSON, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

The ensemble movie has become a mainstay at the theater around holidays, and such films often share their titles with the holiday they premiere on — Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve… Then there was the movie that started it all: Love Actually. Each of these films features a wide variety of loosely connected stories all focused around a central theme.

Person to Person, which premieres today from Magnolia Pictures, falls into this ensemble category, but it subverts everything you’ve come to expect from these sorts of films. Written, directed, and edited by Dustin Guy Defa, Person to Person‘s storylines don’t always relate, not every character connects to every other character, and yet somehow the movie feels like a complete statement about human connection.

LA Screenwriter’s Angela Bourassa spoke with Dustin Guy Defa about how he approached the structure of this film, writing genuine dialogue, and the benefits and drawbacks of complete creative control.

Angela Bourassa: This film seems to defy conventional structure, even for an ensemble film. I kept expecting all of the storylines to link together in the end, but most of them didn’t. Can you tell me a bit about how you structured this? Why did you choose to defy convention?

Dustin Guy Defa: I got excited about the prospect of making an ensemble movie where all the storylines don’t intersect, because I haven’t seen that type of movie before. I wondered if I could pull it off, and also if I could make the audience not anticipate that kind of intersection, at least until after the movie was over. Then I wanted to push myself even further and put a lot of people in the movie who normally wouldn’t be in a film together. Different tones, too. Could I make the whole thing work as a cohesive piece even with these challenges? That’s what I set off to do. From there I developed the characters so that thematically they would at least interweave. Each of them has a different level of connection to other people — either a loss of connection, a threat of losing a connection, or a desperation to have a connection with another person — that runs through all of them, and that’s how I decided to structure and develop the film so that it could stay one whole piece.

Angela Bourassa: You first shot this as a short in 2009. Did you always want to expand this into a feature?

Dustin Guy Defa: The intention was never that this was an extension of the short. I made the short mostly because I wanted to put my good friend Bene Coopersmith in a movie. And definitely when that succeeded I had the desire to work with Bene again, and that’s how I started to develop this film, but the feature was originally called something else and I’ve always thought of it as a completely different piece. It’s only now because the title is the same — and of course that Bene is in it, and there is a similar tone to the short — that it appears that the feature is an extension. It is, yes, but not as much as it appears.

Angela Bourassa: How did this story begin in your mind? Did you start with a few characters or with a unifying theme that you wanted to address?

Dustin Guy Defa: It was always about the desire to connect with someone, or to reconnect with someone, or to keep a connection with someone intact. Friendship was something I wanted to explore, too. I started with Bene, but once I started to work on the other characters, I developed them all at the same time. The outline was extensive, and each story I worked on at the same time, linearly, and I did that to keep the film cohesive.

Director Dustin Guy Defa on the set of PERSON TO PERSON, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Angela Bourassa: Are you usually a big outliner? How many drafts did you go through?

Dustin Guy Defa: This one needed a tight outline, and I worked on that for awhile. Then I wrote the first draft. The first draft took the longest, and then after that I think there were three more drafts. But the film was really there with that first draft. I did do a lot of changes, but I’d say the film is still about 60% of that first draft.

Angela Bourassa: There’s something truly unique about the dialogue that I can’t quite put my finger on. The characters seem to break the old screenwriting rules quite a bit and say exactly what they’re feeling, but they do it in a way that feels genuine. How did you approach the dialogue?

Dustin Guy Defa: I’ve worked very hard to craft the way I want to write dialogue. I love dialogue so much, which may lead me to make things a little more cinematic-driven than realism-driven, if that makes sense. I’m probably heavily influence by Woody Allen and Todd Solondz with my dialogue, but I try not to think about that too much. I try to find my own thing, and I feel like I’m getting there. I’m trying to create my own kinds of characters who talk differently than I’ve seen in other films.

Tavi Gevinson in PERSON TO PERSON, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Angela Bourassa: Wendy is by far my favorite character. Can you tell me a bit about how you developed her story and her voice?

Dustin Guy Defa: That character is very close to who I was as a teenager, except for I didn’t talk as much. Which might seem contradictory because Wendy talks so much. But still, the way she sees the world, in a big way that’s to me a special kind of paradoxical teenager way — thinking that you understand the world at large but still struggling with your tiny problems which seem as big as the world, too — I love that stuff.

