Su-City Pictures East, LLC

Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

Month: August 2016

Susan Interviews Producer & Co-director Juliana Penaranda-Loftus of ‘Landfill Harmonic’ for SCRIPT MAGAZINE

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“To have nothing is not an excuse to do nothing”
–Favio Chávez,
Conductor of the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura

Favio Chavez (Orchestra Director)

After their awe-inspiring concerts made them viral sensations and put them in the spotlight of international media, The Recyled Orchestra of Cateura has been featured on 60 Minutes, NBC News, People, Time, Wired, Oprah Magazine, NPR Music, and more.

LANDFILL HARMONIC, the award-winning documentary has received over 30 awards at international festivals.

As a classically trained violist, I had the opportunity to play with a youth orchestra when I was a teenager and travel on concert tours to South America and the Far East.  Whether we played in the jungles of the Amazon or a president’s palace, and regardless of the audience’s economic and ethnic backgrounds, these six weeks of summer travel and approximately 30 concerts, forever impacted my life.

The often-used phrase “the universal language of music” is not a cliché, it is indeed the truth and underscored in the documentary Landfill Harmonic.

Several years ago when I first saw the 60 Minutes piece about Favio Chávez and his Recycled Orchestra of Cateura in Paraguay, it grabbed my attention and as time passed the story of the orchestra continued to pique my interest.  After viewing a press screener of Landfill Harmonic, I knew I had to set up an interview.

One doesn’t need to be a musician or even sing in tune, to be enthralled by the power of this film.

IMG_3471 violines


Landfill Harmonic follows the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, a Paraguayan musical group that plays instruments made entirely out of garbage. When their story goes viral, the orchestra is catapulted into the global spotlight. Under the guidance of idealistic music director Favio Chávez, the orchestra must navigate a strange new world of arenas and sold-­out concerts. However, when a natural disaster strikes their country, Favio must find a way to keep the orchestra intact and provide a source of hope for their town. The film is a testament to the transformative power of music and the resilience of the human spirit.

Producer and co-director Juliana PenarandaLoftus

DSC_6213 Juliana head shotRecently I had the opportunity to speak with producer and co-director Juliana Penaranda-Loftus by phone for our interview.

Juliana Penaranda-Loftus began her career working in production for prime time television shows in Colombia. After completing her Bachelor’s degree, she moved to the United States where she received her Master’s Degree in Film from the American University in Washington, DC. After September 11, she directed and produced a documentary about Aid Afghanistan, an organization fighting for the right to educate women. The organization used the documentary to raise funds to support schools and programs in Afghanistan. Since then, Juliana has produced several independent feature films and in 2009 established her own production company, Hidden Village Films with the purpose of producing films of social relevance. In 2012 she was one of eight women selected by the American Film Institute for their Directing Workshop for Women.

KOUGUELL:  Tell me about the evolution of this film.

PENARANDALOFTUS: Alejandra Amarilla (Founder and Executive Producer) contacted me at the end of 2008 to talk about the idea of making a documentary about underserved children in Paraguay her home country.

In April 2009, we traveled to start the research and find the story. It was the last day of the trip when we heard the story about Favio Chávez and his efforts of teaching children with recycled instruments. Alejandra loved the story from the beginning and as founder she selected from the options we had. I loved the story too. We saw the potential with Favio to be able to take the kids to where they are today.

We started following up the story via phone calls and email.  I was doing pre-interviews over the phone and email. We returned to Paraguay every year, sometimes twice a year depending on what was going on.

The production took five years. We started shooting in July 2010 and the last shoot took place in September 2014.

About the Collaboration

Landfill Harmonic is directed by Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley, and co-directed and produced by Juliana Penaranda-Loftus.

Due to the filmmaking team’s outside work commitments and changing schedules, the process was further complicated by the need to reshoot some sections.  Penaranda-Loftus emphasized the importance of the great teamwork they had, which made this film become a reality.

