Interview (Part 6): 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 6, Kristen provides advice for writers trying to break into the business:
Scott: How about prep writing? You said you like to do a lot of your outlining when you’re on that commuter train ride?
Kristen: To me outlining is big. It’s big, because once I get to the writing process, if I’m having trouble for some reason or another, if I’m not feeling particularly creative that day, I have my outline to kick me in the butt and keep me going.
Because I’ll just move from scene to scene. Even if what I’m writing is not that great, I’ll just be like, “OK, well, what’s next,” and I’ll write it anyway. Then I’ll come back, and I’ll rewrite it and make it better. It’s the thing that keeps me going.
Scott: You have a scene‑by‑scene outline by the time you commit to Fade In?
Kristen: Pretty much, yeah.
Scott: How do you develop characters?
Kristen: Definitely the main character and maybe one other character will come to me at the beginning. I’ll have an idea of who I want them to be. But some of the other characters will start off just being serviceable, like I need somebody to fill a certain role in the movie.
Then I’ll have to come back, and I actively am trying to be like, “How can I make this character interesting, or different? What’s a different take I can do on this character that’s different than what you’ve seen before?” I do try to work that in to my characters.
Scott: Do you do biographies or interviews with the characters? How do you crack into them?
Kristen: I’ll write little back stories of them, yes. Usually I’ll just jot it in my notebook. I’ll write their name and just who they are, their personality traits, where they grew up, who their parents are.
Some of the characters obviously are more detailed than others, but my main character, I could probably write a novella about them, [laughs] their back story, that doesn’t really even go into the script, really. But it just informs who they are.
Scott: Yeah, but even in your script, the I guess you’d call them secondary character, the mom, January’s mom, she’s got that one great speech, that monologue about she and her husbands, how they stayed together. You obviously give attention to that old adage, “There are no unimportant characters.”
Kristen: It’s tough in a script like this, because there are so many characters. It’s hard to make them all really stand out, but I try my best to make them authentic and different. I try to make them different.
Scott: Dialogue, I think maybe this would, working on a show like “The First 48 Hours”, you’ve got all that content that you’ve got to craft together and weave into a narrative. But you’re probably hearing all this great dialogue from people in different environments. Does that help you in terms of writing dialogue yourself?
Kristen: Yes, definitely. Again, especially in the interrogation scenes and things like that. The banter between detective and…that’s definitely stuff that I picked up watching…You just listen when you’re a writer and you just try to write that dialogue as best as you can.
Scott: How about theme? Are you one of those people who wants to start off with a central theme or themes, or important themes in the story, or do you find them along the way as you’re writing your story?
Kristen: Yes, themes are pretty big and those usually come early on too. It can evolve as I’m writing it and added things might come in. But for this one, the feminist aspect of the women coming together at the end, I knew that I wanted that early on. This whole bad guy theme I wanted that early on, so yeah, I do think about themes early on.
Scott: When you’re writing a scene, do you have any specific goals in mind?
Kristen: Scenes? I try to always be moving the story forward. When I come back to edit, if there’s a scene that’s not really doing that, then I try to get rid of it. I always try to really end on a strong note too. I think ending a scene can be tricky, [laughs] so I pay particular attention to how you end it, whether it’s a line of dialogue or an action or whatever. I think about that a lot.
Scott: Story structure, do you have a paradigm that you use, or you just intuit your way through it?
Kristen: I think loosely about the three‑act structure. But I tend to be a little more loose with it than some other people. But I know about that 30‑page mark. I try to be in that range. I try to hit the benchmark.
Scott: I like to ask people, “What’s your single best excuse not to write?” You just really don’t feel like writing. Do you have a great excuse for that?
Kristen: Oh. Yeah, my kids. [laughs]
Scott: Three young kids. That’s a good one.
Kristen: Yeah, “I’m tired. My kids were…Didn’t sleep last night.” [laughs] Yeah, I have lots of excuses to not write. Actually, leading up to this Nicholl win, I really took my time in writing, because I had no pressure.
But now that I’ve won, I do feel like I need to capitalize on the moment. It creates a little more pressure, because I feel like I really should be moving on to the next thing and creating more content. Now it’s a little bit more like my excuses…I just have to beat them back. [laughs] I can’t let it take over.
Scott: Eventually, you’ll be moving into that whole territory, hopefully, where you’re stacking projects…
Scott: …where you’re cracking a story, you’re writing one, you’re rewriting another.
Scott: What do you love most about writing?
Kristen: Oh. I don’t know. For me it’s almost like daydreaming, and I love daydreaming. I love going into this other world. You kind of become the character as you’re thinking about it. A character like January, who’s so confident and strong ‑‑ to feel that way momentarily while you’re imagining her…It’s just really cool.
Scott: 5 or 10 years, ideal world, the whole thing just lays out for you in terms of the screenwriting and whatnot, what does it look like for you?
Kristen: Ideally, I will be writing full‑time. I’d like to do some TV. I have some TV ideas, scripted TV ideas, and some feature film scripts. A mix of both, hopefully this, “Last Days of Winter,” will be on its way to being made.
Scott: Finally, what advice can you offer to aspiring screenwriters about learning the craft and breaking into the business?
Kristen: My advice would be to just keep doing it. Just keep writing and don’t get fixated in any one project for too long. Write your project. Get your feedback, rewrite it, and then send it out.
If you’re not getting a lot of interest, move on and write your next thing. Just keep doing it until you get something that hits, because the practice is everything. Practicing and learning the storytelling as you go is everything.
Scott: It’s more like, “Write more stories rather than just spending 12 months on one script.”
Kristen: Oh, yes, definitely. Yes, because you’re going to wind up getting really frustrated. Even if you have something that people are interested in, the next question is always, “What else do you have?”
They always want to know what you have. It’s only to your benefit. The more stuff that you can write, it’ll just work out for you, better. That’s really the way that you improve, is by continuing to do it. Like in anything else, practice makes perfect.
For Part 1 of the interview, go here.
Part 2, here.
Part 3, here.
Part 4, here.
Part 5, 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.