STORY BROADS: Screenwriter Kelly Fullerton on Writing the Simone Biles Biopic – From TV to Feature Writing

Screenwriter and Story Broad Kelly Fullerton was writing episodes for television earlier this year when she was offered to write the Simone Biles biopic.


Natalia Megas is a Washington, D.C. freelance journalist who turns biographies and ripped-from-the-headlines narratives into screenplays that have won awards and placed in contests like Austin Film Festival, Sundance Labs, and PAGE International. You can follow her on Twitter @DameWriter.

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Kelly Fullerton

Screenwriter and Story Broad Kelly Fullerton, was looking for her next TV writing gig earlier this year when she was offered to write a biopic about Olympic gold medal gymnast, Simone Biles.

“I fell in love with Simone during the 2016 Olympics,” she says. “She can do things that no one else can.”

Fullerton’s screenplay The Simone Biles Story (working title) is based on Biles’ autobiography Courage to Soar, which chronicles the sacrifices and hard work leading to her 19 Olympic and World Championship medals. This past summer, Lifetime greenlit the biopic, which is slated for premiere in 2018. The biopic will be executive produced by Howard Braunstein, Simone Biles, Janey Miller and Kyell Thomas for Octagon.

Fullerton, who hails from Orange County and lives in Los Angeles, received her bachelor degree from the University of California in theater arts with an emphasis on acting and directing and her MFA in screenwriting at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she won the Sidney Sheldon Scholarship Award for Screenwriting at UCLA in 2008 for her script Always a Bridesmaid. Logline: a story about a quirky woman, unlucky in love, who decides to throw herself a wedding ceremony – sans the groom. But when plans intensify and an advertising firm hires her to be the spokesperson for single weddings, she falls in love with the man hired to keep her single.

Two years into graduate school in 2009, she signed on with manager, Robyn Meisinger from Madhouse Entertainment.

She’s a full-time writer day and night, when she isn’t teaching television writing for the UCLA Professional Program and sometimes for Chapman University. “I love it,” she says.

Script caught up with Fullerton via email.

What did you want to be when you were a child? How and when did you finally get into screenwriting?

I wanted to be a writer when I was a child. A novelist. The Velveteen Rabbit was my favorite (laughs). It broke my heart, and I was obsessed. I wrote sequels and had my best friend illustrate them. Dark sequels. But I didn’t actually decide to take a screenwriting class until I was 28. I was a late bloomer.

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I was a late bloomer too! What advantages do you think late bloomers have?

The main advantage is probably temperament. Late bloomers tend to have had careers before breaking in. And these careers have likely opened you up to all sorts of feedback, positive and negative about job performance. You’ve learned communication skills and developed patience while you continued to balance creative pursuits with career and family commitments. You’ve likely developed excellent listening skills. You have been forged for this business where balance, communication and people skills are key.

How important is it for screenwriters to get a formal education in screenwriting—what did it do for you and how did it prepare you for a writing career?

I would not be a screenwriter without UCLA and my professors there. I was part of the showrunner track, which doesn’t really exist anymore in that state. But at the time, it was a wonderful program where you wrote half-hours and hour-long television pilots and partnered with the producing program, and it was incredibly helpful. We had classes in running the room and pitching. It was the way I learned to give and take notes.

 

What was the feature that got you the majority of your work?

The feature is called Clarity. A sensitive young woman decides to fake her own death and show her selfish family how miserable they would be without her, but is shocked to they are all better off with her “dead”… including herself.

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After you graduated from UCLA a few years later, you started writing for various TV series, like Awkward. How did you land those writing gigs? What has writing TV episodes done for your writing career?

My manager, Robyn, repped Lauren Iungerich, the EP and Showunner for Awkward. So, she got her my sample, and I got a meeting and fell in love with Lauren. I owe them my entire career, basically. My next job was on an NBC show called Next Caller, my boss was Stephen Falk. We all moved to New York for that gig, but those episodes never aired. But it all worked out because Stephen came home and created You’re the Worst right after. Love that show. And then I worked on The Fosters for a few seasons and it was wonderful to transition from half-hour to one-hours and get experience, breaking story in both formats. That has been the most helpful part. I think having experience in multiple formats allows me to be up for more jobs.

