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Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

Category: SCRIPT MAGAZINE ARTICLES (page 1 of 5)

Award-Winning Writer and Director Rosemary Rodriguez talks about her film ‘Silver Skies’ with Susan Kouguell


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2016 RosemaryDirector_003_pp

Rosemary Rodriguez

Last year I sat down with writer and director Rosemary Rodriguez in New York City to talk about her career trajectory, and directing for television for this publication.

Rodriguez’s television credits include The Good Wife (she directed 18 episodes, more than any other director in the seven seasons of the series) The Walking Dead, Amazon’s Sneaky Pete starring Bryan Cranston, Marvel’s Jessica JonesEmpireSex & Drugs & Rock & RollOutsidersLaw and Order: SVU,  and Rescue Me. Acts of Worship, Rodriguez’s first feature, which she wrote and directed, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards, including the John Cassavetes Award for Best Feature.

We recently caught up to talk about Silver Skies, her second independent feature film, which she wrote and directed. The film is being released by Joe Amodei and his company Virgil Films Entertainment (VFE) and will be available on DVD and Streaming on Amazon and iTunes April 4, 2017.

Silver Skies chronicles a group of seniors whose lives are turned upside down when their Los Angeles apartment complex threatens to be sold out from under them.

The film won the Audience Award at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, Best Feature at the Manhattan Film Festival, Best Comedy at the Tiburon International Film Festival, Best Film at the Live Free or Die Film Festival, and it was the Closing Night film at the Palm Beach Film Festival.  Alex Rocco won Best Supporting Actor at the Madrid International Film Festival.

Silver Skies PosterRodriguez: The film opened in September 2016 in a limited theatrical run, playing eight weeks in Palm Springs and eight weeks at The Villages in Florida. We played in Orange County, Arizona and around Florida. Little by little, it’s kept going. We are finishing our theatrical run March 30.

Kouguell: Tell me about the evolution of Silver Skies.

Rodriguez: It took about ten years.  I went to the MacDowell Colony with an outline for ‘Silver Skies and wrote the script there. Then, when I directed an episode of Law and Order, I hit it off with the show’s star Dennis Farina. He loved the script and helped to get the movie made. Two years later I called Dennis, told him we got the money, and we picked the start date. Two weeks later he passed away. I was devastated by his passing. Sometime later we had a script reading and producers Fred Roos and Arthur Sarkissian came, and they said, ‘let’s do this movie.’ The movie is dedicated to Dennis.

Kouguell: Did your actors have any input into the script?

Rodriguez: Yes, they definitely did. I’m a big collaborator; I want to hear what people have to say.  For example: George Hamilton’s character is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  Jack McGee’s brother, George Hamilton’s mother, and my dad, all had Alzehimer’s and we shared our respective experiences to further develop George’s character. In a way it was a tribute for George to his mother, for Jack to his brother, and mine to my father.

Kouguell: You describe Silver Skies as very personal and inspired by your parents’ aging. The characters of Nick and Phil are inspired by your father, who was a bookie in Boston, and the character, Eve, by your mother.

Rodriguez: Valerie Perrine’s character always has flowers; that was my mother. I watched my parents get old when I was still young and I saw how their relationships changed.  I think seniors don’t have a voice in this world.  These are people who want to have sex. They want to work. They want to spend money. Make money. Have money.

On 'Silver Skies' with George Hamilton

On ‘Silver Skies’ with George Hamilton

Kouguell:  These issues about sex and money, as well as ageism and women’s power, are themes in Silver Skies that dare to challenge the viewer. Indeed, these topics have resonated with your audiences.

Rodriguez: The audience response was incredible and that’s what kept us going! When we had no money for marketing, people would show up to see these actors that they miss: George Hamilton, Valerie Perrine, Barbara Bain, Mariette Hartley, Jack Betts, Jack McGee, Alex Rocco. Then as they watched the movie, something wonderful happened: they would stop seeing the actors and start seeing themselves in these characters! That was my goal! These incredible actors pull off some extraordinary, relatable performances.



Susan Kouguell Talks to Brian David Cange, Producer of “Take My Nose… Please!”

