How I Wrote and Optioned my Autobiographical Feature | Script Revolution

How I Wrote and Optioned my Autobiographical Feature

Introduction: 

I've been saying for years now that we have a lot of what it takes to build a screenwriting career completely backwards. We are advised to bury the artist within us by obsessing over formatting and to trying to fit a mould in the hope we don't offend those who show interest in our material. My view is that we should develop our storytelling craft to the point we can speak our truths freely and unapologetically and that, by embracing this, our writing is more profound and entertaining as a result. Imagine my delight when Ronika Merl reached out with the following blog post that not only encapsulates exactly what I've been trying to get across but also proves that, for her and I at least, this attitude to our art is working - CJ

I just optioned my first feature script. 

I’ve written 15 scripts so far, have been at this game, trying to “make it” for a few years, I’ve been pitching, and trying, and working away, winning contests, getting placed, getting rejected… as you do. 

And then, one day, there was an email in my inbox from an award winning director. 

“I found your script. I’d love to make it.”

It’s the email. That email. The email you dream about, the email you really want to one day get. And I got it. And I screamed. 

But then I very quickly thought back on how I achieved it. 

How to write a script (not pompous at all, this title…)

BlackBird is the working title, but officially it’s still an unnamed feature, with a possible release date in the mid-20s. It is the story of a relationship I was involved in from 2008-2012, and the abuse, the horror, and the Bucky-esque brainwashing I endured during that time. 

Everything in the above sentence is true. 

But how do you turn that into a good story? How do you turn 4 years into 116 pages on a script? How do you break down the most important scenes, the pivotal moments of a life and squeeze them into a 3 act structure, a narrative, a coherent, driven script?

The short answer: practise. 

The long answer: A shit-ton of practise. 

BlackBird was the 13th script I ever wrote. It was the 5th script I wrote in 2020. 

How long did it take me to put those 116 pages together? 12 hours. 

How long did I take on the edit? Another 14 hours. 

Am I asking too many rhetorical questions? You bet your ass I am. Sorry. 

But the truth of the matter is, that if BlackBird had been my first script, I would not have been able to create it as concisely and as quickly as I did. In fact, the first script I ever wrote took me 3 months to complete. And while it’s a solid story, I would not dare to hope that it will be sold or optioned any time soon. I just did not have the craft yet. 

But by the time I sat down to finally write BlackBird, I was a well trained screenwriter. I knew the formatting, I knew the theme, I knew how to create a narrative. I knew my craft. I knew my profession. 

Therefore, it took me 0 time plotting, it took me 0 time figuring out the narrative, or understanding where I was going. What I did - what I always do - was to create a one-pager. I hand wrote a logline, and filled the rest of the page with scenes I’d like to see. 

Then, I just went through the scenes, one by one, and wrote them. 

The narrative that resulted was easy to follow, emotionally driven, and of an acceptably high quality. 

Research

Whenever I work with a “True Story” or I put in true elements into my work, I like to be sure that I am doing two things: I am faithfully sticking to the available facts and cornerstones. And I am creating an interesting narrative. 

The script I wrote needed little to no research, because as mentioned it is entirely autobiographical. There was no need to research any of the technical details, the timeline or the geographical circumstances. I wrote it all from memory. 

But I have written other scripts that were based on true stories, or had true story elements in them, and this is where it gets tricky. 

I made a point of immersing myself especially in the time. The optioned script takes place from 2008-2012, a time when I was 16-20 years old. What shaped those years? The crash, the Obama presidency, the dawn of smartphones, the end of emo hairstyles, and the emergence of social media. 

I listened to the music I listened to back then, I dug out old clothes that I wore back then, I even researched the Nokia phones I would have used to remind myself of how limited the capabilities were. I even once, for sh*ts and giggles, dressed up with my old emo black polo shirt and skull tie. I looked awful. 

I tried to put myself into the mindframe of the time, which then aided the germination of the world my characters inhabited. 

The rest of the research was technical or geographical. Such as when I had forgotten place names or when I needed to check if a certain politician was already in power. Once or twice I checked train schedules or travel details to see if a journey would have happened the way I thought it did. 

As Neil Gaiman once said in one of his master classes: “Every little detail you can smuggle with you into your fiction makes your world more real for your reader. And you know of course that they’re just smudges in the background, but that’s ok”. 

This is what research does for a true story - the more detail there is, the more researched information there is, the “realer” it will feel in the end. 

We all know the trope of how Hollywood deals with “True Story”. The “Inspired by True events”, the “Based on a True Story”, the “Inspired by real people” tags get thrown around like you wouldn't believe. 

