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Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

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Join Susan’s Online Advanced Film Rewriting Workshop October 5

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



Don’t miss Susan’s Online Class: ‘7 Weeks to Your TV Spec Script’: 9/28-11/16

Join Susan’s Online Class: ‘7 Weeks to Your TV Spec Script’: 9/28-11/16

Seven Weeks to Your TV Spec Script

Seven Weeks to Your TV Spec Script

In this workshop, writers will learn all the key elements to a successful “episodic spec,” and will receive ongoing instructor guidance in building their own—from basic idea through finished outline. It begins with knowing how to choose the right kind of show to spec, then understanding which elements to study, in order to really grasp how a typical episode functions well enough to write one. Students will then learn the elements of great story ideas for a spec, and be given a chance to pitch and re-pitch multiple ideas for their episode, before finally settling on one to write. At that point, they will begin “breaking story” (figuring out the key “beats” of each “act”) over several weeks, getting instructor feedback along the way. Finally, they will be guided in crafting a scene-by-scene outline, from which they could then go on to write the actual script.

Next session:
September 28  – November 16

Susan Kouguell Interviews Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz for SCRIPT Magazine

Susan Kouguell Talks with Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz

Susan Kouguell interviews Ramona Diaz, filmmaker of Motherland, a poignant documentary in the heart of the planet’s busiest maternity hospital in one of the world’s poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines.

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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Susan Kouguell Talks with Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz

Ramona Diaz (Photo: Justin Tsucalas)

I had the pleasure to speak with Ramona Diaz about her gripping documentary Motherland, now playing in New York City’s Cinema Village, kicking off its theatrical run. Shot in a vérité style, the film foregoes any formal interviews, archival footage, experts’ opinions or narration. The film is intimate and powerful with moments of humor gently underscoring the poignancy of the subject matter.

About Ramona S. Diaz — Director, Producer, Writer, Co-Editor

Ramona Diaz is an award-winning Asian-American filmmaker. Her films include Spirits RisingImeldaThe Learning, and Don’t Stop Believin’ which have been broadcast on POV and Independent Lens, and have screened and won awards at Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, Silverdocs, IDFA, and many other top film festivals. She has received funding from ITVS, CAAM, Sundance Documentary Fund, MacArthur Foundation, Tribeca Institute, Catapult Film Fund, and Chicken & Egg. Recently she was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and was inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Ramona has been a film envoy for the American Film Showcase, a joint program of the U.S. Department of State and USC that brings American films to audiences worldwide.

About Motherland

Motherland takes us into the heart of the planet’s busiest maternity hospital in one of the world’s poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines. The film’s viewer, like an unseen outsider dropped unobtrusively into the hospital’s stream of activity, passes through hallways, enters rooms and listens in on conversations. At first, the surrounding people are strangers. But as the film continues, it’s absorbingly intimate, rendering the women at the heart of the story increasingly familiar. Three women—Lea, Aira and Lerma—emerge to share their stories with other mothers, their families, doctors and social workers. While each of them faces daunting odds at home, their optimism, honesty and humor suggest a strength that they will certainly have to summon in the years ahead.

KOUGUELL: Initially, you started with one idea for this film but it shifted.

DIAZ: I was in Manila researching a completely different film having to do with reproductive justice, reproductive health, and women’s rights. I was following a legislative bill, the Reproductive Health Bill, and I was interested in the social and political drama around it. When I got to Manilla I realized that the conversation there was very black and white, either for or against the bill, and I couldn’t find the nuance. Someone told me to visit the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital for my research. It’s called a baby factory; that’s how they refer to the hospital. In the first half hour I realized this is where my film is.

Walking around the ward, listening to the conversations the women were having, drew me in. The hospital is also so cinematic. I realized too that I could still include the themes I was interested in — reproductive health, etc., — all in one place. It was clear to me that this would make a better film.

KOUGUELL: How were you allowed access in the hospital?

DIAZ: First, there was the bureaucratic access: I had to go to the Secretary of Health to get permission. This hospital has been covered by media in the past, including CNN and the BBC, but only for short pieces and they were only there for a couple of days so they were used to media attention. But what I wanted was to be there every day for six weeks with access to all parts of the hospital. And they did give me access.