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take my nose image

Directed by legendary editor of Allure magazine Joan Kron, this provocative and humorous feature documentary explores society’s attitude towards plastic surgery. The film follows two comedians as they deliberate going under the knife: Emily Askin, an up-and-coming improv performer has always wanted her nose refined, and Jackie Hoffman, a seasoned headliner on Broadway and on TV, considers herself ugly and regrets not having the nose job offered in her teens – and maybe she’d also like a face-lift.

With commentaries from cultural critics, psychologists, sociologists, surgeons, along with cameos from comedians Judy Gold, Julie Halston, Lisa Lampanelli, Giulia Rozzi, Bill Scheft, and Adrianne Tolsch, the film confronts the pressure women feel to meet impossible expectations and the judgment they endure when they have cosmetic surgery.

About First-time Director Joan Kron

Director Joan Kron

Director Joan Kron

An author and award-winning journalist, Kron’s work includes stints at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. She spent 25 years covering plastic surgery for Allure magazine and documented some of her experiences in the book, Lift: Wanting, Fearing, and Having a Face-Lift.

Take My Nose… Please!

I spoke with one of the film’s producers, Brian David Cange, about the documentary just days before the announcement that the film received the 2017 Miami International Film Festival’s Knight Documentary Achievement Award.

About Brian David Cange

Producer Brian David Cange

Producer Brian David Cange

Cange is an award-winning producer and line producer whose credits include Roxanne, Roxanne and Marjorie Prime (both 2017 Sundance Film Festival Official Selections), Equity, a 2016 Official Selection Sundance Film Festival; the highly acclaimed documentary Mad Hot Ballroom; Backwards; Fugly!; Particle Fever; The Skeptic; the 2008 Peabody Award winning documentary Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life; National Geographic’s I am Rebel, the first in a four-part miniseries; Footsteps in the Snow for A&E and Lifetime Movie Networks; the Emmy-nominated, History Channel mini-series The World Wars, and Making Space, a feature documentary about five accomplished female architects with renowned producer Ultan Guilfoyle.

KOUGUELL: How did you get involved with the project?

CANGE: I became involved through my colleague Andrea Miller. Andrea and I worked together on the documentary film Particle Fever, and I helped her develop other projects, budget them, and sometimes shoot sizzle reels. I met director Joan Kron at the end of 2014. Andrea had suggested I speak to her about physically producing the film and also helping develop the project from a storytelling perspective, making sure there was a narrative structure, and helping her find the right characters to follow. In this case it was Emily Askin and Jackie Hoffman.

Joan was very resourceful; she went out to the comedy clubs every week and sometimes I would go with her to check out comedians.

Script EXTRA: Conversation with Sheila Nevins, President of HBO Documentary Films

KOUGUELL:  What was the response from the comedians to participate in the film? Were they forthcoming as to whether or not they had cosmetic surgery or reticent?

CANGE: Yes, very reticent. Oftentimes people didn’t want to speak about it. Judy Gold, Lisa Lampanelli, Julie Halston, and a few others were confident enough to talk about it on camera.

KOUGUELL: Tell me more about finding the narrative in the project.

CANGE: When Joan Kron first came to me about the project, she had a clip reel of famous comedians: Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Phyllis Diller.  Joan had taken an editing class and she put together a sizzle reel of what she thought would be comedians talking about the history of plastic surgery or the history of plastic surgery in the female comedian environment.  I thought it would be very expensive to put this all together because they were very expensive clips and music rights to obtain.

Joan had the clip-driven sizzle reel, an outline, and a group of interviews she had already done in California, including some of the plastic surgeon specialists.  In the film, the interviews done in the theater were done early on, before I came on. She worked in Los Angeles and did eight interviews for two days. A good number of these interviews stayed in movie.

Emily Askin

Emily Askin

Joan, Andrea and I discussed the way to produce this film that there was a narrative to follow. We all agreed to casting and meeting with comedians who were living and perhaps less famous in some cases it was a little bit of both. Emily Askin was the one we were following first.  Emily agreed to the film; she’d already had a stomach belt surgery prior to working with us so she was also open to the possibility of getting a nose job.

Joan approached Jackie Hoffman after reading a story about her in the Wall Street Journal.  Jackie was really on the fence as to whether or not to get a nose job.

KOUGUELL: What was the time period over which the film was shot?

CANGE: The majority of the film was shot in 2015 and 2016.  It was less than 100 hours of filming. The editing process took over about nine months. We brought on editor Nancy Novak; she really understood the narrative balance needed between the story of these comedians, their own journeys, and the history of plastic surgery, which was so important to Joan. And, also making sense of how women comedians are often judged by their appearance just as women actors are. Someone actually asked me after our recent screening in Miami if we had considered any male comedians and we did approach a couple but no one wanted to be in the film.

