Q&As

Q&A with NYFA Screenwriting Alum Miguel Ángel on Switching Careers and His Award-Winning Script ‘The Pink House’

After spending years in his career as a journalist, Spanish native Miguel Ángel Parra realized it was time to make his dreams come true and make the jump from journalist to screenwriter. He then enrolled in the 8-Week Screenwriting program at NYFA where he wrote his screenplay for The Pink House, which has since gone on to win screenplay contests in the Madrid International Film Festival (2020), the LGBTQ Toronto  Film Festival (2020), the All Genre Screenplay Contest (sponsored by Amazon, 2020), and become a semi-finalist in the Nashville International Film Festival (2020). 

NYFA was able to catch up with the Screenwriting alum and discuss his successful script and what this journey has meant for him as a writer and creator to have other people recognize his work and to make such a huge career move. 

NYFA screenwriting alum Miguel Ángel

New York Film Academy (NYFA): Tell us a bit more about yourself. What first got you interested in screenwriting?

Miguel Ángel Parra (MP): I always wanted to be a journalist and I always knew that I would focus on the world of information and communication. I started my career as a journalist in 1997 working in a newspaper in my hometown, Jaén, Spain. I worked in different newspapers for 13 years. Then, somehow, I got tired of writing about reality and started writing fiction. I felt that I had a lot of stories to tell so I started taking writing classes. In 2010, I quit my job and went back to study at university. I got my Master’s in Scriptwriting in Seville, where I have lived since 2003. There have been a lot of voices that have been silenced across history, and I felt that it was time to make people listen to them.

NYFA: What made you want to study at NYFA? Is there anything specific you have learned that you have carried with you since you completed your program?

MP: New York is my favourite city in the world. I had visited the city several times as a tourist but I wanted to live there for some time. In January 2019, I lost my job, so I thought to myself: “This is the right time to make your dream come true.” Then I thought that it would be perfect if I could improve my writing skills learning from the best. I have a lot of friends and colleagues from Spain who studied at NYFA and I have always heard good things about the school. So I chose the 8-Week Screenwriting program and applied for it. The day I got an email from NYFA saying I got in was one of the happiest days in my life. 

I learned a lot there, especially from instructor Dennis Green, my script writing teacher. He showed me the importance of the structure of a script, very useful techniques, and how to write better dialogues. Studying at NYFA helped me a lot in the scripts I have written since then. 

NYFA: Was The Pink House the first screenplay you had written? 

MP: The Pink House is my first feature film script and I wrote it in English! When I came back to Spain, I translated it into Spanish and rewrote it several times. During the quarantine, I finished it and translated into English again in order to be able to submit to international competitions. I have also written some short film scripts. One of them, Espich, was shot in 2014. 

Last summer, right after coming back to Spain, I wrote another short film which was shot this August called The Eternal Angels, which won a prize at a national contest last year. Set in the XVIIth century, it tells the story of the famous Spanish painter Murillo and his wife, who lost their first three kids in the plague that devastated Seville in 1647. 

NYFA: Can you tell us more about the story behind The Pink House?

MP: The Pink House is a story that needs to be told. It is basically about finding a home. It’s a comedy on the surface, but underneath there is a story about abandonment; the abandonment suffered by LGBTI seniors. The young activists who fought for the LGBT rights in the late 70s in Spain are nowadays men and women in their 70s and 8os and most of them don’t have a home to live in, as they were rejected by their families or have lost their partner. 

In my country, we lived 40 years of a dictatorship, with a hard repression on these people, so I felt that I HAD to thank them for their fight somehow, because thanks to them we have the rights we have right now.

NYFA screenwriting alum Miguel Ángel on set for ‘The Eternal Angels’

NYFA: What do you hope audiences feel after reading your script for The Pink House?

MP: I hope the audience, especially the younger generation, realize that we have rights and freedoms because someone fought for them. Things haven’t always been like this. Some people had to fight and suffer for us to live in a free world.

NYFA: How does it feel to have this story receive the notoriety that it already has?

MP: I am a bit overwhelmed. I submitted the script to a few festivals some time ago and the verdicts and decisions are happening all at once. Being my first feature film script, it is quite exciting to see that people (and jurys) like it. It’s been an honor to see The Pink House selected at the Nashville Film Festival Screenwriting Competition and reaching the semifinals, being one of the Best Unproduced Scripts at Madrid International Film Festival, or seeing my script published and on sale on Amazon thanks to the All Genre Screenplay Contest. I never imagined something like this would happen. 

NYFA: Do you have any other upcoming projects coming up?

MP: My short film The Eternal Angels was shot in August and it will probably premiere at the Seville European Film Festival in November. Besides that, I wrote a play that we hope still opens in January and I also wrote a TV pilot called The Golden Boys, as a renewed and gay version of the popular TV show The Golden Girls. There is a production company that showed interest in it so I hope it could be a reality very soon.

NYFA: Any advice to other screenwriters out there?

MP: I’m not good at giving advice but I would say something that worked for me: Never think you know everything and never stop studying, reading, and learning.

New York Film Academy would like to thank Screenwriting alum Miguel Ángel Parra for taking the time to share his journey on writing his first feature film script and the importance of telling the stories of those who have been silent for a long time. NYFA looks forward to seeing what is next from Parra and wishes him the best on his upcoming short film The Eternal Angels.

Q&A with New York Film Academy (NYFA) Screenwriting Student Jacob McFadden

New York Film Academy (NYFA) Screenwriting student Jacob McFadden is a military veteran with many talents. McFadden has studied acting, music, and now studying screenwriting at NYFA’s Burbank-based campus. On top of all that, McFadden has also published a book on soul scales in jazz music.

Jacob McFadden

NYFA spoke with McFadden about the book, which is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other bookstores worldwide:

New York Film Academy (NYFA): First, can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from, and what brought you to New York Film Academy?