Angela Bourassa: You wrote, directed, and edited this film. That’s the dream. What was it like having so much control over your own film? How did you look for outside feedback (or did you)?

Dustin Guy Defa: I love each of those processes (most of the time). When I write and direct, the edit is always in my mind, which helps everything work better. The edit, though, was too lonely and when finally I had someone come in to help for a few days, it was a great big breath of fresh air that was needed. I think next time I’ll not be the main editor. I need that other person to bounce off ideas off of with.

Person to Person hits theaters today. It is also available on iTunes, On Demand, and on Amazon Video.


Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-07-28T13:50:27+00:00 July 28th, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |

Womanly Panther: A Conversation with Director Mimi Leder

Scott Glenn and Director/Executive Producer Mimi Leder on the set of THE LEFTOVERS Season 3 in Australia. Photo: Ben King/HBO

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Mimi Leder is one of the most respected directors in film and television. Her ability to bring out the subtle nuances of the human experiences has made her a highly sought after artist and collaborator. Helming films such as The Peacemaker, Deep Impact, and Pay It Forward, Leder has brought her talents to some of the most beloved franchises in the world of television in recent years – ER, Nashville, The West Wing, and Shameless, just to name a few. She has also been a key voice in guiding HBO’s The Leftovers, directing ten episodes of the show.

Leder sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher to talk about her career and her experiences.

John Bucher: You’ve said in other interviews that The Leftovers, and especially this season, is really about the story that we tell ourselves. That seems to be an on-going theme in a lot of your work. Can you unpack that?

Mimi Leder: Well, we all have stories we tell ourselves to get by, to make things all right in our individual worlds and the world as a whole. We see a lot of coping mechanisms. We see how people on the outside look, and then in private moments how they really look and feel, and see the things that they do to get through the day. Kevin putting a bag over his head, getting near the point of death so he can feel alive in The Leftovers is certainly an example of that. We see how each and every one of our characters exists, does things so they can exist in a place where they can breathe.

John Bucher: You have directed more episodes than anyone else over the course of the show’s run. You’ve become one of the chief storytellers for this show, especially where it’s taken off from Tom Perrotta’s original work. It seems like the audience that has developed for the show are really thoughtful people, and that has a lot to do with how the show is directed. So, what’s been your approach in connecting with that audience?

Mimi Leder: I feel that my approach to directing the show is always somewhere very honest and grounded in a real place from the character’s point of view. We dig deep when we approach a scene. We discuss the hows, the whys. I feel I just approach it from a storytelling point of view, and it’s really been an exciting journey to be able to be with the show since mid-first season and really experience it from the characters’ points of view. Even location scouting, finding the right house, the right landscape, how it fits the characters and how the character will fit within it.

John Bucher: Since you brought up locations, let’s talk about Australia. Were there films that were influential for you in approaching the Australian storytelling? Was it different than Austin?

Mimi Leder: Well, going to Austin, Texas, felt like the right place for season two, and going to Austin felt like they had such great little towns that we could find our little town that was untouched. It just felt right for Miracle, Texas. The blue skies and the vast landscapes, the open sky. When they talk about Texas and the open skies, they’re not kidding. They’re hypnotizing. They really are. You just watch clouds a lot of the day. It’s hypnotic.

Going to Australia and finding the right place to shoot, for example, in episode three, in the outback, was something we did last February when we decided we actually were going to Australia. We had to go find the right outback because the outback exists everywhere there. We didn’t quite know the storyline at that point, but I knew that I was going to be shooting an episode in the outback with Kevin Sr. on his journey with his flood narrative to save the world. Scott Glenn is one of the greats. He gave every ounce of himself to this role, and it’s a very beautiful, honest portrayal of a man trying to save the world.

We went to a place called Broken Hill, which is out of Sydney, in the state of New South Wales. Broken Hill is where they shot Wake in Fright that Ted Kotcheff brilliantly directed. It was a very beautiful and haunting and magical place to film. It was a great experience for all of us. We took in every moment. We didn’t take it for granted.

John Bucher: It feels like one of the re-occurring themes throughout the seasons that’s really coming to a pinnacle in season three is this idea of family, of fathers and sons, and the idea of saving the world but also saving yourself, saving your family. You have a daughter who’s beginning to enter the filmmaking world. Have you been able to draw from your own life at all in approaching these stories about families and the intricacies and nuances of families working together?