Jackie Hoffman

Jackie Hoffman

KOUGUELL: Because the men didn’t want to reveal that they had cosmetic surgery done?

CANGE: (laughs) Yes, that’s pretty accurate.

Better Writing Goals for 2017: Patience and Perseverance

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Better Writing Goals for 2017: Patience and Perseverance by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Now that we are in the film awards season, many screenwriters are even more inspired to get their work produced and onto the big or small screen.  So, bring it on, 2017!  This might just be your year to make the resolution to polish your screenplay and send it out into the world.

Writing a screenplay comes with both its own joy and challenges. But knowing if your screenplay is truly ready to submit to competitions, potential producers, and agents and managers, can be for many writers, daunting.  Let’s start this year by making the process less overwhelming by becoming proactive.


Make yourself a promise: Be patient.

Is your screenplay really ready to be seen by film industry folks? Be honest now. Are you about to submit your screenplay because you are bored working on it and believe that it’s “good enough” despite knowing in your heart that another rewrite (or more…) is needed? This is the time for a gut check. If this is what you’re feeling, then do not submit your script. If you are tired of your screenplay—so will the agent, manager, producer, director, talent, script competition reader, and film executive to whom you are submitting your project.

Before you submit your screenplay, get feedback from people (preferably in the film industry or knowledgeable about film) who will tell you the truth. And nothing but the truth. Giving it to people who might sugarcoat their responses, such as close relatives, might not be the best choice, unless you are eager to risk family estrangement.

For a quarter of a century – yes, that many years – I have worked with over 1,000 writers and filmmakers, as The Screenplay Doctor, consulting on both independent and studio projects.  At this point, I believe I’ve heard it all – from writers who believe that a company will “just buy their idea and fix it” or say, “the movie I just saw stunk so why do I have to waste my time and rewrite my script?” – to studio executives who are dismayed that their time is being wasted reading amateurish, unimaginative and/or sloppy work that ends up on their desks.

My question to you is this: Why would you submit your screenplay that isn’t absolutely the best it can be?

Take your time writing and rewriting, and rewriting again if needed.  Once your script has been rejected by industry folks, it is just about impossible to resubmit it to the same person or company for reconsideration.


The film industry is a business.  Hence the word “industry.” This business requires a tough skin, determination, tenacity, and diligence. In order to break into the business and/or stay in the business, obviously you must write great scripts, but writing a stand-out work also demands being open to constructive critiques.  If you are receiving similar feedback on the same script issues, chances are you should take these remarks into consideration and make revisions.


Academy Award®-Nominated Documentary Filmmaker, Carl Deal, Talks ‘Citizen Koch’ & ‘Michael Moore in TrumpLand’

by Susan Kouguell


Regardless of which side of the political aisle you stand, there is probably one point all sides can agree on – Academy Award® nominated filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin make thought-provoking films that challenge the audience to question the world around them. Their two recent films, which guest speaker Carl Deal recently spoke about at Purchase College, SUNY – CITIZEN KOCH and MICHAEL MOORE IN TRUMPLAND – are no exception.

Academy Award®-Nominated Documentary Filmmaker, Carl Deal, Talks 'Citizen Koch' & 'Michael Moore in TrumpLand' by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Carl Deal and Tia Lessin

About the Filmmakers

Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, are Academy Award®-nominated filmmakers, who produced and directed TROUBLE THE WATER, winner of the Gotham Independent Film Award, the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize, and the Full Frame Documentary Festival Grand Jury Prize. Deal and Lessin were, respectively, archival and supervising producers of Michael Moore’s FAHRENHEIT 9/11, winner of the Palme d’Or, Academy Award®-winning BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE and co-producers of CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY, WHERE TO INVADE NEXT and most recently Deal produced (with Michael Moore) MICHAEL MOORE IN TRUMPLAND, which Lessin Executive produced.