Jacob McFadden (JM): I’m originally from San Antonio, Texas, and what brought me to New York Film Academy was that one day I was twirling my thumbs at work, and I asked myself what is the next step in my life is going to be… and lo and behold film school popped in my head. Next, I started researching film schools and NYFA popped up. Since NYFA has a veterans program, it was perfect because I can use my GI Bill to pay for school and live in LA.

NYFA: Why have you decided to focus on screenwriting?

JM: I decided to focus on screenwriting because I want to act in the movies that write. I feel that taking the 1-Year Screenwriting conservatory will give me the opportunity to hone my script writing skills and learn about the business of screenwriting. I also want to enter film festivals. 

NYFA: Can you tell us about your book The Hexatonic Soul Scale

JM: My book The Hexatonic Soul Scale is about a scale that novice jazz musicians–or any level of jazz musicians for that matter–can use to create soulful solos. My book also talks about mastering the art of circular breathing. This isn’t a long-winded book either, because I don’t want to waste the reader’s time by rehashing a lot of material that’s already out.

NYFA: What inspired you to make The Hexatonic Soul Scale?

JM: The inspiration to make The Hexatonic Soul Scale came from experimentation during one of my piano practice sessions. After I made the discovery, I decided to write a book about it since I’ve never written a book before. 

Jacob McFadden Hexatonic Soul Scale

New York Film Academy thanks Screenwriting student Jacob McFadden for taking the time to speak to us about his book. The Hexatonic Soul Scale is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other bookstores worldwide. 

Q&A With New York Film Academy (NYFA) Screenwriting Alum Lena Murisier

New York Film Academy (NYFA) Screenwriting alum Lena Murisier has been very busy since graduating last fall. The Swiss-born writer has been pitching her television series, Bonnie & Bonnie, as well working on multiple projects including short films, webseries, and features.

Murisier originally attended the 4-Week Filmmaking workshop at NYFA before enrolling in the 1-Year Screenwriting conservatory. New York Film Academy spoke with Lena Murisier about her projects, her writing process, and her advice for people thinking about film school:

Lena Murisier

New York Film Academy (NYFA): First, can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from, and what brought you to New York Film Academy?

Lena Murisier (LM): I’m from Switzerland, and speak and write in four languages. Back in Switzerland, I was an account manager in an advertising agency. Great clients, great projects, great pay. I really liked the work but I always felt like something was missing. I’m a storyteller and you can’t run away from that call. I used my storytelling skills a lot in the advertising agency, but ended up feeling limited as I was a manager more than a creative. NYFA came to my city to present the school. I went. It spoke to me. I applied. Within two months, I quit my job and boarded a plane to LA.

NYFA: Why have you decided to focus on screenwriting?

LM: I’ve been a storyteller all my life. I would create my own stories to fall asleep at night. I would write novels when I was a young teenager. I would get excited when my older brother got writing assignments at school so I could ghost write for him (Is it too late to charge for that?). It’s always been in my DNA. It has taken me some time to understand that this is a career. Where I’m from, most people don’t know what a script is. No one really realizes that behind a movie or TV show there are hours of writing and hundreds of scripts. Two years ago, I found out what a screenwriter is. I found out what a showrunner is.

NYFA: Can you tell us about any of the projects you are currently pitching or working on?

LM: Sure thing! I graduated in September 2019 and have been really busy since then. I’m currently pitching a TV drama titled Bonnie & Bonnie, a female driven Bonnie & Clyde I wrote. I’m sitting in rooms I’ve dreamed of, talking about cast and ideas for the series. It’s really exciting! I love collaborating and deeply believe it takes a village to make a TV show. Next to pitching the show, I’ve been hired to write and develop an indie feature that will enter production late 2020. It’s a sports drama about second chances, family, and boxing. When the filmmaker who came up with the idea asked me to write the script I couldn’t say no. I’ve been boxing since childhood so it speaks to me, and at the core of the movie is a relationship we aren’t used to seeing on screen.

NYFA: What kind of films do you prefer writing? What kind of themes do you like to explore?

LM: As a writer I love to question things. I always do. I like to explore the human brain–not what someone’s doing, but why. All my characters are deeply imperfect. They’re strong, they’re skilled, they’re inspiring, but deeply imperfect. I don’t really believe in right or wrong. I think there’s just “why.” Why someone is doing what they’re doing. All my writing is character driven. I believe it all comes from the characters. And even in my most dramatic work, it’s through my characters that I explore comedy and irony. Most of my content is LGBTQ and diverse because it is the world I know and my surroundings. 

NYFA: What other projects are you working on or do you plan to work on?

LM: While I was in the room for Bonnie & Bonnie, I’ve been asked to pitch a feature too. I talked about a dramatic comedy I wrote during my time at NYFA. Very character driven, female-driven, an imperfect lead who’s trying to do what she believes is right in a very judgmental society. They requested it immediately. I’m now working on it. In the months to come, I will continue writing several pilots. I love writing in general, but TV is what I love most. I’m also planning on shooting more projects in 2020–short films and probably a webseries. It’s a great way to get people to read what’s attached to the short/webseries because usually people like to watch things more than read them.

Aside from writing, I’m assisting the executive producer on an Emmy-nominated show. I get to sit in the room and learn how a season is built, learn the process and be around people I admire. It’s like going back to film school but being paid doing it.

NYFA: What did you learn at NYFA that you applied directly to your work as a writer?

LM: One of the biggest things is outlining. Before NYFA, I used to be the type of writer that would just “jump in” with zero plan and no idea where I was going. This has lead to some amazing first pages but that’s also how I almost every time got stuck in Act Two and never got to Fade Out. Now, I’m outlining my projects but I’m also learning how to let myself get away from the outline, let my characters take me on their journey and tell me their story. Another big thing I learned is to write constantly. Not just write when I feel like it but to treat it like a job, because it is my job. Through NYFA, I got so much practice at writing, respecting deadlines–I’m now a really fast writer and do write constantly.

