INTERVIEW: Tracy Oliver and Her Girls Trip

Despina Karintis was a closeted cinephile who channeled her obsession and took up the craft of screenwriting. Her adventures across the globe, including sliding down glaciers, skirmishing with sharks, and nearly drowning in a desert tinaja, inspired her scripts in the Action/Thriller and Comedy genres. Despina is Co-Founder of Story Broads and hopes to broaden the horizon of women in film for generations to come. Twitter: @Wonder_Writer

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INTERVIEW: Tracy Oliver and Her 'Girls Trip'

Writer Tracy Oliver attends the Premiere of Universal Pictures’ ‘Girls Trip’ at Regal LA Live Stadium (Photo by Barry King/Getty Images)

Tracy Oliver sits down to chat about her new film Girls Trip, her desire to see black women’s stories told and the path to seeing this film realized, and her writing process.

Girls Trip is currently the Best R-Rated Comedy opening in two years according to Moviefone.com, Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and pulled in nearly $5M more in its opening weekend than Bridesmaids (May 2011) with a current worldwide box-office gross of over $100M. Tracy is the first African-American female writer to hit this milestone. Not too shabby!

How has this ride been so far? 

I am incredibly excited and honored to be a part of this movie! By the time a movie comes out, many people forget that it all started with a blank page and a writer trying desperately to create something great. This was not easy. There were several drafts with millions of notes, so the journey in the beginning wasn’t easy. But now that I’ve seen the movie and absolutely loved it. I’ve read all the great reviews and have received hundreds of texts, calls, emails, and posts from people who have seen and enjoyed the movie—all of those drafts were worth it.

I’m sure many women can relate to this kind of story or real-life experience of a girls night or girls trip, where did this particular story come from? What was the process of building the idea and the characters?

I knew I wanted to write a love story between women and make it a tribute to sisterhood and female friendships, so I started with Ryan and Stewart’s story. Ryan, our lead, is a woman in her 40s who is faced with the very daunting prospect of having to either start completely over or stay in an unhappy marriage. It’s not an easy decision to make, and it’s one that many women have to face, regardless of race. I started there because I truly believed Ryan’s storyline of finding the strength to start completely over as an “older” woman in both her career and marriage would ultimately resonate with many women. Fortunately, when we pitched it, everyone from the producers to the studio agreed. They liked that this humorous, silly movie was anchored and grounded by a story with a lot of heart.

Once I had the main story, I thought about me and my girlfriends and all our different personalities and drew inspiration for characters from them. I also looked to iconic television shows with great women characters such as Sex and the City and even Golden Girls and the archetypes that they’d used so successfully. I drew from those characters, but put a fresh spin on it. For example, my version of Samantha (from SATC) or Blanche (from Golden Girls) is the character, Dina. Dina, who is played by Tiffany Haddish in a breakout performance, was a character I thought would be the most sexually liberated, bold, and fun. I had the most fun with her because she has no filter, which means she can say the craziest shit ever. She’s also sexually empowered and gives no fucks about what people think. The best thing, though, is she’s loyal. She might cut you if you hurt one of her friends.

The funny thing about the Dina character is that my manager and a fellow writer/friend of mine who I sent the first draft to said that Dina’s character popped off the page. My manager, Brian Dobbins, literally said that it was a star making role. Now having seen Tiffany’s performance, she took what was there and elevated it even more! She’s fucking brilliant.

Were you at all worried about it being “raunchy” (according to some critics) or was it about being real and telling women’s stories from a woman’s perspective?

I knew we’d get some backlash for the raunchiness, but I wasn’t worried about it. I knew this type of movie was important because it shows a different side of black lives, and specifically, black women. I have a raunchy sensibility, naturally. I cuss, I drink, and if you have an edible on you, I’ll definitely try a piece. I’m the girl that’s not afraid to say the word “dick,” but as a black woman, I have the added layer of respectability politics that white writers don’t have to worry about. White writers have the freedom to write whatever they want and not fear that they are representing their entire race in a negative way. As much as I try to push that out of my mind, every now and then in the writing process, I’ll second guess myself. In the back of my mind, I would say ‘Is this going too far? Does this make black women look bad? What would my mom or her friends say about this movie?’.