Mimi Leder: Yeah. I’ve definitely been able to draw from the intricacies and the moments in my life and the connections with my family: my husband, my mother, my daughter, my stepchildren as well. Family is everything, and it’s very complicated. This is the telling of that story, and the scripts by Damon and Tom especially spoke to that. Every ounce of The Leftovers, in so many ways, speaks to family and what the family means, and how could we live without our families. How could we go on? And how do our characters go on? That is what we’ve been exploring in depth.

John Bucher: Nora got a tattoo of the Wu-Tang Clan symbol to cover her children’s’ names. Were you given a Wu-Tang Clan’s name like the writers of that episode?

Mimi Leder: That was really funny. Mine was great. We were on set shooting one night, and everyone was getting a Wu-Tang Clan name. Mine is Womanly Panther.

John Bucher: That’s quite fitting.

Mimi Leder: Isn’t it amazing?

John Bucher: Has there been anything that you’ve learned from your earlier experiences or the earlier projects that you’ve done that you’ve been able to put into practice or that you’re really proud of or glad that you’ve been able to exercise?

Mimi Leder: Well, I would say that The Leftovers has been one of the best experiences of my career in that the material is so extraordinary. It opened me up in so many ways. I believe that it has opened me up as a director. I had many years of experience and it has in some ways made me more open and fearless and a better collaborator. It has made me explore my inner spirituality more. It has allowed me to be more free and somehow has cracked something open inside of me. I’m loving the work that we’re doing, that I’m doing. It’s been one of the great experiences of my career. I’m very grateful for it.


John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site,

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-05-04T10:54:36+00:00 May 3rd, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |

Not F*ing Around – The Screenwriter’s Edition

Editor’s Note: Jeff Leisawitz is the author of Not F*ing Around, a book about jump-starting your creative life which we had the opportunity to review. The book is a quick, uplifting, and fun manifesto on reaching your creative goals, and we heartily recommend it. You can read the first three chapters or buy a copy here.

by Jeff Leisawitz

Writing screenplays is hard work. I know. I’ve written a bunch. Not only do you have to know story structure, dialogue, formatting, tone, pace, and about a hundred other things, you actually have to sit there and do it. Sometimes this is the hardest part.

As a professional writer, award winning musician, internationally distributed filmmaker and life coach, I’ve been bashing my head against the wall for decades. In an effort to empower creatives of all kinds on how to bang their heads against fewer walls, I wrote a book called Not F*ing Around— The No Bullsh*t Guide for Getting Your Creative Dreams Off the Ground. Here are few tips, tweaked for my screenwriting pals.

Start Before You’re Ready

Years ago, when I started working as a songwriting teacher at a local college, I was shaking in my shoes. I prepared the best I could. But at the end of the day I just had to step into the studio with the students and give it my best shot.

Here’s the point. You can read screenwriting books, magazines, and blogs all day long. You can go to workshops, take classes. But if you still haven’t knocked out a bunch of loglines, outlines, and a ton of pages, it’s time to start. Now.

Sure, it might be a total disaster. But so what? As I tell my freaked out freshmen, your first song is supposed to suck. Write more. They will get better. That’s how it works. Same goes with screenplays. Just pay attention. Get some qualified feedback. And learn from your mistakes.

Time Travel with Your Future Self

Here’s a secret. A vast majority of very successful people use mediation and/or visualization to help them move closer to their dreams. You may call it woo-woo. But it works.

Grab your pen or fire up the laptop. Take a few minutes to breathe deeply. Imagine what you want in your future as it relates to screenwriting (or anything else). Picture yourself finishing your project. Or sitting in a room with a hot shot producer. Or attending the premiere of your awesome movie.

Breathe deep and feel into the experience. Notice what it took to get you there. Notice who is around you. Notice the way you feel in these moments. Breathe this all in deeply. When you’re ready, open your eyes and write it out. Feel it again. Write it and remember it. You just tapped into your subconscious to access some big information and wisdom.

Say ‘Yes, and_______.”

A few years ago I took an improv comedy class. One of the main tenets of this world is to say “Yes, and ______.” That means that you have to accept the situation that the other actor drops in your lap. Then add something to it.