NYFA: What advice would you give to students just starting out at NYFA?

LM: Can I give advice for more than just the ones starting out? If you’re reading this and thinking of applying for a long-term program but aren’t sure, consider starting with a 4-Week or 8-Week workshop. Before I did 1-Year Screenwriting, I did NYFA’s 4-Week Filmmaking. I got to make four short films, gain experience on set, learn about cameras, direct actors. I gained experience and got to try out the school. I then applied to the longer program in screenwriting as writing is what I prefer.

If you’re reading this post and are a current NYFA student: work hard, respect the deadlines, go to as many events as you can, use all the great offers NYFA has and its membership discounts, get consultations with teachers you connect with, network with your classmates and other people in school. Create a team around you that you believe in and that believes in you. That’s what will get you further in this industry and they’re also the only ones that can really understand what you’re going through right now. They’re your support system. If you’ve just started, you now have one, two, three years to be doing only writing/acting/filmmaking/producing. Enjoy it! It’s amazing. You’re in a safe environment, you’re here to learn and grow as an artist.

NYFA: Anything I missed you’d like to speak on?

LM: In film school you feel safe, and then when you’re out there, it’s the “real world”. Don’t forget that you’ll always be a NYFA alumni. You still have a support system. You’ll always be welcome there. Work hard. We’re in a generation where it’s never been that easy to get yourself work. I’ve opened doors I never thought I possibly could without representation. Use social media, do your research, be cool, don’t be creepy, don’t be an a**hole and have excellent work to show them. No one is your enemy. They look for new voices. If they like being around you, if you work hard and if you have writing samples to back it up, they’re always happy to discover new talents. Trust the process and keep an open heart. Some days you might get the best news and the day after, you’re struggling with rent. It’s a rollercoaster but remember you deserve to be here and tell your story. Hold on, work hard, be kind, trust the process and put yourself out there. And the most important thing… Don’t forget to have fun. Promise?

New York Film Academy thanks Screenwriting alum Lena Murisier for taking the time to share her advice and experiences with us.

A Q&A with NYFA's Screenwriting Chairs

In honor of International Screenwriter’s Day a few weeks ago, resident NYFA reporter Joelle Smith sat down with the New York Film Academy Screenwriting School’s three program chairs to discuss what their craft meant for them, their hopes for the future, and what students are bringing to the table. Here, read our dialogue with Melanie Williams Oram in New York City, and Nuncio DeFilippis and Adam Finer in Los Angles

NYFA: What makes the craft of screenwriting unique from all other forms of writing?

Adam Finer: Screenwriting is the blueprint for a uniquely visual form of storytelling. Without that strong blueprint, nothing gets built. Motion pictures, television series and web series all require storytellers who can visualize the world and create three-dimensional characters that drive a compelling and engaging story that can be told on-screen.    

Nunzio DeFilippis: Two things make it unique. The first is that a finished script is not a finished product. It’s only meant to guide in the creation of a different finished product (a film, or TV episode).

NYFA: What inspired you to become a screenwriter?

AF: I have been working with screenwriters for nearly 20 years now, helping writers develop their material, unearth characters, discover story worlds and find their personal voices. Those are some of the things that drive me. My mission is to help creative artists, and especially screenwriters, uncover the tools and skills to achieve their goals and find success in their chosen fields.  

NDF: Watching “Star Wars.” When I saw that movie (I was seven when it came out), I knew I wanted to write movies.  I did have some variation — thinking I might act as well as write — but I knew from seven years old that I wanted to write, and it had to be movies.

Melanie Williams Oram: I am a screenwriter because I love to tell stories. I decided to pursue a career in film and television because I am committed to telling stories that feature women, people of color, and other minorities and that celebrate the universality in diverse experiences. 

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NYFA: What do you see in your students today that is new in the field of screenwriting?

AF: Our department has a strong emphasis on finding the right medium for your story. It’s one of the reasons that our degree students learn about New Media or Transmedia storytelling. Our students are being prepared for the changes in the industry and are learning to create stories in the medium that best supports them.  

NDF: Younger writers don’t view the storytelling world in the same limited way that my generation did. When I went to film school, none of my classmates wanted to take classes on TV. It was beneath them, as they wrote films and only films.  

Students today are drawn to TV, but even better, see themselves as able to jump between the two forms. There is some resistance to other forms of visual storytelling (like web series and comic books) at first, but only from some of them.  

Many students are not only able to jump between film and TV, but they’re ready to tackle these new forms. I love their open-minded approach, and I think it serves them well.

MWO: The proliferation of digital media makes it easier for my current students to get their stories in front of an audience. In our screenwriting classes at NYFA we push students to develop unique characters that serve as the starting point to creating stories that are entertaining and that leave a powerful impact on their audiences

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NYFA: What’s one thing everyone should know before starting a screenplay?

AF: Understanding screenplay structure and format are essential for people in the industry to be willing to read your scripts.  

NDF: What they want the story to be about. Why are they writing it? Why is it important to them, and why are they the person to write this story?  

If you don’t know the answers to those two questions, you will burn out halfway through.  And the answers can’t just be “because it’s cool” or “because it’s popular right now.”  

If you don’t know what you’re writing about, and if you don’t connect with it, the work of creating a feature film script (or the entire world of a TV pilot) will be too much.

MWO: Conquering the demon of the blank page is the toughest thing about being a writer. Slay your blank page dragons by refusing to self-edit. Just let the ideas from your head flow onto the page. No judgments.

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NYFA: What makes a great screenplay?

AF: There are so many elements that go into a great screenplay. Well-developed and defined characters. A unique, yet relatable world (and unique doesn’t have to mean another planet, it can be a local sports story but from a perspective that’s unique). Strong dialogue that feels believable for the characters. The writer’s voice coming through in a story that they felt needed to be told.  

