“You can live in Kalamazoo, Michigan…and make your own movies if you want.”
Writing in Pictures; Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless (Published in 2012)
It’s no accident that I posted McBride’s quote on Kalamazoo last week and led off with it today. I had in the hopper an interview I did with writer/director Cindy Gustafson who recently finished shooting her first feature film A Chance of Rain…and just happens to live in Kalamazoo, Michigan. And she just also happens to be a long time reader and commenter on this blog.
In fact, if I had a dream when I started this blog back in January 2008, Cindy’s Midwest journey to becoming a screenwriter and film director would be exactly what I would have hoped for. (Note: I did this interview before I interviewed Portland Filmmaker Edd Blott who recently completed principle photography on his first feature and is also a long time reader of Screenwriting from Iowa.)
Scott W. Smith: Okay, we’ll try to keep this interview short and concise.
Cindy Gustafson: You know this is my very first interview on this project.
SWS: Great. And this will be the first interview I’ve done by someone who’s made a feature and attributes part of her success to this blog.
Cindy: I read it every single day.
SWS: Great. So start out by telling me your writing process on your screenplay and film A Chance of Rain.
Cindy: Whatever I write about, it’s something I’ve been pondering. Some big mystery of the world that’s been on my mind. I wrote it based on several intense conversations I had with people. I was thinking really hard about what we talked about and I went home and started to duke it out on paper. I completed it really fast. It was a horrendous, puke on the paper kind of thing. That first draft was long and all over the place—but that’s the way I write. It took me three or four days to crank out scads of crap. It was like puking every thought I had on the subject. About where I thought these characters would go. I’ve always written whatever I’ve written as fast as I can—otherwise I forget where I’m going with it. And then you can sit down in a comfortable chair away from your computer and do the editing process. I had absolutely no intention of doing anything with this. It was like, “you know, I’m a playwright and I had this idea that I couldn’t see on a stage.” It was like, you know, maybe I’ll write a screenplay. So I went to Barnes & Noble and bought a few books on screenwriting.
SWS: Did that help?
Cindy: Yes, for learning the basic mechanics of screenwriting. Most of my reading was done AFTER I wrote the screenplay which was a little backwards but pretty useful as an editing tool. Each book by itself seemed helpful. But then I would read the next book and I was like, “Oh crap, I screwed up, my script more closely follows this book’s advice on structure—but this other author really seems to know what he/she is talking about.” And the books would point out that I had broken a lot of “rules.” It was really just insecurity of feeling like I had no clue what I was doing. So it was like every book that I read screwed me up even more and more so I finally just gave up and did my own thing. Yet, I became a junkie and I had to read all of them because it became like a hobby to read about all of the different screenwriting “philosophies” out there.
SWS: Back in 1609 Lope de Vega wrote about the rules of playwriting in his book Writing Plays in Our Times yet said, “When I have to write a play, I lock up the rules with six keys.” Meaning he switched over to intuition.Somewhere in this process you stumbled upon this blog Screenwriting from Iowa; and Other Unlikely Places.
Cindy: Stumbled is right. I was probably Googling topics that you had just written about and the name of it struck me. I live in Michigan and I thought, “That’s an interesting title.” I read that first post and then I spent the next few hours reading every previous post. I can’t remember when that was but you had just begun the daily posts.
SWS: I started the daily posts in January of 2009, and here we are three years later and you’ve written and directed your first feature. That’s pretty cool. And that I could have a part in your learning process is a huge satisfaction to me.
Cindy: And I have to say more than any book, or anything, it was your blog that encouraged me to not feel crazy that I was writing a screenplay in Kalamazoo and then later to just go ahead and make the film.
SWS: I appreciate that. I read your script in 2011. Had you it finished much before then?
Cindy: Oh, yeah, because it sat in my drawer for a year. It was like, “Oh, okay, that was fun.” Then I put it in the drawer and went on. In the meantime, I wrote a play and directed it.
Scott: So you had a theater and writing background before you jumped into screenwriting.
Cindy: Yes. I did some acting in college and community theater and I’m always writing something. As far back as I can remember I’ve always been writing something, sketches, in journals, plays, skits, parodies of commercials—I’ve just always had an interest in making fun of things. But a lot of my writing is for my own sadistic enjoyment.
SWS: Aaron Sorkin talks about being an actor and being 22-23 years old in a Motel 6 in Atlanta and just getting the urge to write. But he never thought of himself as a writer until then.
Cindy: The crazy thing is I still don’t consider myself a writer. I really don’t.
SWS: Yet you’ve just written and directed a feature film.
Cindy: (Laughing) I know. Maybe somewhere in my subconscious saying I’m a writer puts pressure on me to actually write something and it takes the fun out of it, I don’t know.
SWS: I think the simple fact that you write makes you a writer. Many writers from the top down feel like a fraud. Shane Black was staying stuff like that early in his career while being paid millions for his screenplays.
Cindy: I actually have a line in the screenplay where a character asks someone if he’s a writer and he says something like, “No, I do like to write, but I’m not a writer.” I guess that’s me.
In the coming days I’ll post parts two and three of the interview with Cindy and you’ll learn how she landed LA talent (Matt Lanter, Eric Tiede and Hallee Hirsh) and shot A Chance of Rain using the Arri Alexa in Michigan, L.A. and Africa. Working the phones and the keyboard from a most unlikely place—Kalamazoo.
Related post: Kalamazoo Filmmaker (Part 2)