Interview: Nicole Avenia

For the second interview in our new series, we talked to Nicole Avenia, writer of THE ICE POND and THE KILLING MOON. Nicole participated in the Disney Feature Writers Program last year after being identified and chosen from the site via our Disney partnership. Today, we talk to her about how the past, present, and future have shaped her screenwriting career, and how the Black List helped foster his journey as a writer.

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The Past:

What was the first film that had a major impact on your life?

The first film that impacted my life was THE WIZARD OF OZ. I was three years old and became completely obsessed. I would watch it once or twice a day, dance around my parent’s coffee table and act the entire thing out, having memorized all of the lines for all of the characters. It became a template for my life — small town Midwestern girl goes on big adventure.

Was there a single film that made you want to be a screenwriter? How else did the decision to pursue that career evolve?

The film that made me want to be a screenwriter was BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. I saw an interview with Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana about how they pursued this film, having read and been inspired by Annie Proulx’s short story. It was the first time I realized that screenwriting could be an actual profession. At the time, I was teaching in New York City, going to grad school, and struggling with a novel, plodding through and feeling uninspired, when I decided to try out screenwriting. I bought all of the how-to books, Syd Field and Blake Snyder, and worked incessantly on building structure and plot points and “inciting incidents.” I rewatched all of my favorite films, looking at things through a screenwriter’s perspective. And then I wrote a script (in Microsoft Word, no less — that was FUN to translate into Final Draft!). Of course, like most first scripts, it was awful. But most importantly, I loved the process. I knew immediately that, as a writer, this was my canvas of choice, and so I wrote another script. And another. And a dozen more, plus thousands of pages of discarded or unusable crap. I think Stephen King said that in order to be a writer, you have to read a lot and write a lot, and because those were about the only two things I could indisputably control, I tried to do just that.

Most writers have to have “day jobs” in order to stay afloat. What was the strangest job you ever had before becoming a writer?

I was a middle school English teacher in the Lower East Side, Manhattan for most of my “aspiring-writer” phase. Other odd jobs included being a nanny/tutor to a musician’s children during a summer rock tour, pool cleaner during two summers in Michigan, and singer-songwriter doing covers at a Potbelly’s sandwich spot.

 

The Present:

How do you find ideas and how do you choose which ones to work on?

I don’t know if I find ideas or if I just allow them to find me. Reading and traveling are probably the two main things that provoke ideas for me. Also, zoning out. A lot of times I’ll wake up at 3AM and just lie there for two hours, working out an entire script or story in my head. It sounds a little nuts, but for me, allowing the brain to do its thing without the distraction of iPhones or TVs or social interactions, is important. In terms of what to work on, I juggle. I generally have three or four projects at different phases of the process and a back-burner of ideas that are waiting to be fleshed out. Sometimes an idea just isn’t ready, or I’m not ready to work on it so it sits there until the time is right. One of my BL scripts, THE KILLING MOON, took six years to come to fruition but during those years, I was gathering little pieces here and there, dialogue, themes, character insights. Screenwriting is a lot like puzzle building; you just go one piece at a time and hope that you get an image that makes sense at the end.

Walk us through a normal day of writing for you. Any special habits to keep the muse happy?

I’m not particularly fond of routines, but generally, my one rule is to write something every day. When I’m actually drafting, I commit to 7 pages a day, but other than that I don’t make any other requirements on myself. Sometimes I’ll have a good morning but slow afternoon. Sometimes I’ll wake up at four in the morning and write for two or three hours. Sometimes I’ll fly through pages while other times I’ll stare at a blinking cursor for what feels like an eternity. In terms of keeping the muse happy, for me that generally revolves around either cooking or swimming. Rolling out pasta dough or floating on a surfboard help me connect to the physical world, which can be easy to forget when you spend so much time “in-brain.”

Which films are keeping you inspired at the moment?

FOXCATCHER blew me away. I thought the suspense was so profound yet also so subtle. Pretty much anything that Megan Ellison has a hand in is at the top of my list. And the TV world is magnetic. TRUE DETECTIVE, HOUSE OF CARDS and TOP OF THE LAKE are some of my favorites.

 

The Future:

If you could make one film, with no restrictions in place, what would that film be?

