When you’re embarking on a venture it’s always good to hear from someone who’s been there and done that. So if you want to be a screenwriter, why not talk to an established writer?
One of the sessions at this year’s Austin Film Festival featured an interview with screenwriter Amy Talkington and her agent, talking about their working relationship. It was one of the most informative and interesting panels of the festival. I contacted Amy afterwards and she kindly agreed to answer some questions for this blog about her career to date and life as a working writer in Hollywood.
Amy is a writer and director based in Los Angeles. Originally from Texas, she graduated from Barnard College with a degree in art history and went on to achieve an MFA in film from Columbia University's film division.
Amy's short films "Our Very First Sex Tape" (2003), "The New Arrival" (2000), "Bust" (1999), "Second Skin" (1998) and "Number One Fan" (1997) were selected for numerous distinguished festivals including Sundance. Second Skin earned her the New Line Cinema award for Best Director.
She wrote and directed the feature film, "The Night of the White Pants," released in 2008, which starred Tom Wilkinson, Nick Stahl and Selma Blair.
Amy has written screenplays for several major studios, including Fox 2000, 20th Century Fox, MGM, Summit Entertainment, Disney and New Line Cinema. She penned the remake of the Eighties teen movie "Valley Girl" for MGM and the remake of "Private Benjamin" for New Line Cinema with Anna Faris set to star. Most recently she worked on “Kicked, Bitten and Scratched” for Summit Entertainment and sold an original pitch to Disney, which she is currently writing.
In TV, Amy wrote "Avalon High" for the Disney Channel (for which she won a 2010 WGA award) and the ABC family movie "Brave New Girl" which starred Virginia Madsen and Lindsay Haun.
While Amy’s primary focus has been on traditional narratives for film and television, she is also accomplished as an interactive, new media filmmaker, where she strives to experiment with new kinds of storytelling. She co-wrote and directed the world’s first 360-degree movie, “The New Arrival,” for which The New York Times named her “one of the few women to break out on the internet.” She also wrote and directed "Confessions," an interactive web project which was released on atomfilms.com in August, 2007.
Thanks for giving this interview! Can you give some details about how your interest in film developed and in particular your interest in writing for film?
In my teens, I was a painter but I also loved to write fiction and I loved music. I wasn’t quite sure how to choose between them. But then, during college, I saw some inspiring art films and suddenly realized that writing and directing film would encompass all the things I things I loved.
You wrote and directed five short movies at the start of your career – how did these develop? How did you approach the process of making what were (presumably!) low budget films?
I made my first two shorts while I was a graduate student in the Film Division at Columbia University. The film school setting provides a community to help develop and make a short. But, from the very first film, I strived to make the films as professional as possible and reached out to the independent film community in New York for my key crew and cast. I always encourage students not to settle and to reach for that composer or cinematographer or actor who you admire. You never know, if they like your script and they’re available, they might work on your film!
Would you regard Second Skin as having been your “big break” and can you talk a little about how it arrived at New Line?
Yes, “Second Skin” was my entrée into both the independent film community and Hollywood. I traveled with that film to many film festivals and, through those festivals, got to know many people in the NYC indie scene. And then, when Columbia screened it in Los Angeles (because I’d won the award for “Best Director”), a young agent from United Talent Agency saw it and contacted me. She is still my agent today. As for the New Line Cinema Awards, New Line had a relationship with Columbia’s Film Division at the time and they sponsored two awards that “Second Skin” won.
Night of the White Pants has an amazing cast. Can you talk about how you attracted actors like Tom Wilkinson and what it was like directing your first feature film?
Tom just really loved the script. He also liked the idea of working with Nick Stahl again (they’d done “In The Bedroom” together some years before). I was really lucky that he happened to have a window of time and hadn’t done an indie in a while. Then, once Tom and Nick were in, the project was very attractive to many actors who wanted to work with them. It was 100 degrees in Dallas and every day was hard as hell but we had a great time making that movie.
Is the finished movie very similar to the script or did you have to change a lot during production?
We definitely had to make a lot of compromises due to the small budget and short shooting schedule but the movie is pretty close to the original script. The voice over was added in post, that’s one of the biggest changes from the shooting script.
Can you talk a little about the process of “pitching” to the studios and how do you approach this?
Pitching is hell. And the way I approach it is by being as prepared as possible. I have a rock solid set of notes and I pitch “off” of them. I know a lot of people say you shouldn’t pitch off of notes, but it works for me. I practice a lot beforehand so that it doesn’t seem like I’m reading notes. I try to make it feel as casual as possible.
Private Benjamin is a beloved film for a lot of people – it’s certainly one of my favourites! How do you approach writing a remake of a well-known movie?
That was tough. I love the original too!! I kind of had forget about people’s expectations and just try to write the best script possible and one that felt as fresh as the original. It’s currently being rewritten by someone else so… we’ll see how it turns out!
What’s your writing process like? Do you outline/write a treatment before starting?
Yes, I do write a fairly detailed treatment and I work off of that. On the studio assignments you kind of have to. When I’m writing something for “myself” I usually have an outline but it’s less developed.
What’s your writing schedule like – do you write everyday at a set time, for example?
I write five days a week, five to seven hours a day, depending on how much I have going on. I usually like to write in the mornings, maybe 8am – 2 or 3pm.
The issue of “movies for women” often comes up at festivals. Do you feel that as a female writer, you can do a better job of telling a woman’s story? And do you feel that there are differences in the industry working as a female writer?
Oh boy, that’s a pretty complicated issue. Not sure I can really tackle it here. I feel very capable of writing male and female characters. And, as far as the industry goes, I try not to think about the dismally low percentages of working female writers and directors. I choose not to focus on it and just keep working hard.
You write for film and TV but also for the internet – what are your favourite things about writing for these different mediums?
I am very interested in interactive storytelling. We are at an exciting time when a new kind of storytelling might emerge. I love to explore that.
I saw an interview with you and your agent Rebecca Ewing at AFF and you seem to have a very good working relationship. Do you have any tips for young writers on a. finding a representative and b. working effectively with an agent once you get one?
I really lucked out in terms of getting a representative so quickly and easily. But, I think the best way to find a good representative is to write a great script. And as far as working effectively with an agent… I don’t know, I guess it’s the same as any working relationship -- don’t be a jerk!
Lastly, do you have any practical advice in general for writers starting out in their careers?
Be prepared to work hard and face a lot of rejection. If you can’t handle either of those things than it’s probably not the right line of work.
Big thanks to Amy for taking the time to do this interview!