We have talked with film professionals previously, so why not continue doing so? Our latest guests are Valerie Dalena and Mike Fuhrmann, a creative duo of filmmakers. They wrote, directed or produced several films, such as the award winning beautiful silent short The Case Of Conrad Cooper, and Debris among others. I had a pleasure of reading their screenplay for Rest In Pain, a twisted surreal horror film, and can hardly wait to see it.
Hi, Valerie, hi, Mike, could you please tell us a little bit about yourselves?
Valerie: As a child, I loved to write and illustrate stories, but I never thought I was very good. Like most children, I had a wild imagination. I became a race horse, a doctor, a famous actress or singer. I produced my own plays in the basement, cast neighbor kids, held rehearsals, and sold tickets. In college I could write a very mean essay. In my first job out of college, I wrote scripts for live fashion productions in large theaters. Once I caught the bug, I couldn’t stop. I studied novel writing at UCLA and quickly signed with an agent. That’s another story. Life and responsibility got in the way of bigger dreams, but finally in about 2009, I started writing screenplays and studied like crazy – UCLA, Gotham NY, Screenwriting U. Since then I’ve completed several feature length thrillers that have all done well in competitions, including semifinals in 2015 PAGE Awards and finals in 2015 Creative World Awards. Before this, I had several „real jobs,“ including West Coast Editor of GLAMOUR Magazine, Fashion Events Director of a large department store chain, and Program Administrator for the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect. I have a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology. My mission now is to write stories and make thought-provoking films with strong themes and dynamic characters who appear one way in the beginning, but you later discover are something quite different.
Mike: Since I was in a teenager, I always loved storytelling. I always dreamed of being a comic book artist and I spent a lot of my leisure time in drawing cartoons for friends and school purposes. As long as I can remember I was always seen as the creative think tank for the people around me – the one in the background who came up with the big ideas. It was really a coincidence that I ended up in a German film school (besides working in the advertising industry). Unfortunately, I had to discover that this place was full of narrow-minded people. All the coaches told me that my ideas are too difficult to execute and there are problems all along the way. For me, it was just a proof that these are not the people I wanted to have on my team to make things happen. And this is is why I signed up at an online screenwriting course called ScreenwritingU in Los Angeles. Today, I live with my family in Switzerland, leading the marketing and product management department of a medtech company and have my creative film business together with Valerie and many other writers and filmmakers around the world.
Screenwriting (and writing in general) is solitary work – Rest In Pain was written by both of you, but your writing flows seamlessly from beginning to end. How do you collaborate? How do you share your roles?
Valerie: It is so much fun to collaborate with Mike. He’s smart, creative and can hone in on what’s important and what doesn’t work at a glance. Collaboration is a challenge because writing is so personal. You have to share the same vision, have a very similar taste and world view. This is the first time Mike and I have written something together so we had to discover our rhythm. He seems to instinctively know what works in the big sense of a story; where I tend to write the same scene over and over until it touches me emotionally, until the pacing and dialogue are just right. I can make myself a little crazy. For this piece it was such a great back and forth. Once we got our general outline, we would usually discuss scene content, meaning, general dialogue. I’d put an idea of the scene on paper, Mike would make comments like „great scene, but…,“ „that’s too on the nose, it gives too much away,“ or „I love it.“ We both had a similar vision for the mood and tone. We both wanted to take it to a very horrible dark area, but then bring it around so that it was about the universal theme of examining one’s life, admitting mistakes, and seeking redemption.
Our efforts are already paying off. We’ve received excellent reviews by critics, a „Strong Recommendation“ from author/producer/writer Bill Boyle, and we were selected for workshop at the Stowe Story Lab in Vermont in 2015.
Mike: It was truly a collaboration. The idea for Rest In Pain happened during my film school in Germany and was one of these projects that were too complicated to realize. After having worked successfully with Valerie on our short The Case of Conrad Cooper, I told her about the idea. From the idea to the final script, so many things have changed – even the gender of the main protagonist. It was a real and very effective collaboration. While Valerie wrote most of the words, we exchanged ideas back and forth on almost every day during a 6 months period. We had many of skype sessions where we talked about the plot, the twists, visual ideas and actually each dialogue.
Do you have any special routine to get your creative juices flowing?
Valerie: Mike will probably say „Sex, drugs and rock and roll,“ Ha ha. For me – relax the mind, space out, imagine, meditate. That works best when I feel stuck, when I feel like I’m walking down a well-worn path. I keep asking myself – „yep, that’s pretty good, but what would elevate that idea, what’s the most crazy extreme of that?“ You can always bring it back down. Running also helps – I just pretend I’m a race horse.
Mike: Sex, Drugs & Rock’n Roll.
How important is Social Media for you to promote your work and connect with other creatives?
Valerie: Very important for connecting to other creatives and potential fans. Mike and I also use closed groups to cronical our thoughts, interesting articles/videos and resources.
Mike: It’s a great platform to connect with others. We have also some closed groups on Facebook where we collaborate with other writers, sharing ideas or even closed groups just for Valerie and myself to discuss ideas in a chronological orders. It would be a mess to do this via email.
I often ask writers if they ever wanted to write for film or TV – as you are filmmakers, let me ask if you ever plan to write a book of fiction?