PENARANDALOFTUS:  Allgood and Townsley joined the project in 2012 and 2013. It was a collaborative work, as the story took place over the course of five years but Alejandra and I were keeping the integrity of the story from beginning to end. I was the direct contact with the characters over the years.   Our co-producer, Jorge Maldonado, joined us in 2010 and he went to Paraguay since then too.

Brad Allgood was the director and editor; he also shot the flood sequence.   Because of the amount of footage collected over the years, Brad was fundamental to building the overall story.  Alejandra and I worked very closely with him on the structure since we followed the story from beginning.


KOUGUELL: Did you do pre-interviews with the young musicians?

PENARANDALOFTUS:  Yes. We sent the interview questions to the field producer in Paraguay.  Back then, the kids did not have Internet or phones, now actually everyone has one.  We had five characters and we had to find who was the most open to talk.  Some characters were closed to talk about their life.

Miércoles 8 de mayo de 2013. Cateura, Paraguay

The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, Paraguay

The Message

KOUGUELL: Without being didactic, the film conveys several poignant messages about the universal language of music, as well as the direct connection about environmental issues (the complexities of the landfill provides jobs yet it comes with health risks) and the environmental disaster of the flooding the community endures to survive.  Can you speak more to this?

PENARANDALOFTUS: We tried not to be preachy.  We wanted to make a point about the environment, the music, and posing the topic of recycling in a different way without being that obvious.  Music was giving us a means to talk about recycling. People don’t want to talk about global warming when we talked to them.

Favio Chávez actually raised that issue; he used music as a way to talk about recycling without saying, ‘We’re going to talk about recycling.’  We knew that the music was very universal and emotional, and how Favio used music as a tool. Favio Chávez was an environmental technician and he tried to talk first about the environmental challenges and he felt he couldn’t do it. He found music as a way to talk about the importance of the environment and of recycling.

KOUGUELL:  Indeed.  If an audience member thought this film was romanticizing the town’s impoverished situation, the flood puts their story in raw perspective and the continued challenges the community faces.

PENARANDALOFTUS: The flood was obviously unexpected.  In 2013, Brad was editing the film, we didn’t know how we were going to find the funding to reedit the film we just knew we had to film the flood.

Brad Allgood and Juliana Penaranda-Loftus

Brad Allgood and Juliana Penaranda-Loftus

Paraguay was devastated by the largest flood in over 20 years. Nearly 300,000 people were displaced due to the flooding, and many members of the orchestra were flooded out of their homes.

With their budget and time was running out, they took a skeleton crew to Paraguay on two shoots to cover the flood. The community of Cateura sat under nearly eight-feet of water for two months, as the 15,000 families in surrounding communities moved to higher ground, living in plywood shacks during that time.

_MG_9144 Tania holding violin at home

PENARANDALOFTUS: The flood brings a lot to the story; it brings the issue about community effort and how they were able to help each other. It also brings the story of the environment, the floods that are happening in the world, and climate change.

Landfill Harmonic opens theatrically in New York City on September 9th  and in Los Angeles on September 23.


More articles by Susan Kouguell



Top Five Family Conflict Tips for all Genres: Examining Family Conflicts in Natalie Portman’s ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ and Daniel Burman’s ‘The Tenth Man’ for SCRIPT MAGAZINE


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Examining Family Conflicts in Natalie Portman’s ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ and Daniel Burman’s 'The Tenth Man': Top Five Family Conflict Tips for all Genres by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Family relationships are complicated.  (Yes, that’s an understatement!)  Parents and children have their own specific backgrounds, attitudes, motivations, agendas, and feelings.  And this is in real life.

In a successful screenplay, these relationships must ring true in order for film executives to want to turn the page and keep reading, and embark on the journey you have created for your characters.

Regardless of the genre you’re writing in, the plausibility of the family dynamics and their conflicts are steeped in your characters’ histories.  Past successes, triumphs, arguments and failures are just a few of the elements that comprise family relationships.