Tia and Carl were nominated for an NAACP Image Award and a Producers Guild Award for TROUBLE THE WATER. Tia line produced Martin Scorsese’s Emmy and Grammy-winning film NO DIRECTION HOME: BOB DYLAN and was consulting producer of LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD: GEORGE HARRISON. Her work as a producer of the series THE AWFUL TRUTH earned her two Emmy nominations, one arrest and a lifetime ban from Disney World. She is the recipient of the L’Oréal Paris/Women in Film’s Women of Worth Vision Award and the Sidney Hillman Prize for Broadcast Journalism for BEHIND THE LABELS, a film about labor trafficking in the US garment industry. Carl Deal has contributed to many other documentary films, and worked as an international news producer and a writer, reporting from natural disasters and conflict zones throughout the U.S., Latin America, and in Iraq.



The film tells the story of the changing American political landscape through the eyes of three Wisconsin state employees, all lifelong Republicans, who suddenly find their party taking direct aim at them, stripping away the economic ground their families have built and depended on for generations: Set against the rise of the Tea Party in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, a citizen uprising to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker collides with the Tea Party-aligned “Americans for Prosperity,” a group founded and lavishly financed by two of the world’s richest men — David and Charles Koch. As Republican working class voters find themselves in the cross-hairs of their own party and its billionaire backers, they are forced to choose sides.

CARL DEAL: “The film was made in 2011-2012, and came out in 2013. It’s very topical given the election season right now. What you see here is a behind the scenes; and today it’s still happening all over the country; there are still certain states that are being targeted in the same way as Wisconsin was targeted in this film.”

Protesters fill the rotunda in the Wisconsin State Capital in the run up to Gov. Walker’s anti-union bill in a scene from CITIZEN KOCH

Protesters fill the rotunda in the Wisconsin State Capital in the run up to Gov. Walker’s anti-union bill in a scene from CITIZEN KOCH

Advice for Storytellers

CARL DEAL: “This film began with the idea to do something about climate change deniers and along the way of making this, very early on, we concluded that we are filmmakers and we are people who are engaged with the world so we try to make media that engages with what is relevant today, in the moment. It became a movie about money and politics because we realized that’s where the problem lies. We never thought we’d be in Wisconsin; we ended up in Wisconsin sort of on a whim because that’s where the news of the day took us.   So, for you storytellers, I hope you always follow the story where it takes you, and get out of your head and not be fixed in following the idea that you have when you get support to do a project. Let the project also have a life of its own.”


Making a film that has the potential to stir up controversy carries its own set of risks. Deal was asked how one manages the issue of backlash and specifically how they handled it on CITIZEN KOCH.

CARL DEAL: “We got Errors and Omissions insurance and we made sure that we were insured in case anything happened that got in the way of us finishing the film. We knew we were taking on some powerful interests with it.  We were set to premiere at Sundance and our broadcaster was about to release the last transfer of the film when they called us and said we needed to change the title or else. The New Yorker did an exposé on it.”

New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer writes: “Lessin and Deal had provisionally called the film “Citizen Corp,” but they worried that the title made it sound like a film about a corpse. After Sundance officials pressed for a final title so that they could start promoting it, Lessin and Deal told ITVS that they had settled on “Citizen Koch.” The new title reflected the evolution of the narrative: reporting had focused increasingly on the pitched battle in Wisconsin over the efforts of Scott Walker, the Republican governor, to ban collective bargaining by public-sector-employee unions. As the  reported, Koch Industries was among Walker’s primary financial backers in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

CARL DEAL: “The title of the film is so important sometimes. The “Citizen Koch” title was a direct reference to Governor Scott Walker; it set up expectations for viewers who thought it was an exposé about the Koch brothers, which it wasn’t. Think about your titles.”

Character-Driven and Context in Citizen Koch

CARL DEAL: “There are many different ways to make a documentary film. There’s a trend now to make only character-driven documentaries and those can be really beautiful and emotional stories, and I also think the context for these stories is really important. Not every audience is going to understand the context with an emotional connection to characters so that’s why we did it both ways here.”



Oscar-winner Michael Moore dives deep in the heart of hostile TrumpLand territory with his daring, profound, and uproarious one-man show. When the show gets banned from the first town they tried, Mike moves on to an even bigger community of Trump supporters in the ironically-named Clinton County, Ohio.



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

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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.



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’


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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.


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


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?


