“This one doctor… he said I was nothing but a glorified secretary. That’s when I thought—Thank you! Thank you for firing me, because I’m going to become a writer now.”
The Tracking Board is proud to present the Mini Series, our new series highlighting our candid interviews with working writers, agents, managers, producers, and filmmakers. In this series, we meet with passionate individuals who discuss their writing process and the insight that they’ve gained by working in the industry. In collaboration with the 2015 Launch Pad Pilots Competition, we’ve set out to talk with Launch Pad finalist and all-around screenwriting guru, screenwriter, and novelist, Jeanne Veillette Bowerman.
TB contributing writer Miley Tunnecliffe sat down with Jeanne, the editor of the popular online publication Script Magazine. Her blog “Balls of Steel” has been an inspiring guide for many up-and-coming as well as established screenwriters. Jeanne’s script, Slavery by Another Name, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, placed in the Top 25 of the 2014 Launch Pad Feature Competition. She recently took some time out to chat with us about her journey to becoming a writer, running Script Mag, and her experience of placing in Launch Pad and becoming part of The Tracking Board family.
——————⇒ Tell me about your script (Slavery by Another Name) that placed in the Top 25 of the 2014 Launch Pad Feature Competition.
It’s a narrative adaptation of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction book about a period in our history where African-Americans were still enslaved after the Civil War. People don’t really know slavery wasn’t a federal crime until 1941. Up until then, any enforcement of it was left up to the local sheriff. Our project is often wrongly compared to 12 Years A Slave. Slavery by Another Name actually means prison laboring.
The country had come up with all these laws to re-enslave African-Americans because the Southern economy was destroyed after slavery was abolished. So they creatively and horrifically found a loophole with these new, bizarre laws to re-enslave African-Americans in the form of prison laboring.
For example, they arrested young black men for talking too loudly to a white woman or for not being able to prove they had a job, and then charged them with the cost of their court fees. If they couldn’t pay, they’d be thrown into jail and leased to plantation owners or businesses like U.S. Steel and Tennessee Coal. The profits made from leasing these prisoners were astronomical.
I won’t stop until this gets made. Period. It’s not about me or my writing career. It’s about the truth of our country’s history finally being told.
With what’s happening now with race relations, Ferguson, etc., it’s incredibly timely. Before these laws were enacted, the proportions of blacks to whites in prison were fairly equal. It literally is the reason why the African-American community today has such distrust for the police. I won’t stop until this gets made. Period. It’s not about me or my writing career. It’s about the truth of our country’s history finally being told and reaching the largest audience possible. The book is now required reading in many universities across the country and was also adapted into a documentary, which appeared at Sundance in 2012 and was on PBS as well.
It’s an amazing body of work everyone should read and/or see. To get to work with the book’s author, Douglas A. Blackmon, was a true honor. I have so much respect for him and his eight-year journey of uncovering this part of our history and for generously allowing me to share in it.
——————⇒ What was your experience when placing in the Launch Pad Top 25?
We’ve had a lot of traction and people attached to Slavery by Another Name previously, but things fall by the wayside—that’s just the way Hollywood is—but it’s a project that I keep coming back to.
I’d just finished another re-write of it for like the zillionth time. A couple of friends who are professional writers read it and said—this is incredible; you bled on the page. So I thought, screw this, I’ve been hustling and pitching this sucker for so long. I’m going to enter some contests. I entered all the big-name competitions, including Tracking Board Launch Pad. I didn’t know much about Launch Pad before I entered, so I didn’t have any per-conceived ideas. I had zero expectations of any of them really.
The script did quite well in many of the contests. When I got the email from The Tracking Board it came as a surprise because it was so off my radar. I had completely forgotten I had entered! But I love things like that in life, because you have zero expectations and no idea what is to come.
I started getting emails from the team and absorbing with each email what placing in Launch Pad really means. And what this team of people at Tracking Board are about and what they’re mission is—to launch careers. Every other contest is just about that one script that you entered. That script gets sent out to people and that’s it. It’s like you live or die by that one writing sample.
The Tracking Board is not like that. One of the first questions they asked me was, “What else have you got?” It’s like they wanted to package me and the other writers in terms of getting together your bio, profile picture and a list of projects that you’re working on. They asked what you have that’s of this same caliber and what other ideas do you have that might be marketable. That’s what they go out with—you as a package, not just this one project. It’s a completely unique experience and competition.
——————⇒ It took a few years before you called yourself a writer…
That’s what they (The Tracking Board) go out with—you as a package, not just this one project. It’s a completely unique experience and competition.
I didn’t become a writer until I was forty. Before that, I owned a motel and restaurant for fifteen years. But when I was in high school I used to write a lot of poetry. I had that teenage angst, and I needed some way to express it. I would pour it out onto the page. That was the first time I realised the power of writing. I always wrote as Stephen King says—with the door closed. As if no one would ever read it, so I could be brutally honest and raw in my emotion. I still write that way.
When I was at Cornell’s Hotel School, I took a couple of writing classes. Writing from Experience was a class where you write personal essays, much like I do on my blog. I loved it! My professor took me out to lunch one day, trying to get me to change majors, and said—you really need to be a writer. But back then, I couldn’t imagine someone would want to read my words.
