Barbara Stepansky, one of 2013’s five Nicholl fellowship winners, is a former student of mine, and her winning script Sugar in My Veins was developed in my screenwriting Master Class at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
As the Nicholl, presented annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is the most prestigious of the country’s many screenwriting contests (the five winning scripts were selected from 7,251 entrees this year), I thought readers might enjoy hearing from Barbara, an exceptionally talented writer (and director), who is already launched on what I’m sure will be an amazing career.
In your acceptance speech at the awards ceremony, you recited quite a roll call of film industry jobs that you held en route to this moment.
I was so obsessed with making movies when I first started out that I took any job in the industry I could. I worked as a projectionist, a reader, clapper loader, camera assistant, sound recordist, boom operator, production assistant, I got people coffee, their laundry, you name it, I've done it.
Amidst all of that, where did you pick up your writing craft skills?
I think I probably learned the most about writing from being a reader and evaluating scripts for production companies. You understand very fast what works and what doesn't, and hopefully you get to incorporate those experiences into your own writing. But being on set is also valuable because you get to be part of the execution of the "blueprint". You see how a script gets broken into pieces, how actors and performances can affect the words for better or worse. And also how set dynamics and time pressure can change the script.
Your Nicholl script is about a 14 year-old violin prodigy who falls in love with a lighting designer who is twice her age. What drew you to this subject matter?
In spite of how personal the script reads, it is not based on anything that ever happened to me in my own life. I’ve simply always been intrigued by good forbidden love stories. After I read Lolita by Nabokov as a teenager, I felt like I wanted to write my own variation on the theme one day. I wanted to play more along the lines of a Romeo and Juliet star-crossed lovers plane. The tragedy comes from my characters connecting as soul mates, but having their age difference be an almost impossible hurdle to overcome. In spite of how wrong you know their relationship is, you should find yourself rooting for them. That was my goal as a writer.
How did the screenplay develop over time?
This particular screenplay reinvented itself quite a lot. There is a whole version where Ray, my male protagonist, was established as a guitarist in a rock band. Also, Jillian’s character went through a big transformation when I realized that a shy, introverted person just doesn’t read very active on the page. I turned her a little bit more rebellious - after all, your script is only as strong as your protagonist’s want. So in order to bring her out into the spotlight, I let her speak. Normally, I’m not a big fan of voice-over, but in this case, it lets you in on her unusual life and the way she looks at things right away. I think that made a big difference in grabbing the audience.
Given the controversial nature of the story, did you make any adjustments, or industry concessions, in readying it for contests and the market?
All things considered, not that many. Generally people who read it and have a strong reaction to Jillian’s age also understand that there really would not be a story without her being so young. You want [the affair] to be a difficult moral decision. However, now that the script will be read by possible producers, who knows. I’m open to compromises as long as they don’t take away what made the story special and complicated to begin with.
What happens to a writer in Los Angeles when her script is announced as a Nicholl fellowship finalist?
As soon as the official announcement and your name hits the town, agents, managers and producers somehow miraculously find you – over email or on Facebook. Then you have another wave of inquiries when your contact info is revealed by the Academy. People want to read the script, so you send it to them and hope they like it. I was specifically looking for representation so I wasn’t shy about passing the script on. The Nicholl Fellowship Finalist list is an amazing stamp of approval and a badly needed validation. So now the script that had been mostly ignored or somewhere in the bottom of people’s piles moves up to overnight-reads. A lot of reps and assistants actually turned it around in 24 hours. I was very impressed.
What was the experience of actually winning the award like? This year’s ceremony certainly had a uniquely new take on the event.
Winning the award was of course fantastic. You are entering a very exclusive club and are getting a significant chunk of change to continue your writing. People were being generally lovely and congratulating me. In that respect, it doesn’t seem to matter whether you are a finalist or a fellow for the industry. This year, the Academy decided to open up the ceremony to the public and hold a live read of scenes from the winning scripts. That was an incredibly positive change – it felt that the writing itself was celebrated. Having your words read out loud by such amazing actors as Elle Fanning and Anton Yelchin was a dream come true. Opening it up to the public made it possible for friends and family to attend and celebrate this occasion with you. It truly was a very special night.
What do you hope to do with your fellowship year?
I hope to write a great follow-up screenplay and I’m looking to get “Sugar In My Veins” produced. I’m excited to move up a notch in this beloved industry of mine.