Interview (Part 2): Stephanie Shannon

2013 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting winner and Black List honoree.

Stephanie Shannon not only is one of five recipients of the 2013 Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, she did it with her very first full-length screenplay: “Queen of Hearts.” Beyond that, the script landed on the 2013 Black List. And just last week it was announced that Seth Gordon is going to direct “Life in Rewind”, based on a script Stephanie wrote. A great opportunity to reprise my March 2014 interview with Stephanie.

Today in Part 2, Stephanie discusses how she made a plan to write “Queen of Hearts” for the Nicholl competition deadline… and followed through with it:

Scott: When did you start picking up the screenwriting again in that process? Was it when you went to Los Angeles?
Stephanie: When I got out here I decided I wanted to give it a real shot, because I hadn’t allowed myself to before. Ever since I graduated college I had kind of put it out of my mind as something that I couldn’t realistically do. I was afraid that if I really tried to go for it, I wouldn’t be able to, that I would prove to myself that I couldn’t do it. That was just a fear of mine, I think.
When I got out here I was like, “I’m going to be 28. I need to do it now if I’m going to do it.” I started talking to some friends in the industry who put me in touch with their writer friends. So I started setting up coffees with several TV writers. They were all so gracious to meet with me and give me advice. It was really eye opening to talk to so many people who were my age who had made it as professional writers. I thought, “Wow, this is really possible.”
I made a promise to myself that I would write a screenplay that year and enter the Nicholl. This was around November of last year. I started researching in December. Then I started writing in February.
Scott: Assistant gigs, from everything I’ve heard, a great way to learn the business, but they’re notoriously challenging, especially hours. How did you carve out time to write?
Stephanie: I just became really singularly focused. I was determined I wasn’t going to let another year go by without finishing a feature. I told myself there was no way I was going to miss the Nicholl deadline. I have never been more determined to do anything in my life.
It was a pretty isolating time for me, though. I’d work all day as an assistant, I’d get home at night, and I would write. I’d wake up and work a little in the morning, then go to work. Sometimes I’d just pull out my laptop and write at my desk while answering phones, or in my boss’ office while he was out at lunch. Then on Fridays I would go home after work, and I wouldn’t really reemerge until Monday. I was so into the story that it didn’t feel like I was torturing myself. I was excited, and I looked forward to working on it, which was a really great feeling.
Scott: I’d like to talk to you more in depth about the script, but let’s cover the fun part. You write the script “Queen of Hearts,” and it wins the Nicholl competition. How did you learn you had won? What was that feeling?
Stephanie: It was amazing! They notify you throughout the summer via email saying, “You’ve advanced to the quarter finals. You’ve advanced to the semi-finals.” I tried to put it out of my mind, because I didn’t want to obsess.
What was actually great about my situation was I had given my boss the script to read the day before I submitted it to the competition. As his assistant, I was like, “I’d really appreciate it if you took a look at this. I’m going to turn it into this competition. I’d love to know your thoughts.”
I was really scared to do this because I didn’t want to be that assistant that’s like, “Hey boss, so I’ve got this script…” I was always hesitant to be that person, but I felt like I had worked for him long enough and I really wanted his opinion. I remember the day I gave it to him, I went into his office after he left for the night and noticed that the script wasn’t on his desk. I literally checked the trash. Turns out he had taken it home and read it over the weekend. He was really, really great.
On Monday morning he brought me into his office and told me to shut the door. I literally thought I had done something terrible and was about to be fired. I kept trying to figure out what I had screwed up. He sat down and was like, “I read your script. It’s really good. We’re going to put this out there and get you an agent”. He asked me if I was ready to start my writing career. It was just the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard.
So, because of that, over the summer, while the competition was going on, I signed with CAA and my boss became my manager. I was leaving my assistant desk pretty frequently to go on general meetings around town. I was coming out of a meeting on the Disney lot when I got the call that I was a Finalist. It was just very surreal, to look down at your phone and have a missed called from The Academy (I had the number because I had all my boss’ contacts saved on my phone). I think I said this in my speech — the voicemail was in between like 15 missed called from debt collectors, which I thought was so ironic. It’s just a very surreal moment. You think that there are over 7,000 other people that didn’t get this call. You just feel very, very lucky. I held my breath until a few weeks later. Then they called me that I had won.
I was at work, it was lunchtime. I got the call, and I went into my boss’s office to take it. And they have everyone on speaker phone when they call you: Gale Anne Hurd, the whole Fellowship committee, and all the judges. Eric Roth is on the phone and Robin Swicord, these legendary writers that I’ve spent my life worshipping. It was so amazing to hear those people clapping for you on the phone, one of the best moments of my life, to be recognized by people of that caliber, for my first script, too. It was just incredible. I’ll never forget it.
Stephanie with a super-sized version of Oscar

Tomorrow in Part 3, Stephanie reveals what inspired her to write “Queen of Hearts” and how she worked with the story’s Protagonist Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll.

For Part 1, go here.

Stephanie is repped by CAA and Brillstein Entertainment Partners.

Twitter: @stephshanz.

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