I was lucky, I got to go the whole “True Story” nine yards, because there is only one scene, only 3 sentences in the scene that did not happen exactly as it happened in real life.

Characters

In the first draft, I changed the names of all the characters. Except my own. My reasoning was, that it would feel that much closer to being my true story, my actual self if I could read my own name on the page. 

But after it was optioned, the director wanted to change my name, too. So, I became “Anna”. 

When I reworked the script from a spec into a shooting script, I did a search and replace and boom. Just like that, it was no longer an intensely personal look back on 4 hellish years of quasi-slavery and abuse… it was a story of a young woman fighting her way to freedom. And - even though I still struggle to see myself as a real human being, as a person worthy of existing - I could root for Anna. I would never root for myself. But Anna… I hope she wins. 

So, that slight layer of removal helped me in gaining a deeper understanding of what I was actually trying to say. What other people would actually perceive once they see my life played out in front of their eyes. 

With all the other characters, it was simpler. 

Again, because this is an autobiographical movie, all the people in it are not only based on real people, but of course they are people I know intimately.

It is more difficult when you’re working with scraps of knowledge, scraps of information about characters you’ve never personally known. 

In my script “The Indian Wife”, I struggled with understanding a woman I had never personally met, but whose story was so compelling to me that I wanted, no needed to incorporate her into the world I was building. The resulting character Karina was, naturally, not completely the person she was based on. But I like to think, like shards of a mirror reflecting parts of a soul, that she shares some of her fire with the woman she was born from. 

Anna never speaks much in the script. She’s silent for most of the time. That’s very much like her. She’s a broken little 16 year old, who has suffered through unspeakable abuse at the hands of her parents. She doesn’t have the strength to speak. 

But she does have a rich inner world. I portrayed that through monologues whispered into the darkness when there was no one around. In real life, those thoughts were never expressed out loud, so I had to take artistic liberties there. 

With any other dialogue, it was incredibly easy to reconstruct what was said, because most of those conversations are burned into my memory. Remembering them and writing them down was easy. That hard part was to not embellish them. Not to write down what I wish I had said, but what I actually said. Not to write down how I interpreted  what other people said to me, but what they actually said.

Again, because this was written from memory, not from research, it was easy to make characters very clear and concise. The hard part was not making them into a caricature of themselves. Joe, the male lead, for example is the most cliche “bad guy” you can imagine. A 34 year old who abuses a 16 year old girl is, after all, not someone you can easily root for. 

But he was not an evil comic book villain. He was a human being with flaws and edges and softness and genuine love in him. He was human, fundamentally so. Everyone in this story was. 

And it would have been an easy thing to just paint my abusers and those who have wronged me and hurt me with broad strokes and make them into cartoonishly horrible people. But the truth is: They were not. They were just people. People with flaws and dreams and love and family. 

The Process of Optioning the Script

As mentioned, this script was by no means my first. Nor was it a script I was particularly keen on selling or optioning. It was just kind of… there. I was not going to send it to too many festivals, nor was I going to pitch it or query it. Rather, I was going to just have it in the back of my hand for when I needed to showcase that I can write “true story” scripts. 

I had put it into Nicholl and Austin for 2021 and that was going to be the extent of promotion I was going to do on it. I had more commercially viable work that I was - and am still - trying to sell. A deeply disturbing drama is not in the same category as a female led rambo-esque blockbuster action flick, after all (here’s the link to that one, if you're interested). 

So I worked away on my bigger projects, did table reads for my fantasy romances, my political dramas, my Nicholl-finalist script of yesteryear.

I bragged about festival wins, promoted podcasts I was a part of, wrote deep dives and created YouTube channels full of tips and tricks on how to write. 

In short, I went on with the business of being a screenwriter. 

Until, one day, all this work caught the attention of an award winning director in Ireland who was looking for his next project. He checked me out on Stage 32, found the logline for BlackBird and… boom!

There it was. 

“I found your script. I’d love to make it.”

 

About The Author

Ronika Merl's picture
Real name: 

Having placed highly in both the Nicholl Fellowship and the Austin Film Festival in 2019, I have since expanded my slate significantly. My feature scripts range from drama to fantasy to action, and are always centered around women like me: real, honest, heartbroken, and heartbreaking. My latest drama "BlackBird", which is a reflection on my own journey from human trafficking towards a brighter future, has been optioned and is in the early stages of independent preproduction.Read more

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Comments

David Lambertson's picture

Cool story - enjoyed reading it

David C. Velasco's picture

Thank you for the insight and inspiration.

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