NDF: Characters who want something, and who face real stakes if they fail to achieve it. The greatest mistake I see in students and young writers is creating characters who are apathetic and want nothing. That’s a very hard character to hang a story around.  

Characters who want to be left alone have to pursue that goal as vigorously as other characters pursue their goals.  And even if they do, their stories risk a lack of connection to the audience.  What we connect to as audiences is desire.

Evil characters can still be compelling if the things they desire resonate with us.  Characters we have nothing in common with can generate empathy if we have something in common with what they want or need.  

Always build your story around this basic template:  “Someone wants something and something or someone gets in their way.” Then add consequences for failing to get that something (and not always physical ones, emotional ones will do) and you’ll have a story.

MWO: People connect to stories because they are able to identify with protagonists. There’s a common misconception in Hollywood that people can only identify with film characters who look like them. I believe that films with strong stories that explore human themes can connect people across racial and gender lines. Good stories make audiences forget that they are watching a film. Good stories allow audiences to become completely immersed in the struggles and the triumphs of the protagonist. 

Thank you to our Screenwriting School department chairs for sharing their insights with the New York Film Academy community! To learn more about the Scriptwriting track at NYFA click here.

Q&A With Screenwriting Grad Nick Oktaras

Nick Oktaras

Photo provided by Nick Oktaras

NYFA: Hi Nick, would you mind telling us a bit about your background and what drew you towards screenwriting? Why did you decide to study screenwriting at NYFA?

NICK OKTARAS: My family always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do. Which was great! except for one thing; I never knew what I wanted to do. My biggest fear growing up was that I didn’t want to be 80, lying in my death-bed and with no stories to tell my grandkids. So… I did everything.

Bartender, carpet steam-cleaner, ventilation cleaner, pool table felt-brusher, door-to-door salesperson, customer service consultant, admission’s manager, Army Reservist, chili-powder factory worker; the list goes on. But, I never stayed in one job for too long. I just got bored real easily, mainly because I ran out of exciting stories to tell from the workplace. So, after killing my boredom from traveling all over the world, Thailand, Malaysia, Canada, Alaska, and Hong Kong, I just took a step back and thought to myself;

“What didn’t I get bored with when I was 10-years old?” Answer: Watching movies.

First things first. Make sure. So, I enrolled into an ‘Introduction To Screenwriting’ short course at RMIT in Melbourne. It was only once a week for 3 months. Hell, that was longer than half of my previous jobs so, I moved on to phase 2; Enroll into an intensive program that covers all aspects of filmmaking. I didn’t know what I was exactly looking for, but I knew what I wasn’t looking for. I wasn’t looking to spend my next 3 years chasing a bachelors degree with 70% of the classes being theory based.

After an exhausting amount of research, I was ecstatic to learn that NYFA was planning to open their first campus in Australia. In 2012, me and 11 others, enrolled into NYFA Australia’s inaugural filmmaking program where we each wrote and directed 8 short films. Collectively we worked on over 70 projects. I loved the intensity, the long hours and the sleepless nights, but my biggest appreciation went to the hard work everyone put into telling a story.

So, after saving enough money from working at NYFA Australia as their Admission’s Manager, I made the move to LA and enrolled in NYFA LA’s One Year Screenwriting Program.

NYFA: Your screenplay This Old Man has been doing exceptionally well at film festivals this year, including being a finalist at the 2014 Atlanta Film Festival Screenplay Contest and the Best Feature Gold Prize at the Beverly Hills Screenplay Contest. Would you mind telling us a bit about how you came up with the story for the script and fine-tuned it into the award winning script it is today? Why do you think this script in particular has been met with such success?

NO: It was inspired by a class exercise in Liz Werner’s Story Generation. Each week we were given a certain method into finding inspiration to tell a story and present a one page treatment. The methods ranged from newspaper articles, social media, observing strangers, myths & fairytales etc. I came up with the story of This Old Man after an inspiration exercise which was an excursion to LACMA. There was a painting of a weathered Old Man sitting on a bench in open field. So, my love of coming-of age tales kicked in and Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World popped in my head. It’s about a kidnapped boy who strikes up a friendship with his captor, played by Kevin Costner. (Spoilers; Costner dies in an open field).

So I took the Old Man in the painting and asked myself;

“Who is he waiting for at the bench?” The little boy.

Why?

To replace him as Death.

So after few this-makes-no-sense treatments, (the first treatment had a thriller road-trip tone involving a Neo-Nazi), I rewrote the treatment to represent the family-friendly script it is today.

So, under the great guidance of Matt Harry in Writing the Feature Film II, and 2 rewrites after graduation with the help of fellow NYFA Alumni, Lucy Luna, This Old Man was born.

This Old Man is a tale of a mature 10-year old boy who finds his dead brother’s mysterious scrapbook and teams up with the only person that could help him decipher it; a delusional old man who thinks he’s ‘Death.’

To be honest, I’m still a little overwhelmed by how well it’s been received in screenplay contests thus far. But if I have to guess, I think it may have to do with genre. When I interned as a script-reader there were so many scripts that would come in that were raw-and gritty, with messed up characters and in an even more messed up world. Maybe it was nice to change it up a little for the poor script reader interning at the contest. But honestly, I have no idea.

NYFA: What is one lesson in particular you learned while as a student at NYFA that you still find yourself applying to your current work?

NO: I never presented a vomit draft in class. I would vomit a scene in my head and get to work when writing it. If you’re hoping to receive feedback and you present your vomit pages, then you’re going to receive feedback on what you already know doesn’t work or can be fixed. So, why waste time.

Always present your best draft. Even if it’s bad, as long as it’s the best that you could do.

NYFA: In addition to your work as a screenwriter, you’ve also worked in a variety of crew positions and as an actor. How has working in the various different filmmaking positions helped you to develop as a writer? What insight have you gained working as a filmmaker that you don’t think you might have gained if you had stuck solely to writing?

