Interview (Part 2): Kristen Gray-Rockmaker, 2017 Nicholl Winner
My 6-part talk with the writer of the script “Last Days of Winter”.
Kristen Gray-Rockmaker wrote the original screenplay “Last Days of Winter” which won a 2017 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Kristen about about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.
Today in Part 2, Kristen reveals what inspired her to write “Last Days of Winter”, how she brought her experience in documentary television to bear on her screenwriting, and crafting the script’s Protagonist.
Scott: Let’s jump to your script, “Last Days of Winter,” which won the Nicholl, 2017 Nicholl. Plot summary:
“When a notorious hit woman from Detroit’s gritty east side takes on one last job before having a baby, she becomes entangled with a crooked homicide detective who wants her to take out his wife.”
What was the inspiration for this story?
Kristen: There were a few things. I really like antiheroes and I was interested in writing one. There have been a lot of, I think, male antihero roles and not so many female ones. I was interested in creating a female antihero. I set it in this world of the crime story because this is the world that I’ve come to know through my job.
We follow homicide investigators, so… I felt like I could credibly write a homicide investigation. We’ve filmed in many cities, and Detroit is one of the cities that we filmed in. I was very moved by the stories that we would see coming out of Detroit while we were there. That served as a large inspiration for the story. I knew I wanted January to be from there and have that be a big part of her character.
Scott: That’s helpful because it’s like, I’m thinking, “Well, here she is, a white woman living in New Jersey.” The protagonist is a black woman in Detroit. “The First 48” bridged that gap.
Scott: Apart from “The First 48”, were there any movies or other TV series which influenced you in terms of tone, plot, or atmosphere?
Kristen: “The Wire” is one of my. It’s one of my favorite series of all time ever. I would say that that’s kind of a bit of an inspiration and a little bit…It’s going to seem incongruous, but Thelma and Louise was actually an inspiration, although that’s a very, very different story.
I really thought that they broke the mold with the way that they depicted those female characters, and I was interested in doing something like that also. I wanted my main character to be bold and badass.
Scott: I don’t want to jump to the script’s ending, but over time, it does become this connection between two and then, ultimately, three women.
Kristen: Right. Yeah. A lot of my scripts lately have taken on some pretty serious feminism undertones, and it’s something that’s important to me, writing unique, strong female characters.
Scott: There does seem to be a kind of energy right now in Hollywood, either a combination of more women writers, or maybe even male writers, featuring female protagonists in feature scripts. Also, a willingness on the part of the studios and production companies, or even an eagerness, to engage this type of material.
Kristen: Even on some of the meetings that I went on when I was out there, I was hearing that a lot, that they’re looking for new female voices, and they’re looking for different kinds of characters, female characters. I think there has been an eye‑opening moment in terms of diversity in Hollywood.
It’s nice to slide in there while this is happening. It’s a good time to be trying to break in, I guess, if you’re a woman.
Scott: Before we get to the characters, which I want to talk about in depth, you made a choice in your script to use voiceover narration. Was that an early creative decision?
Kristen: That opening sequence was one of the first things that I had imagined. Then, the way I tied it in later, that idea came later on, but I knew…I could really picture how I wanted to do the open, with the scenery of Detroit and her talking about the decline of that city.
Scott: It’s sort of like the inverse of Woody Allen in the beginning of Manhattan.
Scott: Let’s talk about January, who is the protagonist of the story. She is a hit women. How would you describe her personality and psychological profile at the beginning of the story?
Kristen: She’s very strong. She’s very guarded. I think she’s doing what she feels like she needs to do to get by and take care of her family. I think she views what she does as a job. It’s just a job. If she doesn’t do it, somebody else is going to do it, so she does it. She does struggle with that a bit, internally, but also, in a strange kind of way, she takes pride in her job.
Not in the thought that she’s killing people, but in the fact that she is successful. She’s very successful in a man’s world. I think she takes a little bit of pride in the respect that she gets from that. And this story is her journey to come to grips with all of that.
It’s really hitting home for her as she’s got this life growing inside her, what it is she’s doing for a living. I think she’s coming to grips with that.
Scott: She’s extremely thorough in her job and how she approaches each case.
Kristen: Yes, She does research, yes. That’s all stuff I’ve seen before in these investigations, contract killers doing homework, and following the people, and taking notes on the people. Yes.
Scott: She’s also got a code of conduct. There are certain things she won’t do.
Kristen: That goes back to her viewing it as a job. To her, the job is that she gets hired to take someone out. The reason that somebody’s being taken out is because they’ve broken a rule. There are these unspoken rules in the drug world. If you rip someone off, or if you take out somebody, or you take over their territory then you know what’s coming.
She’s OK with that kind of stuff, but she doesn’t want to take out anybody that she views as outside of that world,.
Scott: She’s in the same philosophical terrain as “Dexter”, the Showtime series.
Kristen: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Scott: She’s OK with taking out bad guys.
Kristen: Yes, yes. Right, exactly. I think that she kind of has this justification to herself that, yes, that they’re in this world where the normal rules don’t apply and, so, therefore, it’s OK. They did something to deserve what they are getting.
Tomorrow in Part 3, Kristen discusses another key character in her script “Last Days of Winter”, a foil to the story’s Protagonist.
For Part 1 of the interview, go here.
Kristen is repped by The Gotham Group.
For my interviews with 28 other Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting writers, go here.
For my interviews with 53 Black List writers, go here.