Programs Tue 1.7.2014

WRITERS ON WRITING: When a Script Won’t Let You Go

For writers who find themselves grappling with the same script year after year after year, it’s always heartening to hear a success story that revolves around a project that’s been more than a decade in the making. This is one of those stories.

Twelve years ago, Barbara Stepansky was accepted into Film Independent’s Directing Lab with a script called Sugar in My Veins. Two months ago, she was named one of the five screenwriters awarded the prestigious 2013 Nicholl Fellowship by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Each year, the Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting recognizes undiscovered talent with $35,000 Fellowships. (Two other Film Independent Fellows, Debra Eisenstadt and Terah Jackson, were selected as 2013 Semi-Finalists.)

Stepansky, a Film Independent Member, was also named to the Black List with the script that tells the story of a forbidden affair between a 14-year-old violin prodigy and her sister’s much older boyfriend.

We talked to her about the power of persistence, and how she mustered the energy to tackle the same story over and over and over again.

How did Sugar in My Veins begin for you?

The project originally went to Film Independent’s Directing Lab in 2002. And then nothing happened with that draft. Honestly, I didn’t think the script was there yet and I didn’t touch it for nine years. I thought I should focus on becoming a director first, so that’s what I did. I went back to grad school and studied film directing at AFI. I was lucky enough to work as a director-for-hire straight out of AFI.

Every once in a while Sugar in My Veins would rear its ugly head and say, ‘Hey are you mature enough yet to rewrite me and get it right?’ And I would say, ‘No screw that. I can’t go back.’ But it wouldn’t let me go.

And then I decided to get back on a regular writing schedule and went to a UCLA master class a couple years ago. In the class I pitched a couple of projects, but everybody responded the best to Sugar. So I thought it maybe was time for me to sit down and finally get it right.

Why did you feel you had to mature before you could get it right?

It’s a love story between a 14-year-old girl and an older guy, and there was a lot of upheaval I was going through in my romantic life myself. Somehow at the time, I didn’t want to deal with it in my writing as well. It wasn’t until I settled down, got married and was in a secure relationship for the last four years that I felt I understood the big picture. Sometimes you don’t see the forest for the trees and that’s what had happened to me. But finally, I saw the forest clearly for the first time.

What was the genesis of the project, prior the Directing Lab?

I first wrote it going through my USC film program. It was a completely different version back then. I think the only thing left standing are the character names. Whatever went through the Lab had the essence but didn’t have the same plot.

It was one of these projects that would not let me go. I think you have to be obsessed to a certain extent, because I did three page 1 rewrites; I literally kept starting from scratch. I’ve learned in my time as a writer to not be precious about my material. If it works, great, it works. If it doesn’t and people keep telling you as much, then you have to be open to reworking it. I don’t expect people to give me solutions but I can’t put out work that’s not ready anymore. I took the notes and sat with them.

How did the Film Independent Directing Lab help you shape the project?

A lot, it was tremendously helpful. We shot one of the core scenes of the script, which didn’t make it into the current draft, but the thing I learned from shooting that scene is that the relationship I had created between the lead characters was working on screen. Like gangbusters. So essentially what the Lab gave me is the confidence that once I had those two people in one room and it was well cast, it was going to work. The tension between them was incredible.

How has your work as a director informed your work as a writer?

One big aspect I’ve learned is establishing an interest or tension early enough in the film. In the first 10 pages, there has to be something that grabs people to make them want to keep reading or watching. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the inciting incident, but there has to be a hook. Every time I screened a film to a test audience, I could almost predict the reaction: “The beginning’s kind of slow.” It drives me crazy, so I’m really trying to avoid that in my own writing.

And I learned a lot from actors and their approach to dialogue. So many times I had actors come up to me and say, “I can’t say this. This piece of dialogue is a mouthful.” I used to get hung up on the way people spoke, trying so hard to get across on page where the character is coming from, and how can you put a whole world and social status into dialogue. I gave that idea up working with actors. It became not so much about how they talk but what they say. It was much more important to focus on what do you want—creating tension in the sense of ‘what is their agenda overall and how does that conflict with the other characters’ agenda?’ Writing with that in mind almost automatically creates its own dialogue.

When did you begin to call yourself a writer?

I’ve been writing since I was 15 so it’s always been a part of me.

Do you ever reread what you wrote as a teenager?

Recently I did. When I was writing Sugar In My Veins (again), I reread a lot of short stories I wrote as a teenager to get back to that teen desperation. There was so much raw talent in that writing and I would just grab whatever little treasure I could find. I used to be kind of nuts as a teenager and now I had become a reasonable, logical adult, so still having all that writing stored and being able to dive back into that mindset was really helpful to the project.

What’s next for Sugar?

The Nicholl Fellowship supports undiscovered talent that hasn’t been writing professionally yet, so when the finalist list goes out to Hollywood, you get a lot of interest from representation. At the time I didn’t have an agent or manager so I was happy to get that interest. I wanted to move up into doing critically acclaimed work.

Whenever I stepped into a room with potential reps, I made it clear that I’m a writer/director. If they thought it might be a good idea that another director gets involved in the project, I politely flat out declined. I can’t hand it over to someone else. I wanted to be very clear that Sugar comes with baggage—with me. And I signed with people who were very supportive of that.

The idea is to find producers, get a cast involved and shoot it. Really, it’s time. I can’t die not having completed this project. It’s been too long already. I feel like I’m that 28 year old virgin who’s made losing her virginity into a much bigger deal than it actually is. I need to get it done and have it be over with.

By Pamela Miller / Website & Grants Manager