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Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

Month: July 2017

Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘Strange Weather’ Writer and Director Katherine Dieckmann for Script Magazine

Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘Strange Weather’ Writer and Director Katherine Dieckmann

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“For years I had an image in my head of a woman sitting alone at a bar, nursing a drink, wearing a straw Stetson-like hat and jeans. She was middle-aged and still working out the terms of her life. She had lost a son, but I wasn’t sure how. This woman eventually became Darcy Baylor, and her story became Strange Weather.”

–Katherine Dieckmann

Katherine Dieckmann

A July heat wave in New York City served as a fortuitous backdrop for meeting with writer and director Katherine Dieckmann to talk about her latest feature film Strange Weather.

Dieckmann began her career as a journalist, writing for such publications as Rolling StoneThe Village Voice, Film Comment, Vogue and The New York Times Book Review, before going on to direct music videos for bands including R.E.M., Aimee Mann, Wilco, Everything but the Girl and Vic Chesnutt. Dieckmann was the originating director on the groundbreaking live action Nickelodeon serial, The Adventures of Pete & Pete. Dieckmann’s films include MotherhoodDiggers and A Good Baby, which was developed at the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriting and Directing labs.  Dieckmann is an Associate Professor at Columbia University’s graduate School of the Arts Film Program, and a Creative Advisor for the Sundance Institute. 

ABOUT STRANGE WEATHER

Strange Weather tracks an uncompromising woman (Holly Hunter) as she embarks on a trip through the south with her best friend (Carrie Coon) to uncover the truth about the one event in her life that she can’t get over. As the two women traverse a part of the country afflicted by drought and flood, a climate every bit as uncertain as Darcy’s emotional one, each stop on the road becomes a key step in Darcy’s process of overcoming, giving her a new way to think about her past, and how to transform it into a different kind of future.

Susan Kouguell speaks with writer and director Katherine Dieckmann about her latest feature film Strange Weather, starring Holly Hunter.

Holly Hunter in Strange Weather

We began our talk discussing her influences for this film.  Citing female-driven regional indies, which included Winter’s Bone directed by Debra Granik and Frozen River directed by Courtney Hunt, to Wim Wenders’ road movies.

DIECKMANN:  Granik and Hunt are women who made singular regional movies with a female character at the center of the film; I loved the tone of the films.  My Digger’s cinematographer shot Debra’s film. I know people who were involved in both films.  As for Wim Wenders, I was a journalist in my early 20s, and I interviewed him about Paris, Texas when I was 23 or so, and those films had a huge effect on me.  I saw Wenders’ films again at a retrospective at MoMA a couple of years back and we had Paris Texas on our minds.

It really was a fusion of my passion for southern literature and southern photography. I was an English major at Vassar, and I received my masters in Literature from NYU.  Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and Walker Evans, among others, had an impact on me with this film.

KOUGUELL: You didn’t have a formal education in filmmaking.

DIECKMANN:  I took one 16 mm class at Cornell when I was 16.

I became friends with R.E.M’s Michael Stipe when I interviewed him for an article.  He gave me a music video to direct; that was the nicest gift a friend could give you. It was an incredible way to enter into the world of making images to have that support from somebody. He could tell I was a frustrated journalist. When I started out as a journalist, Elle magazine sent me to Berlin to interview Wim Wenders, but that type of support was ending for glossy magazines and Michael could tell I was frustrated because pieces were shrinking and becoming more celebrity focused. Michael and I had the same type of taste in film.

KOUGUELL:  What was the timeline from writing the script to going into production?

DIECKMANN: I wrote the script about five summers ago. We attached Holly and it took a while to get the money; my producers were tenacious and dedicated. It was probably four years from writing to directing.

KOUGUELL:  This film was largely made by women and you mentioned that your producers Jana Edelbaum and Rachel Cohen supported your vision every step of the way.

DIECKMANN: I didn’t set out to make it so female heavy. I ended up hiring a male DP; David Rush Morrison was sensitive and the eye that I wanted, which was more important than his gender. But yes, I love giving women work.

KOUGUELL:  Strange Weather is a character-driven story. Holly Hunter’s character is very specific, relatable, empathetic, and often surprising. Was there a particular process in writing that you use to find your characters’ voices?

DIECKMANN: I have a lot of close southern girlfriends and actually this connects to my R.E.M. relationship. When I became friends with that band, I started spending a lot of time in Georgia. There is a certain cultural thing that I was interested in; how these women speak to each other and deal with each other was of enormous interest to me, the humor and the slang, and just that way of being with each other.

