INTERVIEW: Kay Tuxford and Elizabeth Dahl – Winners Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest

Denny Schnulo began his writing career at age eleven with the release of his first collection of poems to the kids on the school playground. Believing that first hand reports are always best, he spent his early adult years living and working throughout the world. His writing today is informed by people he met and things they did together. Follow Denny on Twitter: @DennySchnulo

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Elizabeth and Kay are the 2016 Script Pipeline Grand Prize winners in the TV Category.  Their original pilot, 40 Elephants, is a period drama based on a true story. They were kind enough to sit down and share some of their journey with Script.

Script:  How did each of you find your way into script writing?

elizabeth

Elizabeth Dahl

Elizabeth Dahl (ED): Firstly, thank you for taking the time to talk to us! All throughout my childhood I was constantly writing, admittedly it was all just terrible, but it made me happy. Through my grandmother, I also grew up on Hollywood classics like The Philadelphia Story and Gigi, which gave me a deep love of movies—they were this visceral escape. Finally, I realized someone had to write those movies, and when I found out that was a job, I was hooked.

Naturally, knowing screenwriting was my ambition, I went college at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where I got a B.S. degree in nothing having to do with screenwriting. The parents wanted me to have an education I could fall back on, which isn’t the worst advice. A year after graduating (I was randomly a baker in a high-end Maine restaurant because why not), I moved to Los Angeles, read a ton of scripts, wrote some truly bad screenplays, and then kept going until the scripts got progressively better.

Kay Tuxford

Kay Tuxford

Kay Tuxford (KT): I was getting a degree in English and accidentally signed up for a Screenwriting class – but it fit my schedule perfectly, and it was the room in the English department with the really nice chairs, so I thought, you know what? I’m going to give it a try. Despite being an avid movie watcher since I was a kid (my house was literally right behind a movie theater), it was a huge epiphany that there was a person, somewhere, planning how the story was to unfold. My firsts attempts were terrible and I would never show anyone, but I loved the idea of one day being good enough to be that person.

Script:  How did you meet and decide to work together?

KT: I finished film school at Chapman University in 2008 – a great year as many recall – and scraped by through odd jobs and such to stay in town. I landed with The Writers Store back when it was in Westwood. Some of the other staffers (other writers) read some of my work and thought I might be good enough to join their writing group.

Since I started working at The Writers Store, I had heard of this mythical, amazing writing group that was only six seats and invite-only. I worked, I wrote, I waited. I made semi-finals in the Nicholls… still no invite. Finally, there was room, and I jumped at the opportunity. Lo and behold, I met Elizabeth Dahl there who only had to wait four weeks for her invite! I can see why, she was incredibly talented, and we immediately realized we both had a huge love of history and an interest in branching out into TV. I would have never found Elizabeth if it wasn’t for this group, so it was definitely worth the wait.

ED: We’re still a part of that group, run by the incomparable Andy Guerdat. Kay was working on a zany, hilarious comedy, and I was working on a rom-com featuring Greek gods, and we liked each other’s style. So, of course, we started writing historical dramas together. That was something like five years ago.

Script:  What’s your view of the journey since you teamed up?

ED: We’ve been extremely fortunate. We found a groove that works for us when we write together. We’re normally on the same page, but I think the really good stuff comes when we’re not. Some of my favorite scenes or moments in our scripts are born from when we challenge each other with ideas not initially loved by the other person. We’re such different people, and I’m so grateful to have her brain and incredibly unique perspective on my side.

Writing with Kay is genuinely fun and I learn something new from her with each project we write. She pushes me to be better and is wildly supportive when I doubt or obsess over a typo I found in a script an hour after I sent it to someone. Together, I think we’ve taken bigger risks than we might’ve done solo, both in style and content, and that’s lead to some great things.

KT: Working towards a screenwriting career has always been an endurance run, but it certainly is a lot more enjoyable to have someone to keep pace with. I feel our collaboration really strengthens both of us as writers. Elizabeth knows when I get frustrated and calls me on it. And vice versa. Additionally, she doesn’t let me get by with sloppy writing – I’m forever grateful.

Script:  Tell us about the script’s concept and the story it conveys.

ED: The pilot throws us into the gang world of 1920s London, but this time we’re following the wives, daughters, girlfriends, and sisters of a notorious gang. These women secretly begin to form their own entity under the leadership of young, fierce Alice “Diamond” Black who wears diamond rings in place of brass knuckles. They steal to fund a life of parties, dancing, love affairs, but primarily for freedom.

It’s about women carving out their place in the world. About figuring out what they want their lives to be and what independence means to each of them. It’s about being recognized as equals. And about figuring out who they are. I think we all, male or female, still struggle with similar things today; they’re just doing it in better clothes.

KT: Elizabeth said all this pretty well already, so I’m just going to add that although blinged out in art deco and giggle water – this is an underdog story. It’s about women realizing that they are capable of anything and the fight for independence is worth everything. These women have a fierceness in them that says, “Do not underestimate me” that I think reminds us all not to sell ourselves short.

Script:  Can you share a little about the trials and tribulations of bringing your winning script to the contest?

KT: It had unusual beginnings. The project started when I found out about the 40 Elephants online and promptly texted Elizabeth all these links about it, demanding that we make it our next project… while she was at her grandmother’s funeral. Awkward.