Award-Winning Writer & Director Thomas Bidegain on Directorial Debut Film ‘Les Cowboys’ & Breaking Screenwriting Rules

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“In ‘Les Cowboys’ things are not what they appear to be.”
–Thomas Bidegain

Cowboys_Web-FilmTrack_lgOn a sunny day in midtown Manhattan, I had the pleasure to meet with French writer and director Thomas Bidegain about his new film Les Cowboys.  A longtime collaborator of filmmaker Jacques Audiard, Bidegain has written scripts for Audiard’s Rust and Bone, A Prophet, and Dheepan, as well as for Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, which was the 2014 French Foreign Language Oscar submission.

We began our conversation talking about writing controversial and hot button subject matter, as seen in the film Where Do We Go Now, which he wrote in collaboration with Lebanese director Nadine Labaki. (The film centers on a group of Lebanese women who try to ease religious tensions between Christians and Muslims in their village.)

Bidegain: “I went to Lebanon for a month to write with Labaki; they already had a script but they were not quite happy with it and we found the right tone for it. It’s a great film about women.”

When describing his latest film, Les Cowboys, which took a year-and-a-half to write, Bidegain stated:  “It’s the story of simple folk who are projected into the chaos of a world they don’t understand.”

About Les Cowboys

Thomas Bidegain, director of Les Cowboys. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Thomas Bidegain, director of Les Cowboys.
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Country and Western enthusiast Alain is enjoying an outdoor gathering of fellow devotees with his wife and teenage children when his daughter Kelly abruptly vanishes. Learning that she’s eloped with her Muslim boyfriend, he embarks on an increasingly obsessive quest to track her down. As the years pass and the trail grows cold, Alain sacrifices everything, while drafting his son into his efforts.

The film is inspired by director John Ford’s The Searchers (screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, from the novel by Alan LeMay) about a Civil War veteran who embarks on a journey to rescue his niece from an Indian tribe. But the story departs from Ford’s film in unexpected ways, and escapes its confining European milieu as the pursuit assumes near-epic proportions in post-9/11 Afghanistan.

The Evolution of the Screenplay

TB:  “I’ve worked a lot with Noé Debré.  It was an idea I had and I told him the story. We took notes and we ended up with a six-page treatment and that’s pretty much the film. I went to see a producer and he bought it.  It was always a very tight script. The first version of the screenplay was 85 pages and the story takes place over the course of 15 years.  In the script, the characters don’t talk too much; the people are from the mountainside so it’s true to their characters.

Producers always want you to have likeable characters but if the characters are likeable then nothing can happen to them. For example, the father’s obsession to find his daughter Kelly turns into a form of narcissism.”

Kouguell: “It’s interesting how the protagonist shifts midway through the film from father to son, as Kid gradually takes on the role of the caretaker and continues on his father’s quest to find Kelly. On one level, the story is about a father and son relationship, yet the father’s journey to find his daughter underscores a father who doesn’t know his daughter at all.”

TB: “Yes, the father is myopic.  He thinks he’s a cowboy and believes that the Muslim Community is the Indians.”




Writer and Director Leena Yadav Interview About Her New Feature Film ‘Parched’

Writer Director Leena Yadav On New Feature Film ‘Parched’

In a recent phone conversation with writer director Leena Yadav, we discussed her new feature film, Parched, which opens theatrically via Wolfe Releasing on June 17th in Los Angeles DVD_Amaray_Template.qxd(Laemmle Music Hall), New York (AMC Empire 25) and the Bay Area (Cine Grand in Fremont and Camera 12 in San Jose). This contemporary drama follows the lives of three Indian women who question the ancient traditions that hold them in servitude.

Ms. Yadav tackles the themes of gender roles, patriarchy, conditioning, and abuse with clarity and unapologetically.

With a budget just over 2.5 million dollars, Yadav describes Parched as an “absolutely independent passion project.” Shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter (Titanic), the film’s visual sensibility adds another layer of both beauty and painful depth to the parched desert landscape and rich characters.

Leena Yadav On New Feature Film Parched…

Yadav: “Russell has an amazing eye for detail. I love the way he uses light and shade in every frame. A director – cinematographer relationship on shoots is almost like a husband wife relationship – high expectations and low tolerance!”

