NYC MIDNIGHT: Congratulations on winning the 4th Annual Screenwriter's Challenge. This year's competition attracted 610 writers from around the world and the most competitive field we have had to date. Why did you enter the Screenwriter's Challenge 2007 and what did you hope to get out of it?
Aaron: In the Washington area we have a moviemaking group, A Likely Story Film Productions, which has participated in several timed moviemaking contests. I considered my main role to be writing, but really our group is small enough that we’ve all collaborated in every facet—writing, acting, directing, editing.
I didn’t realize there were challenges for screenwriting on similar lines, so when I stumbled across this listing, I think on WithoutABox, I jumped at the chance and told my friends about it. The cool thing is, A Likely Story Films had 3 entries in the competition and 2 that made it to the final round!
I really need deadlines to get anything done, and a week sounds like a pretty good timeframe to get a 15 page script done—esp. with the challenge of creating something from scratch, in a genre you may not feel comfortable with. Plus, if the script turned out to be filmable, and made it to the 2nd Round…that was all gravy. I think contests like this are a great way to push myself, because too often I get home from work and the TV beckons and it’s hard to sit down and bang out even 5 pages of whatever.
NYC MIDNIGHT: How did you get started as a writer? Where are you now in your writing career and what are your goals?
Aaron: Reading Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor in college inspired me to write. I started out trying to write short stories, and am just now getting my act together enough to write a novel. But a few years ago, I had an idea for a high school football movie. I bought a bargain basement screenplay template (a 3.5 disk with a Microsoft Word template, which I am still using!); a friend got me The Screenwriter’s Bible for my birthday; and after procrastinating for years I managed to finish it. I’ve entered it in a few contests and gotten mixed feedback, some really positive, some not so positive, usually about the exact same parts.
I really like to write short skits and spoofs, but right now I have 4-5 ideas for screenplays rattling around in my head. I think the WBC membership will be really helpful for me to get another screenplay out, which will be a comedy. I’m just getting to the stage right now where I can better focus my time on various writing projects. Part of it is maturity, but an equally big part is realizing that it’s the writing that matters, not the quality. Trying to be an editor and a writer at the same time just doesn’t work, and that blocked me for a long time. As a writer, you are in the somewhat unique position of both being the molder of raw materials, as well as the creator of them. You can’t make anything good unless you have something to work with first.
NYC MIDNIGHT: Do you write on a regular basis? What is your general approach for writing a script, from idea to final draft?
Aaron: My writing has been sporadic, but I am getting better at setting time aside to write. That’s why entering contests like this, taking writing classes, and being in a group like A Likely Story are so important. They’ve really pushed me to get things done. In fact, the thread that ties all of the members of A Likely Story together is a screenwriting class. $70 tuition very well spent!
I’m learning that writing is like taking a timed test. Skip the hard questions and then later you can come back to them. A lot of times I try to write beginning to end and really bog myself down.
NYC MIDNIGHT: In the first round, you received the assignment of genre (drama) and subject (a bus trip). Were you happy or disappointed with your assignment? Were there other 1st Round assignments that you would have preferred or despised, and if so, which ones? What genre(s) do most prefer when writing your own material?
Aaron: To be honest, I was a little disappointed. A “bus trip” is challenging because it’s a claustrophobic setting, so it’s really easy to fall into the trap of making it very “talky.” All I could think about the whole time was “how can I get them off the bus!”
I get excited about genres like comedy or mockumentary, or ones that already suggest something happening—like crime caper, action/adventure, monster movie—where you have something in the genre itself that can determine—but not overdetermine—where your story needs to be headed.
NYC MIDNIGHT: You won your heat with “SNAFU” ; (logline - Three generations of American soldiers learn that they share a deep, painful bond: war is hell, and you take it with you everywhere.) You did a great job of creating realistic dialogue and believable characters from three different generations. How do you go about creating the characters in your scripts?