Writing is stressful enough without having to worry about all that other stuff, so most of the time I try to write what I want and not worry about the potential think pieces or open letters that might be coming my way when the movie comes out. I think a movie like Girls Trip is important because it shows a different side of us. As much as I loved Moonlight and Hidden Figures, I want to see us laugh and act silly and have fun, too. Like the white girls get to do!

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What was the process of getting it pitched or sold? 

I first heard about this movie back in 2014 when Will Packer and Malcolm Lee had pitched and sold it to Universal and it was announced on Deadline. Several people read the announcement and reached out to me separately saying, “You need to be writing this movie!” They were basically basing that on the fact that this is a party movie about black women, and I am essentially a black woman who loves partying, so it just made sense. That and I also write comedies. But before I could even make my move, I’d heard they’d already hired a writer. I was honestly crushed because there are so few opportunities that come around like this. Writing a party movie with black women is something I always wanted to do, but never thought anyone would make. So I was really bummed when I didn’t get the opportunity to even try for the job.

But then, as fate would have it, the opportunity to write it opened up a year later. The studio and producers decided they wanted to go in a different direction than the initial draft. So, this time around, I moved quickly! They wanted a fully fleshed out take in a matter of days, with brand new characters and storylines. Although this was technically a “rewrite,” we weren’t given the original draft or even told what it was about. All we had were these parameters: black women, Essence Festival, friendship, and fun. There are a million ways to write that movie, but ultimately, the one we came up with is the one that got made.

Kenya Barris and I were working together on Barbershop 3 at the time, so we partnered again and pitched our take to Will Packer and his team first, along with Malcolm Lee, the director/producer. They loved the take and then brought us into the studio where we pitched it again. A few days later, we’d heard that the studio liked our take best and we were hired.

What has your experience been in the past? Tell me about getting The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and how you were brought on to Barbershop.

Issa Rae and I went to Stanford together. We were friends and both shared a mutual passion for theatre/the arts and also creating content for women of color. After college, I went to the Stark program at USC, and she did a fellowship at a theatre in New York. And when I graduated, she’d moved back to L.A. and had this idea for “an awkward black girl” character. We decided to partner on it and I wrote, produced, and acted in it alongside her. At the time, there weren’t any black women in lead roles on screen, but we knew there was an audience for it. So we made it ourselves and it went viral pretty quickly and got a lot of attention from the media.

I’d wanted to break into the feature space for awhile, but was told by my former agents that would be impossible to do. But I refused to believe that, and when the new manager I signed with at the time, asked me if I’d be interested in writing Barbershop, I said yes! I was interested in writing almost anything that would get my foot in the door! He also represented Kenya Barris and he introduced us. Kenya hired me to write for a show that he had before Blackish. That show had a writers room, but was ultimately never made. But that experience allowed me an opportunity to work with Kenya. Kenya was also interested in writing Barbershop, but his pilot—Blackish, was picked up to series. So we partnered so that he could do both Barbershop and Blackish and I could get my first feature!

Why screenwriting? 

I learned to write out of necessity. When I was in my early twenties, I was frustrated with the lack of great roles for women who looked like me. So I decided that instead of being passive about it, I’d put myself in the driver’s seat and start being a creator. I took writing classes, bought several screenwriting books on Amazon, read tons of scripts. Anything I could do to learn the craft, I did. And I wrote shitty scripts that eventually turned into not-so-shitty scripts over time with a lot of practice. Today, I still feel like I write out of necessity. I’m not one of those people who can just crank out a script in a weekend. Writing for me is hard. It’s stressful. It’s sometimes the worst fucking thing in the world. So because of that, I try really hard to write stuff I care about. Stuff that matters to me. Which for me, most often, means I’m writing about women and people of color. I’m passionate about telling stories about people I know that don’t get a lot of shine. People that are invisible to the mainstream, but are hugely important to me.

What keeps you motivated? How do you deal with the down times, rejections, writer’s block, etc?

Sometimes writing about stuff you care about means it might be hard to sell or get made. In those frustrating moments of not selling something or not getting hired for a job, I roll up my sleeves and see what I can do myself. I try not to just wait for other people to give me an opportunity. I look for ways of getting my writing out myself—i.e., producing a web series, putting on a play, writing for a blog, etc. I try to find creative outlets that allow me to still feel artistically satisfied and fulfilled. And you learn to save your money really well.