It’s a very simple yet profound idea. It also works quite well in life.

Be open to opportunities in the screenwriting world. In fact, seek them out on job boards, meetups, community film groups. Maybe your sister-in-law just got a new camera and wants a three page script about twinkie-loving truckers for her next YouTube video. Step up and write it.

Perhaps you met some over-caffeinated Millennial at your local coffee shop who wants to hang around and write forty plot ideas every Sunday afternoon. Buy the guy some decaf and tag team.

Always take opportunities for creative growth. Chances are good that you’ll grow creatively.

These are just a few very brief ideas on how to crank up the NFA and make your screenwriting dreams come true. For more wisdom, tips, and tools, click on over to to enter yourself a chance to win four hours of online creativity coaching ($1000 value!). You’ll also get free chapters of my book, Not F*ing Around— The No Bullsh*t Guide for Getting Your Creative Dreams Off the Ground.

What does your future self have to say?

What have you started before you’re ready?

What do you generally say yes to, screenwriting-wise? What do you say no to?


Jeff Leisawitz burns with a mission—to inspire screenwriters, artists, musicians, filmmakers, entrepreneurs (and everyone else) to amp up their creativity, heal their hearts and shine in the world. Visit his site for a chance to download the first three chapters of his book, Not F*ing Around— The No Bullsh*t Guide for Getting Your Creative Dreams Off the Ground and enter a $1,000 giveaway for a chance to win creative coaching with Jeff to get your next project rocket fueled.

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-04-20T12:46:20+00:00 April 20th, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |

4 Ways to Kick-Start Your Writing This Summer

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

May is only a couple of weeks away, and many of us are already thinking about the glorious warmth of summer. Perhaps you’ve also been thinking about beginning a new project, and summer looks to be the perfect time to write it. Maybe you’re thinking of breathing new life into an old story that’s long been buried. You might be one of thousands of writers who began the new year with a resolution to finally get a story on the page this year, but haven’t yet found time to get started.

Knowing how to begin your writing practice, or begin it again, can be tough. Here are four ways to prepare NOW for crafting a script to kick-start your writing this summer.

photo credit: Flickr/ laurahoffmann51


Stories come out of characters. Far too many writers try to begin telling a story with characters whose lives they know very little about. Researching a lifestyle, occupation, or era that you are unfamiliar with can be an invigorating experience. It can provide you with details about a person in that world that you wouldn’t be able to describe otherwise.

Researched characters feel more real. Charlie Hunnam portrays Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z. While the character is based on a real person found in a book by David Grann, Fawcett’s character on-screen embodies details that speak to the research that James Gray conducted to bring the character to screen.  Gray was clearly familiar with the language, fashion, and customs of the period – things only discovered through good research.

There are a number of ways to research characters outside of the obvious Google-related searches anyone can perform. Conducting interviews with individuals familiar with the world of your story is a good place to start. Another often-overlooked resource is the public library. Most of us assume anything found in a library can also be found online. While this is true of many things, it’s not true of everything. Books, encyclopedias, newspapers, and a variety of other resources can be found in many libraries, but may have not piqued anyone’s interest for scanning and being made available online. Many libraries also have free access to academic databases, journal articles, and back-dated periodicals that you have to pay to access online. Libraries also offer an environment for concentrating on research and writing. Getting away from the distractions found at home and in coffee shops can be a powerful way to welcome new narratives into your story world.


Writers often only look to books as a source of inspiration for adapting a story. However, there are multitudes that can be learned by reading books that were either written during or about the period that you are setting your story in.  Sometimes beginning with a book from a historical period that you are interested in can be the catalyst for finding a great story to tell.

While your reading may lead to an idea set within the time period, many times it will spark something best set in another time period. When constructing her iconic character, Frankenstein’s Monster, Mary Shelley was vocal about having gotten the idea while reading a story set in a completely different period and world – Paradise Lost. Engaging in the way another storyteller has constructed a tale can sometimes be just what we need to unleash our own creativity, and often leads to unexpected results.


Many people go to the movies to escape. We as writers also occasionally need to escape to find ideas, characters, and stories that might not come to us otherwise. Taking ourselves out of the world of now and looking to a world we recognize, but that is a bit removed from us, can help. Watching a film that you’ve never seen before made before 1950 can function like a hard reboot for your writing.