Family conflicts can occur at any age. Becoming an adult does not necessarily shift the feelings a child has for a parent.

Opening this month, are two films, which center on family conflicts:  Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman’s A Tale of Love and Darkness in her directorial debut, adapted from the book by Amos Oz, focuses on a relationship between a mother and her 10-year-old son, and Daniel Burman’s The Tenth Man, centers on an adult son and his father’s relationship.  These two films are poignant examples that indeed family conflicts are complicated and continue to evolve at any age.

TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESSA Tale of Love and Darkness is based on the memories of Amos Oz, growing up in Jerusalem in the years before Israeli statehood with Arieh, his academic father and Fania, his dreamy, imaginative mother. They were one of many Jewish families who moved to Palestine from Europe during the 1930s and 40s to escape persecution. Arieh was cautiously hopeful for the future but Fania wanted much more. The terror of the war and running from home had been followed by the tedium of everyday life, which weighed heavily on Fania’s spirit. Unhappy in her marriage and intellectually stifled, she would make up stories of adventures (like treks across the desert) to cheer herself up and entertain her 10-year-old son Amos.  He became so enraptured when she read him poetry and explained about words and language; it would become an influence on his writing for the rest of his life. When independence didn’t bring the renewed sense of life that Fania had hoped for, she slipped into solitude and sadness. Unable to help her, Amos was forced to say an untimely good-bye. As he witnessed the birth of Israel, he had to come to terms with his own new beginning.

TenthMan_Poster_v2_webThe Tenth Man: This dramatic comedy wrestles with notions of identity, home and the intricacies of the father and son relationship. After years away, Ariel returns to Buenos Aires seeking to reconnect with his father, Usher, who founded a charity foundation in Once, the city’s bustling Jewish district where Ariel spent his youth. In the process of trying to meet his father Usher, who staves off a meeting with his son; roping him into a number of small assignments getting more entangled in his charitable commitments, Ariel meets Eva whose independent spirit motivates Ariel to come to grips with the traditions that once divided him and his father and rethink his own identity.

These two very different films in eras, settings, tone, genre, and plot do share important themes; the protagonists’ need to please and understand their respective parents.  In The Tenth Man, the father and son relationship is portrayed in a unique way; (without revealing too much of the film) although we hear them have conversations, the two share only a brief, yet satisfying, time together on screen.  In A Tale of Love and Darkness a young son’s adulation of his mother and their trusted bond becomes threatened as her health spirals downward.

In my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! I discuss family relationships. Here’s an excerpt:

Relationships between parents and children, siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and grandparents, and so on, are wrought with misunderstandings, jealousy, poor communication, disappointments, as well as love, joy, and pride.

Unstable family relationships are portrayed in writer/director Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale and in writer/director Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages. The Squid and the Whale examines the Berkman family’s transition and redefinition when parents Bernard and Joan decide to divorce.  Teenage sons, Walt and Frank, prematurely come of age, struggling with their conflicted and confused emotions, as they must cope with the repercussions of their estranged parents’ respective actions.  In The Savages, Wendy, an aspiring Manhattan playwright, and her brother, John, a theater professor in Buffalo, New York, are forced to come to terms with their respective troubled lives and romantic relationships, when they must take care of their unsympathetic father, who is suffering from dementia.

Equally complex father/son relationships are seen in Big Fish, (directed by Tim Burton, screenplay by John August) and Catch Me If You Can, (directed by Stephen Spielberg, screenplay by Jeff Nathanson).  In Big Fish, traveling salesman Edward Bloom’s fabled tales about his fantastical life captivate everyone but his journalist son, Will, from whom he becomes estranged.  When Will returns home to reconcile with his dying father, Edward does not understand how his stories have truly affected his son and Will struggles to accept his father for who he truly is. In Catch Me If You Can, Frank Jr., learns the art of deception from his father whom he tries to impress and financially supports. Although Frank Sr. senses that his son is a fraud, he does not confront him or tell him to stop his cons. As the plot unfolds, the father/son relationship shifts to Frank Jr. and FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who always tells Frank the truth, and repeatedly tells him to stop his cons.

