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Interviews
 
Lorene Scafaria
Wednesday, Apr 27, 2005
Author: Will Plyler
 
Lorene Scafaria was born and raised in New Jersey, where she began as an actor and improvisational comedian. A playwright by nature, she made the move to Los Angeles almost four years ago to pursue screenwriting and set up her first co-written project LEGEND HAS IT at Revolution Studios. She has since sold her original script THE MIGHTY FLYNN to Warner Independent, with producer David Heyman of HARRY POTTER fame, and is currently adapting the book NICK & NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST for the Weitz Brothers and Focus Features. She is repped by Cliff Roberts at the William Morris Agency and Doug Johnson at Management 360.

Where are you from and where did you grow up?

I’m from a small suburban town in New Jersey called Holmdel. It’s home to the Garden State Arts Center, or as it is presently known, The PNC Bank Arts Center, and that’s about it. I lived in the same house until I went off to college, and then moved back into that same house right after college... until I could finally make the escape to New York City. That’s the predictable pattern for almost anyone growing up in Jersey. There’s something to living in the shadows of New York City that makes people strive to be creative, strive to "get out" and make a name for themselves. I feel like everyone I’ve met in Los Angeles is originally from, or did some time, in Jersey, or perhaps we seek each other out with our little yellow license plates that seem to be the last thing to become Californian.

When did you become first interested in screenwriting?

I was always interested in writing. My mother said that she knew when I was really sick because it was the only time I didn’t have a pen in my hand. It was around, I want to say, fourth grade, that there was this reading contest in my county called Book-It. The student in my grade who read the most books and did some kind of reports on them would win a prize each month... a gift certificate to Pizza Hut. For some reason, this was the golden ticket. So, every month I would "invent" a book... the title, the author’s name, the characters, the story... and do a fake report about the book, always being sure not to recommend it too highly on the off chance anybody would seek the fake book out. I was the Pizza Hut winner every month. Took Grandma for some deep dish and felt like a hero. At some point, lying became storytelling. And around high school, when I was interested in acting, I began to write plays along with fiction. I put up my first play when I was seventeen in Red Bank, New Jersey, at an art house movie theater that’s now a Shoe Parade. Directing and producing became a new passion, and since I mainly enjoyed writing characters and dialogue, playwriting was the natural segue.

Where did you go to college? Did you ever study film/writing?

I went to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania for a solid one year. It was a real university, where you went to football games and hung out on the quad, and even though they didn’t have a theater major, the plays we were in had an actual budget. It was an incredible year of studying, but at thirty thousand a year, I guess you get what you pay for. The college experience ended abruptly, when we could no longer afford the tuition. So, I transferred to a state school... Montclair State University... because I just couldn’t drag myself to Rutgers, and Montclair was the only other sensible choice for their theatre program. Unfortunately, you really do get what you pay for. Montclair was a commuter’s school, with a campus built on a parking lot. And once I realized that my credits wouldn’t transfer if I switched majors, making my four-year education even longer, I stuck with English, with a writing concentration, and made theatre my minor. I never took a screenwriting course, but plenty of playwriting, fiction, and non-fiction.

Tell us about writing your first script? What was your approach like?

I liked to think I had written "scripts" when I was in high school, but looking back at them, they were about thirty pages of wannabe-Mamet dialogue with a staple through them. After college, while I was living in New York and working at the Shooting Gallery, a now-defunct production company where I answered phones and stole three-hole punch paper, I put up a play at the Producer’s Club Theatre called THAT GUY AND OTHERS LIKE HIM, in which I also played a role. It ended up getting pretty great reviews from the fifty-odd people who saw it, so I decided that my first real script would be an adaptation of the play. I took the basics... characters and dialogue... and opened up the scope of it. I also had to learn how to make what was at stake for the characters more immediate. Overall, I was pleased with the result and it’s probably the only script in my arsenal that I’d like to revisit in some capacity.

How if at all has your acting experience helped you? With creating characters? Dialogue? Do you find yourself acting out the parts much while writing?

When I was starting out, I was far more inspired by playwrights than screenwriters... David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Peter Shaffer, Tom Stoppard. The rhythm is just different for theater. And when you’re acting, you feel every word, especially when you’re saying lines that are just plain bad. So, I like to think I write for actors. A character’s voice is everything to me. I rarely write for an actor in particular, but I hope to create a character that someone wants to play... someone they can embody and make their own. As such, I prefer to write realistic dialogue that sounds like the everyday, but hopefully with a bit of an edge.

