By Lisa Loop, Adjunct Faculty
Tianna Langham and her partner Chris Bessounian received the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting last November in Beverly Hills.
Lisa Loop: You spent your formative years in the Northwest. How did you get from there to where you are now?
I moved to Port Townsend from England when I was 12 years old and attended junior and high school there. I feel fortunate to have landed there; it was an incredibly safe, nurturing and creative place to grow up, so full of history and interesting people from all over the country. But being such a tiny town, I was ready to leave and see more of the world after I graduated. I attended the University of Redlands in California during which I studied and explored many different countries (India, Kenya, Mexico, Austria, etc.).
During this time I decided to pursue film, though knew very little about the process.
Following Redlands I moved to Seattle for a year where I became involved in the local film scene. I joined Women in Film, volunteered at SIFF and went to many of their year round events, acted in some short films and performed in script readings at the Alibi Room in Pike Place. I really tried to soak up as much information as I could and meet those who knew more than I did. There was enough going on in Seattle at the time (late 90’s) that the film scene was penetrable without being overwhelming. However, I was drawn to LA in order to expand my opportunities (and for the sun). But after reading and being inspired by Robert Rodriquez’s “Rebel Without a Crew” I decided to first go to Brazil to write and shoot a short film, before moving to LA.
LL: Do you have any advice for Northwest-based writers about their geographical situation? Do you counsel them to move to L.A., for example?
The real benefit to living in LA is immersion. With so much going on in film, a multitude of film events every night of the week and so many people you meet involved in it, it’s constantly inspiring and opportunity and collaborators are easy to find. Among the 2011
Nicholl finalists and winners there are a number of people who don’t live in LA but by the end of the Awards Week they’d been convinced to try and do so, at least while they’re getting established. Of course, with discipline, talent, and tenacity, living elsewhere can lead to a great career, perhaps beginning within one’s local film industry. Some people find LA so overwhelming and competitive that they never get anything done; remaining where they lived and creating a name for themselves there might have been a better option.
LL: What is the most important thing you’d like to tell un-established screenwriters about their aspiration to make films?
If you’re drawn to it, if you’re passionate about it, do it. If you hope to earn a living from it fast you might be disappointed, unless of course you get really lucky. But if you love the process of writing, or piecing together a film, seeing it come to life, then the reward is already there. Anything else it achieves is icing on the cake. I’ve written 7 feature films, made 4 short films and made one feature. I’ve received a number of wonderful accolades but financially very little. Uncertainty is constant and continuous but for me, the satisfaction of the work, of constantly improving my craft and learning about new things as I do it, makes it all worth it.
LL: What was the biggest obstacle you encountered in getting to where you are now?
Probably hearing time and time again that the stories I’m passionate about won’t get made. And it’s still happening.
LL: Is this the first time you have entered the Nicholls competition?
The first time I entered was when I lived in Seattle and wrote my first script in two weeks. It was about the homeless community that I observed around my neighborhood in Belltown. I didn’t know a thing about craft yet, so it didn’t get very far. I’ve also submitted every year for the last 5 years and advanced further with each one. First to the Top 15%, then to the Semi Finals, then the Top 30 scripts, then winning this year with one script and reaching the Top 30 with another. Persistence does pay off!
LL: Why did you send the script you chose to send?
This year I actually submitted 3 scripts. A new one (comedy) that I had just completed which reached the Top 10% and I submitted Guns and Saris and Butcher of Bosnia. I had previously sent in both of them before and reached the Semifinals with them, however have continued to work on and improve them. I wasn’t planning on submitting them again however when the deadline rolled around my partner (Chris Bessounian) said we had nothing to lose, we might as well give it a shot. Thank God for him.
LL: What kind of research, if any, should a screenwriter do before entering a contest?
The Nicholl Fellowships are an obvious one because their reputation is clear and can open so many doors. In terms of other contests it is helpful to know what they offer the winners in terms of exposure before submitting. We have placed fairly high in 3 different contests, however, the Nicholl is the only one that’s generated manager/agent and producer requests.
LL: Now that you have won, do you feel you understand what the judges are looking for?
They’re really open to every genre. This year’s finalist scripts were very diverse and
included horror, supernatural, comedy, thriller, and dramas. What connected them all was that each was very unique, none of them felt derivative, something the Nicholl seems to avoid. They’re really interested in stories they haven’t read before, that surprise them, even open their eyes and minds. Stories that have something special.
LL: Or are they “looking for” anything in particular?
Just fresh and surprising.
LL: In general, what approach should our readers take toward breaking in to the business?
I would suggest being very, very open to those who have more experience than you do and a better understanding of the craft. I have noticed that a lot of people who wish to be
screenwriters have a very hard time when it comes to criticism of their work. It’s something that never gets easier, however, it’s absolutely essential. Sometimes we feel like hacks because we rely so much on the brutal honesty of others, without it our work really wouldn’t have got this far.
LL: If you had it to do over, would you change anything about your approach?
In hindsight, I often think I should have focused on more America-centric projects, even if independent in feeling. Being an international person, I’m drawn to stories from around the world, tales I know little about and can discover and learn as I go. But it’s made it a much harder journey. It’s what I was passionate about, what I wanted to write, so I guess there was a reason for it.
LL: How important is authenticity to success as a screenwriter?
LL: Do writers censor themselves too much at the beginning of their careers in order to create what they think will sell? If so, how big a mistake is that? Is there a way around it?
I’ve seen both sides of the coin. Writers who write something commercial for the sake of a sale, and do sell it, and launch a great career. And the alternative; it sits on the shelf forever. I suppose it’s just about what you’re drawn to. Most writers probably like commercial projects also, so writing one isn’t a bad thing, you just have to make sure you’re really keen on the subject, because if not, it shows.
LL: What pitfalls do you see for writers trying to gain a foothold in the world of filmmaking?
What I mentioned earlier about fear of criticism is a serious pitfall. So many writers seem to have a poor reaction to it, as if it means you’ve failed, you don’t know what you’re doing. But it doesn’t, the real skill in writing is being able to hear valuable notes and apply them well. I believe this is harder than the actual writing which, if you’re a fast typer, isn’t so hard at all.
LL: How often do you write? Every day or when you have an idea you are working to execute?
Every day I’m either writing, researching or brainstorming a story. Not only because I enjoy it and am committed to it, but it keeps me sane as I wait for things to happen with projects that are already written. Unlike most people who work in film who are dependent on getting a job or financing to do what they do, all a writer needs is his/her imagination to keep creating.
LL: Is there anything about your creative process that less established writers might find useful?
Other than getting as much quality feedback as you can every step of the way (smart people are your greatest resource!), I’d say research is one of the most important things to me as I write. Even if a story is almost entirely fictional, I try to use pieces of real situations and real people as much as possible when creating characters and conflict, because it seems to make the writing less concocted, and more grounded in real life.
LL: What are the benefits of working with a partner?
Finding a good writing partner is no easy thing. The essential variable is respect for each others abilities which then allows a freedom to try things and speak your mind. Which then requires an absence of ego. If tiptoeing around a fragile one is necessary when bouncing around ideas, you’ll get nowhere. Chris and I freely tell each other when an idea is awful or something’s just not working and it saves us a lot of time. In that respect working with a partner is a great benefit as you get instant reactions to ideas and work, without wondering if it’s lousy or not for days, weeks or months on end. The answer’s immediate!