Our latest literary guest is Signe Olynyk, a screenwriter and producer from Canada – she recently produced the feature film, Breakdown Lane. She has also written and produced Below Zero, an intense and twisted horror movie, starring Edward Furlong, Kristin Booth and Michael Berryman. The film has won many international awards. Check both websites, where you can also download her scripts – they’re a fine read.
Hi, Signe, tell us a bit about yourself, please.
Thanks Renato. It’s so nice to connect with you and fellow writers like this. Thank you for having me.
I am a writer who used to call myself a ‘reluctant writer / producer’. Writing is what makes my heart sing. I had to become a producer out of necessity. I had scripts optioned in the past, but I had also found that no one cares about your work the way you do, and was frustrated to see these scripts languish on other people’s desks and not get made. If you want to get something produced, you sometimes have to be the driving force behind it, and find a way for it to get made. Life is too short to just wish you were a screenwriter.
About ten years ago, I founded an event called the Great American Screenwriting Conference & PitchFest. It is a conference for screenwriters that is held annually in Los Angeles each year, and it has become this massive thing that has nearly taken over my life. I wanted to find a way to help other writers connect with producers, and to learn how to get their films made. So we offer dozens of classes to help writers learn to do exactly this, and then they get to pitch to more than 120 agents, managers, and production companies. It is an event I am very proud of, and I feel we have made a difference to the lives and careers of many writers, like myself, who just want to get their films made.
They say ‘you become what you do’. I am a writer and a producer, and also, a champion of other writers and producers. I just want to help other writers achieve their own screenwriting dreams because I share those same dreams.
Below Zero is a story about Jack (the Hack), a screenwriter, locked in the freezer of the abandoned slaughterhouse with a task to overcome the writer’s block and write the script in five days. Well, actually it’s a story within a story within a story within a story with a twist … and a twist and a twist … But it was you, actually, who got locked in the freezer for five days in the first place, right?
I had a concept about a guy locked in a meat freezer, but that was pretty much all I had. I couldn’t figure out how I could possibly write a story about one guy locked in a freezer, and make that worthy of an audience. I developed the worst case of writer’s block imaginable. I tried tying myself to a chair to keep myself working away on it. I tried writing exercises, and playing music to help me get in the right frame of mind. Nothing was working. So I arranged to have myself locked in a meat freezer so that I could understand and experience what my character would have gone through. It was the best thing I could have done because it helped me to identify with my protagonist, and come up with plot points that I could only have come up with by actually experiencing what it was like to be locked in a freezer.
Do you honestly believe in the writer’s block?
I do. But I also think there are things you can do to overcome it. You can do extreme things like what I did, and put yourself in a similar situation as your character. You can try writing exercises to try and break yourself through it. You can go to the ending of your story, and try to work backwards from there until you figure it out. You can also try examining the location your character is in – up, down, the corners, sides, what items ares in the location, and see if any of those things provide moments that push your story forward. Story comes from character, and your characters come from you. This means you need to experience as much as possible so that you can draw from those moments in your life, and write scenes that are deeper and more meaningful. Take walks, take time to be quiet, and listen deeply – these are all things that will enrich your writing, and your life.
We can see the PitchFest sticker on Jack’s laptop – can you tell us more about the PitchFest?
The Great American Screenwriting Conference & PitchFest just celebrated its eleventh year in Los Angeles. It is the largest screenwriting event of its kind. The next one will be held on the lot at Universal Studios, and it brings together writers, producers, agents, managers, and other industry people so they can connect and hopefully get their films made. Nearly 2,000 writers attend, and the event sells out every year. Writers can learn more by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, and by visiting www.pitchfest.com.
I usually ask authors whether they thought about writing for film and TV or not, so I’ll ask you, if you have ever written or thought about writing prose?
I write for film and television, and I have a book in development. When you are a writer, you have no choice in the matter – you have to write. My happiest days are when my characters are coming alive on the page, and when I am crafting stories. More than anything, I am a screenwriter.
Have you ever thought about directing, as well, or is for you thinking up characters, conflicts and sets the most rewarding process?
I’m most interested in mastering my craft as a screenwriter. I think each discipline demands so much commitment and expertise, and I wish I could just focus on being the best screenwriter possible. I’ve never had an interest in directing, and I only produce because I feel it is necessary. To be a writer is one thing. But to be a writer/producer means you are a writer with power – you have some sort of creative control over what happens creatively to your work. But even being a producer means you are finding money, crew, resources, distribution, overseeing production, and the myriad of details that come with that. To direct, you need to be a strong communicator with your cast and crew, and preferably, a solid technical understanding or a strong technical crew to support your vision. All of these things on their own are so demanding. You can lose your life to working all the time. And to be a great writer, you need to experience life as much as possible so you can inject that into your writing. I’ve been the workaholic filmmaker for a long time now, and I’ve learned that I no longer want that. I want to write. And if I have to, I’ll continue to produce, too. I’m fortunate to have built a team so that I can focus on my writing, but all of the other elements can continue as well.
Do you have any routines or rituals (appart from locking yourself in the freezer :)) to help you build your creative muscle?
I struggle with being a perfectionist, and wanting everything to be exactly right. That can paralyze you as a writer. What I try to do is stop judging myself, and just write – even if it is not my best work. No one has to see it. It just needs to get out and on the page.