Preparing for a role requires doing a lot of back-story. It’s the same for writing... I like to know the little details about the characters. That’s not to say I make a list of everything about them before I start writing. It’s usually the opposite. As I continue to write a character’s dialogue, I learn more and more about them... until by the end I know their astrology and blood type.

I’m sure I look ridiculous sitting at my computer acting out the parts... frowning, smiling, pouting, laughing to myself... but it definitely helps me hear the character’s voices. I must confess... my mother makes me read my scripts to her out loud. It’s a little embarrassing and tiring, but it’s like getting a little table-read while you’re still in the process of writing, and it helps a lot, especially because, to me, she represents the average moviegoer, and if she doesn’t "get" something, then I know I have to clarify it.

What was your first "break"? Did you place in a contest? Meet someone? Write queries? What was getting your first agent like? How did that come about?

I had entered as many writing contests as I could afford, but only placed in the Writer’s Digest Contest and Three Pages Comedy Writing Contest, so unfortunately that wasn’t looking like my way "in the door". I believe I actually had an agent at the time. That’s what she called herself anyway, the two times I had spoken with her. I had to seek out other representation, but there always seemed to be some catch-22, and word on the street was that nobody responded to query letters. I decided to be naively optimistic and wrote them anyway. I did some research on-line to find out which agents had recently sold scripts from first-time writers, and sent out about twenty queries. I couldn’t believe it when an agent at ICM sent me an email saying that she would love to read my script, liked the title, and said something about how "earnest" I sounded. So, I sent her the second script I had written entitled HAS BEEN. Four weeks later I received a very respectful rejection letter in the mail, keeping the door open for future reads, but not seeing the commerciality in my writing just yet. I tacked the letter up on my wall as inspiration. Three days later she called me at home to say, "Nevermind"... that she had kept thinking about the script and that had to mean something, and to send her another one. So, I sent her my first script, which she actually liked better. I flew to Los Angeles to meet her, and in the meeting she said she’d like to represent me. She followed it up with, "You have to move to Los Angeles." I was losing my apartment in New York, as well as my job, so... LA was it. And while driving across the country, with all of my belongings in tow, my new agent switched from ICM to CAA. Suddenly I was an even smaller fish in an even bigger pond. And as much as she tried to "groom me", I could tell we didn't have much of a future together. She was, and still is, an incredible woman, though, and I credit her with getting me out here, getting my feet wet, and proving that there are actually good people in Hollywood.

In July 2002, you and Bryan Sipe sold "Legend Has It" to Revolution Studios. What was the genesis of that project? How did the two of you work together? Are you still working together? And what’s going on with the project?

I met Bryan Sipe when he cast me in an independent film he co-wrote and directed back in New Jersey, where he is also from. Two months after I made the move to LA, he came out and we became roommates. I was writing comedies, he was writing dramas, so we decided to sell-out as quickly as possible and co-write a children’s adventure, since "Harry Potter," "Spy Kids" and "Monsters Inc." were at the top of the heap. We wanted to write a throwback to the kind of movies we liked as kids, such as "The Goonies" and "Neverending Story," and as much as it was outside-of-the-box for both of us, it was actually a lot of fun to brainstorm the adventure, cause we didn’t put too much pressure on ourselves to make it one way or another. Because of our story’s commerciality, something I had never strived for in the past, it became the first script for both of us to be read by the town. It was set up at Revolution as an eighteen-month option (which is now expired), but because they wanted to change the setting of the story, we had to do a page-one rewrite. And as much as we enjoyed writing five rag-tag kids trying to save imagination, getting rid of two of the kids and replacing them with CGI beasts was far less interesting. Nevertheless it ended up on a shelf somewhere. And suddenly, Bryan and I were writing partners with a career in children’s adventure, which was both bizarre and exciting. It was great to have someone to share the ride with, and it certainly made pitches more fun, but after a failed attempt to "repeat the magic" we decided to go back to writing on our own. Should "Legend Has It" ever be unearthed, maybe we’ll take a stab at it again.

I must say, I actually find it difficult to collaborate with someone when you’re both doing the same job... writer & writer... rather than with a director or a producer, or even another writer in which you concentrate on different facets of the same story. I’ve heard that the Coen Brothers work by one brother starting until they write a character into a corner, and the other one picks up where they left off. I like the sound of that. But once you have a script set up at a production company or a studio, you quickly see how many cooks are in the kitchen, and it’s kind of nice to at least be there with your own recipe.

