Catching Up With The 1st Annual RomCom Screenwriting Contest Winners
Catching Up With The 1st Annual RomCom Screenwriting Contest Winners
Happy 2023, Stage 32 community! It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a year since we got an email from the lovely Molly Peck congratulating us for making it to the Quarter-finalist round of Stage 32’s 1st Annual Romantic Comedy Screenplay Competition. Several weeks later, we were thrilled by the announcement that our script, Following Brendan, was the Grand Prize winner! We’ve since signed with a manager and agent, who are moving our projects around, we’re in negotiations on one project with independent financiers whom we met through Stage 32, and we produced a spec pilot, which Richard directed and is currently in post.
It has actually been quite a long journey for us with Following Brendan. Before social media, the script was called With Love, Brendan, and it had been through countless rewrites, drafts, and iterations and two options over the years before landing at Stage 32. And some things have stuck with us all these years of not just writing and rewriting Brendan but writing our other scripts and working on all our other projects: Love what you do.
Callie: I remember after finishing what we thought was finally the final draft of Brendan, (little did I know there would be many more drafts still to come), turning to Richard, and instead of feeling celebratory, I said, “I’m kind of sad.” What I explained to him was my sadness over saying goodbye to these characters we created and missing them—Franny, Stuart, Bernie, Myra, and Brendan—who had occupied our imaginations and our hearts for so long, who evolved and grew and whispered and sometimes shouted to us what they wanted to say. They and their world would no longer be in our heads, as we would no longer have to think of what they needed to say and do next or how they would relate to each other. They were alive to me. I even loved Brendan, and he is a total douchebag! As a writer, you need to love your characters. You don’t have to like them, but you need to fully embrace them, and they need to feel real to you. Otherwise, you can’t do them or their stories justice.
Richard: As a filmmaker, I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many talented men and women over the years, amazing artists who also love what they do. I love the process of "finding the magic" with other passionate people. Being a director, I get to work with so many creatives in so many different fields-- whether they’re editors or composers or DPs-- who share my passion for storytelling and characters. I believe I have the greatest job in the world. I also teach acting and screenwriting. I have so much respect for actors; they must be willing to bear their souls, open their hearts, break free from the fears we all suffer from. That is exceptionally brave to me. I love breaking down character and theme, and story structure with both my acting and writing students-- watching them discover the immense well of creativity they have inside, providing them with a safe environment and the tools to take chances and risks with their craft. Making movies is the greatest love affair I've known.
Callie: And this is not to say you have to love every minute of what you’re doing. No, sometimes it’s really hard. Often, it’s tedious. As a writer, you often get stuck. But wow- there’s nothing like that elation you feel when you realize the dots now connect or that scene that always bothered you now has a full arc, or that line your protagonist blurts out finally rings true to you—after rewriting and reworking and refining and racking your brain—and in the case of writing partners, like us- talking over a line of dialogue or a plot point over and over again.
Richard: There are so many obstacles and challenges to overcome as a director/producer: having to compromise on the location, the production design, shooting days, etc., because you don’t have the resources; always having to make sure the train is running and being the person motivating and inspiring the team to get to the finish line when everyone is just exhausted and drained; trying to convince actors’ agents and reps to support my low-budget projects; trying to convince distributors that hey, this actor is amazing and about to break- get him NOW! It’s like pushing a boulder up a hill. But then, when I get in the editing room to make my choices and bring all the elements together-- the tapestry of performances, sound, design, color, and music-- when all the pieces of the puzzle are in front of me, putting them together, what a glorious process. It’s both euphoric and excruciatingly difficult. That’s the greatest satisfaction, and when I know it's all been worth the struggle.
Take pride in what you do, and always be learning.
Callie: Listen, as artists, there are going be times when you have work jobs or do stuff that’s not really your “art.” But if you think a job is beneath you, it shows in your work, and it reflects on you as a person and on your work ethic. Many moons ago, my job was transcribing dialogue from movies and TV shows and creating English subtitles for them. It was tedious and often boring. But I cared about doing a good job, and boy, did I get to watch a ton of movies—some movies I wouldn’t have seen on my own. And sometimes, I even got to see earlier cuts of them, which really gave me insight into the different ways a movie can be shaped in the editorial. After we won the Stage 32 Romantic Comedy competition, we were asked to make a pitch deck for Following Brendan. I had made a few pitch decks before, but I really wanted to try something different for Brendan, something really cute that reflected its personality. Well, it ended up being quite a laborious process, but we slogged it out and did it. And now, every time I look at the Brendan pitch deck, it just makes me smile.
Richard: Nothing is worth doing if you’re not going to give it all you’ve got. Not 80%, not 90%. Whether it’s putting together a pitch deck, whether I’m coaching one of my acting students and helping one of the writing students with the structure of his script, or if I’m looking for that perfect actor for my next movie, you’ve got to be 100% in. And you can’t do that if you don’t take pride in what you do.
“Help me help you:” be proactive with your reps.
After we won the Romantic Comedy screenplay competition, one of the judges, a producer, referred us to an agent and a manager. We had a great meeting with them, and we signed. And they are awesome—enthusiastic, diligent, with can-do attitudes. They are moving our stuff around. But don’t think, once you sign with an agent and/or manager as a writer and/or director, you should kick back, relax, and the gigs and offers will start coming your way. Help your reps help you. Got a horror script? Research production companies that have recently produced horror movies and send the list to your rep. Be proactive. Check out actor rankings on IMDB and discuss with your agent—maybe an actor attachment will nudge your script along. Read Deadline to see what’s happening in the industry. There is so much information at our fingertips- take advantage of it.
Look for opportunities and surround yourself with like-minded people.
We’ve met and worked with so many amazingly talented people over the years. And we continue making connections-- we have been introduced to so many wonderful people through Stage 32. Connections open up opportunities for you. And this is not to say you should treat people like an opportunity. Making that creative connection with others who share your passion sparks inspiration within you. Isn’t it amazing when you’re talking to somebody about a show or movie you both loved, and you’re finishing each others’ sentences about when that happened in this episode, or when that character said that to his mom, and oh my God, when you realize she knew this whole time! You are reveling in the magic of stories. And that’s what fuels us.
And always remember, no matter what’s trending or what the algorithms point to, the best story you can tell is the story you want to tell.
Richard Zelniker - Founder of Lucid Pictures, Richard is an award-winning director. His feature, As Night Comes, gained both a theatrical and wide VOD release, while his shorts "Beckoned," "Green Banana" and "Unspoken" have earned him 21 wins and 8 nominations. He recently directed the music video “Gotta Go" and produced and directed the spec pilot, "The Vortex."
Callie Nguyen Zelniker - Partner at Lucid Pictures, Callie comes from the studio world, with over 12 years experience as a content producer at Twentieth Century Studios and The Walt Disney Company. She is the writer of the award-winning horror short "Beckoned" and most recently produced the spec pilot "The Vortex."
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About the Author
Callie was born in Bien Hoa, Vietnam. Her family fled the country just days before the collapse of the South, and began their long journey to America. They settled in San Jose, California, where, back before it was called “bingeing,” Callie had an insatiable appetite for Saturday morning cartoons, G...