NSI Features First 2019 writers reflect on the Toronto Screenwriting Conference

James Fanizza, Andrew Dryden Mortimer, Gemma Holdway and Muna Deria

From left: James Fanizza, Andrew Dryden Mortimer, Gemma Holdway and Muna Deria

As part of training, our new NSI Features First writer students recently attended the Toronto Screenwriting Conference (TSC). So, of course, we asked them to write about it.

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James Fanizza | Writer, In Vein

James Fanizza

Walking into the Daniels Auditorium on Dundas Street East for the Toronto Screenwriters Conference (TSC), I really didn’t know what to expect. As a relatively new writer and filmmaker, I was nervous I would feel intimidated. I thought there would be hundreds of writers with resumes as long as my arm turning up their noses at my limited experience. I could not have been more wrong.

The vibe at TSC was friendly, open, warm and welcoming. Everyone was there to learn, to grow and to support each other. The day was split into five sessions with a keynote speaker for each session, covering topics like the perfect pitch, structuring a TV pilot and what it’s like to work in a writer’s room.

While all the sessions were extremely helpful and informative, I found one session particularly inspiring: The Art of Adaptation with Charles Randolph. Charles is the writer of a number of critically successful feature films including The Big Short and The Life of David Gale, and I’m a big fan of his work.

What I found really helpful was his description of his process for adapting a piece of non-fiction into film, particularly his idea of what he looks for in a scene. He’s not necessarily interested in the plot points of a story – things that, he feels, are happening to the character. What inspires him and what he strives to create are characters that have to make a choice; all of the action or plot points of the film revolve around a central choice and internal struggle the character must wrestle with. This was particularly striking to me because this affinity toward internal struggle is something I also love putting into my own work.

While my film In Vein does have a plot structure and through-line, it really is about the internal struggle of the two central characters. Both characters have to make a choice, internally, between what they want, what they yearn for and what they are told is the right way to be.

Where the session with Charles has helped my work and my writing is that I’d never quite heard this internal struggle articulated in such a way that resonated with me, while also being given such a concrete roadmap for how to put this into a script. Something in the way Charles described his process clicked with me and has inspired me to go back through my script, scene by scene, to really flesh out that choice, that central struggle, that is essentially the backbone to every character-driven drama story.

Andrew Dryden Mortimer | Writer, The Undertow

Andrew Dryden Mortimer

As far as I know I’m the only screenwriter in my hometown (Whitney Pier, NS), so flying to Toronto and being jammed into an amphitheatre full of them was a very unique experience. I found my people! It was thrilling.

Then the talks started. Through keynote speeches, moderated on-stage conversations and Q&A periods, I learned so much about the business and the craft. I outlined some of what I learned into five categories below:

1. Lost

In keeping with the ‘nothing is a coincidence’ spirit of my favourite television show of all time, Lost, it was no coincidence that the first presentation was by Carlton Cuse. It was such an honour to be in that audience. I barely took any notes because I was simply captivated by everything he had to say about the development and production of what I still consider to be the greatest TV show ever. However, he used the phrase ‘intentional ambiguity’ and I dedicated a section below to expanding on what I took from that.

2. Intentional ambiguity

During the Q&A segment, someone asked Carlton about trusting an audience’s intelligence, i.e. how much exposition do they need, mystery vs. confusion, etc. He responded by stating that ‘entertainment > clarity.’ And emotional clarity is greater than narrative clarity.

This conversation helped me so much because mystery is a big part of my writing and I’m a fan of endings that are open to interpretation. I like to tell stories that have a puzzle element to them. I think audiences want to be challenged. And now, more than ever, we need to fight for their attention. I always struggled to incorporate this type of mystery into materials I’m writing while considering the fact that a general audience or wide demographic might not be willing to put in the work to solve these riddles. This speech gave me the courage to put the marketing aspects of writing aside and just write what I want to write.

3. Don’t move to L.A.

Some of my biggest internal conflicts as an emerging writer have been surrounded by the ‘you need to move to L.A. to succeed’ attitude. During the weekend, I heard from several different voices that this is not the truth. Unless I’m writing in certain rooms or trying to make those giant blockbuster action movies, I can probably write from anywhere. And that is a peaceful, easy feeling.

To expand on [what I mean by] ‘write from anywhere’, I have been very specific about my writing environment in the past. Through informal conversations with other writers between presentations and at lunches, I quickly realized my relationship with writing needs to change. The old me would wait to be in the right mood and sit at my desk in a very dark room with very loud music, and do marathon writing sessions where I would type for eight to 10 hours. But the other writers seem to write everywhere. They pull out their laptops and do a few pages on the train, in a coffee shop or anywhere no matter their mood or the weather. This is something I need to practice and am looking forward to trying.

Another tip about writing endurance I learned was to finish your writing day right before you are about to write a scene that really excites you. This helps you start off your next day on a high note and lets you dive right in with the amount of passion needed.

A couple of other quotes that stood out: “If you don’t like a scene, change the weather.” And “Expect an 80 to 90% failure rate.”

4. Internal conflict

I don’t actually remember which specific speaker dove into this, but it was so helpful to listen to a discussion about conflict. Because in every 101 book you read things like “Every scene needs conflict,” which is true but also sounds overwhelming. What I learned here is if your character has a strong enough internal conflict, it becomes easier to create those external problems that are on brand with what’s happening inside their head. And by having an intricate, internalized, conflicted character’s brain to work around, it allows you to do things that are more subtle and nuanced.

A few other things I learned on this subject: “The best characters contradict themselves.” Character hooks are those small moments that tell you everything you need to know about a character. And another great tip was to create match.com profiles for each of your characters to get to know them better.

