Happy Monday Stage 32!
Today's success story is an inspirational tale from Enniskerry, Ireland-based screenwriter and Stage 32 member Ronika Merl. Ronika recently connected with a fellow Irish filmmaker through Stage 32 who has since optioned her screenplay Blackbird! Ronika originally shared this thrilling news in the Stage 32 Success Stories lounge.
Thank you, so much, Ronika for sharing your inspirational story of true resilience and the power of using your authentic and unique voice.
Take it away Ronika!
Before we get started… there’s a few downer moments in this, but rest assured it all comes up roses in the end, so stick with it.
I recently optioned my first script, BlackBird to an Irish director/producer who is currently working on preproduction.
BlackBird is a hugely personal story. In fact, it is an autobiographical story. It gets super, seriously, rated-R level dark, so I won’t go into those details on this upbeat “happy news” kind of blog.
But here is a breakdown of the journey the story took.
I wrote the first draft of BlackBird in April 2020 (during, you guessed it, lockdown, woohoo). But, unfortunately, it wasn’t so much “lockdown woohoo” for me then. I was homeless. Living in a women’s refuge after escaping an abusive situation, saving my own life and that of my two children. Children who were 2 and 5 at the time. Children I had not seen in weeks, because they had to go to their grandparents owing to the strict lockdown rules the refuge had to follow. (Told you there’s dark moments… bear with me).
As I sat in my room that I hadn’t left in days, as the world outside panicked and dissolved, as Covid burned through Ireland, as spring sprung and I could see blossoms from my window… I decided it was time to write the story of how I escaped human trafficking, prostitution, and abuse almost a decade ago.
The moment of decision to sit down and finally write it came swiftly. As came the first draft.
116 pages were churned out in 12 hours. I didn’t eat, didn’t drink, barely breathed. It was as though the words had waited a decade to come spilling out, and when they were finally allowed to, the dam was broken and the story was told.
BlackBird had not been the first script I had ever written. In fact it was my 4th of 2020 (my 4th written in the refuge), but it certainly was the most important to me on a personal level. The story felt concise, it felt good. And it felt like a story that - aside from the personal connection - was a really interesting world worth exploring.
My desk where I wrote "BlackBird"
As is the case with all my first drafts, I let it rest for a while before attempting to re-write or edit it. I did so in November, during another lockdown.
I approached this differently. Mainly because by November, I had found a glorious cottage in the county they call “The Garden of Ireland”, perched high on a hilltop, with views of the ocean and mountains. It had a little writing desk that had been handed down for generations, and had now passed to me, and a garden big enough for my children to play endlessly.
So, uh… yeah. Told you it all comes up roses.
I did one more draft to tighten up some rough edges, to clarify some loose ends, but essentially the 116 pages I had written in April were good to go.
I joined Stage 32 in January, as I was getting ready to submit a lot of my work to festivals, agents, and do the whole “selling run” for 2021. I had done this for the 2 years I had been a screenwriter, skipping 2020 due to the above mentioned circumstances.
And pretty much immediately after I joined, a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend (Ireland is a tiny country and the film industry here is even tinier, so we’re not separated by 6 degrees, it’s more like 2 degrees - kinda like the temperature!) found me on Facebook. An Irish director and producer, had been looking for a follow up script to his major success debut which premiered in the States and will come to streamers in April.
He had heard that there was a local writer making waves, and had caught some of my braggadocious posts on blogs and facebook.
He then decided, on a whim, to check me out on Stage 32. Having been drawn to gritty and true stories, and having already decided that he wanted to work with someone Irish, my profile and my loglines were there for the taking.
And one story out of the many that I had listed there gave him pause.
He later told me that when he first read the script, he felt like there was nothing he would change. We’ve since come across a few minor things that will need addressing… but essentially, he - and I - felt that it was just a really important story that really, really, needed to be told.
He wrote to me.
It’s the email every writer ever has been dreaming and hoping and waiting to get. It contained the sentence: “I’d love to make it”. Needless to say, I began jumping and screaming and crying and laughing and all… ALL the verbs instantly.
We arranged to talk shop the following Monday.
That first conversation still gives me butterflies of nervousness. I couldn’t help thinking “Oh my God is this actually happening”... and it was actually happening.
A few weeks later, I framed the signed agreement. It now sits on my windowsill, overlooking the glorious Irish landscape.
So… what’s the moral of the story? You can be stuck in a women’s refuge in the middle of a pandemic, with no access to your small children… you can be at rock bottom. But somewhere, someone will find a way to find you. Someone will believe in your story. Will believe that what you have to say is important. That you are important. Someone found me, and found my story important enough to make it his next project.
All the experiences inside this industry and outside of it have taught me only one thing, and that is the only advice I am comfortable giving (since I consider myself so green I feel like I should live on Mars): It’s not going to be just your story that gets you the next big thing. It’s also going to be YOUR story. The you, the authentic, unashamed, unfiltered, unafraid YOU. That’s what’s going to keep you in the business, help you break into the business. Is that a platitude? Yes. Am I going to say it anyway? Yes. Is it really, really true, though? Hell yes.
It would not have been possible for him to find my script without Stage 32.
The service and the community and the wonderful love that I have found on Stage 32 helped get me here.
This is just the start. This is just the first.
Having placed highly in both the Nicholl Fellowship and the Austin Film Festival in 2019, I have since expanded my slate to now contain more than 10 feature scripts. My stories 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.
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