The characters were super clear to me from the beginning. I know Darcy would say this and Byrd would say that. The character of Mary Lou was bizarre – it was like I was channeling her.

Callie Khouri, one of my advisors at Sundance Lab, was saying how the characters of Thelma and Louise arrived to her in that way. She woke up one morning and she knew exactly what type of toothpaste these two characters would use. When you’re a writer sometimes that happens, and when that happens it’s the luckiest moment in the universe because it makes your job so much easier; you’re just channeling.

KOUGUELL:  What suggestions do you give your Columbia students about writing characters?

DIECKMANN: I give them a 40 character questions worksheet, which stems from Frank Daniel the founder of the Columbia Screenwriting Program, and then different colleagues of mine have modified it over the years. There are also exercises to do to get to know your character inside – the psyche of your character. One thing I often critique in their scripts is ‘You’re not in the scene because that character was last seen standing by the counter and now he’s sitting at a table, so how did they get from A to B.? You’re not with your character’s physical space. So, I say, be an actor in your own scene, and act it. I do that too when I’m writing. I ask: Where am I in this space? Where are the other people in this space? Is it hot in the room? Am I uncomfortable? Am I hungry? Try to be as an actor would be in that situation and I think that really helps to write more authentically in terms of what characters might say or do.

KOUGUELL: What about structure?

DIECKMANN: I’m really into structure because if you really have structure in your bloodstream it’s actually liberating then you don’t have to think about it too much.  When I teach I spend an enormous time on structure.

I teach the film ‘IDA’ for the sequences.  (Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz.) It’s hyper composed. If you break down the film, you’ll find eight masterful sequences.

Script EXTRA: Structure – The Spine of the Screenplay

KOUGUELL: Did you stay close to the script, was there improvisation?

DIECKMANN: Holly loved the script and had the entire script committed to memory. She had such an intent keen interest in the dialogue.  There wasn’t much improvisation, not because I’m controlling, but because the actors wanted to stick close to it.

KOUGUELL: Sadly, Glenne Headly passed away last month. She gave a tremendous performance.

DIECKMANN:  Glenne was a very deep thinking actor who really wanted to interrogate text on every level. I loved the chemistry between Glenne, Holly and Carrie Coon.

KOUGUELL: What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters who are setting out on this journey?

DIECKMANN: Writing about something you’re passionate about even if it does not seem ‘marketable’ is the best thing to do. I think a lot of writers starting out try to calculate to the market, but you can’t control whether the world is going to pay attention to it. Write something that you really believe in, that’s your strength. I always tell my writers to write to their particular and personal strength, and passion. I teach a year-long class and sometimes students come in with two ideas and I say, pitch them both, and it’s completely clear what someone is invested in. Write to your investment and don’t worry if it’s fashionable. Look at Moonlight  – who would have predicted how great that such a singular voice completely uncalculated to the market broke through like that. To me, that’s what every writer should do.

Strange Weather opens in theaters on July 28.

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Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘Swim Team’ Filmmaker Lara Stolman for Script Magazine

Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘Swim Team’ Filmmaker Lara Stolman

Click to tweet this interview to your friends and followers!

Lara Stolman

The award-winning feature documentary Swim Team is indeed making a huge splash. On July 7th of this year, ABC World News Tonight chose the cast of Swim Team as its “Persons of the Week” and the film continues to garner note-worthy attention.

I recently spoke with director Lara Stolman about making her debut independent documentary, her creative process and how this project came to life.

Lara has produced news and documentaries that have aired on NBC, MSNBC, TLC, AMC, VH-1 and The New York Times‘ website. Her film Portraits of Survival, about coming to terms with the tragedy of 9/11 through art, was selected for the Hamptons International Film Festival, aired on MSNBC and was awarded the Cine Golden Eagle. For Swim Team, her first feature documentary film, she was named an IFP Documentary Lab Fellow, awarded the New York Women in Film and Television Loreen Arbus Disability Awareness grant and was provided with completion funding from the Karma Foundation. Lara has guest lectured on documentary production at NYU, served as a juror for the News and Documentary Emmy Awards and writes for the Huffington Post. She has a BA in Political Science from Columbia College of Columbia University and JD from Yeshiva University’s Benjamin Cardozo School of Law.