The more difficult type of access was making the staff really understand what I wanted, especially the nurses. To them, (the maternity process at the hospital) was so routine they couldn’t understand why it was special. I think people don’t necessarily think of their lives as being interesting. I knew the nurses were key because they know the ins and outs, and how that place works. Their average tenure there is 25 years. They were sort of the tribal elders; I knew if they understood what I was looking for then I’d get what I needed.

Because I chose to feature patients more than the staff, it made my life harder of course, because you can’t prep for that. Getting to know the staff was important, they sort of became my embedded producers because they knew I was looking for a younger mother, a much older mother and someone in the middle. And they would point out patients; they were on my side.

I chose the women who gave birth to preemies so I could follow them over time, a few weeks. Choosing the specific women was pure instinct.

KOUGUELL: Because you were there every day, the mothers felt they could trust you, yet filming them is very intimate. What kind of questions did you ask them to build trust?

DIAZ: I told them I was making a film about their lives in the hospital in however long their stay was, their everyday experiences. I said, we don’t want to get in the way of you resting, caring for your baby, we’ll never ask anything special of you, and we’ll have the camera on you. They wondered if that was interesting. I said it was interesting for me. I said, your stories will come out through the interactions with other people. Like Lea, she didn’t know she was having twins until giving birth.

We wouldn’t shoot the entire time we were with them, we’d put the camera down and we’d talk. That also really helped. They were interested in documentaries and what it is.

KOUGUELL: Talk about your choice to shoot Cinéma vérité and not use voice-over narration or title cards.

DIAZ: I wanted to mimic the experience I had when I first visited the hospital. I wanted to drop the audience into this organized chaos and figure it out because that was my experience with it. I really felt that the narrative would emerge from the scenes that we were filming. It was purposeful. From the beginning I knew I wanted to do that.

I had conversations with my DP Nadia (Hallgren) and I told her this was pure vérité. I remember the first day we were shooting and we walked away from a nurse doing a procedure and she asked, do you want to interview the nurse, and I said no, and she said ‘great’.  Many filmmakers start interviewing people just in case, but the ‘just in case’ becomes a crux, a go-to when you’re editing and I just didn’t want that option when we were editing.

KOUGUELL: How did you find the structure of the film? Was it prior to the shoot, during it, or in post?

DIAZ: We found the structure in editing. We found it quickly. Typically I edit for nine months, we edited for six months.  What took the longest was pulling the scenes and translating them.

KOUGUELL: Once you started filming did you work from any type of outline or did you just let the camera roll?

DIAZ: It wasn’t a strict outline but I kept notes every day about the characters and places so I knew where we had to cover: the labor room, the waiting room, the ward room where most of the action takes place. It was that kind of list making. Once I got into the characters then I started writing short outlines for myself; I imagined what we could capture based on the stories that were emerging. Sometimes they were so off the mark and sometimes they were right. We followed five to six characters fully and I knew I had to follow them throughout the stay until they got discharged.

KOUGUELL: Your advice for documentary filmmakers?

DIAZ: Certainly, persevere and be passionate. Be clear on what you’re trying to say, and I’m not even talking message. Know what it is you’re trying to say with your film and what you are trying to convey. If you know this, then things will fall into place.

Motherland opens in Los Angeles on September 22nd at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Santa Monica with a national roll out to follow.

Learn more about Motherland.

More articles by Susan Kouguell

Susan’s Script Magazine article: Jane Campion Talks Top of the Lake, The Piano, Writing and Moviemaking

Jane Campion Talks Top of the LakeThe Piano, Writing and Moviemaking

Oscar-winning writer and director Jane Campion spoke with Dennis Lim at the opening night of her retrospective titled Jane Campion’s Own Stories, about Top of the LakeThe Piano, and being a female filmmaker.

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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Photo credit: Sally Bongers

“You can’t have the agenda to make someone feel.  You have the agenda to tell the story with feeling or tenderly, and how anyone receives it, is how it is received.”

– Jane Campion

Oscar-winning writer and director Jane Campion spoke with Dennis Lim, Director of Programming, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s opening night of her retrospective titled Jane Campion’s Own Stories which runs from September 8-17.

