NYFA Screenwriting Faculty: Interview with Nunzio DeFilippis

January 20, 2023

The purpose of a writer is to elicit emotion. For Nunzio DeFilippis, Chair of Screenwriting and Dean of Faculty at NYFA’s Los Angeles campus, a story hasn’t served its purpose until it’s connected with those experiencing it. That’s when the power of storytelling truly comes to life and makes all the blood, sweat, and tears poured into a piece worth it. During his decades-long career as a writer of everything from TV series to screenplays to comic books, Nunzio has learned to focus his storytelling on that moment when the words meet the audience and become something else entirely. 

He now shares that learning with the students of NYFA’s screenwriting program so that future Hollywood screenwriters know not to just build a story but to tell one.

NYFA Chair of Screenwriting, Dean of Faculty (Los Angeles), Nunzio DeFilippis

Nunzio DeFilippis

After receiving his MFA in Screenwriting from USC, Nunzio has enjoyed a long and varied career both on his own and with his wife/writing partner Christina Weir. They served as producers and writers on the HBO series Arli$$ and wrote for the Disney Channel’s wildly popular Kim Possible series. With his partner, he’s written for comics like New X-Men, Adventures of Superman, Batman Confidential, and Dragon Age, to name a few, and created comic franchises Bad Medicine, The Amy Devlin Mysteries, and Frenemy of the State, which are in development as either TV series of feature films at NBC, E! and Universal Pictures, respectively. Nunzio and his wife also have feature projects optioned at Hollywood Pictures, Process Media, and Humble Journey films while also developing a video game with Sony and a TV movie at Oxygen.

We spoke to him about his career, the importance of feedback and collaboration, and his first career passion – going to space.

NYFA: How did you first get interested in screenwriting?

ND: I always had an interest in writing, even when I was young. I think it was sparked by my older brother staging comedy shows for the family. I was only an actor in those, and a lot of the material he provided came from other sources – sketches from Carol Burnett’s show, bits from Abbott & Costello. I wanted to try new things, but also it made me grow up with a love of entertaining people. When I was in the fifth grade, I believe, I started writing my own stuff. Not for the shows, but short stories. I had a love of movies that exploded with the first Star Wars (it came out when I was 7), so even as I wrote my short stories, I pictured them on the big screen and sometimes on TV.

Still, when I went to High School, I went to the Bronx High School of Science. I was very much torn between two worlds – the world of science and the world of storytelling from my youth. My big goal in terms of science was to go to space. And then I decided I wanted to write, but I still wanted to go to space. And Christa McAuliffe was going to space as a teacher, so I thought the future would involve non-astronauts in space. When the Challenger exploded, I knew civilians in space weren’t going to happen, so I knew I needed to make a choice. I chose writing then, knowing I’d never make it to space.

In college, I thought about acting and writing, but I took a class on screenwriting and also founded a comedy troupe. The class convinced me that screenplay was my format of choice.  And the troupe convinced me that I no longer could see myself on stage. So I stuck to writing, and I focused on screenwriting.

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NYFA: What have been your favorite projects/productions to work on to date?

ND: Even though my wife/writing partner Christina Weir and I were way older than the target demographic, we both loved the show Kim Possible. We asked our agent to look into it, and suddenly we were pitching episode ideas to them. That experience – asking and having it happen so quickly – is something that rarely happens unless you’re very successful, so it’s a prized memory. But we didn’t do a whole lot with Kim Possible, so there are other projects that are nearer and dearer to my heart.

We created an English Language Manga named Amazing Agent Luna. It ran for 13 volumes, one of the longest-running English Language Manga of its time. And we even did a spin-off/prequel manga. That was a situation where we created a world, and characters, that we love to this day, and we were given the time, the space, and the creative freedom to really do everything we wanted with those characters. That is probably my favorite project.

We also recently worked on comics that tied into the Dragon Age videogame world of Thedas, and that was a great experience too. 

NYFA: Tell us about your time at NYFA.

ND: I started at NYFA Los Angeles in 2010 and started by teaching in the short-term (8-week) and one-year programs. I guess I made a good impression because, not too long afterward, I ended up on a few thesis committees, and a couple of the thesis students started coming to me for feedback on other projects and on their thesis beyond my work as a thesis reader. This must have made a good impression on the Chair because before long, I started teaching in the MFA program and eventually became a Thesis instructor.