Writer Director Leena Yadav On New Feature Film Parched by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Lajjo (Radhika Apte), Rani (Tannistha Chatterjee), Bijli (Surveen Chawla) in PARCHED – Photo by Russell Carpenter, ASC – Courtesy of Wolfe Video


Set in a remote rural desert community of North West India – widowed Rani, her vivacious best friend, Lajjo, and the exotic dancer Bijli – talk about men, sex and life, as they struggle under the oppressive rules of their traditional village ways.  But when Rani is tasked to find a teenage bride for her entitled fifteen-year-old son, they begin to question this status quo that favors men, sends child brides to abusive husbands, and ostracizes women for being educated and opinionated.  One fateful night, the women come together and take a bold step that will change the trajectory of their lives forever.

Director Leena Yadav - Courtesy of Wolfe Video

Leena Yadav

About Writer and Director Leena Yadav

Yadav: “I was raised to judge and treat people as human beings above and beyond their gender, religion, or caste.”

Born in Mhow, India, Leena Yadav is one of a vanguard of prominent female directors working in India. She began her career as a successful editor on commercials and an assistant director for television, and then went on to direct for more than 300 hours of television, including hit fiction shows and India’s first reality TV show. She made her directorial debut with Shabd (2005), which she also wrote and edited – and which bravely explores the psychology of love, marriage, creativity and freedom.  She wrote and directed Teen Patti (2010), starring two legends of cinema – Amitabh Bachchan and Academy Award Winner, Sir Ben Kingsley. Parched is Yadavi’s third feature film.

Writer Director Leena Yadav On New Feature Film Parched by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Surveen Chawla,front,Radhika Apte (left), Leher Khanmiddle (center) Tannishtha-Chatterjee (right) Photo Russell-Carpenter, ASC

The Screenplay Process

Yadav: “While I was writing the screenplay, I was suddenly struck with the idea that what I’m writing about is happening right here in my backyard in Bombay.  Everyone wants to believe that these problems and these kinds of judgments are happening elsewhere. We like to live in denial. The script process became so interesting for me when I was writing in Bombay and I sent it out to my friends across the world just to get feedback. No one reacted to it like a script; they all wrote back, sharing stories about their own circumstances. We all started feeling the universality of the subject.

The writing process continued when I went location scouting for villages. We visited over 30 villages in and around Bhuj, Gujarat, and Rajasthan. I was refused permission from a lot of villagers because people were saying, if women like you are here than our women will become corrupt, looking at you, seeing a woman who is empowered, who is in charge of herself. They did not approve of a team led by a woman (myself) who wore pants, didn’t cover her head and spoke openly to men. That gave me more juice (ideas) again and I came back home and I wrote more.

It was interesting with the younger generation of men in the villages – the current decision-makers, who had the biggest problem with a liberated woman team leader. One said to me, “If women like you enter our village, our women will get corrupted.” From this experience, I got the character of Gulab, Rani’s son. Gulab has been raised in a patriarchal world, where misogyny is the ‘norm’. He is as much a product of this world as he becomes its propagator. In that sense, Gulab too is a victim. The men who are his elders have bequeathed to him anger and aggression as survival tools. He has been raised believing that women are objects of lust and possession.”

We discussed the controversial climax of the film and agreed not to give any details away in this interview.

Yadav: “When I was working on the script and I thought: What is the big revelation that can happen? What is the big change? The answer for me was very simple. Each character would be questioning her circumstances. For me, that was the big resolution; their rebellion.

The small steps – that is what I always tell the audience. If a few people can start questioning their conditioning – like falling into the traps of boys don’t cry, girls don’t do this or that – then we can stop being so accepting of this conditioning.

We give so much lip-service to so many things. The whole thing with patriarchy is confusing because some of the greatest supporters of the patriarchy are women. The moment we get engaged in the gender blame game, we’re not going anywhere. We have to sit down together and talk this out.

The victims here in this film are also men because of their conditioning.  You can see their anger whether it’s a man’s confused sexuality or an impotent husband unable to have children. Anger comes from all kinds of suppression.”

Writer Director Leena Yadav On New Feature Film Parched by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Village elders in the environment in PARCHED – Photo by Russell Carpenter, ASC – Courtesy of Wolfe Video

Awards for Parched

With its world premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, the film has garnered awards and critical acclaim at numerous festivals worldwide, including the Stockholm International Film Festival (received  the first ever Impact Award to “support[s] headstrong filmmakers who are not afraid to bring up burning topics in contemporary society” judged, designed and presented by the legend Ai Weiwei); Best of the Fest at the Palm Springs International Film Festival; Festival 2 Valenciennes  (France): Prix du Jury for Best Film and Best Actress; Toulouse Indian Film Festival: Audience Award for best film; IFFLA 2016:  Audience Award for Best Film and Best Actress; and Festival de Cinema des 5 Continents, Ferney France: Youth Jury Award for Best Film and Special Jury Mention.