Among Campion’s many accolades, she won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for her 1993 film The Piano as well as the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, the only female filmmaker to ever receive that honor. Campion is also the second of four women to ever be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director.

Jane Campion’s work is often described as visual poetry; her distinct vision challenges the viewer with her thought-provoking and often nonconformist, psychologically complex, emotionally wrought and raw characters and their layered worlds.  A masterful visual storyteller, her work is underscored with nuances of consistent tones and distinct moods in every scene.

Campion challenges the themes of the female gaze – how women are seen and how they see and capture the world around them – as well as women’s voices (both verbal and nonverbal) in her films, such as The Piano’s mute Ada, or Dawn in Sweetie who imitates and barks like a dog when snapping at her family.

Whether in film or in television, Campion’s work continues to revolutionize how stories about women and their relationships are conveyed. She pushes gender boundaries with her psychological examination of relationships and the lives of her characters with a distinct and raw vision.

Top of the Lake

The award-winning television series, Top of The Lake, is Campion’s return to television since her 1990 An Angel at My Table, based on the autobiography of writer Janet Frame, which was first produced as a television mini-series.

When describing the motivation for doing the project, Campion talked about her love for novels and their length and the opportunity to go more in depth with characters and stories.

I was dying to explore more characters. I saw “Deadwood” and rose from my chair. It was so brave, amazing and raw, it touched me and inspired me; I was thinking, this is where the freedom is.  At the time of “In the Cut,” (2003) cinema was in a bit of a crisis. Everyone was always concerned about, ‘Will this character be likeable? Will this storyline be likeable?’ The thought of having to please people was uninspiring.

The Top of the Lake series was co-created with Campion’s film school friend and previous collaborator, Gerard Lee.

That was one of the gorgeous experiences to have a writer with you the whole time.

In thinking about Season 2, I felt we explored the scenes of Paradise and the wilderness, and so I thought about moving the story to Sydney and how Robin would kickstart her life again, and her drive towards finding her daughter.  I was thinking about the idea of her having adopted out a child and carry that thought of the child for the 17 years, and how her daughter, Mary, would have thought about the mythical mother.

Jane Campion wrote the role of Mary, Robin’s daughter, with her own daughter, actress Alice Englert, in mind.

I loved writing the scene (when mother and daughter meet for the first time); it was one of my favorite scenes I ever wrote. It is such a cliché scene and it’s hard to put the air in something like this.

I do like crime stories. It appeals to that part of me that likes to find out the truth.  I get quite obsessive – about it mattering, does the truth matter?  A crime, a vacuous space around it, as much as you imagine it, there’s a reality around it. The mythic theme of the detective who has to go to the place where the criminal committed the act, it challenges you to imagine yourself. Crimes take you to the darkest places; it’s the restitution of society that it represents. We have the Elizabeth Moss character (Robin), particularly as a woman she holds the theme of being overlooked. She is restituting herself as well as Tui.

When you make films, you are telling stories and you try to do things that you personally are trying to discover in the world. When we made “Top of the Lake” and particularly with the women’s camp and the GJ character there is a particular take on life.

The Piano

One of the most commercially successful independent films of all time and one of the top ten grossing films of 1993.

We were actually surprised with its box-office success. We met Harvey Weinstein (Miramax distributor/producer) who was extraordinary in loving up this movie and bringing these types of movies to a wider audience.

The financier was a concrete maker, and decided in his last years of life to fund filmmakers and share the profits with them.  We were allowed to do the film exactly the way we wanted to do it.

Talking to people since then about the film, it’s such a female point of view. The fact that Ada doesn’t speak, her stubbornness, her interiority, her strength, her point of view, and the piano speaking for her, speaks about not giving a voice in the world – that is not to say you don’t have an opinion.

The Tenth Woman to Serve as Cannes Film Festival Jury President Since it Began in 1946

The Cannes Film Festival has been really good to me.  The year I was president, I suggested an all-female jury. I think it would be really great because for the first time, all those men filmmakers would have to think: ‘What are all those women thinking? What are the women going to like about my movie?’ But they wouldn’t do it. I’ve spent my whole life asking, ‘What are the men thinking?’ and I think it’s time for them to ask, ‘What are the women thinking?’ in a different way than they would have done before.