Aaron: That’s a tough question. I feel like creating a character happens more easily for me if I can envision them in a situation, interacting with someone or something. They say character drives plot, which is true, but also, the reverse is a good way of developing a character. Just put him/her in a situation with another person, and see what you can do with it. It may be a situation where you know how you would act, or you can remember how others have acted, and how you/they are expected to act, and you can then play with those expectations, fulfilling, defying, changing them—which I think can reveal character.
NYC MIDNIGHT: In the 24-hour final round, you received the assignment of genre (sci-fi) and subject (trespassing). How was your experience writing a short script on such a tight deadline?
Aaron: It was hard. Really hard. I would sit down and write, get up, watch TV, eat unhealthy food, then sit down and stare at the computer, maybe write a little more, rinse and repeat. Then I fell deep into a funk about 10:30pm when I realized I was on page 11 and had no idea how to end the thing. I managed to email the script in about 2 minutes before the deadline.
NYC MIDNIGHT: Your final round winning script, “We'll Meet Again Some Day” ; (logline - A man trespasses into a parallel universe and meets his match.), took a 180 degree turn from your first round dramatic entry and went the comedy route. Did you plan on writing comedy in the final round?
Aaron: I was hoping to get an opportunity to write something a little lighter. I do prefer writing comedy, or incorporating it into dramatic situations. It helps defuse too much drama that could exhaust your audience, and it can also set up the audience for a more dramatic moment or payoff. Or it can be used to surprise the audience by leading them somewhere they weren’t aware they were going. It’s something that can exist for its own sake, just to make people laugh, or to distract them from something else that could reap bigger rewards.
NYC MIDNIGHT: Have you done any rewrites on your first and final round entries since the competition ended and do you have any plans for the scripts?
Aaron: Not yet. I can see myself reworking the dialogue a bit on SNAFU, but I do have plans to revise We’ll Meet Again Some Day. I just want to make sure the different scenes flow together better.
Aaron: We all could use some cold, hard cash, but I think the most lasting award will be the Course Certificate. I’m not the best at internal deadlines, so having the external course deadline will be very helpful to me.
NYC MIDNIGHT: Besides the prizes, what did you take away from your experience in The Screenwriter's Challenge 2007?
Aaron: I learned to meet the challenges presented by genres that I normally wouldn’t think to write in.
Aaron: Do I ever!
A Likely Story Films – www.myspace.com/alikelystoryfilms, where we have some of our short films already posted (Our main website, www.alikelystoryfilmproductions.com, will be up and running in about a month, so stop by soon!) Both our NFC entries are up, and we have a few others that will be up there soon, including the most disgusting commercial you’ve ever seen in your life. I guarantee it!
Barrelhouse: I co-founded and co-edit a literary journal based in DC called Barrelhouse: www.barrelhousemag.com. We publish fiction, poetry, essays, and pop culture ephemera. We’ve interviewed Emmylou Harris, Malcolm Gladwell, Chuck Klosterman, and Broken Lizard’s Paul Soter, among others. Our upcoming Issue 5 will feature an interview with Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers. One of our editors is just releasing a book, which you can find more about here: www.ryanseacrestisfamous.com.
NYC MIDNIGHT: What advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters?
It’s a numbers game. Quantity leads to quality.
Maybe this is a story everybody has heard, which could be apocryphal, but it really speaks to where I’m at right now. I just heard it a month ago from the teacher of a comedy sketch writing class I took at the DC Improv. (www.dcimprov.com):
This high school pottery teacher divided up his class into two groups. He told one group that they would be graded on the number of pottery pieces they made over the semester, and he told the second group that they would be graded on the quality of the pieces they made, so they could take as much time as they needed to make a really superior piece of pottery. By the end of the semester, the teacher found that the numbers group had produced a lot of crap, but also some really good pieces of pottery, while only a few members of the quality group had produced anything, and none of it was as good as the pieces produced by the other team.
NYC MIDNIGHT: Will you be back to defend your title in 2008?
I plan on it. The first round is fun, and if you make it to the 2nd round, competitive instincts take over.
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