NO: You really start to appreciate the hard work that goes with every role, and just as important, whether the script is shootable. Can the DP set up the shots with out spending millions of dollars? Should I rewrite the scene? How many actors are needed? Should I lose a character? Is there enough breathing room in the script for the DP, director, and actors to input their craft and feel part of the process? All these elements are crucial for independent filmmaking.

Working as a filmmaker, and then moving to writing, you really do learn to take away all those unnecessary details that you find in a script. Take away the color of the door being blue. Location manager will find a green door and production design will paint it red.

NYFA: What kind of stories, themes, and/or genres are you attracted to in particular? What themes do you find yourself returning to often?

NO: I enjoy watching raw-and gritty dramas with characters that would blend in today’s society and nobody would even notice them. It makes you question all those people you didn’t say hi to on the way to work in the morning.

I love coming-of age tales. I just love that nostalgic feeling you get when you relate the scene to something you went through growing up. Either you went through a coming-of-age years ago or you’re going through it right now.

NYFA: How do you feel NYFA’s philosophy of “learning by doing” helped you to prepare for your career outside of NYFA?

NO: I got my first job in the film industry at NYFA’s graduation screening. An actor, who happened to audition for my final film but didn’t get the part, was in the audience. He leaned over during the credits and gave me his card. From that point on, I’ve worked as a writer, director, researcher, runner, boom operator, casting director’s assistant, 2nd AD, 3rd AD, and all because I knew exactly what I was doing from when I was a student at NYFA.

NYFA: How has NYFA continued to help you in your journey as a screenwriter? How have the Alumni Workshops helped you to develop your craft as a writer?

NO: NYFA caters for all aspects of filmmaking which is great because since graduation, fellow filmmaking students have made contact for potential collaborations in the future. The Alumni workshops are just as intense as the NYFA programs themselves. The only difference, is that nobody’s chasing you to hand in a particular assignment. It’s entirely up to you now.

NYFA: Where would you ideally like to see your career in ten years? What would your dream writing gig be like?

NO: Ideally, in 10 years, I would like to be an established writer with at least one produced film and a few more optioned.

Wow! My dream writing gig would have to be ‘the-go-to-guy’ for rewrites. The ones they call on for when there’s one week of shooting left and the entire film needs to be rewritten based on the footage they already have. Is that too much to ask? Ha.

NYFA: Do you have any pieces of advice for current students or aspiring screenwriter on how to get their work seen and noticed?

NO: Entering comps can be expensive so try and find the ones that offer some sort of feedback as part of their entry fee. Also, look out for prizes. Not necessarily the cash prizes, but the prize of having a talent agent reading your material is worth more than some of the cash prizes out there.

As for the script itself, just impress the reader. It doesn’t matter if it’s for representation, a screenplay contest or your colleague at the printer, find your voice and make it a page turner.

Q&A With Screenwriting Grad Lucy Luna

Screenwriter Lucy Luna

Photo provided by Lucy Luna.

NYFA: Hi Lucy, would you mind telling us a bit about your background and what drew you towards screenwriting? Why did you decide to study screenwriting at NYFA?

LUCY LUNA: I started writing very young. I wrote a lot of short stories, my mom noticed they all had a twist toward the end, she thought I had style, but all moms love what their kids do. So I read them years later and I thought they were awful, but not bad for a seven or ten-year-old kid. Then I started blogging and using social media, tweeting micro stories or poems and I started getting good responses from people.

I knew I wanted to write movies when I was fourteen or fifteen. I spent hours watching The Making-Of from a lot of movies and I found magical the fact that hundreds of people were running around working on a movie that someone wrote. That’s what I wanted. I had a screenwriting class at the degree I was studying, and once that class finished I dropped out, I made a couple of short films and a movie, while taking screenwriting courses everywhere and reading screenwriting books. But that movie never passed the editing room, and those short films were missing something. I knew I needed to learn and improve but I never found a school that satisfied my needs so I started looking outside my country. After a lot of research, I chose NYFA.

NYFA: You are originally from Morelia, Mexico. What opportunities are there in terms of education for aspiring filmmakers in your country? How do you find your nationality impacting your role as a storyteller, if at all?

LL: I think there’s a reason why you see people like Del Toro, Cuarón or Iñárritu working here and not in Mexico. I love my country, but it’s going through a painful situation on so many levels. In terms or art, I can make a huge list of talented people that are stuck because of the system. Our government couldn’t care less about anything, much less about any artistic field. Every president reduces the budget that is supposed to go to art. The only thing they do is tweet proudly whenever someone wins an Oscar.

I know only one good film school that actually has the tools to provide students the education they need. Even though, the admission process is tough. The classes have a small number of students, which I think is great for teaching and learning purposes, but then, the talented people that don’t get in, they don’t have any other options to go to.

I do love Mexican films though. Days of Grace is one of my favorites and I bet nobody’s heard of it. Beyond Cuarón or Iñárritu, we also have a lot of directors winning Cannes or Sundance such as Gerardo Naranjo, Michel Franco, Amat Escalante and Everardo Gout.

Mexico is going through a lot of issues. I feel my only way to help is to write about it. I’m currently developing a script in Spanish inspired by the disappearance of 43 students last year. It was such a hazy situation that it shook our entire nation.

NYFA: What themes, topics, or genres do you find yourself most drawn to? What are some overarching themes that you’ve found tend to pop up across your work?

LL: Most of my stories beg the question “what’s wrong and what’s right? And who establishes that?” my characters are always breaking rules, for good reasons. And I always have female leads. As a writer, I would say I’m most drawn to thrillers and light dramas.

NYFA: What aspect of NYFA’s curriculum did you find the most conducive to helping you to grow and develop as a writer?