Other than a live action Disney movie? I’d love to do an adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I think there’s so much imagery there, especially in The Inferno, that hasn’t been properly adapted to the big screen yet. That, coupled with the beautiful language of the poem and the tragic love story of Dante and Beatrice, I think could make a great film. And Satan is a three-beaded beast with bat wings who chews on the bodies of sinners — talk about fun movie-monster creation.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

Ideally, running a tiny restaurant/surf shack on the beach somewhere exotic.

Dinner with three of your favorite writers and/or filmmakers, dead or alive. Who’s coming to dinner? Who picks up the check?

My three guests are Jane Campion, Jodie Foster and Jenji Kohan, and we’re having lunch in springtime, dining al fresco at one of my favorite restaurants in New York City, Bar Pitti. All three of these women are brilliant powerhouses and most importantly, they all bring something different to the table. Kohan brings the perspective of being a showrunner, TV pro, and creator of one of (if not THE) most unique, compelling and genre-breaking series ever created, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. Foster brings the perspective of someone who’s worked extensively in front of and behind the camera and has always been an advocate for strong female characters. Campion is the director auteur, a genius visionary with a catalogue of provocative, influential work. I figure if I can’t learn something from these filmmakers over a bowl of linguini vongole and “a nice glass of Chianti,” there’s probably no hope for me. Oh, and I’m paying obviously.

 

The Black List:

How did you first hear about The Black List?

I don’t recall exactly how I heard about the BL (maybe Twitter?), but I do know that I was one of the first to submit a script. They did a ranking of the first scripts of that month and I remember that the writer with the #1 script signed with CAA. That seemed like a good sign to continue using the site and see what could happen.

Since using The Black List, how has your career been impacted?

The impact has been incredible, yet the journey felt, at times, slow and meticulous. That first year, I had two scripts that did really well on the site — THE ICE POND and THE KILLING MOON. Both also did well in the Nicholl so I was feeling fairly confident. Over the next couple of years, I started meeting people, mostly managers and producers. I was looking to forge relationships that weren’t merely lukewarm, weren’t based on the “what can I sell right now?!” agenda, and were with like-minded people, both creatively and professionally. It took some time, but looking back, I am so grateful that it did. Whether it was, good fortune, good timing or just plain dumb luck, I ended up signing with an incredible agent and agency. From there on out, things started moving very quickly. Shortly after, I was offered the Disney Staff Writers job and here we are.

Any tips for writers interested in the site?                                                                           Focus your expectations on the long run. If you’re using the site with the hope that instant gratification and a swift helicopter ride to the top is in the cards, you will very likely be let down. If you have some talent, an indefatigable work ethic, and no fear of failure, you will eventually get in the door. And then, once you’re in, be gracious, be authentic, and be willing to learn.

Thanks so much Nicole! Look for our next interview in two weeks.

Nicholl Scripts on the Black List

Come May of each year, the Nicholl fellowship receives thousands of entries from amateur screenwriters for the shot at a $35k fellowship and industry-wide recognition. It’s widely considered the most prestigious competition of its kind in the industry. Plus, if you win, technically you’re well within your rights to say those magical six words: “I’d like to thank the Academy.”

When you upload a script to the Black List, you’re able to add information about whether your script has received any awards; and unsurprisingly, Nicholl semi and quarter-finalists are cited frequently. Let’s just say that if I had a penny for every Nicholl added, I’d have enough to go wild at the Target dollar section.

A while back, we did a quick ratings distribution (from Black List reader evaluations) of Nicholl scripts versus all scripts on the sites. The results aren’t unexpected, but it’s interesting to note that semi-finalists on average scored 0.4 points higher than quarter-finalists, and quarter-finalists on average scored 0.6 points higher than all scripts.

Check out the distribution below — notice that the bell curve shifts to the right as you place higher in the competition.

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Some notes on methodology, potential biases…pretty much whatever else:

  • Placements are self-reported by the writers and thus may be misreported.
  • Each overall rating is counted, including multiple ratings for a single script.
  • Based on 387 semi-finalist ratings, 454 quarter-finalist ratings, and ~25k total ratings.
  • Mean for semi-finalists is ~6.08, for quarter-finalists is ~5.69, and for all ratings is ~5.04.