Congratulations to Ashleigh Powell, one of our Screenplay Development Notes readers at The Writers Store, who sold her first spec feature script, SomaCell, to Warner Bros. SomaCell, a dystopia thriller, chronicles a female prison guard in the near future who discovers that the virtual reality process that rehabilitates convicts is not all it promises to be. The Dark Knight/Man Of Steel co-writer David S. Goyer will produce the thriller.
Script recently spoke with Ashleigh about her success, how she got interested in screenwriting, what advice she has for those of us trying to break in, and more.
Script: How long have you been screenwriting and where did you start your journey?
AP: I first discovered screenwriting in college. I was an English major / Creative Writing minor, and I took an Introductory to Screenwriting class where I totally fell in love with the medium. Up until that point, I had only written prose, including two novels (which no one will ever see) that were several hundred pages each and took several years a piece just to crank out a first draft. The idea that I had to tell a complete, concise story in 120 pages or less was so appealing to me… I dove into screenwriting and never looked back. After that initial class, I was largely self-taught. I bought all the how-to screenwriting books, read as many scripts as I could find, and practiced, practiced, practiced. I must have written about a dozen scripts before I started to really hit my stride.
Script: With how difficult this industry is to break into, how did you keep yourself motivated along the way?
AP: I’ve always found it helpful to belong to a writers group. That constant interaction with other writers and in-depth discussion of the craft – plus consistent deadlines for turning in pages – is a great motivation tool.
I also adopted the mindset early on that quantity was just as important as quality. I knew from my novel-writing days that I couldn’t afford to spend months and years toiling away on a single project. Better to diversify and improve my odds. And, that way, every time a project gets passed on (which is most of the time), I can say, “That’s okay, on to the next thing.”
Mostly, though, it just comes down to a love of writing. When I was working 80+ hours a week as an Executive Assistant, I would wake up extra early in the morning so I could get in some pages before I started my day. That way, no matter what else happened, I could feel accomplished because at least I got my writing in. And I was always working on something. I kept a log to make sure I’d write at least a little every day. That way I’d feel that I was really making progress, even if the end result was just a script that would sit on my shelf.
Script: We share our scripts with friends or professional readers to get feedback and take our stories to a new level. As a Screenplay Development Notes reader at The Writers Store, let’s talk about your tips for giving and receiving feedback.
AP: It’s so important that feedback always be constructive, and given in a way that is polite and respectful. I try not to make demands – “do this, cut that” – but will instead give suggestions – “Consider doing this. Just an idea, but…”
I think it’s also important to not just point out a problem, but also offer suggestions for a solution. If you think something legitimately doesn’t work, explain why and try to find an alternative.
And, whenever possible, lead with a compliment. For example, “John is such a strong character. Let’s find a way to make Bob equally compelling…”
When receiving feedback, I always find it’s best not to comment or defend your choices, or argue a point. Just take in the critique thoughtfully from start to finish. Then, afterward, it’s okay to ask questions, open a discussion, etc.
And know that you don’t have to take every piece of feedback to heart – especially if you get half a dozen conflicting opinions on one topic. Ultimately, it comes down to having an innate understanding of the story you want to tell. That said, if you keep getting the same note from multiple sources, chances are it’s a note you should use.
Script: What did you learn about your own writing by being a reader? What are the most common mistakes you noticed screenwriters make?
AP: One of the most common mistakes I encounter is when the writer doesn’t understand the timeframe of his or her story. Sometimes it’s macro issue – the story starts when the main character is five years old, then jumps to the character in their twenties, then jumps to “ten years later” to tell this long, sprawling, epic life-long story… which isn’t how most movies work. Usually, the timeframe is very condensed – one day, one week, one month, one year, etc. Granted, there are exceptions. But most screenplays are written on an abbreviated timeline because it keeps the story focused. Sometimes the issue is micro – as in, not understanding when to bring us into and out of a scene. Ideally, we want to jump into a scene as late as possible and get out as early as possible. A lot of scenes make the mistake of starting too early and ending to late, which can kill the pacing. It’s a mistake I encounter so often that I’ve become very conscious of examining my own screenplays – on a macro and micro level – to make sure they’re as tight and streamlined as possible.
Perhaps one of the most difficult lessons to learn is knowing when you have an idea that is truly marketable and cinematic and has the potential to appeal to a wide audience vs. an idea that you may love, but that is so esoteric and odd and perhaps specific to you that others may not understand it or share your enthusiasm. It sounds like a no-brainer, but that should be the first question you ask: Is this interesting? I’ve read (and written) so many scripts where the writing is fine, but the concept just doesn’t feel strong enough. And it’s not enough to come up with a good concept. The concept has to be great. Like slap-yourself-on-the-forehead, “of course that’s a movie, why hasn’t that been made yet?” great. That’s a lesson I’m still learning. I’ll get attached to an idea, however wild or weird it may be, and it can be really difficult to let it go.
Also – spelling, punctuation, and grammar are so important. Nothing projects “amateur writer” like a script that is riddled with technical errors. Sometimes just a simple spell check can make all the difference.