LL: I read a lot of reviews and they all mostly agreed in NYFA having a great screenwriting department, I also did some research on the alumni, they are selling pilots, etc. Once the course started the teachers and their classes spoke for themselves. I do think NYFA has a brilliant screenwriting department. All the professors are working writers but more than that, by their feedback and guidance you immediately know their knowledge in this field is huge. I don’t think I can’t measure how much I learned last year.

NYFA: You recently won Best Drama at the Sundance Table Read My Screenplay for your screenplay Sophie & Valentina. What have you learned by submitting and being accepted to festivals and what are some pieces of advice you would give aspiring screenwriters in terms of creating screenplays that will perform well at festivals? Why do you think Sophie & Valentina has been particularly well-received?

LL: I think the journey starts by being honest with yourself. We might all love screenwriting, which is why we move to LA or invest in a school like NYFA, but it doesn’t hurt to ask: “am I ready to get my material out there? Do I have the necessary tools? Do I need more training?” and as harsh as it may sound… “Am I talented enough? Or do I need to work harder than the ones who are?” And no matter what the answers to these questions are, if you really love writing… Don’t quit.

Sophie & Valentina is a story I’m very proud of, I think it’s a beautiful concept, but when I graduated it wasn’t ready, so I sat down with Nicholas Oktaras, we destroyed each other’s scripts and did another rewrite based on that. We’ve both won a Screenwriting Competition each, with the third draft of our scripts. I asked myself, “How did that happen?” I still polish and read my script every time there’s a competition I’m interested in. So I think the answer is… I had a story I was passionate about and I worked hard. I knew the journey wasn’t over after graduating and also; I didn’t take NYFA as a school but as the place where my career would start. I never skipped a class, always handed in pages and never took the advice that most of the teachers gave: “Just vomit, just write, it’s only a first draft” I made sure I was writing the best possible pages according to the tools and time I had back then. Of course it wasn’t perfect, it was a first draft, but it was better than if I just wrote for the sake of writing for class. I did my best because I trusted in my story and I knew I wanted to get it out there. I didn’t treat it as an exercise to pass a course. I never used excuses, and mostly, I enjoyed every word and every page I wrote.

And of course, if somewhere out there Sophie & Valentina’s third draft was well-received is not only because I worked hard but also because I had a brilliant mentor, Matt Harry, and classmates that always had notes to give. I knew exactly what needed work.

NYFA: Since graduating from the One-Year Screenwriting Conservatory, you’ve participated in the Alumni Workshop at NYFA. How has this helped you to develop your skills as a screenwriter and has it helped you to forge any new working relationships?

LL: Once you graduate, the Alumni Class gives the best students the opportunity to write in a workshop with a professor. I love it, all my classmates have a high screenwriting level, we help each other, and the workshop moves fast. It’s not a class, it’s being inside a writers room. This helps because there’s the freedom to work at your own pacing and with your own method.

NYFA: Not being from the USA yourself and studying with a very international student body at NYFA, how did the international nature of NYFA help you to develop as a writer? Did you find yourself exposed to certain world views or approaches to screenwriting that you wouldn’t have encountered otherwise and how did those help shape you as a writer.

LL: I felt very comfortable. I think there were only two Americans in my class. There are people from all around the globe and I love that. If there’s anything I learned is that stories are universal, and it doesn’t matter where you’re coming from. That’s the beauty of being a writer.

NYFA: You began writing horror stories around the time when you were 10. Do you find yourself still drawn to the genre and/or do you feel that female horror writers are able to bring something new to the horror genre? If you are not still interested in horror, what genres have you found yourself particularly drawn to as a screenwriter? What kind of projects do you think are the most fun for you?

LL: I love horror and I still want o write a horror one day. I don’t think it’s a matter of gender, the horror genre has been suffering for a while, there are some terrible movies out there but we’ve had some great ones too. I think it is one of the genres where it’s easier to fall into clichés. So it’s definitely a challenge.

At the moment I don’t have any particular idea for a horror script, but I am developing a couple of thrillers. I find thrillers very exciting to write. But I also enjoy light dramas or what we call ‘dramedies’.

NYFA: Do you have any parting words of advice for aspiring screenwriters and what the best practices are for realizing one’s goals as a screenwriter?

LL: I don’t want to say work hard, study, read scripts, write everyday, etc. I think when someone loves screenwriting; nobody needs to tell them what to do. I think they’ll be guided by their passion, and everything else comes naturally. I also think our love for screenwriting is what gives us strength to find patience; it gives us courage and humility. So I would say, if you love this, be honest, acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, work on them, and don’t quit

Find A Story You Believe In: Q&A With Screenwriting Grad And Filmmaker Jon Mann

Filmmaker Jon Mann

Photo provided by Jon Mann.

NYFA: Hi Jon, would you mind giving us a bit about your background and what drew you to NYFA’s screenwriting program?

Jon Mann: Hi! Thanks for having me. I’m from Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada originally, and grew up in a family of readers and movie-goers so I’ve always had an interest in film and have been writing for as far back as I can remember. The NYFA has such a strong presence in the film industry and their list of alumni speaks for itself. It made perfect sense for me.

NYFA: You received your undergraduate degree in Political Science, but half way through your education, you decided that filmmaking might be the career path for you. How do you see your political science training influencing and helping your documentary filmmaking work and vice versa?

JM: It has definitely helped. One of the major lessons I took from my degree in political science that I have been able to use to help me as a documentary filmmaker is to realize that there are usually, at the very least, two sides to every story. It really gave me an open mind to not just accept headlines I’m seeing on TV or in newspapers as the be-all and end-all. It gave me a glimpse into the contemporary state of the world in different economies, different political systems, why they work, why they don’t work. Studying political science was an exposure to issues and stories that I otherwise wouldn’t have had, and that is now something I aim to do with my own documentaries.
I took a course called “Political Argument” which has been very helpful, too (laughs).

