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Interviews
 
Beth Szymkowski
Saturday, Jun 16, 2018
Author: Will Plyler
 
Beth Szymkowski started her professional career as a journalist after attending Duke University. She worked for Gannett, winning a national award for investigative reporting before transitioning to screenplay writing.

She's written screenplays for Lionsgate, Disney, ABC Family, and others, and was instrumental in the launch of AwesomenessTV's first scripted show, "Runaways." She created, wrote, and executive produced all three of the drama's seasons. The show was nominated for a Streamy Award as best drama in 2012. She then novelized the series for Dreamworks Publishing, which released the book in 2014. She's also recently written a sitcom pilot for Defy Media. Her romantic comedy "Fix Her Upper" was twice optioned by director Justin Lin.

Beth created and executive produced both seasons of the Hulu drama "Freakish."

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You were born and grew up in Philadelphia. What was life like growing up there? How did that (possibly) shape you as a writer down the road?

I grew up in a row house in the northeast. My neighborhood had hundreds of kids around my age. We were mostly free roamers and walked ourselves to school (and home for lunch) and played outside constantly. It was a great way to grow up. I actually lived near a Nabisco factory and the neighborhood smelled like baking cookies a lot of the time.

I think being from Philadelphia influenced me in a broader sense in that people I knew were really intolerant of any sort of posing. I was raised to say what you think, have the argument, and move on. It was perfectly legitimate to have a conversation where someone would say they liked a movie, another person would say they were idiotic for liking it, and then they would discuss. No hard feelings.

I know who I am and I know what I'm willing to do and what I'm not willing to do, and I think a lot of that comes from being raised in Philadelphia. I definitely appreciate a bit more civility nowadays, but I still gravitate to people who are really comfortable being unapologetically honest.

What/when were your first interest in writing? You wrote short stories at a young age. What were those stories like?

I don't remember ever not writing. I have a book of short stories I wrote in the second grade. They mostly involved tree houses. I was really obsessed with tree houses.

From there, when did you first become interested in writing for film and TV?

I had always wanted to be a writer, but it never occurred to me that people actually wrote for television or films. I thought authors wrote novels and that was pretty much the extent of careers in writing. I also knew achieving any kind of success as an author wasn't guaranteed. I needed to support myself, so I decided to become a high school teacher thinking I could have summers off to focus on my writing. I got a master's degree in teaching.

I quickly realized I hated teaching high school. I liked the kids, but the repetitive nature of teaching the same lesson, say an act and scene of Julius Caeser, more than once a day just absolutely drained me. I worked at a potpourri store when I graduated, and then answered an ad for a reporter at a small newspaper. I'd never written for even a school paper, but they gave me a chance.

I didn't even consider writing for Hollywood until I was already in California.

You studied computer science at Duke University, and then switched to and majored in English. Why computer science? And what ultimately made you switch to English?

I really loved the puzzle solving aspect of computer programming. Writing code really appealed to me. I also liked the idea of a nice, stable career. When I was a kid, it didn't occur to me to dream big. I'm always impressed when I hear about people knowing they should move to New York right out of high school. I was not that person. I hated the thought of instability, which is ironic considering my career is exactly that.

I was taking a vector calculus class as part of my degree, and I remember going to the professor and asking why I needed to know what we were doing for programming. He didn't have a good answer. I could do the work, but it felt like busy work. Around that time, I was looking for a work-study job. I had two options, one was in the computer science lab, and the other was in the Duke Craft Center, which was a place where students and members of the community took all sorts of classes like photography and ceramics and weaving. I took the Craft Center job and it inched me toward the idea that I probably should be on a more creative path. I wish I could say I picked the English major because of some love of literature, but it was practical as well. I could switch majors and graduate on time. Of course, part of why I could do that was I had been taking English classes as electives from the start because I really enjoyed them.

What type of stories did you cover/write about? What was your journalistic "passion"/focus at the time?

I was the city government reporter at the Herald. It was an absolutely great experience. I'm still not sure why they hired me. I'd never worked on a school paper. I had one op ed piece I'd written for the Durham Herald Sun as a writing sample.

It was an afternoon paper, so we started the day at 7:30 a.m. and had to turn in three stories by 12:30 p.m. Most of the time that meant writing some things the night before, but it also meant landing at work and being told to go out and do a reaction piece to whatever was going on in the news. It was really good training. I can handle deadlines. There's no such thing as writer's block in that world.

