Julia Hart’s original screenplay “The Keeping Room” put her on the Black List in 2012. The movie is in pre-production starring Olivia Wilde, Hailee Steinfeld, and Nicole Beharie, directed by Daniel Barber. In addition, Hart’s screenplay “Miss Stevens” recently landed Anna Faris to star and Ellen Page to direct. Plus Hart is adapting the Jamie McGuire novel “Beautiful Disaster” for Warner Bros.
Julia and I had a great one-hour conversation covering a lot of territory. Today in Part 1, Julia discusses her background and how she made her way into screenwriting, and the basis for her decision to write “The Keeping Room”:
Scott: Let’s start with this. You majored in English at Columbia University, then worked as a high school English teacher. Did you see teaching as something you would do as a career or was it something you perceived as a stop along the way?
Julia: I definitely started teaching right out of college because it was very important to me to get a job. At first I thought it would be a compliment to a writing career, but then I ended up falling in love with teaching and I did it for eight years. About two years ago though I started to feel the writing itch again. I ended up quitting my job in June and now I’m writing full‑time.
Scott: Did you learn anything about writing or yourself as a writer through your experiences as a teacher?
Julia: Yes. I think that having to worry about 60 other people all day was really good for me in terms of finding that balance between being lost in my own head as a writer and being able to be a member of a community and not becoming too selfish in the work I was doing. I’m still tutoring for that very reason. I love working with kids and I love having this part of my day that is entirely about someone else and being there for them.
Scott: The English you were teaching, did it involve creative writing?
Julia: It was mostly analytical but I managed to sneak a few creative projects in there and another teacher and I did a unit on American film, which was really [laughs] fun and the kids loved it. We did three films with three short story and poetry components to go along with them. We did “Badlands,” “The Graduate,” and “Shadows” with works by Joyce Carol Oates, Frank O’Hara and J.D. Salinger.
Scott: It probably dovetailed with your growing interest in screenwriting…
Julia: Yeah, [laughs] exactly.
Scott: You come from a film family. Your father, James V. Hart, a screenwriter, has written a number of movies including Contact, August Rush. You describe your path towards screenwriting as being like an “inevitability.” Could you explain what you mean by that?
Julia: My father used to read me screenplays as bedtime stories. So I think it was just something that was always present in my life and something that I was always aware of. There are a lot of people who want to break away from the family business and cut their own paths, but they raised me to deeply love movies. I feel like I’ve always been aware of the craft of screenwriting. I think I was a bit scared because I had seen how there are wild ups and wild downs in this business. There was something really nice about the consistency and certainty of teaching, but ultimately it got me in the end.
Scott: Your dad used to read you screenplays? How cool!
Julia: Hook was my brother’s idea when he was little. My dad always used to love to have us talk through ideas with him. One day he came into my bedroom and said he needed to address the fact that now Hook and Peter are both grown ups and Peter used to be a lot smaller than Hook. I told him to have Peter Pan say, “I remember you being a lot taller,” and then to have Captain Hook say “To a 10‑year‑old, I’m huge.” That line ended up in the movie. And I will never ever forget that feeling. It was an awesome moment.
Scott: I posted that very anecdote on Go Into The Story where your father was talking about how your brother, I guess he was six said, “What if Peter Pan grew up?” That became the genesis of the story, and then your dad mentioned that you were writing some of the best lines for Hook at age nine. What lessons did you take from your experience growing up in a house that was so in love with film and involved in the film business?
Julia: I guess just that you can’t take any measure of success for granted. At the end of the day, it’s a job and you need to treat it like a job, like anything else. I think that that was part of what was so great about being a teacher for me. I’m used to waking up in the morning and going to work and leaving my work behind and going home to my family at the end of the day.
Being older, changing careers at 30, as opposed to starting off trying to do this when I was 22, I think I’m going into it with a greater sense of awareness. Being aware that anything could happen at any time. One day it’ll feel like the best thing in the world, and the next you’ll want to run away screaming. To remember that anything can happen at any time, and that there’s no certainty.
Scott: Is your brother involved in the entertainment business?
Julia: He’s also a writer.
Scott: Wow, that apple falling from tree thing.
Julia: Yeah. [laughs]
Scott: Let’s talk about “The Keeping Room.” What a terrific script. As I understand it, this was your first full‑length screenplay?
Julia: That’s correct. And my husband [Jordan] is a producer. That was the funniest thing. When I told my parents that Jordan and I were getting married they just thought that that was hilarious that after I had tried to avoid the film business I fell in love with a producer. He was a huge influence and support system in terms of me having the courage to take this leap, and we developed and worked on the script together.
Scott: So the kernel was always there, there was that inevitability, but how did that process play out where you really decided, “OK, this is an idea I have, I really want to move in this direction.” Was it a collaborative thing on the part of you and your husband, or did you start with it yourself and then he jumped in at some point in the development process?
Julia: Well, the first thing I wrote was a really bad outline for a TV pilot about teachers.
Scott: Write what you know, right?
Julia: [laughs] And Jordan lovingly told me that it was terrible, and I was definitely a bit discouraged, but I didn’t give up. I’ve always been obsessed with the Civil War, and we have good friends who have a family farm in Georgia that’s a pre‑Civil War farm. And they said the myth that came with the house when they bought it was that there were two Union soldiers buried in the backyard.
I couldn’t get that idea out of my head, and I just started to work on this outline, like these three women and this world just came to me, and I actually sent my husband the outline for, “Keeping Room” the day before I went into the hospital for surgery, I remember sending it to him being like, “If anything should happen to me, do something with this.” And when I got out of surgery he was like, “This is really good. This is the thing that you need to write.”
Scott: OK. So now imagine we’re in the office of “Conventional Wisdoms Productions,” all right? There’s a development executive there, and he’s looking at this story. He’s got the same outline, say, maybe that you sent to your husband. And looking at it through those conventional wisdom Hollywood eyes, he’s saying, “Well, period piece, right, so that equals more expensive, smaller audience. Young people don’t like history, blah, blah, blah. Three female leads. All right, that’s tough, because female leads we all know they’re hard to sell. The protagonists are actually on the ’wrong’ side, the South, and the bad guys are actually on the ‘good’ side, the Union soldiers, and there’s a lot of graphic violence, which, basically, it’s an ‘R’ rated movie and so… why are you doing this to me?!?!” Did you ever at any time put on the conventional wisdom hat? Or did you just say, “Screw it. I really want to write this story. This is important to me.”
Julia: I’ve never been very good at putting on the conventional wisdom hat [laughs], and I think that’s the one piece of advice that I would give to any writers who are thinking of writing a spec is that if you really believe in it despite what conventional wisdom says just write it. If you feel like you have the path to doing it correctly, then you should go for it, because, yeah, like you say, if I told anyone I wanted to write this, they would have told me not to. So I just wrote it.
Scott: You actually jumped into my next question. “The Keeping Room” flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but now the script makes the Black List in 2012, it’s getting produced, it’s got an incredible roster of actors and a talented director. What’s the message you take away from that?
Julia: I think that for me, the goal was to flip all of that on its head, to make a movie that felt exciting, that had female leads, to do a bit of a history lesson in a genre film, that there are ways to balk the system in terms of what you’re not supposed to do. It’s not just an exception, you know? It’s me purposely turning things upside down in order to make it work. It’s not your typical female driven period piece and that intent was with me from the start.
Tomorrow in Part 2, we dig into “The Keeping Room” and how Julia developed the story world and its characters.
Please stop by comments to thank Julia for taking the time for the interview and post any follow-up questions you may have.
Julia is repped by WME and Anonymous Content.