There’s that feeling overall, ‘Oh, the women filmmakers, let them have that moment.’ That’s what’s really irritating.

Preparing for the Shoot

I do a lot of drawing and sketching to work out my shot lists and to imagine the props, how things will look in a scene, the lighting and how that might be, how the camera might move. Then when you come to set, you know that you’ve thought about what you want and what you need.

Inspiration and Making the Film Your Own

I’ve always been a big reader. I read a lot of diaries as well. Diaries make everything feel very fresh and very real. I’ve always been nosey – like how people organize their bedrooms, their kitchen. I’d be happy to stare at people all day long. Gerard would say, stop staring, it makes people uncomfortable.

I love poetry. I think I’m very influenced by poetry, that sense of Keats’ poetry, all poets. They make something that is so easeful. There’s that sense of always having been there. They find that beauty, that ease, and that memorable quality to a phrase. That inspires me.

I want things to feel at once like they’re effortless and at the same time that they haunt you. Because I’m working in a visual form, one of the things as a filmmaker is trying to do your own stuff. One of the things that grounds me is that I have a seminal image; something that I might have seen on the street somewhere, something that is actually seen by me.

I remember for “The Piano” I was thinking about Ada and the little girl. I was driving down the street and there was a tall girl and a short girl and they were walking very close together and they had this brown hair that was shining and wavy together and I thought, that’s Ada and Flora. That togetherness, that was the image that made me know what to do with them.

That’s one of the ways you know it’s yours. It becomes embodied in you and therefore you know the truth of it. That’s true meaning.

Get more information about the retrospective.

Susan’s online WRITING THE DOCUMENTARY class starts September 7



Starts Thursday, September, 7,2017

Documentary writing requires research and an understanding of the audience’s expectations, and how the writer can keep an open mind when challenged by the unforeseen, including the exposing of surprising material and interview subjects’ unexpected responses. This course will examine and offer specific strategies for writing and planning a documentary.


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. 


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.


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

Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘Swim Team’ Filmmaker Lara Stolman

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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.


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

Join me July 27- August 24

 for my online 4-week class


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.


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.


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

Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘The Reagan Show’ Filmmaker Pacho Velez for SCRIPT MAGAZINE

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President Ronald Reagan signs the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, Rancho del Cielo, CA, 1981. Photo credit: Karl Schumacher. Photo courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. (Gravitas Ventures & CNN Films)

“Reagan’s embrace of ‘the script; ushered in what Paul Krugman and other commentators have called “post-truth politics,” showing that it is acceptable to replace nuanced descriptions of complicated political realities with folk wisdom and self-effacing jokes.”

–Pacho Velez


Eschewing contemporary interviews or outside commentary, The Reagan Show is composed of network news broadcasts, Hollywood films and, most importantly, the largely unseen raw footage shot by the White House Television Office crew. Through this trove of material—from the bizarre and unscripted to the unflappably professional—the film tracks the public-relations battle behind the Cold War’s tumultuous end, highlighting the key role that Reagan’s use of film and video played in his presidency. Armed with the 20/20 vision that only hindsight can provide, our immersive, self-reflective approach invites viewers to look closely at—and question—the use of narrative in contemporary politics.

—Sierra Pettengill, Pacho Velez



Pacho Velez (Director, Writer) is an award-winning filmmaker. His last documentary, Manakamana (co-directed with Stephanie Spray), won a Golden Leopard at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival. It played around the world, including at the New York Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. His earlier work has screened in venues as varied as The Swedish Museum of Ethnography, Occupy Boston, and on Japanese National Television. He is a Princeton Arts Fellow and, beginning in the Fall, a professor at The New School.


Sierra Pettengill (Director, Producer) is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker. Town Hall, her directorial debut (co-directed with Jamila Wignot), broadcast nationally on PBS in 2014. She produced the Academy Award-nominated documentary Cutie and the Boxer, which also won the directing award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and the 2016 News and Doc Emmy Award for Best Documentary. She was the archivist on Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger, Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, and Matt Wolf’s Teenage, amongst many others.