Valerie: As I mentioned, I started writing in novel format. I’m not sure I would have the time to relearn that type of long narrative – although I do love it. It actually took me a long time to reduce my writing to the short, crisp narrative style of screenplays. It’s very different. Film (thus screenplays) is primarily a visual medium, sometimes with very little dialogue (in the case of Rest in Pain). So the screenwriter’s job is to create a visual experience. Of course the epitome of this is the silent film, which Mike and I experienced making together in The Case of Conrad Cooper.
Mike: It’s on my list of 100 things that I want to do in life – when I have the time. Maybe this needs to wait until I retire.
What does your typical work day look like?
Valerie: Up early. Coffee, feed cat, imagine the day’s work, computer. First check emails. Then open the project(s) I’m working on that day. Write like hell – whether a script, marketing tool, whatever. Husband awake. Kiss husband. More coffee. Go back to work.
Mike: Difficult to say as I also have a full-time profession. So it depends on my availibility, but if I am excited about a project my working day could also turn easily into a working night. Also, the time difference between Switzerland and Los Angeles is a huge benefit for my screenwriting and filmmaking passion.
How did (in your opinion) the film industry change? How do you make it as a film director and/or screenwriter today?
Valerie: The traditional path of writing a spec script and then trying to market it is pretty much in the past as far as I’m concerned. Now, a writer has to be much more involved in getting the film made. My mentor always tells me to hang on, find a good producer and director you can work with, be a producer, take on tasks, stay at the table. Obviously, it’s so much easier now to make your own film. If you have a great script (first and foremost), the technology is there, fundraising opportunities are there, and there are so many creative people willing to jump on board a really good project.
Mike: Call me opportunistic, but I see more and more creative ways to get into the film industry. Everyone with a great idea can raise some funds (maybe not on the traditional way) to bring this idea to life. It’s different for writers. Good writing is really an art and as every art it needs to be mastered – by practising over and over again. A writer writes and writes and writes. But there are so many good ideas outside or in the hands of writers who secure them instead of shopping them around. Some might say now that they need to protect the idea from being stolen. Yes, as long it’s just an idea – but in case you have a truly powerful screenplay – why should I (as a filmmaker) steal it, instead of collaborating with a great writer? It’s a win-win for both parties.
What is in your opinion the primary role of the film writer and director? To entertain the audience or to educate them?
Valerie: Many excellent directors write their own material or write in collaboration. That’s the best to me. Since I have a tendency to imagine and visualize each character and scene so intensely, and since I’ve directed, it’s difficult to write without directing to a degree. For Rest in Pain we included color, mood and even music. These all became important parts of the story, not meant to constrict a director’s creativity but to serve as a possible springboard for a director to expand on our ideas or to introduce even better ones. We are in the emotion business so I guess we must entertain, but for me that means creating characters and story that are thought-provoking, that take viewers out of their comfort zone and urge them to reexamine their preconceived notions. That’s real story telling because it sticks with you way after you’ve left the theater.
Mike: The director directs, the writer writes. If the end product should just entertain or educate depends on the project itself. You could even entertain and educate at the same time.
Is there any genre you prefer to work in?
Valerie: Always love thrillers with strong themes. Rest in Pain is a bit psychological horror and a bit thriller. Horror gives you the opportunity to use so much symbolism, take the viewer on a magical journey, create new worlds, and explore strong themes in crazy ways. I also love comedy and have one that I keep going back to. Some day.
Mike: I truly love everything that makes you stop and rethink.
Beside Rest In Pain what is on your work desk at the moment?
Valerie: I am obsessed with finding the right producer and director to make Rest in Pain the movie. I think it’s a film that must be made. We are all curious about the mind of serial killers. What makes them tick? What makes them believe what they’re doing is right or justified? The script is actually imagined in Berlin so filming there would be fabulous. I’m also excited about a rather dark superhero TV series pilot Mike and I working on. This is one I now wake up thinking about. I’m also working on two documentaries as writer/director.
Mike: We need to shop Rest In Pain now around to get it made soon. Furthermore, I’d love to collaborate with Valerie on a very edgy superhero TV series idea. Besides this, I got my heist comedy „ThisAbility“ optioned in Germany, main cast is also defined and we need to try to get the production running. So in case there are any interested co-production companies around, they can get in touch with me.
Which books on film writing and directing would you recommend?
Valerie: Story by Robert McKee, Save the Cat by the late great Blake Snyder, The Anatomy of Story by John Truby, 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias, anything by the original Sid Field, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, and The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri (the first book on screenwriting I ever read). And of course, David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible and The Visual Mindscape of the Screenplay by our brilliant mentor, Bill Boyle.
Mike: The hero’s journey in film, Joachim Hamman. Beside Save the Cat and Story.
Your favorite movie is …?
Valerie: Yikes. How do I choose among Casablanca, The Godfather, Blade Runner, City Lights, Rear Window, Spirited Away and Memento?
Any advice to a young filmmaker who’s just starting out?
Valerie: Take some filmmaking classes, get an iphone or any good camera you can borrow or afford to buy, create a short story and shoot. Don’t listen to anyone who says you can’t. No one has had the same experiences as you; no one sees the world like you do. What do you have to say? What story do you want to tell? Tell it.
Mike: Never take a „no“ personal or get insecure about what your are doing. Just remember: If someone says no to you, does not mean that you are wrong. It just means that this is not the person you need to make your dream happen.