We also had to contribute to a local color column every day. It was a column made up entirely of regular life stories of people in town, designed in part to give people a real sense that the paper was theirs. So, I would sometimes open the phone book (which was maybe 5 by 8 inches and half an inch thick) and randomly call somebody and ask what was going on in their lives. Sometimes I'd be in line at the grocery store and just ask the person next to me. Usually people were eager to tell me someone in their family had a birthday coming up or an anniversary. I'd write a few inches on it, and it would be on the front page of the paper the next day.

I loved talking to people and hearing about their lives. I think that informs everything I write now.

You next moved to California and worked as a reporter for The San Bernardino Sun. How did this job come about? And what did you cover?

I had followed my then-husband out here so he could pursue a career as a cinematographer. Neither of us had a job. I got here and sent out mass mailings of resumes with clips. I got a spot fairly quickly as a journalist at a weekly paper, The Foothill Leader in Montrose, covering Sunland and Tujunga neighborhoods and then at the San Bernardino Sun, while he worked for free and got established.

The entire time I worked at the Leader, I still checked for other job openings. I got the job at the San Bernardino Sun as the part-time Ontario bureau reporter and commuted out there, and eventually bought a house in San Bernardino when I became the education reporter (in large part because of that degree in teaching). Life got a lot easier once I had a good job and a great group of people around me. I still count some of them as my closest friends.

But I realized reporting wasn't really the kind of writing I wanted to do. It paid the bills and was a great experience, but my heart wasn't in it. I took a screenwriting class at UC Riverside and absolutely loved it. Before that point, it had never occurred to me that people did that for a living, and that I could be one of those people. Around that time, I had a medical scare that turned out to be nothing, and my husband's career was taking off. The medical scare made me assess whether I was living the life I wanted, and his career meant my income wasn't as crucial any more. The combination made it easy for me to make the leap and quit my job to pursue screenwriting full time. I still did freelance work and even taught a journalism class at USC, but the bulk of my energy was devoted to getting better and selling something.

What was the move like for you?

Moving to California was shocking. I'd grown up in Philadelphia, so was accustomed to city life, but Los Angeles is not like other cities. We were broke, so simple things like having to pay to park so many places was awful. I remember thinking all the cashiers at the grocery store were unnaturally attractive and wondering why there weren't neighborhood delis or bakeries everywhere. They don't have those in North Carolina, where I had been living, but this was a big city. I expected at least some of the comforts of home.

We lived in Burbank in a big complex that had giant cracks all over the walls because it was right after the Northridge earthquake. I'd moved plenty through college, but I felt really untethered in California. I remember needing to mail a package and having no idea where the post office was. This was before the internet, so finding it involved looking in the phone book and then pulling out the Thomas Guide to figure out which one was closest.

You saw an ad for a screenwriting class and decided to take it. What was the impetus to do that? What was the class like? How did the class and your classes at UCLA and AFI help you? What did you take away from them?

I'm not sure why I took the class. I think I was seeing scripts for the first time because of my husband's work. I liked being a reporter but would've liked the freedom to make things up more. I had fallen into it as a career when I needed to get a job out of college. And it was writing, which I knew I wanted to do, but it was never a perfect fit.

The writing class I took at UC Riverside while I was still working at the Sun was a turning point. I loved it like I'd never loved any other writing class. And I was good at it. I was definitely new to the form, but the concise nature of screenwriting really appealed to me. I loved the challenge of having to show what a character is thinking by action.

Once I quit my job, we moved to West Hollywood and I started taking classes at AFI and UCLA. They gave me deadlines and structure and just helped me learn the form. I was really disciplined about my time after I quit my day job. I had a rule that I couldn't turn on the television until after dinner. Daytime was writing time. And I wrote. And wrote. And watched movies and shows and wrote beat by beat what was happening in them. I decided I wanted to pursue sitcom writing and someone said doing stand-up was the way to break in as well as writing specs. So I did stand up for about a year. I did not love it and decided that I was more of a features person.

What was your first script like? How was the writing process for you? Did you find it difficult to switch from a "journalistic" style & approach to script writing? And how did your journalism background help you, if at all?

I'm not sure what my first script was. I think it had to be an "Everybody Loves Raymond" spec, which was decent, but didn't get me an agent. It was all part of the process of realizing I was better suited to features. My first feature was a thriller about a reporter from the North working at a paper in a small North Carolina town (!) It was a murder mystery, but when I entered it into a contest in the thriller category, the judge gave the note: "There is nothing thrilling about this." But the judge did say the writing was good and that it was charming and funny. It was just all wrong. In hindsight, it was sort of an indie hybrid.