Plus, “being a writer” felt like a never-ending journey of writing term papers for life. What 19-year-old would want to do that? (Laughter)
——————⇒ Did you do any kind of writing during those in-between years?
No. I expressed myself through art all those years instead of writing – charcoal and watercolor of nudes. I had an easel set up the whole time I was working at the motel. I’d sneak in artist time in-between cooking in the restaurant, making beds and fixing toilets. (Laughter)
When my kids went to school. I started doing medical transcription, writing medical reports for doctors. This one doctor dictated words that didn’t even exist. I would flag those reports, and he got me fired off his account. He said I was nothing but a glorified secretary. That’s when I thought—Thank you! Thank you for firing me, because I’m going to become a writer now. At forty, I had the confidence I didn’t have when I was nineteen. I had more life experience, and I now actually had something to say.
——————⇒ How did you start?
I didn’t have a clue. I knew nothing. I’m self-taught. Read a lot. In fact, my first book was Screenwriting for Dummies. No joke. Then I took some online classes. Even if I only got one nugget of useable knowledge, I found it to be worth it. I soaked up as much information as I could and ultimately found mentors to guide me. I’m very lucky in that regard. Twitter is a great place to learn too. I learn something new every day there, whether it’s an article on publishing or film-related advice. Twitter seriously changed my life, but that’s a whole other story.
——————⇒ What drew you to do your blog Balls of Steel for Script Magazine?
Balls of Steel started when Joshua Stecker was the Online Editor of Script Mag. He happened to be a history buff. He found me because I’m the co-founder of Twitter’s Scriptchat and became interested in Slavery by Another Name. Originally I was just supposed to write one article about this project for Script’s site. But Josh and I became friends, and he started reading my personal blog and realized I had more to say then just about this project. So he asked if I’d like a regular column.
I titled it Balls of Steel because that’s what it took to get that adaptation. The only screenplays I’d written before that were rom-coms. Slavery by Another Name is the complete polar opposite. It’s so gritty and meaningful, so deep and intense. I was excited for the challenge because writing dramatically suits my sensibilities much better. I like to push the envelope.
I wanted to share with people what things I had tried that didn’t work, and maybe, in hindsight, this is how I should have done it instead.
Joshua was very gracious to give me the platform on Script. But my columns sort of surprised both of us. As I was writing them, they were becoming very inspirational and encouraging. I didn’t pretend to know everything, because I don’t. That’s not my style. Instead I wanted to share with people what things I had tried that didn’t work, and maybe, in hindsight, this is how I should have done it instead. Or I shared something I did that got some great traction in the industry the reader might not have considered yet.
Right now, I’m on this kick that every screenwriter should try to write a novel. It makes you appreciate the art of screenwriting to look at things from another perspective. Screenwriters love being screenwriters. Novelists love being novelists. Sometimes they have trouble looking at the literary world from the other side, and I think it’s important to try to do that. Plus, it doesn’t take millions of dollars and a village of people to get a book published and your story out there. It’s extremely liberating!
——————⇒ Does writing for Balls of Steel ever become a distraction from your screenwriting?
No. Since I work from home, I can juggle my creative energy as I see fit. If it’s 10AM, and I’m inspired to work on my scripts, I write. Then I just end up doing my day job until midnight, if need be. I’m extremely fortunate that way. Now that I’m the Editor of Script Magazine, I have 68 contributors that I manage. I don’t have the time like before to write a weekly column, but I try to write one once a month, like my contributors do.
——————⇒ How does your blog feed your own writing?
(Writers) are not like these competitive cut-throat people that some people imagine Hollywood is.
What surprised me the most about writing Balls of Steel was that in examining a lesson I’m trying to share, it gave me an opportunity to look at it with a different perspective. I look at it through my readers’ eyes, and it allows me to fully learn the lesson I was supposed to, but maybe missed at the time.
Plus, as I’m telling people to sit their ass in the chair and write, it reminds me, that I need to sit my own ass in the chair and write too! Sometimes I’ll use the column to set goals. I’ll say to people—Okay! By the end of next month I want to have an outline of my next script. Who’s going to join me?
I use it to not only motivate my writers but to motivate myself. If you’re going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk. If you’re a writer, you need to be writing.
——————⇒ What’s been the most unexpected thing that has come from writing Balls of Steel?
One of the last questions I ask the people I’m interviewing is: What advice would you give your 18-year-old self? A lot of people’s advice has nothing to do with filmmaking. It’s more about life. It’s interesting to watch them reflect back on their own lives.
What’s also lovely to discover is that writers who are in the industry really want to help up-and-coming writers. They want new writers to learn what they did in an easier way then they had to.
It’s not in an egotistical way. It really comes from a place of generosity. They’re not like these competitive cut-throat people that some people imagine Hollywood is. Though I don’t know what they’re like when they’re re-writing each other and fighting for writing credits!
Contributor Miley Tunnecliffe is -based actress and screenwriter, known for the short films “Love in a Disabled Toilet,” “Bye Bye Lulu,” and “Barnesy’s Numbers.” Her comedic road-trip script, “Run Santos Run,” recently placed in the top 5% of 7500 unproduced screenplays entered in 2014’s Academy Nicholl Fellowships. She is also a co-head of Red Milestone Productions, which is based in Western Australia.
Follow Miley on Twitter: @mileytunn