The Black List Interview: Suzanne Allain

unnamed

Today, we chat with Suzanne Allain. Her script MR. MALCOLM’S LIST was just chosen as the finalist from our most recent partnership with Warner Brothers. Suzanne has signed a two-step blind deal with Warner Brothers as a result of opting her script in on the site. We talk to her about how the past, present, and future have informed her journey as a screenwriter.

 

The Past:

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

STAR WARS.  Also, MY FAIR LADY with Audrey Hepburn.  I saw the latter on television when I was twelve or thirteen, memorized all the songs, and would sing them in the worst cockney accent you’ve ever heard.  But I also thought the costumes in that movie were incredible.  Every outfit Hepburn wore was a masterpiece.

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

I never even considered becoming a screenwriter until I was in my thirties, though I’ve been writing since childhood.  After my first novel was published, a reviewer mentioned how great the dialogue was and that she could really see it as a movie. That was the first time I thought:  “Hmmm, maybe I should switch mediums.”  I loved writing dialogue and struggled with writing description, so screenwriting seemed like a good fit for me.

The first screenplay I wrote was an adaptation of my novel, MR. MALCOLM’S LIST. I entered it in a screenplay contest in 2009 and when it didn’t place, I gave up on the idea until I stumbled across Amazon Studios’ contest two years later.  It was after learning I was a semi-finalist in that contest that I seriously started to think about a screenwriting career.  I began diligently studying the craft, and fell so in love with it that I stopped writing novels and switched solely to screenwriting.

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

My first job was at an ice company when I was 16.  I dispatched truck drivers over CB radio, telling them where to deliver the bags of ice. First and last time I’ve ever used a CB.

 

The Present:

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

I’m a fast reader and I read a lot.  I’m constantly surfing the net, reading magazine/newspaper articles, etc.  I actually waste way too much time doing that, but occasionally I find something that sparks my interest. As far as choosing ideas, now that I’m repped I’m finding a lot less time to work on my own ideas; I’m so busy with ideas generated by producers.

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

It involves sitting at my laptop in my pajamas soon after I’ve finished breakfast, before finally showering/getting dressed mid-afternoon.  The shower sometimes restarts the muse.  Also, if I’m working on something historical I sometimes listen to music from that period.

Which films are keeping you inspired at the moment? 

I just watched MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD again recently. And the soundtrack from the 2005 version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE always inspires me. I also like a new documentary series on Netflix called CHEF’S TABLE. The cinematography is excellent, though it makes me hungry.

 

The Future:

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

MR. MALCOLM’S LIST.  I’ve actually considered making it myself. But if we’re talking about something other than my own work, I love these romantic adventure novels by Madeleine Brent (which was a pseudonym for Peter O’Donnell).  I’d adapt one of them, probably MOONRAKER’S BRIDEOr I’d make a series of films based on the ANNE OF GREEN GABLES books by L.M. Montgomery.

The short answer is: I’d make a historical romantic adventure (or comedy) with amazing costumes, a beautiful/exotic setting, and a happy ending.

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

My dream job would be acting. Or teaching.

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

Baz Luhrmann, whose first film, STRICTLY BALLROOM, is one of my faves; Joe Wright, who made another of my favorites, the aforementioned PRIDE AND PREJUDICE; and Keira Knightley, who is neither a writer nor filmmaker, but since this is my fantasy I get to change the rules.  Baz and Joe could fight over the check, as I’m not sensitive about gender stereotypes and think it would be nice of them, as gentlemen, to offer to pay.  (And they both have a lot more money than I do.)

And since Baz and Joe are paying, I’d also invite Lindsay Doran and Peter Weir.

 

The Black List: 

How did you first hear about The Black List? 

On the forums of the site Done Deal Pro.

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

I have a career. Before using The Black List, there was some interest in my work but no paying jobs. I was about to give up completely on screenwriting; I felt I’d wasted enough time (and money) on a fruitless endeavor and I couldn’t afford to keep doing so. But I decided to give it one last try and uploaded MR. MALCOLM’S LIST to the site.  Not only did I find representation, I also got a blind script deal through The Black List’s partnership with WB.

Any tips for writers interested in the site?

I have a few:

  1. If you do try The Black List, don’t overreact if you don’t get the score you think you deserve. The first screenplay I uploaded to The Black List scored a 6 and I was convinced that it deserved a much higher score.  I still think that script is good, (and actually a 6 from The Black List is not a terrible score) but after I uploaded MR. MALCOLM’S LIST it consistently scored in the 7 to 9 range, from multiple readers.  Now I sometimes use The Black List as an objective critique of my work.  Of course, if you firmly believe your review was inaccurate, you do have the option of contacting The Black List’s customer support and pleading your case.  But I strongly recommend you take a deep breath and re-read the review; there’s usually something there that you can use to rewrite your script and make it better.
  1. Use positive comments/high ratings you get from The Black List reviewers in queries. This got me read requests at a few production companies before I had representation. Even low scoring reviews have positive remarks in the “Strengths” section.  No need to mention the score, just use a short excerpt from the reviewer’s comments and query away.
  1. If you have a high score, don’t remove your script too soon. I made the mistake the first time I uploaded MR. MALCOLM’S LIST of taking it down at the end of the first month.  I didn’t realize that it hadn’t yet gone out in the email blast to industry pros and that once it did, no one who received that email could read my script.  I’m not saying you have to continue to host your script for years, but it might be a good idea to do so for more than a month or two.
  1. Opt in to the opportunities on the Black List. The Black List has a revolving list of partnerships/deals.  Even if I hadn’t ended up winning the blind deal at WB, the actual exposure I received by being a finalist was helpful in generating buzz and getting representation.  So if you qualify for any of the opportunities, definitely opt in.  That being said, you probably will need to have a high enough rating to be selected (i.e., an 8 or above.)

Thanks Suzanne!

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.

unnamed-min

 

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.

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 7.33.59 AM

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.