Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Interview with Stacey Menear (writer of "Mixtape")

I am so happy to be able to share this interview with you today. Stacey Menear is the author of one of my favorite scripts of the last few months, "Mixtape," a coming of age story about a young teenage girl who finds a mixtape that belonged to her deceased parents. When she accidentally destroys it, she uses the song list to go on a search for all the music. For those who read my review of Mixtape, you'll remember Stacey's script was on 2009's Blacklist with 14 votes. But more importantly, it's number 19 on MY LIST. This is probably my favorite interview so far because Stacey gives some great advice. Stacey is managed by Jim Wedaa and repped by Valarie Phillips and Ida Ziniti. I'll shut up now so we can all learn something.

SS: First of all, how long have you been writing? How many scripts had you written before you wrote Mixtape?

SM: I visited my parents over the holidays and my mom reminded me that before I could actually write I would dictate stories to her about the further adventures of Indiana Jones. I don't remember the particulars, but apparently in my version Indiana befriends a talking snake and the two of them travel the world together going on exciting archeological adventures. Sounds like a good reboot for Indian Jones, if you ask me. So I guess I've been making up stories as long as I remember and while I haven't been writing screenplays all that long I've always written short stories and stuff like that. I'd written around 3 screenplays before Mixtape - with various starts and stops and other projects along the way.

SS: I’m sure I’m not the first one to erroneously assume that because your name was Stacey and because the script was about a 13 year old girl, that you were, in fact, female. Two questions. Do you think that assumption helped you (i.e. gave you more credit for understanding what a 13 year old girl would go through?) and what inspired a grown man to write a 13 year old female coming-of-age story?

SM: My name definitely throws people off. Though my mom denies it, my dad, who is a very manly logger living in Oregon, claims the name was a sort of "Boy Named Sue" attempt to make me grow up rough and tumble - an attempt that failed. But I've had more than one person tell me that my name is a benefit. I think its surprising when, instead of a 21 year old girl, this sort of nerdy looking guy with a receding hairline walks in - and if I surprise people hopefully they'll remember me. Every little bit helps, right?

As for the inspiration...I think it came from a lot of different places. I grew up in the Northwest and I remember thinking that the Riot Grrrls were the COOLEST thing ever. I still do actually - in fact, I'm listening to Cadallaca as I write this. Unfortunately for me, I was decidedly uncool back then. I played sports, stayed at home doing homework and rarely, if ever, stuck it to the man. But I've always been interested in the movement/era and in girl bands in general. I also knew I wanted to do something about music - and a specific kind of music that you don't necessarily hear on the radio. And, as you might guess, I'm a big fan of mixtapes. I still have a box full of mixtapes given to me over the years - many of them are broken, but I still have the cases and the amazing art work that someone obviously spent hours on. It was really fun over the course of Mixtape to go back and listen to some of them. They really are these frozen moments in time that capture events and emotions. One of my favorites is a break-up mixtape and on the cover is this really simple drawing of a broken heart and then the tape is just "Forever Young" playing over and over. As for why, specifically, a 13 year old girl? I just kept picturing the girl, Beverly Moody in my head; this chubby, awkward looking girl with big headphones on. I could hear her voice really clearly and it just went from there.

SS: I've recently received some e-mails about writers stuck in a rut, thinking their current screenplay sucks, and unable to muster up the enthusiasm to work on it. How long did it take you write Mixtape? Were there any tough times where you thought it wasn't working? And how did you get through them?

SM: I usually work on two scripts at once - I'll be doing the actual writing on one while doing the early outlining/brainstorming for the next one. The actual writing for Mixtape took around a month. It was really quick and easy by the time I sat down to write it. Most of my tough times on a script come in the outlining/earlier phases. My writing method includes feeling so anxious that a story won't work that I stay up all night in bed unable to sleep and just go over the story again and again in my head. And then waking up the next day, still feeling anxious and doing a lot of pacing and mumbling and eating many bowls of cereal. How to get through the tough times is something I'm still working out. I think doing two scripts at once is one solution. It takes some of the pressure off. If you're having trouble with one, simply go to the other one. I also don't write scenes in order. I write the scenes that I'm excited about first. If I'm having trouble on a scene it usually means there's a piece of the puzzle missing, so I'll move onto something else and come back it later. For me there's always at least one scene, character, detail that I'm excited about writing. If I focus on that one part I can keep going. It's when I start thinking about the script as a whole - and the parts that aren't working - that that I lose enthusiasm for the story.

SS: As everyone in filmmaking knows, music rights are expensive. Was using rare music in Mixtape purely a creative choice, or were you thinking about keeping the budget low to make the script more appealing to buyers?

SM: The musical choices were almost entirely chosen for creative reasons. I wasn't writing this script for anyone but myself - not a studio or producer - and so I thought I might as well choose the music that I liked and that I thought the parents in the story would have actually listened to and put on this mixtape. In some cases the songs were taken from mixtapes that people made for me, like the Bikini Kill song, and in other cases they were songs that I researched. For the Blue Hearts song I knew that I needed a song in a foreign language, but it took a while to find a song that I thought worked well and fit the story. I never really thought about budget concerns during the course of writing it. I always figured that if someone was really interested in the story I could change the music to fit their tastes.

SS: The thing I like best about your script is the emotional component, which resonates very powerfully in places, yet never goes over the top. Can you tell me how you approach the emotion in your screenplays, and what the key is to not tipping over into melodrama?