Looking for themes, archetypes, and storylines that would morph into relevance today can be like a narrative treasure hunt. Mining old classics for timeless truths is an enjoyable way to take spare time and make it resourceful. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 film Blackmail originated many tropes common to crime thrillers in more recent times. Knowing what the writers who came before us have done successfully not only informs us of possibilities – it makes us better students of our craft.


Becoming familiar with the other stories in the genre you want to write in is one of the best ways to prepare to construct your own script. Did you know that our site has a library of scripts from a wide array of genres that you can download for free? Academy Award winners, cult classics, and indie scripts you may have never heard of all await you. Click here to find feature scripts and here for television.


ISA and The Script Lab are putting on a free 30 Day Screenwriting Challenge, which starts tomorrow and which LA Screenwriter is co-sponsoring. Sign up today to get daily articles, reminders, and inspiration as you work on your story. The goal is to finish a draft of a new script in 30 days. As an added bonus, you might win some fun prizes along the way.


John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site,

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-04-19T11:47:25+00:00 April 19th, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |

Spotlight on Leonard Maltin at the Classic Film Festival

Leonard Maltin at TCM Classic Film Festival 2017

by Scott Holleran (@ScottHolleran)

Leonard Maltin gave a rare personal interview during a Q&A at the TCM Classic Film Festival this month. Of course, he took classic movie questions and named his favorite movie director, Billy Wilder (The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, Stalag 17) and favorite movie (Casablanca). But with his daughter serving as moderator, he went into more personal details than he usually does.

Maltin explained that he was born in Manhattan and grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, later marrying “a Bronx girl” named Alice (who was seated in the Club TCM audience). Maltin said that he loved comics as a boy—he narrowed it down to enjoying comic strips, otherwise known as “the funnies”—and loved to read and go to the library. “I was an indoor person,” he said, adding that, back then, TV programming was filled with frequent showings of classic movies. Maltin said he grew up watching them.

He favored television shows with the Little Rascals, cartoons, Laurel and Hardy and Barbara Stanwyck movies, and ABC’s Disneyland series hosted by Walt Disney, who “taught us the history of his company and his animated cartoons.”

If there’s a theme in Maltin’s work, it is Disney–the legendary Burbank-based movie studio whose classic pictures Leonard Maltin regularly highlights for Turner Classic Movies. Maltin was at New York University—where he studied journalism—when he was asked by a Signet editor to create a movie guide, which he subsequently did. But it was his passion for Disney that helped Maltin make his way to Hollywood.

He said that he was “devastated when Walt Disney died,” and at some point while doing research for his movie guide, he telephoned the studio and talked to Arlene Ludwig, whose father was Irving Ludwig, president of Buena Vista Pictures. Maltin asked for and received special access to Disney films so that they were fresh in his mind for review and coverage. He would note the end credits (there were no comprehensive credit listing sources back then) by hand from those Disney prints. These classic movie tales provided a crucial context for both the meticulous detail of his movie guides and Maltin’s deep knowledge and abiding respect for the Walt Disney studios legacy.

Other fun facts learned from his Q&A:

Maltin doesn’t like giving stars to films but when an editor asked him to do so, he relented and admits that readers like it as a shortcut to assessing his estimate of a film.

Bette Davis once sent the Maltin family a Christmas wreath.

He used to take passenger rail service to the nation’s capital to conduct movie research at the Library of Congress.

Asked to name his favorite foreign language picture, he paused: “Maybe La Strada.” But he says he “loves Truffaut” and “wants to be more conversant in Japanese cinema.”

Asked about his approach to work, he said he loves being his own boss.

Asked about his reading habits as they relate to movies, he answered that he first read David Copperfield by Charles Dickens because he had seen and been moved by the movie version.

When asked about his family, Leonard Maltin introduced his wife Alice, who accompanies him to screenings, and admitted that it “helps to have married a movie buff.” Maltin said that his daughter Jessie watched the barn-raising scene in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers as a toddler “over and over on Laserdisc,” adding that it’s still her favorite movie, which she watched at a TCM Classic Film Festival after getting to meet its leading lady, Jane Powell.

Asked to name one of Hollywood’s last living “great broads,” Maltin didn’t flinch or hesitate: Angie Dickinson.