Journalism was a great training ground because I told lots and lots of stories on a daily basis, on a deadline. I met so many characters and got to know how the world worked. I think my writing style is fairly direct now, so that probably comes from being a reporter. I can also write fast when needed.

You entered a few contests along the way including the Walt Disney Writing Fellowship and the Chesterfield Writer's Film Project. You also were a quarter finalist in the Nicholl Fellowship. What was/were the script(s) like? What experiences did you take aware from these experiences? What exposure did you get from placing high? Did it help give you confidence in your writing ability?

Contests have been crucial in my career. I had a lot of luck with my second feature script, which was called "Fix Her Upper." It's very "Moonstruck" in tone, about a woman in Northeast Philadelphia who buys a house on her own and falls in love with a guy at Home Depot.

I made it to the top ten of both the Disney and the Chesterfield with that, as well as the quarterfinals of the Nicholl. I was crushed when I didn't get the fellowships. But at the same time, getting so close was a huge sign people thought I could at least write well. I was maybe two years post-journalism at that point so it helped to not think I was wasting my time.

In hindsight, I should've prepared more for the interviews. With the Chesterfield, in particular, I returned a phone call without thinking much and they interviewed me on the spot. I can't remember what I said, but I remember hanging up the phone and thinking I didn't do well. I think I was mostly scared and that got in the way of my being myself. I was so intense and trying to impress. One of the best things about having a career now is realizing that meetings are two-way streets. They're assessing me, but I'm assessing them too. We're trying to see if we'd work well together, and it's better to figure it out right away if it's not a good fit. Nowadays I leave meetings sometimes really feeling like I genuinely like the person because we've connected. It makes the process so much less stressful. I used to get so worried about what to wear or making sure my nails were done. And while grooming is a good thing, whether you wear a T-shirt or a blazer or sneakers isn't that important as long as you're genuine.

Casey Wolfe at the Disney Fellowship was really great and put me in contact with my first manager. It didn't turn out to be a good fit in the long run, in large part because I wasn't really ready. I was a good writer, but I wasn't adaptable yet. The manager was wanting me to write a style that just wasn't me and I didn't have the skills or really the desire to do what he wanted. He was super commercial and I was more "quirky charming." I moved on with no other prospects for representation. He's gone on to rep some big names and I spent a lot of time wondering if I'd really screwed up something, but I'm pretty sure it was just not meant to be.

Another thing I got from the Nicholl placement was a great community. Someone started a group that met at the Farmer's Market at Third and Fairfax, and from that group a handful of women decided to start getting together regularly. We planned on doing a lot of networking for our careers, but fifteen years later, we mostly just drink wine and kvetch.

You also won the Carl Sautter Memorial Screenwriting Competition. This led to meetings for you. What was the script about? What was that whole experience like?

I loved the Carl Sautter. I think it's called something else now, but they were one of the only contests that gave notes. It was incredibly valuable to find out what perfect strangers thought of my work. Long after I started working professionally, I still entered my specs for that reason.

The one that won was the same Moonstruck-y script, "Fix Her Upper."

Part of winning was getting introduced to various production companies. I hit it off with someone at Imagine and they liked another spec I had. Unlike my first attempt at a thriller, this one actually was a thriller. It never got made but it was the first time I interacted with a development person and learned what they looked for and how they thought. It was also the first time I was in an office and saw the piles and piles of scripts they read. It really hit home how important it is for a script to stand out. And that it has to be something they think they can sell. You can be a fantastic writer, but you have to write something that will make money. It's the collision of art and business.

I also got involved with a writer's group as a result of it. Someone decided to get together a group of winners for a social outing, which turned into a monthly group that lasted over a decade.

I'm a huge believer in getting notes. I probably have fifty drafts of "Fix Her Upper." It was a big joke with me and my husband. I had computer files labeled Fix Her Upper Final. And then Fix Her Upper Final Two. Fix Her Upper Final Fifteen. And there were a lot of drafts before I labeled it "final."

A different writers' group also got me my first option on that same script. I can't even remember how I found that group, but after I left it, someone in it knew someone who was looking for scripts and remembered "Fix Her Upper." Turns out the someone she knew was Justin Lin, who had just sold "Better Luck Tomorrow" at Sundance.

He optioned it twice and I rewrote it for him. He got a deal at Universal and tried to get it made there, but they were really not happy with the idea of him following up his edgy drama with a romantic comedy.