I lead the charge in putting 40 Elephants in contests this season, so the hardest part was to meet those deadlines and not fuss any more over it. At some point you have to let it go and trust that you’ve done the work, showcased the characters you love, and it must leave the nest. Too often, I think we try to be too protective of our drafts and then they never really get a chance for people to enjoy them. I submitted 40 Elephants to several places – the Black List Website, Tracking Board Launchpad, and Script Pipeline to name a few.  We got some notes back – extremely helpful notes that made the project even better. So we were rewarded by just putting ourselves out there.

ED: We entered it in Script Pipeline not long after finishing a readable draft, so the contest was really its first foray into the world. But having written other period pieces and done the rounds with those, Kay and I were pretty aware of the (understandable) hurdles period scripts face.

I think sometimes the fear with period is that it will feel stuffy, dusty, and irrelevant, but Kay and I worked hard to highlight how relatable these women actually are, despite the accents, clothes, and, well, violence.

Script:  After all that how did it feel to win?

ED: Truthfully, I don’t think it’s sunk in yet even now, but it’s incredibly humbling. It’s certainly a huge boost of encouragement, pulled out during those moments when I think I should just close Final Draft for good.

KT: I’m still not sure it really happened. I mean, I remember our names being called and there’s a plaque with our names on it over at Elizabeth’s house… but that can’t REALLY have happened, right?

Script:  What are the strengths of this script that you feel propelled it to the winner’s circle?

ED: That’s a question I’ve been asking myself because I’d love to keep doing whatever it was! My best guess is it’s the world and the real women we write about. Even in the long history of female badasses, these ladies stand out. Instead of watching how women navigate as extensions of the men in a gang, these girls strike out on their own. They took the political Flapper movement down into London’s dangerous underworld, risking everything to achieve equality. And had a damn good time along the way.

The 1920s are fun and sexy and post-World War I London is a fascinating backdrop where the old world was dead and this new, strange, exciting, and perhaps frightening world was taking shape. I think it’s the combination of the brutality of the criminal underworld, in this case run by smart, savvy women, mixed with the dazzling party that was the ‘20s that makes it such a compelling place.

KT: I became a stepparent a few years back and now have teenagers under my rule. It’s made me fall in love with storytelling all over again as I watch them watch things. The kids unabashedly fall in love with characters, they talk about them after they’ve binged the show, they think about what their favorite character would do in a situation, fan fiction, the works. They just spend as much time as they can connected to the story. That’s how powerful storytelling can be.  For me, it made me realize how much my audience is counting on me to come through for them – I didn’t want to just write characters that functioned for a scene or provided a brief flash of cleverness, I wanted characters that would echo after the episode is over.

So, when we were working on the first draft, my daughter and her best friend asked what it was about, and I told them about the lead girl, Della, a maid who tries to join a gang of notorious female thieves. They were hooked. They kept asking me about Della every week. They wanted to know if she got accepted or not by the gang leader, Alice Diamond. They wanted to know if she was falling for the cute police officer, Sam, who lost an eye to Alice Diamond’s diamond studded fist. They were already trying to live in the world we were creating – so I knew we were onto something. And I owed it to them to keep going.

Script:  What should people know about the life of a writer that are about to venture into the business of screenwriting?

ED: I can only really offer what I wish I’d known before I moved out to L.A., which is that timing will play a huge role in success. All you can do is your bit: write, rewrite, read scripts, get notes, be nice, rewrite, network, write another script… But it all comes down to the right script getting to the right person at just the right time under the right set of circumstances and there’s no controlling that. There’s also no controlling the fact that a project, almost identical to the script you just spent months of your life on, was just announced. My best advice is to do what you can, which is write great work and try not to let the timing thing drive you nuts. And when you figure out how, teach me your magic.

KT: You must celebrate the small milestones and set your own pace. No one is going to push you off the couch to sit down and write and no one is going to compliment you when you need a pick me up. Do those things for yourself and celebrate yourself. Finish a draft, pour yourself a nice glass of wine and toast yourself for working on your story. Promise yourself you’ll sit down and write 5 pages, even if you’re afraid or unsure if the story is right, do it. You must generate this internal momentum for yourself, even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard.

Script:  What’s one thing screenwriters should know about contests?

KT: I used to read for several screenwriting contests when I first started out and I just want to mention something from the other side: reading a polished and well put together story was rare enough that I loudly championed each one I found. I wanted to read good stories, it made my job a lot more enjoyable.

So the lesson for those entering: always go the extra mile with your writing and story, don’t just hope that the first draft you dashed off 10 minutes before the deadline will be enough. It might be a good start, but it’s the status quo for most amateur contest entries. Readers can feel the effort you put in and they’ll know.

ED: I’ve heard a lot of people say they’re concerned their script or idea would be stolen by a contest and that’s a fear I’d love to help dispel. Obviously, do your research, determine if the contest is reputable and right for your project, but contests can be an incredible way to learn and to progress. It can be scary putting your work out into the world, but ultimately, showing it to people is the only way it’ll ever get made and contests are a great way to get your script into good hands.

Contests are also rooting for you. The people behind them want you to do well and succeed and having that kind of encouragement and career advice is invaluable.

Follow Elizabeth @HisGirlMonday and Kay @kay_tux on Twitter!

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