2/4/1983 President Reagan Nancy Reagan and David Gergen at a Press Briefing in the Press Room during a surprise Birthday Party in honor of President Reagan’s 71st birthday

I first met Pacho Velez at the 2013 Locarno International Film Festival when I interviewed him and his co-director Stephanie Spray about their award-winning feature documentary Manakamana. It was a pleasure to speak once again with Velez following the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival about his second feature documentary The Reagan Show, which was nominated for the Tribeca Film Festival’s Jury Award, and received the David Carr Award for Truth in Non-Fiction Filmmaking at the Montclair Film Festival, among other awards.

KOUGUELL: What was your intention for the film when you first started out, and did it shift in any way with the research that was done and the archival footage that was discovered?

VELEZ: I was interested in Reagan, and finding a way to watch Reagan age through the archive.  We actually started in the 1930s and made our way through the 1990s through the footage. There is an additional layer to this archive because Reagan kind of commissioned it of himself. It was overseen by a civilian administrator appointed by the Reagan administration. There is a sense that he is both the subject of the archives but also, in part, its author.

KOUGUELL:  Meaning it’s not impartial?

VELEZ: Yes, it totally reflects Reagan’s priorities; it’s another way of knowing him. You see what he was interested in. You see what he thought was important to record for posterity and in that way you get access to his thoughts on what he’s up to — and when I say “he” I also mean the institutional he; what his administration was up to.

KOUGUELL: There were 1,000 hours of archival footage that was sorted through.

VELEZ: Yes, that was really brutal. That was mostly Dan Garber, my former student, who was the researcher who received an editing credit on this film. He spent essentially three years watching footage.

KOUGUELL: As you started to assemble the footage, did your point of view of the material change, were there surprises for you?

George Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Mikhail Gorbachev all wave to the press corps. Film still from THE REAGAN SHOW. Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

VELEZ: Oh yes. We had no idea the film was going to be about Gorbachev and the nuclear weapons treaty at all.  We didn’t begin with a narrative in mind. It was this idea of poring through the archives and seeing what story was inside of that.

KOUGUELL: Which material was public domain?

VELEZ: Broadcast news footage is not public domain. All the footage Reagan shot of himself is public domain because the government produced it, and so the American people own it.

There was a lot of broadcast material we were able to use under fair use rights, which means when you’re not reproducing the footage, but you’re commenting on it in an explicit way, and its source is marked.

The beginning clip with David Brinkley interviewing Reagan, that material is fair use: it has the title in the beginning stating David Brinkley interviews Ronald Reagan in his last interview in office with the date of the interview, the network it was for, and that’s all on the screen.

KOUGUELL:  Talk about the writing process. You chose not to use voice-over narration.

VELEZ: Right and we didn’t have a script. The scripting was a discussion about story. For example: Where are we going to introduce the core narrative, and when is the moment that Reagan returned to the public relations question. We had a bit about Nancy Reagan’s relationship, and if that should come early or late in the film. All those types of questions were the purview of the writer.

KOUGUELL: Some documentarians work with an actual outline, with either insertions for voice-overs or printed text intended to be in supers.

VELEZ: We didn’t do that. At times, we wrote transcripts of the film, and thought about what would be great to have, but when you’re working the way we were working, you really couldn’t do that. You had to go out and find it, and figure out how to insert it.

KOUGUELL: The film is especially timely, given our current events.

VELEZ: Yes. Our present political context shifted; the meaning of those images has changed. There’s a way that you see the seeds of Trump in Reagan’s use of media.

Ronald Reagan addresses the 1988 Republican National Convention. Film still from THE REAGAN SHOW. Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.


VELEZ: Someone was asking us the other day about the film in a way that assumed it was a historical film, and I never thought about it through that lens. Obviously, it’s a film that’s happened in the past. It’s historical, but the film is explicitly doing the work of history, no one is ingesting the footage and saying, ‘Looking back 20 years I see this, that and the other.’ Although it’s a historical story, all the commentators are talking about it in the moment.

Sometimes I think it’s political archeology, media archeology, as much as history. For me, I was thinking about the differences between those ideas; you have the political discourse that is meant to be consumed in the moment and what it means to re-watch that 30 years later versus proper history and having those two speak to each other.

The Reagan Show will open in New York at the Metrograph Theater and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Monica Film Center on Friday, June 30th, with a national rollout to immediately follow. It will also become available on VOD on July 4th.



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