And you also wrote a script for the Set in Philadelphia Screenwriting Contest. Even though you didn't win, one of the judges liked your writing a great deal and referred you to an agent. Can you briefly tell us about all this? What was getting your first agent like?

Same script. Now I'm thinking I should dust it off and try and do something with it.

Steve Rivele was one of the judges and contacted me when I lost to tell me he thought it was really good. He introduced me to an agent at CAA who hip pocketed me. That led to my very first official screenwriting job interview, rewriting "Sleeping Beauty II" for Disney. I got the job and worked on that and some other projects for them. The agent ended up leaving CAA to become a manager and didn't take me with her or pass me on to someone else. I was crushed. But, I ended up with another script because of Steve Rivele that got me to some producers who then referred me to a manager.

When Steve first contacted me, he took me out to dinner with his wife and challenged me to write a low-budget script before she gave birth, which was six weeks away. He was thinking of getting into producing. I wrote a script called "Jail Byrd." He didn't end up doing anything with it.

Not too long after, I was at a dinner party and hit it off with some producers who asked me to send them something. I sent it to them, they optioned it and introduced me to a manager. So, it all ended okay. That script opened a lot of other doors. I'm currently pitching a show based on a book with the same people who optioned "Jail Byrd," ten years after the fact.

Relationships really matter. I did end up pitching a project with Steve and consider him a mentor and a friend.

Your first series was "Runaways" in 2012. It was a drama-mystery about two teenagers who disappear from an elite private school and a brutal murder in nearby suburbia. Five different students work together to make sense of it all, in order to escape their own haunted pasts. How did it get set up at AwesomenessTV? What was your experience like on the show and what did you ultimately take away from it?

Brian Robbins was starting AwesomenessTV and asked if I had any teen stories that could be done on a low budget. Brian had read one of my romantic comedies and liked my writing, but it didn't fit what his company did. He bought the idea and it was a great experience. We shot the second draft and I'm really proud of how it turned out. It was the most creative freedom I've ever had in screenwriting. It was the first scripted show Awesomeness did and he used it to launch the company.

You wrote for "Royal Crush" at Awesomeness TV. It's a teen romance set on a cruise ship. You did the first two seasons of it and even went on the actual cruise for the second season. How did this show come about? What challenges did you face in setting a series on an actual, working cruise ship? You wrote the first two seasons by yourself – twelve episodes. How difficult was that to do? And what restrictions, if any, did you run into since it was set on Royal Caribbean cruises?

Once I did "Runaways," I was in the Awesomeness family. At that time, it was a much smaller company than it is now. They invited me to pitch my take on a teen romance on a cruise ship and they hired me to write the first season. It's a web season, so it's maybe 50 minutes total? So, it's more like two shows broken down into ten-minute chunks. It was good training for my transition into more standard television writing because it helped me focus on the importance of good act breaks.

Filming on a ship was challenging, because the passengers had priority over the film crew. Meaning if there was music playing on the deck, the music mostly stayed on. We were careful not to get in the way of people having a good time.

Royal Caribbean didn't really give restrictions. I mean, I knew I wasn't going to include a story line about someone getting rotavirus, but that was just knowing my audience. I don't think teens would want to see that anyway. RC's influence was mostly telling us what locations they wanted highlighted. So, if we're doing a date, it would be in the teen nightclub or on the zip line, that sort of thing. It was not that difficult. I view write-for-hire jobs very differently than something I created. They knew what they needed and it was my job to provide that. That's the skill I didn't really have in the earlier part of my career.

You set up "Kiss and Tell" at Lionsgate. Can you tell us a little bit about the story & the script? The impetus for it? And how did the deal happen? Did you develop the script with them & producers? Also, what is the current status?

"Kiss and Tell" was a spec I wrote that my agent sent out as a writing sample for another job, but the folks at Cinedrone liked it so much they basically bought it as part of a slate they have with Lionsgate. I've done some developing with Cinedrone and a director but then Lionsgate changed the parameters of what they were willing to spend and make, so it looks like it's in limbo for the moment.

Most recently, you created and executive produced two seasons of "Freakish" on Hulu. How did the idea come about? What was writing the pilot like? How was the project set up at Hulu?

I'd been doing a lot of teen stories with Awesomeness and was really wanting to take the stereotypes and put them in a situation where they had to grow, so the brainy nerd was powerful because he knew how to purify water, and the cheerleader didn't have her peeps with her and had to be nice to get by. I was having a purely social coffee with Shauna Phelan at Awesomeness post-Royal Crush and mentioned that I was writing it as a feature, and she said it sounded like something they would be interested in. So, I pitched it to Brian Robbins and they hired me to write it as a feature, but with ten-minute act breaks so it could be aired as a web series if needed.

