Barbara Stepansky’s original screenplay “Sugar in My Veins” not only won the filmmaker a 2013 Nicholl fellowship, it also landed on the 2013 Black List, so I was excited when she agreed to do an interview to see what we could learn from this talented young filmmaker.
Today in Part 6, Barbara talks more about the craft of screenwriting, what it was like learning she had made the 2013 Black List, and what advice she has for aspiring filmmakers:
Scott: What are you thinking about when you’re writing a scene? Do you have specific goals in mind?
Barbara: Normally, when I write scenes, I want to make sure that it drives the plot forward. If it’s just two people talking and we’re revealing character, that’s great, but if it’s not doing something at the end of that scene that makes sense for why the next scene now needs to happen, then it’s not a necessary scene.
Obviously you have your characters, but now you need to actually tell a story with them, and that means need causality. If a scene doesn’t have a cause and effect built into it, it doesn’t make sense to have it. I’m very radical with my scenes. [laughs] You have to make it essential enough that without that scene, the next scene couldn’t exist.
If you’re doing a B- and C-plot, you can plot them around each other and you don’t see the track so clearly, but the tracks are there.
Scott: You talk about the rewriting process, and of course that’s that whole thing. Writing is rewriting. When you finish your draft and you’re faced with the rewrite, are there some keys that you discovered to rewriting a script? If so what are they?
Barbara: There’s no easy solution to rewriting. For me writing the first draft is much easier than going back and rewriting it. You see all your flaws of your first draft, and you actually have to sit down and think about what you did there. Whereas before, you kind of do the vomit draft and you give yourself the liberty of not thinking about it, just to getting it on the page to see what’s going on.
Then the second draft gets much more in depth and it takes longer, because now you’re really thinking. I never had a first draft that was perfect, but I had perfect sixth drafts. First I go back focus on the big picture problems. Then I do the drafts that focus on specific characters or a specific issue.
The script that I just wrote, I took the entire main location out after my first draft because it wasn’t working. It was a big picture rewrite, because I literally had to go into every scene and change everything.
I’m trying to think of techniques of rewriting, but it’s literally just like slave work for me. It’s sitting there and really figuring it out.
Scott: What is your writing process?
Barbara: I write every day apart from weekends. I do treat it a little a job, where you start it in the morning, and then you have lunch and then you write again until I’ve put in a good six to eight hours. I have an office, I work from home. I personally can’t work with complete silence, so I listen to music, sometimes even TV shows running in the background. HDTV is incredibly helpful.
Any binge-watching shows on Netflix, also very helpful. Part of my analytical brain gets distracted to a point where I can be actually more creative, because I’m not double-checking everything.
Scott: How about this: What’s your single best excuse not to write?
Barbara: What’s your single best excuse not to write? There is really no good excuse not to write unless you actually don’t want to be a writer. There is no excuse. Maybe it’s best to figure out early that as nice as it sounds to be a writer, maybe you’re not. Then why waste the time and energy. But if that’s what you want to do, you just have to do it.
Scott: What do you love most about writing?
Barbara: What I love most about writing is when I get into a Zen state of being in the moment with characters, and they suddenly do something I didn’t expect and it’s as if you’re taking dictation. That’s my favorite, when I can get into that zone.
These days, when I have trouble with a character, I’m always say, “She’s not speaking to me.” [laughs] Then I have to try and figure out what it is that’s not working. But I just love when they kind of spout out their opinions.
Scott: What were you doing when you discovered you made the 2013 Black List?
Barbara: I was in Germany and it was already quite late in the evening, when looked down at my iPhone and I noticed I was getting all these new Twitter followers. I couldn’t figure out why. Then I checked my emails and realized what was going on. I don’t think I slept much that night.
Scott: What does it mean to you to make the Black List?
Barbara: Making the Black List is a huge honor. My script made the rounds quite late in the year so I never thought it would be possible. My name is on the same list as Tom McCarthy’s and that’s cool. You’re sharing the space with screenwriters who have worked professionally in the industry, whose work you’ve already admired, and so it’s a wonderful, warm, fuzzy feeling. And now, well, now I just have to do it all over again!
Scott: Where do you see yourself in five to 10 years? In an ideal world, what are you doing?
Barbara: In an ideal world I would have made “Sugar.” I would have moved on to other critically acclaimed movies. As a filmmaker I would like to establish myself as a writer-director. I would like to go to Sundance. I would like to see myself making movies that I admired other filmmakers making in the past.
Any time I walk out of a cinema thinking that, “Wow, I feel like I just read a really good book.” That’s what I want. I want to make those kinds of movies.
Scott: Finally, what advice can you offer to aspiring screenwriters about learning the craft, breaking into Hollywood?
Barbara: Of course you need to do your writing by yourself in a room or coffee shop, but I think what I’ve learned, is that writing in a vacuum for a long period of time isn’t healthy. Especially for screenwriters. I don’t know about novelists. I’ve never written a novel.
I feel like sharing the work with a group or supportive readers has helped me tremendously to not be so precious about the material. It can always be better. People are smart. They give good advice. Generally, they have your best interest at heart. I think you can grow you craft significantly with the help of other people around you.
For Part 1, go here.
Part 2, go here.
Part 3, go here.
Part 4, go here.
Part 5, go here.
Please stop by comments to thank Barbara for taking the time for the interview and post any follow-up questions you may have.
Barbara is repped by ICM Partners and Hertzberg Media.