NYFA: You studied screenwriting at NYFA, but work in documentary films. How did you find the screenwriting program helped you as a documentary filmmaker?

JM: Well, I think whether it is a documentary or a feature film, the script and the story will always be the most important thing. Maybe one difference with documentaries is that you need to discover the character arcs, and the midpoint, and the climax, etc. as opposed to feature’s where you write those yourself. But the way you tell the story on screen is the same. It’s all the same equation. It’s all filmmaking and it all starts with a story.

NYFA: Is there one lesson in particular that you learned while at NYFA that you find yourself continuing to apply to your work?

JM: In order to have a good script you need to make your character’s motivation believable. It seems simple but it is so true. That goes for all characters, not necessarily just your protagonist. The best villains have believable motivation as welllook at Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. You almost end up feeling bad for him in the end. Brilliant.

NYFA: In your TEDx talk, you discuss how the characters and story structures of the film Jaws parallel the fact that many social movements—like the organic social movement again the sale of New Brunswick Power you document in your film Project Power—are comprised of seemingly ordinary individuals who band together to fight against the great white shark that is corporate power. Do you think that such films like Jaws can be used to galvanize reluctant activists into standing against seemingly insurmountable power? What other films do you consider illustrate this correlation?

JM: I think you can really make that argument for any film as long as the audience is open to being motivated by a film in that way. One thing I focus on in my Ted Talk is that every time I watch Jaws it has different meaning for me. It means something completely different to me now than it did the first time I saw it as a 4 year old. Since my Ted Talk was published I’ve had a lot of people give me their theory on Jaws and that is what makes the movie so great is that not only is it a scary movie about a shark terrorizing a small-town, is it has all of these great elements under the surface and it means different things to different people.

Harlan County U.S.A. is a great documentary from Barbara Kopple that really magnifies my theory on Jaws in a more obvious light. Gladiator could be used under the same umbrellaa man who is stripped of everything through a socially unjust system takes on the Roman Empire the only way he knows how.

I think the films themselves are important but it comes down to the audience and what they may be going through in a particular time in their lives when they watch them.

NYFA: You worked with a wide network of creative individuals on your Project Power including the New York Times best selling author Raj Patel who also narrated your first film, Drink ‘Em Dry and a number of different musicians and bands from around the world. How do you forge these connections with seemingly disparate collaborators?

JM: I think one thing to remember is that the worst thing someone can say to you is “no.” Which happens a lot. A lot. Some of these requests may seem risky, but they were all calculated. Drink ‘Em Dry is the story of a group of brewery locals who were locked out from work, and during production there were massive protests in Wisconsin opposing legislation which would limit public employee collective bargaining. Dropkick Murphys had played a show in Madison and were right there in the thick of things so we told them about our project and they were excited for the opportunity to be part of the film and be able to lend any help they could to the cause. Steve Earle grew up in a union family, Billy Bragg has been a grassroots political activist punk-rocker for 30 plus years. Raj Patel is the greatest social justice writer on the planet. They all agreed with the subject matter. Although they may seem like disparate collaborators, they all have the same values. I have nothing but great respect for all of them.

NYFA: What is your process for raising funds and marketing your documentary films? What do you consider the best methods for finding financing in the documentary industry, especially for filmmakers who are relatively new voices?

JM: The support I’ve received for the films I have done has been incredible. Much like the collaborators I’ve used on screen, I’ve been lucky enough to have a team off-screen who share the same values and who wanted to see these particular stories told as much as I did.

NYFA: As someone who seems to see documentary film as a potential catalyst for social change, what are some films in particular that you’ve drawn inspiration from and helped you to see the power of community activism?

JM: The first time I watched Bowling for Columbine I was frozen. I felt like I had just been hit by a truck. Inside Job is another film I always end up coming back to. In two very different ways, on two very different issues, those films peel back layers until you see the root of a problem, and it makes you sick to your stomach. They have a way of making you educated and angry, which is the perfect combination for social change.

You don’t need to look any further than Blackfish to see what an impact films have in a community. SeaWorld is losing an uphill battle.

NYFA: Do you have any parting words of advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers who desire to use the medium as a catalyst for social change?

JM: Find a story you believe in. Like a well-written script, if people believe in you, they will be much more willing to listen. When someone says ‘no,’ use it as a learning experience. Why did they say ‘no’ to you? All you can do is try and get better every day. Learn to love the adversity.

It All Starts With The Script: An Interview With Chika Anadu

NYFA: Would you mind telling us a bit about your background and what attracted you to filmmaking?

Chika Anadu: I was born and brought up in Lagos, Nigeria. When I was 16, I went to England to continue my education. My first degree is in Law and Criminology, and my Masters is in Africa: Human and Sustainable Development.

I’ve always loved film, from when I was a child. I always saw things in films that no one else around me saw, even the adults. It’s always been magic to me. But I never considered it as a profession because filmmaking was not a thing in Nigeria then. It’s a classic case of “if you don’t see it, you can’t be it.” In 2006 I was back in Nigeria for my Youth Service (a compulsory governmental work scheme for Nigerian Citizens with University degrees), and I saw the Italian Film Cinema Paradiso, and it was as if a light bulb went on in my head. I knew this was what I should be doing. That it had been staring me in the face, literally, my whole life, and I didn’t see it….

NYFA: Is there a particular lesson that you learned in your NYFA Screenwriting Workshop that you continue to apply to your own work?

CA: When the NYFA came to Nigeria for the first time in February/March 2010 with a slate of 4 week courses, I enrolled in the Screenwriting class (the best decision of my life) instead of the Directing class, even though I knew I wanted to be a director (at the time I had just made 2 short films).

I learned about structure, as it applies to story telling. In class we watched a film every morning, and broke it doing structurally afterwards, and then did practice exercises.   I had seen all but one of these films already, but afterwards I saw them in a new light. We take it for granted when we watch films whose storylines work. We only notice when it doesn’t work.