Top Five Family Conflict Tips for all Genres

  1. CONFLICT: Agreements and disagreements, discords and disharmony, must be conveyed in a realistic way that readers can gain an understanding of what’s causing the root of their issues.
  2. EMPATHY: Readers need to feel something for your characters’ relationships whether it’s hate or love; they need to understand their dynamics, regarding the reasons for their discord or harmony.
  3. MULTI-DIMENSIONAL: Humanize your characters by giving them identifiable histories, vulnerabilities, flaws and behaviors. Whether your characters misbehave or are always on good behavior, demonstrate their specific emotional, mental, physical, and/or social behaviors.
  4. MOTIVATIONS: The reasons your characters take the actions they do to help or hinder each other in families, stem from inward and outward motivations. Characters’ motivations should be plausible and should offer insight into who they are and the actions they take.
  5. ATTITUDE: Show your characters’ specific attitudes towards each other and themselves and how they relate to others or don’t fit in with their family members.

Parental relationships can indeed be challenging at any age.  Implementing these subtle and sometimes not so subtle truths about the underlying forces that comprise familial bonds will lead you to a successful screenplay.


Susan’s Interview: Maria Escobedo on Writing for Children’s Animation and Breaking into Television for SCRIPT MAGAZINE


Susan Kouguell Maria Escobedo

I had the pleasure to speak with Maria about her writing career and her new animated children’s show, Elena of Avalor, which recently premiered on the Disney Channel.

Full disclosure: I was the associate producer of Maria’s first independent feature film Rum and Coke, which she wrote and directed.

Maria Escobedo

Maria Escobedo

Maria Escobedo is a native New Yorker with a BFA in film from New York’s School of Visual Arts. She studied screenwriting at NYU, playwriting at The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, and earned a TV Writing Fellowship from ABC/Disney.  Maria’s writing credits include ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and HULU’s Emmy-nominated Original Series East Los High.  Maria has written original movies for Lifetime, Disney Channel, and developed an original TV pilot for Nickelodeon.  She has also written for many animated children’s shows, includingDora the Explorer; Go, Diego, Go on Nick Jr.; Shapes for Peach Blossom Media, Nina’s World for NBC’s Sprout Network, Special Agent Oso on Disney Jr., and the new Latina Disney princess, Elena of Avalor on Disney Channel.  Maria is very proud to have worked for two of the most influential women in television: Shonda Rhimes and Dora the Explorer!

On the feature side, Citadel Entertainment optioned Maria’s very first screenplay. She later wrote and directed the indie film, Rum And Coke, which garnered critical and popular attention at international film festivals and is available on DVD and streaming.  Maria served as Co-Chair of the Latino Writers Committee at the WGA West for 5 years, and is currently an adjunct writing professor at USC School of Cinematic Arts.

I asked Maria to talk about her writing journey.

Escobedo:  When I made my film Rum and Coke I got a lot of attention. We did a huge festival circuit and I got a DVD and streaming deal. People who saw it said it was very character-driven and that I should think about writing for television because it was the place that nurtured characters. That’s what made me think about TV.  Being in New York — which is different now because there’s more TV going on now in New York — but 11 years ago TV just wasn’t what you thought about. Either you went into advertising or you made an independent film. That’s what my husband (Charles Gherardi) and I did.  The first script got optioned and the second one was Rum and Coke.

I wrote a couple of spec scripts for live action, including a Law & Order SVU and a Boston Legal, which got me the Disney Fellowship.