5. Takeaways for The Undertow

In regards to my script, I learned a lot of little tips and tricks that will be held close next time I write a fresh draft. But I also had one big realization: during the conference I wrote down “Add the d**** scene into early act one or an act three flashback.” Basically an important thing happens in my story but I never actually show it in a scene, the characters just talk about it. I’ve heard of, and followed, the show > tell rule before, but something hit me during this conference and I finally made up my mind to include that one specific and important story element in a scene within my script.

In conclusion

The Toronto Screenwriting Conference was a fantastic experience full of education, networking and fun. I would highly recommend the event to screenwriters of any category from enthusiastic beginners to industry experts – there is something for everyone. It felt like a warm and inviting place that celebrated inclusion and diversity, and offered a sense of belonging.

Gemma Holdway | Writer, Reminiscent

Gemma Holdway

This was my third time attending the Toronto Screenwriting Conference. I always love the talks that focus on craft but I also enjoy hearing the rich personal experiences and anecdotes of TV and feature writers who have struggled in this chaotic business.

There were keynotes that helped me see Reminiscent in a new light. I found the Charles Randolph Q&A particularly inspiring (The Art of Adaptation). Even though our feature is not an adaptation, I appreciated the focus on authenticity.

With this next rewrite, I am struggling to determine where I can depart from the feature’s current structure, a structure that feels familiar in the psychological thriller space. Randolph spoke a lot about prioritizing emotional clarity over narrative clarity and that’s something I want to make room for in our next draft. I’d like to look at the emotional function of every scene. I need to learn to rely more on instinct than the rules of three-act structure drilled into my brain. Rather than focusing on plot points, I’d like to dig deeper and map out the emotional experience of each character over the course of the film.

Randolph also challenged us to really think carefully about the one thing by which we can define our characters. He gave Ben Rickert (a character played by Brad Pitt in The Big Short) as an example. Rickert wears a germ mask outside which isolates him from other human beings but he also craves connection. I saw an instant parallel with my character Philip Mignon who wears a nose plug because he has a hypersensitive sense of smell. It’s a way of protecting himself, staying in control. However, deep down, he too craves connection.

Instinctively, I’ve always known this about Philip, but zeroing in on one characteristic (and usually something that is visual and reveals an internal conflict) helps to remind me who Philip fundamentally is as I move forward with this script. This is something I’ll also endeavour to do with my supporting characters to better understand what drives them and to distinguish them from other characters.

I am also grateful to have seen Phil Breman’s keynote (Managing the Writer-Executive Relationship) shortly before starting our first NSI boot camp. I gleaned some nuggets from his talk that I’m convinced will help me immensely when I’m giving and receiving notes. Breman stressed that specificity is key and I couldn’t agree more. But he also gave a number of tips to help writers interpret the meaning behind classic and sometimes generic notes like “What are the stakes?” or “This doesn’t feel organic,” or “What’s fresh/new about this idea?”

At this point, I feel confident that if I don’t understand a comment, I have the tools to unpack the note behind the note.

Lastly, I relished Ben Watkins’ lecture (Anatomy of a Pilot). Even though the focus was on TV pilots, he mentioned key essentials that would benefit any and all scripts. Specifically, I’m thinking of ‘showcase moments’ that show your characters’ superpowers and ‘signature moments’ that show their humanity and truly surprising twists and turns that flow from character instead of plot. All in all, he gave me a better sense of how to stand out and make a connection with readers through compelling characters and vibrant worlds.

Muna Deria | Writer, Black Gold Muslimah

Muna Deria

[During TSC] I spent most of my time listening, taking notes and asking myself questions about how the information I was absorbing related to lessons in my own practice. During the allotted breaks I had a chance to debrief and discuss what I’d learned with the other NSI Features First students (and eat delicious food from some of the local food trucks parked outside the conference).

Executive interviews discussed everything from mental health issues, to managing conflicts in the writer’s room, to the notes process, as well as writing as a spiritual endeavor. Each speaker truly left me with something of wonder, something to be curious about and a new way to look at the work we’re doing as storytellers – the contributions of moderator Jennifer Holness, and speakers Ben Watkins and Ayanna Floyd Davis were absolute highlights.

Attending networking parties and interacting with fellow industry scribes was the next thing on the docket. I’m so glad to learn more about the exciting projects and worlds my fellow writers are dreaming up on paper. In many cases, I chatted with writers who are planning to apply to future NSI programs and listened to them delve into some of the amazing projects they’ll be sending NSI’s way. What luck!

I also learned about the state of the industry, including opportunities in international markets, how short form media is transforming storytelling on platforms, and what we can do at this stage in our practice to create a career built for longevity.

TSC was truly a vibrant and knowledge-infused world where we learned more about how to hone our craft. It was a great jumping-off point for the work we’ll be doing together next week at boot camp. I literally cannot wait! Thank you National Screen Institute, and to all my fellow writers and producer teams.

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NSI Features First provides development training for writer/producer teams looking to produce their first or second feature film with strong commercial appeal. Over 20 feature films developed through the program have been produced since 1997.

NSI Features First is funded by Presenting Sponsor Telefilm Canada; Supporting Sponsors CBC Gem, Super Channel, Corus Entertainment and Breakthrough Entertainment; Provincial Sponsor Creative BC through the Daryl Duke and William Vince Scholarship Fund; and Industry Supporters William F. White and Deluxe. NSI Core Funders are Manitoba Sport, Culture & Heritage and the City of Winnipeg through the Winnipeg Arts Council.

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