 

About the Film

Swim Team is a feature documentary chronicling the rise of a competitive swim team made up of diverse teens on the autism spectrum. Based in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the cast of Swim Team is largely Latino and Asian, minorities that are underrepresented in competitive swimming and underserved in autism intervention and education. The film follows three of the team’s star athletes, boys on the cusp of adulthood as they face a future of exclusion and dependence. But everything changes when they come together as a team with parent coaches who train them with high expectations and zero pity. As the team vies for state and national Special Olympics championships, Swim Team captures a moving quest for inclusion, independence and a life that feels winning. 

SUSAN KOUGUELL: How did the project come about?

LARA STOLMAN: I was looking for swimming lessons for my son who has autism and I found Coach Mike and Maria. This was in the fall of 2013. They were recruiting children for their new team; the team was just coming together and so it was the perfect time to meet them and start working on the film. We were able to be there on the first day of practice, the first day the kids came together as a team.

They were so inspiring to me as a mom, as a parent, and as a filmmaker. I was very impressed with their high expectations. Coach Mike said, ‘This team is going to dominate the competition.’ No one speaks that way about children with autism. I knew that I had to see how this unfolds.  My son was too young to participate on the team at that time. It was soon after I met them that I knew I had to capture this story.

KOUGUELL: Why did you choose not to include yourself or your son’s story in this film?

STOLMAN:  My background is in film and television, and this is my first independent project. I work for networks and cable channels, and I’ve always done what I’ve been assigned to do story wise.  I never thought of myself as a personal filmmaker; that’s not how I approached my work. When the time came for me to make my film I looked up to the great cinéma vérité filmmakers, D.A. Pennebaker and Barbra Kopple.

It’s interesting, I didn’t think it was important to turn the camera on myself and yet you could say this was a very personal film. The film is very much informed by my experience. The intimacy of the scenes with these families is a result of what I had in common with them and we were able to establish a rapport.

Susan Kouguell speaks with director Lara Stolman about the creative process making her debut independent documentary and how this project came to life.KOUGUELL: The parents of the three protagonists are so open and honest about their experiences, their fears for the future for their sons, their pride of their sons’ accomplishments. Describe the process of the boys and families opening up to you. 

STOLMAN: It was a process; it didn’t happen right away. I knew I had to have the whole team involved in order to film. There were 17 kids on the team and 17 families. I needed everyone to sign release forms. I needed to call everyone up and not everyone returned my calls. I showed up at the YMCA, I went to people’s houses, and during this process I was interviewing everyone and trying to figure out who was going to be a featured character, who was going to be a featured family and who would let me, who was going to be part of the process and be a partner with me. That’s what you need with a film like this. Not everyone was interested.  I had families who didn’t return my calls or they said, ‘no we don’t want to do this,’ but everyone signed those release forms. I was able to film the story with the kids and the team and no one had to be blurred out or cut out.  For some families it was personal, there are privacy issues and there are stigma issues too with autism and I understand that.

But even with the families that were interested it was still a process to get to the point where we really had that intimacy that you see in the film. For example, the scene with Rosa where she sits down with her son Robbie to talk to him about autism — that happened later in our filming.  It was something that we worked toward. She told me when I first met her that it was important for her to have this conversation with her son. He was on the team specifically so she could tell him about who he was and his diagnosis. He didn’t need to be on that team.  Most of the kids needed to be on the team because no other team would take them but Robbie was on two other swim teams; he was on his high school team and the elite swimming team. Rosa thought it was important that he learned more about who he is and his community. I asked her if I could film that conversation and she agreed. There wasn’t a lot of direction, so to speak, but we definitely talked ahead of time; when she was thinking of doing it, what she would say. She was very nervous how to talk about it.

My relationship with these parents was more than a filmmaker and their subjects. I became part of the community, part of the team. I wasn’t a team family but I actually became a team parent.

KOUGUELL: I imagine that’s how Mikey, Kelvin, and Robbie, came to trust you and the cameras.

STOLMAN: I didn’t think it was going to pan out with Robbie. I tried to test him with my iPhone when I went to visit him at his home. I wanted to do a camera test to see how he would be on camera and he just wouldn’t talk. I guess he was nervous. I didn’t know him at that point and I thought it wasn’t going to work out because he was shutting down. Lo and behold, he emerges as one of the most charismatic characters.

We got to the point they didn’t think about the cameras.  It was myself, DP, Laela Kilbourn and my sound guy Peter Ginsburg. We are not obtrusive, and we spent a lot of time with them even when we weren’t filming. I went to the practices and participated, I spoke to the parents even when I wasn’t shooting and all of that I think contributed to the kids and parents not noticing the cameras.