I was younger then, and had a ton of energy, and would teach as much as I would be offered, and between that and my thesis work, I became a big voice in the department. In a few years, I went full-time and started doing all of the curriculum planning for the department. A few years later, I was made Chair of the Department.

After a few years as Chair, the school asked me to step in as Interim Dean of Faculty. If it stopped being an Interim position, they assumed I’d step away from my Chair duties, but I love the Department too much and decided to take the new post and keep on serving as Chair, even after my role as Dean stopped being a temporary position. And those are the roles I serve now.

NYFA: What are your favorite courses to teach?

ND: Thesis is my baby. I love working with students for multiple semesters on the same project.  When it goes wrong – when a student struggles or hates their project, it can be a lot. But there’s a thrill to helping them through that and helping them rediscover their love of their project. The class also teaches so much about collaboration and professionalism, and I’m just proud of the way the school and the department have built a thesis process that far exceeds what I got in graduate school.

I also have a soft spot for Genre Studies. It’s been rebuilt a few times, and I’ve played a role in each rebuild, first as a teacher, then as a Chair. And each time, it gets more fun as a class.

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NYFA: How would your students describe your teaching style/methods?

ND: Depends on which one you ask, I think. I pride myself of being someone who pushes the students to write the best version of what they want to write rather than tell them what to write. But I also lean heavy into the idea that we (as screenwriters) will very rarely get to decide everything about our projects. I want students to get excited about working with other people’s thoughts and feedback. If they view that interaction as a way to create better stories, they’ll do better in the industry. But more important, they’ll be happier in it. So my teaching style is to make sure they stay happy with what they are writing while stressing to them that it is okay to change your idea – you just need to change it ways that allow you to find new joy in it.

NYFA: What are your favorite aspects of the film community in Los Angeles?

ND: The entire city seems attuned to storytelling sometimes. Sometimes it feels like when you’re at a Starbucks, there’s at least three people working on a script – you, the person next to you, and the barista  And we can mock that – trust me, I do all the time.

But at its core, that’s a beautiful thing. For creative people, a city where many of the people you’ll encounter are thinking about story, about character, about plot, about theme…?  That’s amazing. In a lot of places, finding someone as interested in storytelling as you are becomes a defining struggle. Who can you talk to?  Who will understand the choices you make to pursue your craft? Out here, it’s much easier to find friends who understand, and maybe even find collaborators.

NYFA: Who do you believe have been some of the most significant individuals in screenwriting?

ND: There are some writers that every screenwriter should check out, but each student/writer’s taste may vary, so I’m always very reluctant to say “if you don’t do a deep dive into this person, you’ll never succeed.”

I can talk about favorites of mine, but I’ll probably stay away from creating a specific “canon.”  Even in the classes we teach where we discuss the great screenplays, the syllabus varies from teacher to teacher.

NYFA: What are some of your favorite screenplays?

ND: Yikes  I know I said in the last question that I’m more comfortable with saying my favorites than I am with listing writers of significance, but you then ask me that and I want to dance around it too.

Instead, I’ll do a speed round:

Searching for Bobby Fischer by Steven Zaillian. A simple story, perfectly told

My Neighbor Totoro – by Hayao Miyazaki  Brilliant and charming.

When Harry Met Sally – by Nora Ephron. The pinnacle of rom-com storytelling.

Sneakers – by Phil Alden Robinson, Lawrence Lasker, and Walter Parkes. A swiss watch precision instrument that somehow came from a writing committee.

His Girl Friday – by Charles Lederer, with uncredited help from Ben Hecht who co-wrote the play (The Front Page) on which it was based. Maybe the funniest movie of all time.

Silverado – by Lawrence & Mark Kasdan. Just a perfect pastiche of Western storytelling tropes, done with complete affection for the form.

Those are off the top of my head.  There are more, and I’ll kick myself later for leaving them off.

NYFA: What advice would you give a prospective student looking to get started in screenwriting?

ND: Remember that we are storytellers, not story builders. Our task is not to build a story but to tell it, and that makes the audience more important than us. Once we internalize that thought, it makes a lot of the prevailing wisdom work better. People say you have to love what you write, or no one else will. This is true. But if you forget the role of the audience, then you will build the story only for yourself and end up happy if you’re the only one who loves it.

We write to make others love our stories the way we hopefully do. It is absolutely true that if you hate your story, you won’t write it well enough for others to love it. But always remember that loving your story is a means towards a larger end – and that larger end is to make an audience feel. Make them laugh, make them cry, make them think, help them escape… whatever the goal is, it has to be aimed outward.

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