Release Platforms

The film will be released via Wolfe Video on August 9th on DVD/ VOD, across all digital platforms, including iTunes, Vimeo On Demand, and, and will also be available same date on DVD via Wolfe Video and many major retailers.


Coming of Age in ‘Morris from America’ and ‘Little Men’: Creating Empathetic Protagonists


Coming of Age in ‘Morris from America’ and ‘Little Men’:
Creating Empathetic Protagonists

by Susan Kouguell

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Coming of Age in 'Morris from America' and 'Little Men': Creating Empathetic Protagonists by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Markees Christmas in ‘Morris from America’

It was serendipitous timing.  At a recent press screening I attended, two independent films, Morris from America followed by Little Men, played back-to-back.  Why was it serendipitous timing?  While these two poignant films are significantly different, they are both coming-of-age stories, centering on 13-year-old male teens thrown into a fish-out-of-water situation by their fathers.

The definition of the term fish-out-of-water is when a character must navigate and cope in a foreign setting, culture, situation, or occupation.  Here are some examples: A naïve protagonist must survive living in a new environment (Splash); a man disguises himself like a woman (Tootsie, Some Like it Hot); a child lives as an adult or vice versa (Big, Freaky Friday); a spoiled protagonist must survive in a disadvantaged setting or vice versa (Private Benjamin, Trading Places).

morris from america 2

Markees Christmas (L) Craig Robinson (R) in ‘Morris from America’

About Morris from America

Morris Gentry, a 13-year-old who has just relocated from the Bronx with his single father, Curtis to Heidelberg, Germany, fancies himself the next Notorious B.I.G.,—a budding hip-hop star in an EDM world.  To complicate matters further, Morris quickly falls hard for his cool, rebellious, 15-year-old classmate Katrin. Morris sets out against all odds to take the hip-hop world by storm and win the girl of his dreams.

Written and directed by Chad Hartigan (This is Martin Bonner), Morris from America won two prizes at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and a Special Jury Award.

'Morris from America' and 'Little Men' are two poignant coming-of-age stories, centering on 13-year-old male teens thrown into a fish-out-of-water situation by their fathers. - Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Michael Barbieri (L) Theo Taplit (R) in ‘Little Men’

About Little Men

When 13-year-old Jake’s grandfather dies, his family moves from Manhattan back into his father’s old Brooklyn home. There, Jake befriends the charismatic Tony, whose single mother Leonor, a dressmaker from Chile, runs the shop downstairs. Soon, Jake’s parents Brian (a struggling actor) and Kathy (a psychotherapist) — ask Leonor to sign a new, steeper lease on her store. For Leonor, the proposed new rent is untenable, and a feud ignites between the adults. Meanwhile, the boys develop a kinship; Jake aspires to be an artist, while Tony wants to be an actor, and they have dreams of going to the same prestigious arts high school together. But they can’t avoid the problems of their parents and the adult conflict intrudes upon their friendship.

Directed by Ira Sachs (Love is Strange, Keep the Lights On, Forty Shades of Blue), screenplay by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharia.

Creating Empathy

Readers need to feel something for your characters. Whether it’s love, hate, disdain or pure delight, film industry folks expect to understand why your characters get along or don’t get along with their friends, family members, and others.

African American Morris Gentry (in Morris from America ) stands out in the German Caucasian youth center due to his skin color, and endures racial epitaphs, as teens sling stereotypical provocative words at him.  Though Morris is not yet fluent in the German language, the words are not lost on him.  For Little Men’s Jake, an aspiring artist, his move to Brooklyn and a new set of classmates who taunt him for not participating in their sports games (similar to Morris) makes the world of the new borough further isolating.

The two distinct settings of Brooklyn (Little Men) and Heidelberg, Germany (Morris from America) illustrate foreign and alienating worlds for protagonists Jake and Morris.  These two young teens must learn to navigate their respective new environments while overcoming personal familial obstacles.  Their respective journeys are successful because theirsituations are relatable; Jake and Morris are vulnerable, flawed, and believable.  They are empathetic.


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