Using construction analogy, the script is the foundation. If you mess it up, your house/building is sunk. As they say, you can make a bad film out of a good script, but you can’t make a good film out of a bad script.

NYFA: How do you feel that attending a NYFA workshop helped you to develop as a filmmaker?

CA: I learned that it all starts with the script. Get that right, and you have a fighting chance of making a decent film, and in turn making it in this brutal industry.

NYFA: Your films have appeared and done quite well at a number of prestigious festivals including the BFI London Film Festival, the AFI Fest, and Rotterdam Film Fest. What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers to have their films selected for festivals? How important do you find festivals for not only promoting your own work, but also bringing together a community of filmmakers and journalists who might not otherwise know about each others’ work?

CA: I started thinking about festivals when I was writing my script. You need to be realistic about where the type of film you’re making can be programmed, especially if your last name isn’t Coppola.

I think there are four things to think about. What festivals your film could realistically fit into, the festivals’ standing/prestige, their Location, and do they have a competition section for first time feature filmmakers.

The best advice I got about film festivals is to be very careful where I premiere. If you can get into an important film festival, great, but be careful because unless you’re in competition or win something, your film will be lost while everyone is giving attention to the Hollywood indies. And by everyone I mean the reviewers for the main film magazines and the programmers.

So for example, instead of Cannes or Venice or Toronto, you may want to choose the London Film Festival because it is big and is also the main film festival in London, which is a major city with a diverse population, and huge media presence. They also have a competition section for first time filmmakers. Films in competition get press screenings, and a lot of push, which you will need if you don’t have Brad Pitt in your film.   A big festival, if you’re in competition, will likely pay for you to come for the festival, and then you can schmooze. Meet your audience, programmers, producers, media, and best of all, other filmmakers like you. You’ll swap stories with the latter, and feel better because you’ll know that you’re not totally alone in your suffering. You may not love the schmoozing part, but it’s a job hazard and necessary.

If you’re lucky, it kind of falls into place from there. You get reviewed by major film websites/magazines, and other good festivals could start emailing you and asking to program your film. There are no guarantees of course, because there are at least a thousand people with first features freshly in the can. But you might want to find out the contact emails of the programmers for the festivals you think your film would fit. Contact them even before your film is ready, so you can build a kind of relationship with them. In my little experience, I’ve noticed that programmers program the films of filmmakers they know. Good or bad.

NYFA: Following on the above question, you won the Breakthrough Audience award at the AFI Fest last November for your feature film debut B for Boy. How has this award and the recognition that comes with it effected your career?

CA: I got even more emails from other film festivals who wanted to program my film. And more people started following me on Twitter:)

NYFA: B for Boy tackles head-on the gender discrimination women face in Nigeria by telling the story of a pregnant woman who desperately wishes to have a male child. In which ways do you find the themes and narrative in the movie particular to Nigerian culture? And on a larger scale, what does it speak to regarding the way women are perceived and treated by global society?

CA: The two main themes I explore in B for Boy are the uneasy co-existence of modern and traditional culture in Nigeria. A woman is encouraged to get a good education, a great job, but she must conform and get married and have children – at least one of which must be a boy.

The second theme is that these injustices are perpetuated and sustained by other women. The victims become the victimizers, so to speak.

I’m glad you say gender discrimination because that is what it boils down to quite simply, and this is a universal problem. Men and women are under pressure to fit society’s idea of what male is and what female is. The key difference is that all the things a woman should be, sugar, spice and all that’s nice, is bloody hard. A woman is expected to be smart, not too smart though or men won’t think you’re sexy. Be sexy (I hate that word) , but not too sexy or you’ll only be good for being the bit on the side. Be successful, but not too successful or men will feel threatened and you won’t get a husband. The latter was reiterated by a U.S female senator or congresswoman when they were debating the equal pay act (victim becomes the victimizer). Why should there even be a debate about equal pay in the United States of America in 2014? Isn’t that crazy?

It’s like society expects the life of a woman to revolve around how she’s perceived by men. We’re not allowed to indulge in the large spectrum of human emotions, especially if we’re not looking sexy doing it, lest we appear less desirable to men. It’s made a lot of us miserable or irritated. I’m in the latter group, and I’m lucky that in B for Boy I have the medium to show the insanity, and hopefully it starts a debate that will stop it.

NYFA: The Nigerian film industry has grown exponentially in the past decade with Nigerian filmmakers and actors receiving increased attention from the global film community. Do you feel that Nollywood has grown in a positive direction? How has being a Nigerian filmmaker shaped the stories you tell?

CA: I think of Nollywood as a genre, as opposed to the Nigerian film industry as a whole. I really can’t speak for or about Nollywood because I work outside of it. But it has grown exponentially, yes.

As a Nigerian, so far I’ve only told stories about Nigerians because I write my own stuff, and you write what you know, and I know Nigerians. As a budding filmmaker, you’re still discovering you as a storyteller, so I’ve found that in the beginning successful story telling is better achieved the closer to home (the familiar) you stay i.e with regard to the themes in your story, the locations, your characters.

NYFA: What was the inspiration for the fantastic name of your company No Blondes Productions? Does the name hint at a certain philosophy or concept you seek to promote or explore through your film work?

CA: Well, the meaning is two fold. I’m saying no to women being judged, or judging themselves based on their bodies instead of their brains. And no to the western idea of beauty (skinny, blonde, and light or white skinned).

As a filmmaker I seek to question the status quo. “That’s how it is, or how it’s always been”, is not a good enough answer for me.

NYFA: Any parting advice you have to give female filmmakers who are looking to realize their visions on the big screen?

I need advice myself! I’m only just starting my career, but what has made it easier at times is to know that there are other people going through the same challenges as me. So get in touch and stay in touch with other female filmmakers (our journey is different because of our gender, like it or not). And work with other talented women on your crew. If we don’t employ each other, who will?