You are currently repped by the William Morris Agency? What is it like working with them? Do you talk often? What is your relationship like in general? How does each help you?

I became a client of the William Morris Agency in December and I honestly couldn’t be happier with the relationship I have with my agent. I talk to him every day, and it is always personable and professional. He’s like talking to your soothing uncle, much less pressure than talking to your disappointed father, and always encouraging, while still giving me that feeling that, no matter what, he’s got it covered. I actually feel relaxed enough to write, and his bizarre blind faith in me is overwhelming and appreciated. I don’t even understand his job enough to properly praise it, but he’s quite good at it. I have also been repped at Management 360 for the past year-and-a-half. They have amazing taste over there and my manager is no exception, always sending me scripts to read that are inspiring and educational. I’m really pleased with both of them.

This past February 2005, you set up "The Mighty Flynn" at Heyday Films. What did you have to go through? What has been your experience so far with David Heyman?

"The Mighty Flynn" was an original script. I had met with Heyday Films a year before off of a spec that I had gone out with that didn’t end up selling. I met with executive Marc Rosen and we completely hit it off. We had such similar sensibilities that we immediately tried to find something to work on together. We started talking out a romantic comedy pitch, but every time we’d get together, I’d tell him about the "spec" I was working on, "the one about the efficiency expert." Once I was done with the first draft, I gave it to him to read. He made suggestions, I cleaned up the third act, and soon after we gave a newer draft to David, which he liked enough to attach himself as producer. We cleaned it up even further before going out to several studios. Then came the weeks of waiting by the phone. We were told that it was a "tweener" script... somewhere in between the big budget, high-concept studio movies and the character-driven independent films. Luckily, the script worked its way up the ladder at Warner Independent Films. I can honestly say that working with David and Marc, and everyone at Heyday and WIP, has been an unbelievable experience. They not only renewed my faith in "Hollywood people", but have renewed my faith in the system.

Do you do much research when preparing to write a script? Do you travel? Take tours? Visit libraries?

I love to do research. Some of the most important details in the things I write come out of research. A lot of "The Mighty Flynn" came out of googling the words "efficiency expert" and reading anything that came up, so I think it’s crucial, especially if you’re exploring a world that you haven’t experienced first-hand. And I would absolutely love to travel for research. Most of my scripts, so far, have been New Jersey or New York based, so not much research required there. The trick is to get someone else to pay for it...

Have you done many pitch meetings? How have things gone for you? Do you have any recommendations or pointers for other writers?

I’ve taken a lot of general meetings, which become like clockwork once you do enough of them, and have met amazing people that way. But as for pitches... I have only pitched for television. I thoroughly enjoy it, as nerve-racking as it can be, and Bryan Sipe and I got pretty far up the ranks at CBS with a pilot of ours once. The difficulty is choosing what to pitch, but hopefully that’s where agents come in, to help us decide what should be pitched versus what should be written. Unfortunately for me, every fifth idea of mine has a shred of commerciality in it, so I’ll be doing much more writing than pitching. But if you come up with that one-liner that gets the studio to see the poster, that’s your ticket.

What about feedback on your work? How do you handle that? Do you rely much on feedback from friends and/or your agent or manager?

I think it’s extremely beneficial to get feedback from friends, but you should always trust your own instincts first. That’s why you should give your script to a number of people, and when you find you’re getting the same note from several sources, you really take notice. It took me a little while to realize that you should never use your agent or manager as the first read. Definitely get other feedback first, work on it, and wait until you think it’s actually ready for their eyes. Nothing worse than a second read that could’ve been avoided.

What are some things that you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting out? Do’s and don’ts?

I think the only advice I am fit to give is... YOU HAVE TO WRITE WHAT YOU WANT. Not to say when I was first starting out that I wouldn’t have written anything to pay off my credit card debt. But if you like what you’re working on, you can see it in the material. I can actually read the hostility between the lines in some of my old scripts... elements that I thought Hollywood would prefer, so I’d shove what should’ve been, say, a character-driven father/daughter story into the confines of a romantic comedy. And only half of it would work. "The Mighty Flynn" was the first script I had written that felt completely "me", and I was so relieved to see that anybody else responded to it. I strongly believe that if you write for yourself, you’ll find someone out there who likes what you like. It may take longer to get there, but when you do, you’ll have set the path for yourself to continue to write what you like, and quite possibly "brand" yourself in the process, making you more viable to the studios anyway. Your script won’t just be a comedy or drama, it will be in your voice. And that will be much harder to replace than the big, commercial ideas... in my humble opinion.

