Interview (Part 5): 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 5, Kristen shares what her experience was winning the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting:

Scott: What were your expectations for “Last Days of Winter” when you submitted it to the Nicholl?
Kristen: I knew that it could be controversial, given where it takes place and the fact that I am a white woman writing this story. I wasn’t sure if anybody would really want to make it, honestly. It’s a dark story and she’s a dark, complicated character. I wasn’t sure if people were really ready for a female antihero who does something like this.
I think people are more accepting of male characters who do that kind of thing. I wasn’t sure if they would accept a female character who does that. I just kept writing it, because once I got to a certain point, I was like, “I may as well just finish this. I was shocked, shocked that I won the Nicholl..
Scott: Let’s rewind that history a little bit. You finish the script. You had always intended to submit it to the Nicholl.
Kristen: I usually will submit to a few different screenwriting contests, just to see what will happen. The Nicholl, actually, I hadn’t really entered it before. I don’t know why I decided to do it this time. I think I just saw the deadline and I was like, “Yeah, let me try it,” really having not really any expectations going into it at all.
Scott: You’re getting these expectations saying you made it to the quarterfinals, the semifinals, and so on. Describe that process.
Kristen: It was crazy. It’s the quarterfinals. I’m like, “OK,” and then the semifinals, I was like, “Oh, interesting.” Then once I hit the top 10 I was like, “What?” That was a big moment of just being like, “Oh my. Oh wow.” It just felt real, suddenly, out of nowhere.
Yeah. It’s pretty crazy. I think I had clicked on some blog post earlier on, and it was something like “The Top 12 Screenwriting Contests That You Should Enter.” I had read them and of course, the number one was Nicholl. I had entered a few of them, including the Nicholl.
I had Googled, what’s the process, because I hadn’t even really read that much about what happens if you win a Nicholl or what the process is as you advance, because I just was thinking I probably wouldn’t. Then suddenly I’m googling, “What happens when you reach the top 10 or the final?” I’m reading about other former winners and stuff. It was crazy and exciting.
Scott: Then you’re in LA.
Kristen: Then I’m suddenly in LA. Yeah.
Scott: That was quite a week?
Kristen: Yes. It was amazing. They really treat you really well, and you feel like a star for a week. It’s an interesting adjustment, because I think as a writer, a lot of writers are more introverted by nature. I know I am. To be the center of attention for a week…It’s definitely a new feeling. [laughs]
But it was really cool. It was great. It was a whirlwind.
Scott: You bonded with your cohorts, your fellow winners?
Kristen: Yes. Yep. They’re a very great group of people. Super‑talented and yeah, it’s a unique bond you have with somebody else who won the Nicholl, because it’s such a unique experience to talk to somebody who gets it.
Scott: What’s the status on the script now?
Kristen: While I was out there my goal was to get representation, which I did. I was doing some notes of theirs and we’re going to be going out with it at the beginning of January. I am going to be coming back out to LA at the end of January to do some meetings.
Scott: Would you consider moving to LA?
Kristen: I wouldn’t rule it out. I would never say never. It wouldn’t be my top choice, just because we are so rooted here right now, especially with the kids. But if an amazing opportunity came along, I would definitely be open to it, for sure.
Scott: There are screenwriters who don’t live in LA who do quite fine.
Kristen: Yeah. That’s cool. I’ve heard mixed things. Some people told me, “No, you really need to be out here.” Other people said, “As long as you’re willing to come out a few times a year, you can make it work.” For now I’m going to try to make it work and we’ll see what happens.
Scott: If you want to write TV, I think that it is the case. You do need to relocate to LA. But if you’re a feature film writer, while it’s probably advantageous to be out there, it’s certainly possible to carve out a career while not living in LA.
Congratulations on that. Terrific script. Really enjoyed reading it. Let’s move to some craft questions if you wouldn’t mind here.
Kristen: Sure.
Scott: How do you come up with story ideas?
Kristen: Going back to that train ride and even before the train when I was on the subway, there’s something about moving. There’s something about that where I’m able to zone out and think of different ideas. That’s really where I get most of my ideas.
Scott: Are they concepts? Characters? Both?
Kristen: It’ll usually be a scene. I’ll come up with a scene. A lot of it can be music‑driven too. I’ll listen to music in the car or on the train. It’ll invoke a feeling that I’m able to create a scene around. If I get really attached to this scene, then I expand from there into a fuller story.
Scott: I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea of high‑concept. How important do you think your experience of having a strong story concept ‑‑ how important is it to have a strong story concept in terms of a script’s viability? Like, “female hit woman”.
Kristen: I think it’s definitely very helpful if you have a strong one. Because I’ve had scripts that are more nuanced and harder to explain. They’re definitely harder to sell people on. This one I think the logline grabbed a lot of people. I had a lot of interest. I think that makes a big difference.

Tomorrow in Part 6, Kristen provides advice for writers trying to break into the business.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, 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.