SM: That's nice of you to say. I don't know if this is a good answer, but my approach is this: I write a scene, then I read it over and ask myself, "Is this cheesy?" And I do that over and over. I was aware that Mixtape could wander off into terra-melodrama - and so, I think just being aware of what kind of story you're writing is one of the keys. Also, I think that when we talk about melodrama, what we're actually talking about is monodrama. The film is hitting the same emotional beat again and again. The best films - and most emotional films in my opinion - are the ones that take you through a whole range of emotions. E.T. comes to mind. It's scary when Elliot first meets E.T. It's somber when they mention that dad is in Mexico (a scene I love). It's sad, of course, when we think E.T. is dead. And then unbelievably joyful when he's not and the boys all fly away on their bikes. And so when you get to the end and E.T. is leaving, you've been through all these different emotions - you've been up and down and all over - and, if you're not crying at this point, then you simply don't have a soul. If the movie was just an alien dying for an hour and a half the movie would suck, for one, but also wouldn't resonate emotionally the way it does. And so I think if you're going to do an emotional story you need to hit on a variety of emotions.

SS: How did it feel to land on the Black List? And did getting on the Black List open any previously closed doors for you?

SM: It felt great. Honestly, I had never heard of the Black List until about 2 months before it came out, so it was a pleasant surprise for me. And it feels pretty rad to see your name on the same list as people like Aaron Sorkin. It's also generated some additional interest in me. There was a first wave of interest when Mixtape first began to leak out and get passed around and being on the Black List has helped keep the momentum building, as well as generate another round of meetings.

SS: I was informed in the comments section of my review that your script won the Zoetrope screenwriting competition. I feel like with you winning, the answer to this question is obvious, but do you support screenwriting competitions? Had you entered a lot of them before? Was Mixtape rejected by any notable competitions?

SM: I love them! When I finished Mixtape I really didn't know what to do with it. I was living in Los Angeles but didn't know anyone working in film. This always seems to surprise people, but it is, in fact, possible to live in L.A. and be completely outside the film industry. So, without any idea of how to get Mixtape in someone's hands, I entered it into Zoetrope (and another competition that I never heard back from). My manager, Jim Wedaa, found the script through the competition and then hooked me up with my agents Valarie Phillips and Ida Ziniti. I'm very thankful to Zoetrope for helping me along - and, from my experience, would highly recommend people try it out if they think they have a good script.

SS: In one of the greatest interviews I’ve ever listened to about screenwriting, Christopher McQuarrie noted that when he wrote his Oscar-winning screenplay, “The Usual Suspects,” it was really a patchwork effort just to get through the thing, and he really had little idea what he was doing. It was only afterwards that he learned the “rules” of screenwriting, and although he doesn’t say it, he implies that he’s still never written anything as good . What are your thoughts on the rules? Do you follow a set structure when you write? Do you break the rules? Should writers follow rules at all?

SM: This is actually something I've thought about quite a bit and here's what I've come up with: for geniuses rules are obstacles, and for the rest of us rules are helpful. I feel like rules and limitations in what I can and can't do in a script frees me up to be creative. Having said that, I don't necessarily use the rules I've read online and from books. I've made up a lot of my own rules as I've gotten better at writing. And I think that's what it's about - the rules should fit your story and they should fit what you do as a writer. I tend to write in four act structures and always build stories around, what I view, as three premises that could stand on their own as films. I can imagine that as McQuarrie was writing "The Usual Suspects" having little idea of what he was doing was perfect. It helped create this hugely surprising and satisfying twist in the film because not even the writer saw it coming. But I imagine that same style wouldn't work in doing something like adapting a novel. Anyways, the point is - unless you're a genius it's probably a good idea to use the rules. But find the ones that work for you and your writing style.

SS: What is that one thing in a script you try to get right above all else, and what's your process for achieving it? (ie, plot? character? dialogue?)

SM: I have a sign above my desk (I'm looking at it as I write this) that says, "Character, Dialogue, Motivation, Archetypes, The Unexpected and A Hook". So I guess those would be the aspects that I focus on. To that list I would add simplicity. I really like simple, elegant scripts. I like scripts that let me know a clear goal, the obstacles, etc. And I like my scripts to read quickly. One of the best compliments I can get for a script is, "I read it in one sitting." I always think of the person reading my scripts. They've read tons of scripts, they don't want to read mine - so how can I keep them reading?

SS: Let’s go back to the day you decided to pursue screenwriting. When having an agent or a manger seemed a million miles away. If Present You could go back and give that young buck advice on the fastest way to breaking into the business, what would you tell him?

SM: I would pass on this article to my past self http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp02.Strange.Attractor.html. My first script was pretty much the most lugubrious, melancholy and hopeless script ever written by man. I would let you read it, but I'm pretty sure it would make you lose the will to live. Not only was it depressing, but it had no real hook at all, no premise. It was just this embarrassingly personal exaggerated account of living in a small logging town. And the worst part was that I worked my ass off on that script. I spent hours and hours writing it and re-writing it. So, if I could go back and to talk to my past self, I'd give him that link and tell him to work on things that at least have some small chance of ever getting made. And also, something that I strangely only learned after writing two full scripts, write the kind of movies you like watching.

SS: Care to tell us what you may be working on next?

SM: Right now I'm finishing up a spec script that will hopefully done in the near future and will be a much different - and much bigger - story than Mixtape was. I'm also sorting through open assignment and trying to find something that I can really get excited about and that I feel fits my writing style. It's actually a really interesting place to be in - and one that I haven't heard many people talk about. There are lots of websites and books about writing, but not much about the process of choosing projects and doing pitches etc. So I'm enjoying learning about the next stage and hopefully you'll be hearing from me again soon.