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 2 of our interview, we dig into Ashleigh’s creative process relative to her big spec script “Somacell”:
Scott: Let’s move to your script “Somacell” which made the 2012 Black List. How many scripts do you think you wrote before you got to “Somacell?”
Ashleigh: At least a dozen. And no one will ever see those. The TV pilot that I wrote was the first thing I really felt comfortable showing to people and really putting out there as a sample of my work. “Somacell” was the first feature I wrote after that. It took a long time to get to that place where I felt ready to share my work. Because you only get one chance to make an impression.
Scott: Safe to say, though, if you hadn’t written those 12 scripts which won’t see the light of day, you wouldn’t have developed the chops to write “Somacell?”
Ashleigh: Oh, absolutely. I feel like, hopefully I got a little bit better with each one, and I definitely learned a lot with each one, especially in terms of just establishing a voice and figuring out what types of stories I like to tell, what types of stories I’m good at telling, that sort of thing. I couldn’t have done “Somacell” without doing all of those other terrible, terrible scripts.
Scott: I think I read something that you said in an interview that basically quantity leads to quality. Do you remember saying that?
Ashleigh: That sounds like something I would say. [laughter] I think writing multiple projects, trying out new things, developing as many stories as possible, helped me establish a voice, rather than, say, focusing on a single opus that I was going to constantly tweak for years and years until I got it right. For me that feels a little bit counterproductive.
I’m always of the opinion that I’m going to try something and see if it works out, and if it doesn’t I’m going to move on to the next thing and see if that works out. For me, I think it’s just been helpful in terms of keeping a steady pace and always having something to work on, and always making sure that I am working, if that makes sense.
Scott: Absolutely. Particularly if you’re working in the realm of TV, but especially feature films, you make a living by moving from one project to the next, and so you have to develop those chops to do your best work on one thing and then move on to the next.
Ashleigh: Yes. I think that’s true.
Scott: Here’s a logline for “Somacell”: “A female prison guard finds herself caught in a conspiracy surrounded by inmates who are undergoing a rehabilitation that uses virtual reality.” What was the genesis of that idea?
Ashleigh: I had TV pilots I was getting passed around, and I was originally trying to come up with ideas for other TV shows. I was playing in kind of the “Prison Break” space. Initially this was an idea about a detective who has to go undercover in a prison to extract information from some convict who is there, knowing that he has someone on the outside who can help him get back out quickly. Then at the last second, everything goes wrong, his contact falls through, and suddenly he’s stuck in this prison with all of these very dangerous people, probably some of them that he’s helped put away. That was the initial seed of the idea, and I just kept thinking about it, and it wasn’t weird enough to get me really excited about it. I really like writing sci‑fi, supernatural type of stuff. I couldn’t get into it. I couldn’t get interested. I kept just toying with it, and then I latched onto this idea of virtual reality.
Then very quickly it came together after that, and I realized, “OK, this isn’t a TV idea. This could be a feature idea.” I was looking for a feature gig, because I wanted to get a spec out there. Then of course, I always think stories can be made more interesting if a traditionally male role is converted into a female protagonist.
Scott: Let’s talk about that. I’m sure you’re aware that even with movies like Hanna, Salt, Kill Bill, and the Hunger Games, a preponderance of action, action thriller, sci‑fi movies feature male protagonists. Your lead character, Delaney, is a female. Did it concern you that writing this type of script with a female lead would restrict it’s marketability, given Hollywood’s default mode regarding male leads?
Ashleigh: Yeah, it’s something that I was very aware of, as I was developing, because I’ve heard so many times that you can’t tell the story with a female lead, because the stars just aren’t as bankable as male stars, and that sort of thing. But it’s something that I feel strongly about personally.
I feel like you can layer even greater emotional depth in a female character maybe a little more easily than a male character. It’s something that I wanted to try. I wanted to put it out there and just see what the response would be, and then if I ever had to get to that point where someone was like, “We want to make your movie. If your protagonist is a guy,” I would cross that bridge when I got to it.
Scott: Hopefully projects like yours will turn the tide on this thing so that we can have much more interesting, diverse lead characters in movies.
Ashleigh: I’m hoping. I feel like it’s something that’s happening, maybe not as quickly as it could be, but I would love to be a part of that shift, if possible.
Tomorrow in Part 3, we delve into some key themes and dynamics in “Somacell” including rehabilitation, conspiracy theories and the heroine’s journey.
For Part 1 of the series, go here.
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.