Script: At what point in your career did you start the search for representation and how did you ultimately gain it?
AP: The process of finding representation always stumped me. I had no idea how to go about it. I worked as an Executive Assistant at a production company for several years and, every now and then, I would send a script to a fellow assistant, but nothing materialized that way. Mostly, I was just focusing on content. I figured that, if I wrote something good enough, the representation problem would somehow work itself out. In retrospect, that probably wasn’t the best approach.
I had written over a dozen feature and TV scripts when I got the idea for a pilot script that was a modern-day reimagining of Little Red Riding Hood. This was at the beginning of 2011, and I had just completed a solid draft of my pilot right when the announcements came out that Once Upon A Time and Grimm were getting picked up… which pretty much killed my pilot. I was just about to put it on a shelf and move on when, on a whim, I decided to submit it to a tracking board pilot contest (TrackingB.com). A few months later I got a call saying my script was a finalist, and one of the judges who read it (Daniel Vang at Benderspink) wanted to represent me. Problem solved!
Script: Now for the fun part: Tell us about your thriller, SomaCell, starting with how long you worked on it, and how you ultimately got the attention of Warner Bros?
AP: I got the idea in June of this year, at a time when I was brainstorming new TV ideas. I was thinking of doing something in the prison space, an undercover cop who goes in to get some kind of information and then realizes he can’t get out. But I just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to really get the wheels turning. The idea wasn’t weird enough. It needed some kind of sci-fi edge to get me excited. Then I latched onto the concept of virtual reality, and the idea for SomaCell was born. And it quickly became apparent that it would work better as a feature.
I started bringing up this idea – just a 2-3 minute overview – in my general meetings, and the responses were overwhelmingly positive. Everyone I talked to about this got excited. I knew I had something good.
Right around this time, I got my first paid screenwriting job – a feature rewrite for Amazon Studios. I knew that, as soon as the contracts were finalized, it was going to start monopolizing my time. But I had this brief window – basically, the month of July – where I could crank out a first draft of SomaCell before I got too bogged down in this other project. So I took a chance, and just dove into the first draft. I had my manager reading pages along the way so I could revise as I went, and by August I had a draft I was proud of.
We started sending it out to select producers, mostly people who I’d met with before and had a good relationship with. For about two months, nobody bit. It would go to a CE (Creative Executive), who would love it and pass it up the ladder to a VP, who would love it and pass it to the head of the company… who would ultimately pass. Now that I had some distance, I took another look at the script, assessed the weaknesses, and started planning a rewrite – still hoping a producer might come onboard to shepherd the new draft. Then I found out David Goyer was interested. I met with him and his team on a Friday, they officially came onboard to produce the next Monday, and on Tuesday I got an unexpected phone call…
It turns out that someone had passed SomaCell to Warner Brothers without me or anyone on my team knowing. They read it and called my agent on Tuesday saying they wanted to buy it that night. It was crazy. Just… totally out of left field.
Script: Now take us to the moment you found out David S. Goyer would be producing it. Talk about validation!
AP: Oh man. I’m such a huge fan of his… it’s all a bit surreal. And funnily enough, it all came about because I was an Exec Asst for so long. I’d become friends with an Exec Asst at another company because we scheduled so many calls and meetings for our bosses. Then he was promoted to a Creative Exec, and I started taking meetings as a writer, and we were both looking for something to work on together. He was one of the first people I sent SomaCell to when it first went out. And while he didn’t think it was a good fit for his company, he gave the script to his wife, who just happens to be David Goyer’s Creative Exec. Crazy how things work out.
Script: Now that Warner Bros has acquired the script, what will your involvement be going forward?
AP: They’re having me do two rewrites, which is phenomenal. Beyond that… I guess we’ll see.
Script: What’s next for you, Ashleigh? Will you stick with thrillers? Do you feel after succeeding with one you’re now locked into that genre?
AP: Apart from rewriting SomaCell… I’m working on my next feature spec, which is a sci-fi reimagining of a classic story. I have another feature idea waiting in the wings that’s more of a family-friendly supernatural adventure, and I’m working on adapting a young adult novel that I totally fell in love with. I also have a few TV projects I’m trying to gain some traction with. So you could say I’m keeping busy.
I love writing thrillers, and I tend to gravitate toward material that has some kind of grounded sci-fi or fantasy edge. I’m also a sucker for coming-of-age stories, the search for identity, anything that involves mythology creation and world-building. But I don’t feel I’ve been pigeonholed in any way… maybe because I have several other concurrent projects in the works that help show my range. Mostly, I just love telling stories. I’ve been doing it in one form or another since the second grade, and I haven’t run out of new stories to tell yet.
Script: What advice would you give yourself if you could turn back time and talk to that new writer with stars in her eyes?
AP: I would tell her – everything happens for a reason. Every job I applied for and didn’t get, every project I pitched on but got passed over, every script I attempted and failed… it’s all lead up to the stars aligning for this particular success. And I’m sure there will be many more rejections along the way, but tenacity is so important in this business. Rejection is never a reason to give up, just a reason to move on to the next thing.
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