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Programs Fri 2.16.2024

Guest Post: Episodic Lab Fellow Katherine Ruppe… Reach for the Stars!

Yesterday on the blog we announced the Fellows participating in the 2024 Film Independent Episodic Lab. Today, we’re drawing your attention to the fact that applications for next year’s cohort are currently open, with the regular deadline of February 26.

We asked 2020 Episodic Lab Fellow Katherine Ruppe to share her experience in the Lab developing her Sloan-supported series project Liftoff, about the lives and careers of NASA’s first class of female astronauts. Follow Katherine online at @RuppeVerse on Instagram and X.


It’s the grand finale of our 2020 Film Independent Episodic Lab. I’m facing a zoom screen of half a dozen Netflix executives, about to pitch Liftoff, my TV project centered around America’s first six female astronauts as they break through the brotherhood of spaceflight. My stomach has so many butterflies it’s ready to rocket into orbit. I take in the encouraging faces of the other Fellows and our fearless Lab leader, Angela Lee. I got this… I got this.

But! Before I tell you how this verbal venture turned out, let me backtrack to how I got here…

I’ve had two careers in the film industry, so I’ve experienced the full roller coaster ride that comes with it. I’d never survive the ups and downs if I didn’t have a supportive community to bolster my belief in myself and my work. Film Independent is at the top of that list, and participating in their Episodic Lab has been an absolute high of my writing career.

Katherine Ruppe operating camera on ABC sitcom SPIN CITY starring Michael J. Fox

I was born into a wolf-pack of five unruly girls in Michigan’s rugged Upper Peninsula, land of stoic Finns and epic winters. I was a shy, imaginative tomboy who chased adventure. One of those adventures led me to hitchhiking the Australian Outback, where I fell in love with the imagery of the red desert and the mythical Dreamtime stories of the Aboriginal people. The power of story was profound.

This helped spark my first career in cinematography in New York City, where I became one of few women in the International Cinematographers Guild. While working my way up from camera assistant to camera operator on movies and TV, I was fortunate to learn first-hand from mega-talented directors and cinematographers like Jonathan Demme, Spike Lee, Robert Elswit and Ellen Kuras. I worked twice as hard as the guys and constantly had to prove myself. And I loved it. Together with my union sisters, we built a sisterhood of camerawomen that not only survived, but thrived. That’s what connection does.

When I took the daunting leap into writing, I moved to LA to get my MFA in Screenwriting at UCLA, and immediately joined Film Independent, gaining camaraderie with more indie-spirited filmmakers. I threw myself into writing films and TV about intrepid underdogs going after the impossible, kind of like me.

At the Sloan Film Summit in 2022. L-R: Katherine Ruppe, Doron Weber, Sloan Fellows. (Photo: Getty Images)

Cut to the 2020 Episodic Lab. From the time I submitted my application to when I was accepted, the whole world had shut down. My identity as a writer had been overrun by my new role as the warden of my tween daughter’s home schooling. It was my smart, funny daughter who inspired me to write Liftoff, a bold, true story of female empowerment. I wanted to inspire her and all young women to reach for the stars, just as the first six women astronauts did in 1978 as they integrated NASA and made tremendous leaps for humankind. The obstacles they facedand the connections they madereminded me of my own camera journey.

I was especially excited to win the Sloan Foundation Episodic Grant for Liftoff, which rewards projects that create compelling stories about science and technology. I now gained entrée into yet another remarkable community of story-tellers. As part of the grant, Film Independent helped me secure an amazing science advisorthe pioneering Astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, an engineer in the second class of female astronauts.

Back to the Lab. It was intense, invigorating, enlightening. We kicked off with a welcome zoom with past Fellows and executives from Netflix. Each of the writers in my cohort had a fascinating background and a singular script. We bonded during morning mingles and feedback sessions as we performed our pitches… which we did a lot. I still apply those tips as I continue to pitch my original ideas.

A huge highlight was getting feedback on my pitch and pilot script from my incredible Creative Advisor, writer-director Siân Heder, who would soon go on to win an Oscar for CODA (!). I took her insightful advice to go deeper into the relationship between two of my real life astronaut characters, Sally Ride and Judith Resnik, whose connection in life and death form the heart of my series. My pitch also benefited from the keen insights of my Netflix Advisor, Nathan Kitada, as well as Industry Executives from FX, Halfire Entertainment and Searchlight.

But wait, there’s more! We went behind-the-scenes of getting a show off the ground with Janine Sherman-Barrois, EP of Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. Participating in a mock writers room with showrunner Beth Schacter was the perfect lead-up for my later opportunity of shadowing the writer’s room of Away, a Netflix drama helmed by gifted showrunners Andrew Hinderaker and Jessica Goldberg. Watching them break story gave me further confidence in my ability to contribute to a writer’s room, and their leadership style will influence my own room one day!

Back to my culminating pitch with Netflix, where it all came together. Feeling the spirit of my brave lady astronauts, I boldly launched Liftoff into the ether. I was over the moon when I received kudos from Peter Friedlander, the VP of Original Series. And I’m even more grateful for the community I gained from the Lab, one that carries over to today. So… if you have a project you’re passionate about, reach for the stars and apply now!

Film Independent Artist Development programs promote unique independent voices by helping filmmakers create and advance new work through Project Involve; Filmmaker Labs (Directing, Documentary, Episodic, Producing and Screenwriting); Fast Track finance market and Fiscal Sponsorship, as well as through grants and awards that provide over one million dollars annually to visual storytellers. 

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(Header: America’s First Six Female Astronauts)

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