Interview: Ashleigh Powell (2012 Black List) — Part 1

March 25th, 2013 by

Ashleigh Powell hit it big in 2012 when she sold her dystopian thriller “Somacell” to Warner Bros, officially marking her entry into the ranks of professional screenwriter.

Today in Part 1 of our interview, we delve into Ashleigh’s path to Hollywood:

Scott:  When did you catch the movie bug?

Ashleigh:  I grew up watching movies in my family…that was just something we did. I have a younger sister, and my mom used to show us all of the musicals, from back in the day. Like Camelot, and West Side Story, and Carousel, and all of those things. I grew up thinking that was normal, and every kid had that frame of reference. It turns out, that’s not the case.

But I also grew up with Star Wars, and Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park, which was a huge, formative movie, in my childhood years…so I’ve always been a big fan.

Scott:  I believe you went to college in Virginia?

Ashleigh:  I did, yeah…I’m born and raised in Virginia. I went to James Madison University.

Scott:  Is that where you developed an interest in screenwriting?

Ashleigh:  It is, yeah…I had been writing stories, pretty much since the second grade, and they were short stories, and prose, and fiction…that sort of thing. I wrote a novel in high school, and a novel in college, and no one will ever see either of those, because they were just terrible. I was an English major in college. I took the one screenwriting class that was offered, as part of the creative writing curriculum. Because we didn’t really have a film program up there at JMU.

I just fell in love…I fell in love with the structure of it, and I think what drew me to it was…because before, I had spent two years each, just getting that first draft, of each of these novels, and they were hundreds of pages…it was exhausting.

The idea that you have to tell this complete story in 120 pages or less, and follow this very definitive structure…it was just this moment of epiphany for me, where I was like yes, this sounds like something much more manageable. So that’s how it all came together for me.

Scott:  So you take that one class in college. What were some of the resources you found along the way that you used to learn the craft?

Ashleigh:  I took a UCLA Extension online class on script coverage after I graduated because I knew that I wanted to move out here. I wanted to get a job in the industry. And that class actually taught me so much about structure and just the craft of screenwriting, because we had to read a bunch of scripts and break them down and discuss why certain things worked or certain things didn’t, and that was really helpful. And then apart from that it was just a matter of seeing what resources I could find on line, what I could check out from the library or that sort of thing. And then once I moved out here and I became an assistant at a production company, I read so many scripts and that was immensely helpful too. Especially reading a ton of bad scripts and learning what not to do, that was a great resource.

Scott:  How did you segue to Hollywood and get that gig as an assistant?

Ashleigh:  Before I moved out there, I was working this soul crushing corporate cubicle job, saving up money, writing in my free time and taking that coverage class so I could have examples of coverage. And I was trying to apply for internships and very quickly realizing that you have to actually be in LA in order to get interviewed for those things. You can’t get them preemptively. So I just made the leap. I moved across country with my then fiancé now husband and was able to get a couple of internships right off the bat which was great. Then I followed that up with my first paying job out here as a script assistant on the “Doctor Phil” show, which was just insane. It was very cool showing up to work every day on the Paramount lot and feeling like I was really in the middle of Hollywood and everything that was happening.

On my summer hiatus from the show I got a job as a reader for a production company, and I stuck around until a desk opened up so I could become an  executive assistant.

Scott:  If you’re working as an executive assistant, 80 hours a week is probably the norm. It’s stressful, hectic. How’d you manage to find time to focus on your writing?

Ashleigh:  Oh, yeah, it was insane. It was a crazy amount of hours. What worked for me is, because I’m a morning person, I would wake up really early every morning. I would wake up at 5:00 a.m. I would go to my computer and sit down and I would write for two hours or something before I had to start getting ready for my day. That way, no matter what else happened during the day, I would always feel some sense of accomplishment, because at least I got my writing done. I got that out of the way, and I could just now go about my regular business.

Scott:  So you did script coverage. What are some of the key lessons you remember from all those scripts you analyzed?

Ashleigh:  Oh, man. Maybe the biggest lesson was just making sure your story is interesting and has an audience, because there are some scripts, no matter how well executed they are, it’s just, the story doesn’t feel like one that’s going to sell, that’s going to feel captivating to enough people to actually get it made. I think part of it has to be a certain taste level, if that makes sense. What else? Figuring out what point of view to tell the story from, who your main character should be, which storyline or storylines you should be following, where to start your story, where to start the scene. I think you always want to start as late into a scene as possible, and then get out as quickly as possible. When you read these 10‑page scenes that are just talking heads and straight dialogue, it’s a pretty big wakeup call for what not to do.

Scott:  When aspiring screenwriters ask me about screenplay competitions, I tell them about the Nicholl Fellowship or the Austin Film Festival, and that’s pretty much it. But you used another screenplay competition to get representation.

Ashleigh:  I did. I used Tracking B. It was something that I came across as an assistant. What was great about it, what really set it apart, at least it in my mind was, they weren’t offering any kind of cash prize or anything like that, but all of the judges in that competition were up‑and‑coming agents, managers, young executives. So they were people who were actively looking for new writers and new voices. That seemed really important to me. I wrote a pilot script for ‑‑ they have an annual TV pilot competition as well as a feature competition ‑‑ that got to be a finalist, and one of the judges was Daniel Vang at Benderspink, who said, “How would you like a manager?” It was great. I highly recommend that competition.

Scott:  Isn’t that interesting that you wrote a TV pilot, and that’s what got you your manager, and then you were able to segue into feature films. It’s kind of a thing nowadays because agents and managers can tell if someone can write based on an original pilot as well as a spec feature.

Ashleigh:  I think that’s true. I think especially these days there’s a big push for writers who try to do both film and TV, because why not get into as much as possible, and TV is such a rich landscape these days and in some cases might even be easier to break into than features. I think also, writing a TV pilot is such an interesting thing, because first of all you have to tell a complete story, but then you also have to show that you have an engine for a larger story, a larger mythology. The fact that you have to write toward act breaks, where you have a climax or a cliffhanger every certain amount of pages, I think that can really be helpful in showcasing, this is a person who understands pacing, this is a person who understands conflict, that sort of thing, in a way that maybe is a little bit more difficult in features.

Tomorrow in Part 2, we dig into Ashleigh’s creative process relative to her big spec script “Somacell”.

Please stop by comments to thank Ashleigh and ask any questions you may have.

Ashleigh is repped by the Gersh Agency and BenderSpink.

You may follow Ashleigh on Twitter: @SecretEnemyAsh.

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