Answering my question about whether he ever asks for a second screening of a movie he’s assigned to review, Maltin said he rarely does because a critic reviewing a movie “should not have to see it again” if it’s a good movie.

And, asked by this writer to name one quality that differentiates today’s movies from classic films, Maltin said that he finds today’s close-up shots annoying (“I call it counting pores”), though, citing last year’s Arrival and Jackie, he likes the use of close-ups in movies when it’s warranted.

Maltin said that the main difference between movies then and now is that today’s motion pictures are losing what he calls the art of storytelling. “There used to be movies driven by fiction writers of short stories in magazines,” Maltin said, noting that fewer readers of abundant short fiction and other source material contribute to the loss of well-made, story-driven movies. “Broadway did hundreds, not one or two, productions a year.”

Leonard Maltin’s hour-long audience interview ended with a pointed question asking what he seeks when he goes to the movies. After qualifying his answer that one could reasonably have any variety of motivations to see movies, Maltin said that, essentially, he goes to movies “to be uplifted.”


Former Box Office Mojo editor and partner Scott Holleran writes scripts and teaches media and storytelling workshops and courses in LA. He posts movie reviews on his blog, where he writes about news, culture, and ideas.

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-04-18T13:46:59+00:00 April 18th, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |

Writer/Director Ed Gass-Donnelly On His New Thriller, Lavender

by Ashley Scott Meyers

This week I talk with Canadian director and screenwriter, Ed Gass-Donnelly. We talk through his early career as a stage director in Canada, and how that led him to directing films and led him to his latest project, Lavender.

You can listen to the audio portion of the podcast by clicking here or through iTunes by clicking here.

You can also read a transcript of this episode.

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-04-17T15:25:21+00:00 April 17th, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |

Passengers Script

The Passengers script was written by Jon Spaihts.

This script was on the 2007 Black List and was beloved by industry insiders. So why did the movie disappoint? Take a look at the script and try to figure out what might have gone wrong.

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-04-16T01:48:29+00:00 April 13th, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |

Writer Angela Workman On Dedication, Gender, and THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE

courtesy of Focus Features

A beautiful WWII drama, The Zookeeper’s Wife comes to theaters Friday, March 31.

by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

Major films with a female writer, director, and leading role are incredibly rare. Hopefully films like The Zookeeper’s Wife from Focus Features will help turn the tides for women in film.

Based on the non-fiction best seller by Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife defies its romance-sounding title and somewhat cheesy poster to deliver a truly great World War II story of resilience, bravery, and conviction. The opening scenes at the zoo set a whimsical stage, making the transition to war feel that much more abominable. Suspense fills scene after scene as Antonina (played by Jessica Chastain) and her husband put everything they have on the line to save as many people as they can.

I got the chance to speak with screenwriter Angela Workman about how she constructed this beautiful tale, her view of the film industry, and what writers must do to achieve screenwriting success.

Angela Bourassa: How did this project and your involvement with it come about?

Angela Workman: Diane Ackerman’s book was brought to me by producer Kim Zubick. (It was brought to her by producers Diane Levin and Robbie Tollin.)  Actually, Kim approached my agent, Sandra Lucchesi at the Gersh Agency, and Sandra told Kim there was only one writer who could adapt that volume of material — me.  The book fascinated me for many reasons, and so I decided to come aboard.

Angela Bourassa: How did you approach the source material? Do you have a method that you follow when adapting books?

Angela Workman: I don’t know that I have one method when I approach an adaptation.  Generally I let my instincts tell me what the story is, where the focus needs to be, and to sort of feel out a beginning, middle, and end. If I can’t instinctively find those things in the source material, then I pass on the project.

Angela Bourassa: One thing I really appreciated about this film was that, despite all the death and horror, the darkest moments were handled very delicately. You and Niki Caro showed a great deal of restraint, which must have been hard to do — and do well.

Angela Workman: I think neither Niki nor I felt we wanted to be too explicit in the more atrocious aspects of the story.  We wanted the focus to be on the quiet bravery of Antonina and the more masculine bravery of Jan.  We wanted to reveal their humanity. But the story had to have its darker moments, and so I shaded them in the writing, and then Niki made her decisions as to how to present them.  She actually made some very bold choices, I thought.  We didn’t want to shy away from the truth of what happened during that terrible time.

courtesy of Focus Features

Angela Bourassa: The moment that struck me the most from the film was the scene at the train when the little children raise their arms to be helped up by Jan. Was that moment in the book, or did you come up with that scene? It absolutely broke my heart.