I received the Disney Fellowship about 10 years ago and that led to a writing gig at Grey’s Anatomy; that’s how I started my romance with Disney and NBC when I got into the fellowship.  A friend of mine who was working at Dora the Explorer at Nickelodeon said they had some positions there so that’s how it started to happen. Because of the WGA strike I started working in animation because it’s a different union.

Kouguell: What made you decide to move to Los Angeles?

Escobedo: When I got the Disney Fellowship the decision was to move to Los Angeles for the year and then return to New York and then we ended up staying because there was work here.

ELENA OF AVALORKouguell: How did you get involved with Elena of Avalor?

Escobedo: I’m a freelance writer this season on the show. I was a freelance writer on a lot of animation shows; many times these shows don’t have a staff of writers. They’ll have the head writer and the show’s creator and then the rest of the writers are freelance.  Elena of Avalor actually did have a small staff and when I had gone in for the interview they had already filled their room but they asked me to write one of their freelance episodes and that’s what I did.

What I love about the Elena character is that she’s older, she’s already 17. The episodes are half hour; many Disney Junior shows are 11 minutes each. There’s a lot of humor in this show, more so than in some of the younger shows. Elena has her faults, she’s not perfect and yes, she’s wonderful, loving, and is always thinking of others, but there’s a sense of reality to it and that’s what I love about her.  There’s adventure in what she tries to do but it has that heart that makes great Disney.

Kouguell: Tell me about your experience working in the various writers’ rooms.

Escobedo: It’s both exhilarating and intimidating.  You bond with the other writers, sharing stories. Everyone in the room adding their own point of view makes it so much more of a collaborative effort.  You’re able to talk about the story and the script. The characters are real; you go home thinking about the characters and the story.  Features are so much slower to make than in television where you have the time to really develop the characters in the stories.  But in TV there’s a deadline to get the show done in a short amount of time.

Grey’s Anatomy was the first time I was in a writers room. Coming from the feature world I just always sat in front of the computer and wrote by myself or with my husband/partner.   I actually loved it and I fell in love with TV.

My experience in children’s animation has been that you’re pitching your episode and you get some feedback from the group, which is always good, but you’re pretty much on your own to write it.   You go back and forth with the head writer, and then the network is giving you notes – and that’s similar to live action.

There are smaller writers rooms or there’s no writers room at all; you’re just getting together every so often to pitch what your next story is and work it out, and then go back and write.

Nina’s World was an interesting writers room because I was really writing from my bedroom and Skyping with the other writers. Most were in Toronto, Canada and there were few here in Los Angeles. Most of the time we did it from our homes.  It was different because we were pitching our own episodes — we really weren’t writing them together.

Kouguell: As a Latina woman in the industry, what changes have you seen?

Escobedo: Since I’ve been in Los Angeles for 11 years it feels like there have been a lot of positive changes. I was chair of the Latino writers committee at the Writers Guild. Probably in the last two years or so I’ve seen a lot more Latinos in general coming into the WGA and a good amount of women.  There’s a little bit more attention being paid to diversity and the Guild itself is paying attention to it; they’re saying that the writers’ rooms are not as diverse as they should be.  They’re making sure that that the writers in their rooms are more reflective of the country and what our country looks like.

Kouguell: Your advice to writers looking to break into television?

Escobedo: You need writing samples.  My advice is, know yourself, know your brand, know what you’re good at and what you think reflects you, but diversify it a little bit. If you love, for example, superhero stuff write a superheroes spec but then also write something that’s character-driven that doesn’t rely only on action. Make sure your voice is there. There is so much on network TV, streaming and cable.

East Los High, which is a HULU show, has a huge online/Transmedia component and fan base. Grey’s Anatomy had that too; it was ahead of its time for many reasons.  Another way of breaking into TV is by being a writer/researcher for the online world where the show has a whole other life!  Of course being a writer’s assistant is an excellent way of breaking in especially because as a writers assistant you are in the writers room the whole time!

More articles by Susan Kouguell