Based on your personal experience, what’s the main difference between TV and feature writing?

I think the main difference is with characters. In features, they arc and change across two hours. But in TV shows, character consistency is prized. Anytime you think a character has learned something, they tend to reset at the end of each episode back to the way they were in the beginning. So, most characters in TV shows only change incrementally episode to episode and their arcs tend to run across a season and/or the life of the entire series.

How did you come about writing the script, the Simone Biles Story?

In 2011, I had a general meeting with Tia Maggini when I was on Awkward and we hit it off. She is smart and funny and collaborative. She remembered me from that meeting and that I had been writing for The Fosters and there is a foster care element to Simone’s story. When Tia landed at Lifetime, this project came up and she asked if I’d like to be considered. I jumped at the chance, so we submitted my writing sample and they asked me to read Simone’s book and come up with a take for her and the producer Howard Braunstein. They liked it. We met with Simone and her family and her agents and we all talked about what we wanted from this experience. It immediately felt comfortable. Like we had all known each other for years.

Wow, that’s fantastic. It’s encouraging to see that every writing experience and connection led you to your next job/connection. What was it specifically that inspired you to write her biopic?

Most gymnastics competitions are won by a hair margin. Point 1 or .2. But Simone Biles routinely wins a full point or two ahead of the competition. She’s fierce. A focused competitor, but with this joyful heart. She loves and supports her fellow team members. She’s strong. Generous. I think what inspired me most was how she deals with setbacks. There are a lot of setbacks in Hollywood, and I could relate to the idea of failures or mistakes paralyzing you and the importance of getting back up when you fall and getting back to work.

What were some of the challenges or hurdles you faced getting her story told?

We had her help and support so there weren’t a lot of challenges. I think there is a balance between telling the REAL story vs. the REEL story. You want to tell the truth, but you also want to tell the most dramatically interesting version of things so it’s a fine line.

What is your writing process like?

I used to be a huge procrastinator. I had a lot of fear and didn’t want to write badly so I was waiting for “good ideas” or “inspiration,” which seems absolutely ridiculous now (laughs). But that procrastination led to binge writing, and the product wasn’t great. It wasn’t a process as much as it was bursts of panic, followed closely by long periods of self-loathing. My process now is a little more direct. I write daily and I embrace writing badly. I shoot for roughly three- hour blocks. Sometimes, I do two or three of those blocks and sometimes only manage 10 minutes before bed. I always use a brief outline or beat sheet. I don’t belong to a traditional writing group, but I just finished a writing intensive class with one of my UCLA professors. I continue to go to classes and things like that. Continuing education is huge for me.

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How has being a Story Broad helped?

I love the Story Broads, and I feel lucky to be a part of the group even though I don’t get to participate as much as I’d like. I love the camaraderie and how it’s a group of women celebrating and supporting other women in their creative pursuits. It’s inspiring.

Do you feel like you’ve finally made it or is this just the beginning for you?

I feel incredibly blessed and grateful, but I don’t believe I’ve finally made it. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like that. I’m a striver (laughs). We all are. And I love that.

What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters, especially those pursuing biopics or based on true-life stories?

Have great material you love that shows off your voice, that you’re proud of, that has been vetted by others, that makes you feel confident walking into meetings. If you don’t, connect with classes, consultants, writer’s groups, etc. to get that material.

Secondly, this opportunity came to me because of a general meeting I had over six years ago. This is a business of relationships. So if you need help with any personality or communication issues, don’t be afraid to work on those.

Thirdly, don’t forget about the business outside the business. Don’t forget to get out of the house for a walk. Clear your head. Engage with others in a healthy way. Practice general meeting etiquette with friends. Practice telling one really great intro story. Practice breathing and being present and being kind to yourself and others. I guess what I’m saying is, so much of this business and this life is out of your control. Control the pieces you can.

You just turned in your final revision of the biopic. What’s next?

I just finished writing a new one-hour supernatural pilot. I’m going from a kick ass gymnast to a kick ass witch! It’s been so much fun.

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