In the winter months, I live near the ocean and there is a giant cedar forest that I often hike. It’s beautiful and I love the solitude. I walk every day, and when I go, I like to think of a question I need to solve in my script, and help push the story forward. By the time my walk is over, I usually have the solution, or have brainstormed a character so that I have a new direction to try.
What are you working on at the moment?
After locking myself in a freezer to write Below Zero, I think my next script is going to be about some guy trapped in Club Med!
Writers are often advised to ‘specialize’. This means if you write horror, you should only write horror. There are a lot of good career reasons for this that help to identify you as a specialist in your particular genre. But it is also like saying you can only feel one kind of emotion, or that you are only allowed to eat one type of ice cream ever again. And I really like ice cream – chocolate, maple walnut, rocky road…
To me, it’s like that with writing. I want to feel every emotion I can, and inject my scripts with that. Below Zero and Breakdown Lane were horror scripts, and I hope they brought something new to the genre that fans appreciate. But I also like to write really sweet ‘coming of age’ stories, usually with a comedic tone. That is what I am working on right now.
What about Social Media? How important it is for your work, promotion of it and connecting to your audience and fellow writers?
Becoming a Social Media Expert is the single most important thing you can do for your filmmaking career. You start with learning how to create a successful crowdfunding campaign. People mistakenly believe that the main purpose of a crowdfunding campaign is to raise money for your film. But crowdfunding is made up of two words – crowd and fund. The ‘crowd’ part is actually more important, and is how you actually achieve the ‘fund’ part. You need to use a crowdfunding campaign to build an audience, raise funding, create an awareness and a community that becomes vested in your project. Social media is what you need to do that, and the more you can prove a following and an interest, then you can market and sell your project directly to your audience. You can launch your own TV channel on Youtube. And if you aren’t sure how to use social media, stop complaining about it – find someone who can help you to figure it out, or who can manage it for you as much as possible while you learn. The key to any success is to surround yourself with people who compliment your weaknesses, so that you have a strong team to support your goals.
Which books on screenwriting would you recommend?
I always have four books at my side when I am writing:
• Save The Cat by Blake Snyder
• How To Write A Movie in 21 Days by Viki King
• The Third Act by Drew Yanno
• My Thesaurus
And I would highly recommend the book ‘UnMarketing’ by Scott Stratten. It will change and help everyone with how to embrace, understand, and maximize the potential of social media.
Who are your literary (and screenwriting) heroes?
Each year at the Great American Screenwriting Conference & PitchFest, we have amazing writers who come out to share with others on how they achieved success.
Ray Bradbury was one of our special guests a few years ago, and his advice to other writers was to get a job that paid the bills, but was not so exhausting or stressful that you were not able to write. He recommended getting a job at an art gallery, or a museum, so that you would be enlightened and inspired, but that your focus on becoming a great writer could remain true.
Shane Black also comes out nearly every year, and his advice to writers is to develop friendships and relationships with writers who are at your level, and as each of you works towards achieving your career goals, reach out to those same writers and help each other as you go. As their careers grow, they will do the same because people like to work with those who they know and trust. Together, your careers will grow together because you support one another.
Diablo Cody who wrote ‘Juno’ is one of my favorite screenwriting ‘heroes’ because she isn’t afraid to be honest with her work. She is very brave because of her honesty, and that isn’t easy to do when you are writing. It is too easy to write the cliché response or reaction, but it is far more dangerous and awesome to be original and honest in how your characters respond to situations. Always strive for honesty and originality in your writing.
Michael Arndt who wrote ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ is also one of my heroes because he gives back to the screenwriting community. Many writers are guarded about the secrets of their success, but Michael shares his experiences and wisdom with as many people as possible. Michael helps other writers to become better, and that is what we should all be encouraging and supporting others to do.
And Stephen King is also one of my biggest heroes. He is so prolific, and his ability to craft story after story that is so masterful, is astounding to me. He writes every day without fail. His commitment and the excellence in which he crafts his stories gives me goosebumps as much as any of his stories do.
Your favourite movie is …?
Oh gosh. This is like asking what my favorite ice cream is, and we know how difficult that was for me already. I tend to gravitate towards movies with a magical, fantasy element, or that coming of age /unresolved issues theme. ‘Field of Dreams’, ‘Big’, ‘Stand By Me’.
What advice would you give to a young (or not so young) screenwriter, who’s just starting out?
My advice today is very different from the advice I would give three years ago. First of all, you no longer need a distributor to get your movie out to audiences. You can be the distributor. Build an audience and a following now, and master social media so that you have relationships in place when you need them. Learn what you need to do to create a successful crowdfunding campaign, and use that to test your concept, find your audience by tapping into a niche audience, and raise your financing. Making the project is the easy part. Make sure it is the best it can be though – and you can do this by getting feedback from your network about the script, reading books on how to best write a screenplay/tv/web project, by workshopping it with professional actors, hire script consultants whose expertise is in helping you write your best work. And then, before you shoot it, make sure you have a solid marketing plan. If you haven’t put the energy into marketing it and maximizing social media to create an audience, then who is going to see it? It is no longer enough to ‘just be a writer’. You need to be a keeper of the brand, and push the whole thing through to the finish line. You need to be a filmmaker.
Thank you, Signe!