Script EXTRA: Producing a Web TV Series

What’s your process? Any secrets or nuggets you’ve picked up along the way that really work for you in story/character/world building? 

I start with characters or a premise that excites me, then I bust out my Save the Cat book, which I use religiously for every single movie. The beat sheet is so incredibly helpful because it propels you forward when you’re stuck. I also do note cards, just like Blake Snyder suggests in the book. Then when I feel like I’ve carded the whole movie, I’ll turn the cards into an outline and start adding more detail to it. I won’t go to script until the outline is thorough and there are no big logic bumps in the story. It’s much easier to reroute in an outline than in a script, so I like to do a lot of work upfront so that the draft is easier. When it comes to character’s voices and dialogue, I figure that out in the writing process. But all story stuff, I try to work out as much as possible in the outline.

Script EXTRA: How to Structure a Screenplay – In Defense of ‘Formula’

As I mentioned earlier, I low-key hate writing and find it to be the hardest thing ever, so I also have a hard rule of writing 3-4 hours a day only, for my sanity’s sake. However, in those 3-4 hours, I’m only focused on writing. I try not to take calls, use social media, read about Trump’s latest firing, etc, so I can get some really good pages done. The times I’ve tried to write for an entire workday, the pages I wrote after the fourth hour were literally an incoherent mess that were unusable. So instead of forcing it, I hyper-focus in those shorter blocks of time and just have learned to live with the fact that I’m not Aaron Sorkin or any other genius writer who can crank out whole drafts in a weekend.

(Of course, I violate this 3-4 rule if I’m on a deadline or have a super quick turnaround time, but this is only for emergencies).

Who are your biggest examples/mentors in the screenwriting world, or filmmaking in general? What are some of your favorite stories/movies/shows? Who would you love to work with?

I love Dan Fogelman’s writing. It’s smart, sweet, and funny, with a lot of heart. He also gave me my very first job, which I will always appreciate. Amy Heckerling for writing Clueless (and many other dope things). Nora Ephron. Shonda Rhimes is almost too obvious, but I’ll say she’s an inspiration. The person I was the most blown away by in the past year was Donald Glover. Atlanta was hands down the best new comedy. He’s a dope writer, actor, director, rapper, and person. If I could work with anyone, it’d be Donald.

What projects do you have in the works?

I adapted a YA book called Sun Is Also a Star for Warner/MGM and was recently hired to rewrite a biopic for Warner based on Sylvia Robinson, who is known as the “mother of Hip Hop,” and lastly, I’m gearing up to make my directorial debut from a script I co-wrote, later this year.

Tracy Oliver sits down to chat about her new film <i>Girls Trip</i>, her desire to see black women's stories told and the path to seeing this film realized, and her writing process.

Tracy Oliver directing music video for Jhene Aiko

Any other goals in filmmaking?

I want to transition into directing, so that I can stay on the projects that I write. The goal is to also write, produce, and act in a comedy show. I miss performing, so I’m excited to get back into it!

Where do you want to be in five years?

Living in a beautiful home and running a very successful production company that produces works by and for women. I want to have established myself as a name as a writer/director/actor. Basically, I want to be Donald Glover in five years.

Girls Trip is still in theaters and holding a steady ranking in the Top 5. Check it out!

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Screenwriter Interviews, Screenwriter Magazine, Story Broads
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Despina Karintis

About Despina Karintis

Hailing from the sometimes-embarrassing, but ultimately-amazing state of Texas, Despina Karintis was a closeted cinephile who eventually came to terms with her obsession and took up the craft of screenwriting. Thanks to too much television and an endless supply of National Geographics as a kid, she was a daydreamer and wanderluster from the start. This prompted adventures across the globe that included sliding down glaciers, skirmishing with sharks, and nearly drowning in a desert tinaja. Needless to say, her life has birthed quite a few tales that inspired scripts in the Action/Thriller and Comedy genres. Despina is Co-Founder of Story Broads and hopes to broaden the horizon of women in film for generations to come. Twitter: @Wonder_Writer

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