What’s a typical writing day like for you?

When I’m in serious writing mode, and before I got a dog, I would wake up, pull my laptop up onto the bed and start writing. Then around 7 pm I would get out my pajamas, go to dinner, perhaps see a movie, and around 10, 10:30, I would pull my laptop on me again, until I fell asleep. Write. Rinse. Repeat. Now that I have a dog, I manage to get out of the house at least three times a day and look slightly less pale. I tried to write outside of the house, but when you look around at everybody else at with their Starbuck’s coffee, the same computer, the same ipod, the same screenwriting software, it can be a bit daunting. I once found a comfy chair at the Grove’s Barnes & Noble, but some man found the comfy chair two feet across from me and ended up flashing me from beneath his magazine. I never ventured back.

Do you outline all your scripts first? Write treatments?

I actually prefer to write a first act without outlining. I like to outline once I’ve found myself in trouble in the script, which usually happens around act two anyway. But I find it difficult to plot where the characters go on their journey until I can understand who they are completely. And usually it takes a good thirty pages to hear their voices before I can tell them where to go. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, outlining is the nature of the beast, so I’m trying to get used to it. And there is a lot of validity to it, especially if you’re NOT writing some character-driven dramedy. I actually prefer treatments, because I get a lot more out of characterizations than in bullet points.

How much of a theme do you keep in mind overall? Scene by scene? And do you find yourself initially or eventually asking what's the point?

Theme is very important to me... second only to TONE. Though I can’t say I actually remind myself to maintain it scene by scene. I think it’s important to go back in a rewrite and make sure you’re consistent with it, that is, if you have something you really want to say. I hope to write the kind of stories that have something to say, but as you get into it, you can’t help but ask yourself "what’s the point?" To me, depicting humanity can sometimes be its own theme, and not necessarily that you need to preach your beliefs to an audience in order to have a "point" to your story.

How do you approach rewrites? Any method or path that you typically follow?

I’ve only recently started to love the rewriting process. There’s something so gratifying about getting a note that you may not agree with and finding a way to satisfy the note-giver without compromising what you think is good for the script. I now think about scripts mathematically. It’s like a puzzle that you have to make fit, and by moving certain scenes around in different orders, you can actually change the entire tone or structure of a piece, without necessarily "killing your darlings".

Do you find it difficult at all being a woman and working in the business? Is it a male dominated world still? Is that ever a problem, do you feel?

Well, I’ve been pat on the ass once or twice, and I could forward you lecherous emails that you would not believe, but I still think it’s a hurdle one can get over. It’s about finding the balance between tolerating how creepy some people can be and defending yourself in the seriously bad situations. Hopefully your representation will protect you, because for the most part that’s as much protection as you’ll get. I find it strange how different, and by "different" I mean "better", the treatment is that I’ve been getting since setting up "The Mighty Flynn"... which is kind of sad in it’s own way, but I guess that’s how it goes. The more people respect you, the less likely they are to accost you. Fortunately for me, I’ve met some amazing people in this whole process. So, you take the bad with the good, work with the people you like, and try to avoid the ones who make your skin crawl. As sad as it is to say "no" to a project you like, it’s better than working closely with someone you’re uncomfortable with.

And what are your favorite scripts? Scripts you’d say every writer should read and learn from?

The first scripts I ever bought were "Pulp Fiction," "Trainspotting," and "A Clockwork Orange." Not exactly the kind of scripts I write, but nevertheless, a good launching point. As for the new scripts out there... "The Weatherman" by Steve Conrad was an enormous inspiration to me. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is an even better script than the film, and that’s saying a lot. The Mulroney’s are a really talented writing team... "Paperman" and "The Sleeping Father" are both worth a read. I also enjoyed "Stranger than Fiction" and I love a script called Paul Aufiero. But as far as the scripts in stores... "Network," "Princess Bride," and "Butch Cassidy" are probably as good as it gets.

Besides "The Mighty Flynn" what are you working on now or next? Spec scripts? Assignments? What are they about?

I recently got hired to adapt the book "Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist" by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan for the Weitz Brothers and Focus Features. I’m elated. And terrified. Other than that, I should be finished with the next spec soon, as well as what I hope to be my directorial debut. It’s a memoir of sorts.

 


 

 

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