KOUGUELL: Did you work from any type of scripted outline?

STOLMAN: Yes. Because I work in television and television news, I write everything in script form before I edit. I go through a process over a few months usually and with a project like this I go through all the footage and I put the whole script on paper and do a paper cut before I start to edit with my editor.  Things change when you get into an edit room.  We had a focus group at one point.

I like to write and I like to approach the story first from the standpoint of putting it on paper.   Even before I wrote a script, I wrote a treatment. Everything is transcribed, and I transcribed this project myself. I like to look at footage multiple times because each time I might be looking at things differently; sometimes you’re looking at the dialogue, sometimes the shot. Then I write a treatment or an outline, and then I write a script.  The script is something that changes when you get into the edit room. I sit there with a laptop and I’m constantly changing as we are editing. I feel most comfortable working that way. It took us only seven months to edit the film and I think that’s in part because of the scripting process and because I’m such a stickler about that.

KOUGUELL: What was the length of the shoot?

STOLMAN: We started filming January 2014 and we did most of our shooting until June 2014, then we did some follow-up the next year with the main characters.  We didn’t know what the ending was going to be.  It could have been that Mikey goes to nationals, but all these other things were happening and I realized that’s not the ending.

KOUGUELL: Did you have any specific intentions going into the project regarding the subject matter you wanted to address and did that change in any way as the filming evolved?

STOLMAN: There were certainly many unexpected twists and turns along the way and I definitely had an open mind, which you have to have in a documentary with real life characters who are living their lives.

We did know that Mikey was going to the nationals before we started shooting and that’s one of the reasons that I thought this was going to be the natural ending of the film. We didn’t know anything else; I didn’t know who the main characters were going to be.  We were following seven of the families pretty closely and it wasn’t until midway through filming that it became clear that it was these three guys on the relay team.

I knew I had a story: a season in the life of this team and the star swimmer was going to nationals. But beyond that everything else was organic, unpredictable and exciting.  For example, people have asked me if I orchestrated the Act 2 crisis point when Robbie is late for practice and I say, of course not, that’s part of the fun and unpredictability of the process.

KOUGUELL: You tackle the challenges the three boys and their parents face directly and unapologetically.  This isn’t a film only about young people who have disabilities and their families, it is also universal, as it examines the failure of the system and how parents try to navigate it as best as possible and how the community works together or doesn’t.

STOLMAN: I was mindful that this film has to transcend an audience of families with kids who are on the spectrum. I wanted it to be universally appealing.   What these families are struggling with is applicable to all parents in general.  Whether their kids have disabilities or not all, parents have to handle unexpected challenges with their children.

My producer and editor said they felt so strongly about being part of the film because they’re mothers — and their boys are typical — but they connected so strongly with the parents’ POV in the film and how much these parents love these kids and how they’re willing to do everything and anything it takes. We would like the film to move beyond a niche audience.

Swim Team is playing at the IFC Center in Manhattan until July 25 and at the Laemmie Monica Film Center in Los Angeles until July 26.  For more information about Swim Team and screenings visit their website.

READ MORE HERE

Susan’s ‘Fundamentals of Screenwriting’ 4-week Online Class starts 7/27

Join me July 27- August 24

 for my online 4-week class

THE FUNDAMENTALS OF SCREENWRITING 

This four-week class is the perfect introduction to the world of writing a script, from the fundamentals of the story down to the revision process. In this course, you will gain the tools to structure your scenes, your acts, and your plots.
At each step, you will receive comprehensive feedback on assignments targeted to develop the skills needs to thrive as a screenwriter.
The lessons in this course include video instruction.

Testimonial:

The course was well outlined and a terrific help in getting the script properly structured. The instructor was supportive and gave fantastic advice with positive feedback.” – Jen B.

READ MORE HERE

Join Susan’s ‘Advanced Film Rewriting’ Online Class starts July 13

Advanced Film Rewriting Workshop at Screenwriters University

This ten-week workshop is broken up into five sessions that each focus on individual elements of the rewriting process. Each session, you will submit a section of your screenplay for review. Each session will also have focused lectures that help you on each step of your revision process. The lectures are there for support, but the focus of this workshop will be on your screenplay. Each session, you will submit to your instructor for private review, and also you can submit to the other workshop participants for peer review.

Register here

Next session:

July 13- September 21