Angela Workman: The train scene was Niki’s idea.  I had written the scene to have Jan standing outside the ghetto gates looking in — I wasn’t certain that he would have been permitted inside the ghetto during the deportations.  But Niki offered me a beautiful, sad image, which was that she imagined one of the children would reach up for Jan’s hand, and Jan would then be in the position of having to help the child onto the train.  Once she described that visual horror to me I knew she was right, and I wrote the scene for her.

Angela Bourassa: Though this film is called The Zookeeper’s Wife, it’s really about this couple and what they’re able to accomplish together. In another writer’s hands, the Zookeeper himself might have become the main character. Aside from the fact that the book is called The Zookeeper’s Wife, why do you think it’s important that this story is Antonina’s and not Jan’s (if indeed you do think that’s important)?

Angela Workman: Of course, we had to call the film by the book’s title because the book was a best seller (and is again, now that the film is coming out).  We’d be crazy not to use that title!  But a deeper answer is, we so rarely see female protagonists in these types of films, and we, as a bunch of women filmmakers, wanted to see what would happen when a woman was at the center of a story like this.  We have Sophie’s Choice and Anne Frank, and not much else.  This was our chance to tell a story of heroics during the Holocaust from a female point of view, a chance to show what compassion looked like, what it meant for Antonina to have essentially won her war, which is a story we’ve never really seen before.

courtesy of Focus Features

Angela Bourassa: Much of this film’s drama is built out of moments of suspense. How do you create suspense in scenes?

Angela Workman: I guess I create suspense by holding tension — I try never to break tension between characters, even in happy scenes.

Angela Bourassa: Does your experience as an actress inform your writing?

Angela Workman: I did train as a classical stage actress, and my stage training informs all my writing.  I think I developed an ear for dynamics between characters, rhythmic writing, tension, dialogue — all of that comes from theatrical training.

Angela Bourassa: You’ve written several period pieces about strong women. Do you ever feel pigeonholed as a writer, or have you carved out this niche for yourself by choice?

Angela Workman: I’ve written many scripts centering on male protagonists, too, they just haven’t been made yet.  But women writers do usually get hired to write for women, which I love to do.  I also love to write strong male characters.

Roland Emmerich was the first director to hire me to write a huge, epic history centering on men.  It was about Spaniards conquering the Maya in Yucatan.  He didn’t care about my gender, he just really appreciated my ability to write these large-scale histories.  He made it possible for me to write other films with male protagonists. I wrote a large-scale epic adventure set during the Ming Dynasty in China for WB, and was hired based on that script for Roland, which remains one of my favorite projects.  He still wants to make it, by the way.  I’ll always be grateful to him for that.

courtesy of Focus Features

Angela Bourassa: It’s unfortunately quite rare these days for a film to have both a female writer and a female director. What was it like working with Niki Caro? Can you comment on what it’s like for women screenwriters in Hollywood these days?

Angela Workman: It was great working with Niki.  She’s incredibly astute, very specific.  She knows her own mind, she knows exactly what she wants, she gives very precise notes.

Women need to be hired more often.  What else can I say?  The disparity is ridiculous. Roland Emmerich saw no reason not to hire a woman.

Angela Bourassa: Based on IMDb, it looks like you’re enjoying quite the hot streak right now. What does it take to have a solid career as a screenwriter?

Angela Workman: To have a solid writing career, you have to have skill, an agent who believes in you and who never sleeps, and you have to jump on material before anyone else.  And you have to be very, very disciplined.

Angela Bourassa: Any pieces of advice for writers trying to break in?

Angela Workman: My advice is to read every script you can get your hands on, good or bad.  Read them all.  The bad ones will teach you as much as the good ones.  I was a reader for a decade, it’s how I learned to write screenplays.  Read, read, read.  And learn to be disciplined.

And don’t talk about writing.  Just write.

The Zookeeper’s Wife will be in theaters nationwide on Friday, March 31.


Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.

Source: LA-Screenwriter

By | 2017-04-17T15:25:22+00:00 March 28th, 2017|Categories: General|Tags: |