Somewhere in there, they sold it to Hulu, who wanted a regular series. So, I wrote the pilot based on the feature.

Can you tell us some about your experiences on writing "Freakish"? You wrote six out of ten episodes for season one. What was the pressure like to do that?

The first season was incredibly exciting and difficult. It was me and one other writer breaking the stories and then writing the episodes. We didn't get a lot of sleep once the show started shooting.

It's very low budget so we had to be mindful of just about everything. It's set inside a high school with very little money to go on location. We never shot more than twelve hour days. Sometimes we had to alter scenes to have fewer characters just because those take less time to shoot.

Part of the deal with Hulu was to hire internet influencers in some of the lead roles. I was really worried about that because internet success doesn't always translate to acting ability. And on the first day of shooting it was rough, because of the lack of experience, but it didn't take long for them to figure it out. We were very lucky to get the talent we did. The thing about the influencers on our show was that they are these amazing kids who have managed to make careers at a very young age by entertaining people online. That means they're putting out content on a regular basis and understanding what content people want to see. That takes skills. I give them an enormous amount of credit.

Then for the second season, you executive produced ten episodes and wrote three. How did you find these additional/new writers? Were they part of a writers' room? Or did they just come in just to write an episode? And how much did you have planned out in advance for the entire season? Also, how much, if anything, changed as production progressed?

We went through a normal process of hiring writers for the writers room. I read scripts and interviewed people and tried to get a sense of if we could work well together. We broke the season together and then I assigned scripts. I knew the first season was about basic survival, and the second season was going to be about escape. I knew there was a reveal about the main male character that I wanted at the end of the second season.

Once you're in production, individual scenes may change but the arc of the season generally stays the same.

And I don't know if you can or even want to answer this, but since the show was not renewed, can you say much about what you planned on happening with the remaining characters? What was really going on in the town? Who was behind all that took place?

Oh, I have several seasons more in my head. I've written some of it on Instagram for our hardcore fans, who were really great.

The basic idea is that a chemical company was making bioweapon for the government to make super soldiers. It wasn't perfected yet and the explosion at the plant released it into the air. There are too many twists to write here, but it's significant that the freaks in the show are not zombies. They're not dead, which means they might be cured.

Overall, what do you feel like were the advantages and possibly even disadvantages to doing a show for streaming, if any? Time or budget constraints? Content?

I think streaming really worked well for us. Our audience wanted to binge, and we were able to do a half hour format for a drama, which isn't something networks do. I would've loved a bigger budget, but I'm really proud of what we did with what we had. We certainly would've gone to more locations if we had more money. It was getting a little claustrophobic to stay in the high school so much.

What things do you feel writers need to recognize about themselves and also the industry? What should script writers keep in mind while looking to work in film, TV or streaming?

You gotta keep writing and rewriting, and you have to have some understanding of what people want to watch. There's a lot of markets now, but it's still a business. I don't think people should write whatever they think will sell if it's not a good fit, but they should figure out their most marketable idea and write it. I've written scripts that are extremely hard to summarize when people ask what they're about. It was good experience to write them and rewrite them, and they're good, but if I had to do over again, I would try to use my writing time more wisely.

I did the WGA's Showrunner Training Program and it was a great experience. On the first day, one of the speakers talked about the financial commitment to getting a show up and running. And it's true for features as well. You're asking someone to spend millions and millions of dollars producing your idea. It's understandable that they want it to be something they think will do well. I view it as part of the job to figure out how to be true to my idea while doing that. I'm not saying everything I write is commercial. I've got a couple of specs I plan to write just because I really want to, but I know they'll be long shots.

Also, I want to emphasize that the path is rarely straight. I can identify which scripts I wrote that really made a difference, but I also wrote numerous other scripts that did nothing, or maybe got me in one door that didn't lead to anything else, or gave me relationships that gave legitimacy when I was taking other meetings. I have a kids' sitcom spec, and half of a slasher horror, and a Christmas comedy that I really love. And a road trip comedy. And numerous treatments. And pitches. And loglines. When I'm not working for pay, I'm writing a spec. And still getting notes from people and studying what's out there. I think it's also important to note that one success doesn't make a career. It's not like you get an agent or sell a script and you're on your way. It's partly an endurance contest.

 


 

 

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