We talk to screenwriter and novelist, Karen McCullah about adapting novels for the silver screen, working with a writing partner, making an action franchise female friendly and what the funniest piece of furniture is.
S&S: How did you get started as a screenwriter?
Karen McCullah: I was trying to write a novel and I got bored with it. And I picked up a book called How to Write for Film and Television, and I read that and decided that that was what I was supposed to do with the rest of my life. So the very next day I saw an ad in the paper. I was living in Albuquerque at the time. And there was a weekend seminar called How to Write for Film and TV. And it was by a retired television writer who was living in Santa Fe. So I went to his seminar, and I was even more convinced that that was what I was supposed to do. And he had a weekly workshop up in Santa Fe, where you would go read your ten pages that you wrote and he would critique them. So I did that for about a year, and at that point I had a couple of scripts written, and started sending query letters to agents and production companies. And did that for I think four and a half years before I sold one. I’d written nine or ten scripts at that point. I was living in Denver, and finally got lucky and sold one. That’s how it started. And yeah, a lot of perseverance.
S&S: So many writers think their first script will sell, but it’s often a much later one.
KM: The first one is practice, for sure. That’s why I always tell people that so many people get hung up writing and rewriting their first script for years and years and years. And I’m like, put it aside, start your second one. Then go back when you’re done with your second one and read your first one, and you’ll be horrified at some of the things you put in there, and glad you got the chance to rewrite it before anyone else got their eyes on it. Then go on to the third one, then go back and look at the second one and the first one again, and fix those. But if you keep obsessing over the first one for five years, you’re just going to drive yourself crazy and start hating the process of writing. Keep moving and then you’ll finally get it.
S&S: How do you write with a writing partner?
KM: We used to write long distance. I lived in Denver when we first started writing together, and she [writing partner Kirsten Smith] lived here. So I’d write pages, and she didn’t even have email. This was – email existed, she just didn’t have it. I’d mail her pages, or fax her pages, it was crazy. But now we write everything in the same place. We sit in the same room and write it all together. It’s much faster that way. Plus when you’re writing separately like that, you kind of just end up rewriting each other and arguing more, because you’re like, “What do you mean you didn’t like that scene?” But if you’re conceiving the scene together and you’re both on the same page from the idea on, then it’s more fun and there’s less to argue about.
S&S: What’s the most challenging thing about writing comedy?
KM: I actually like writing comedy better than writing drama, because if I think of a line that immediately makes me laugh, then I know it’s funny because it made me laugh. But when you’re writing drama you think, “Is this a deep thought, or is it only deep to me?” I think drama is a little more subjective, but comedy writing is just fun to me. I get to sit around and make myself or my partner laugh all day. That’ll make a good gig.
S&S: What is your average writing day like?
KM: Oh, well it involves lots of procrastination at first. I have to check my email several times, probably order some things online and work out, and play with my dog, and think about what I’m going to write. Then there’s probably a closet that needs cleaning. And then finally I sit down to write. But once I sit down to do it, then I’m immersed. I’ll be like, “Wait, why is it dark out? It’s only noon.” But it’s the act of getting yourself to sit down and do it. I don’t know why it’s so hard sometimes, but when I work with Kirsten we try to have set hours that we work. When I work on my own that’s when I procrastinate the most, because there are no set hours; I have to be my own boss. But yeah, once I sit down I’m in the flow. But it’s just forcing yourself to sit down. But whenever I do it I’m like, “Why did I wait all day to sit down and start writing at five when I’m having such a good time writing these scenes? I could’ve been doing this all day.” Sometimes I guess you have to just fill the well, or whatever all that procrastination does.
S&S: Do you have a page quota, or is your writing more free-flowing?
KM: When I’m with Kirsten we try to hit ten pages a day. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. On my own it’s just free-flowing.
S&S: What has your on-set experience been like?
KM: I always have a lot of fun on set. If they shoot in L.A. I try to go every day, or almost every day. Two of the movies that shot here were with the same director, Robert Luketic, who I adore. He’s so fun to work with, and he’s happy to have you on set every day. If I missed a day he was like, “Where were you yesterday?” But as for responsibilities, it’s not actually good to watch, but when sometimes you’re shooting a scene over and over, and I’m hearing the same joke that I wrote ten times, then it stops being funny to me, so I’ll come up with a new joke and whisper that to Robert. And if he likes it, he’ll go whisper it to the actors, and then we have a take with a new joke in it. Oddly enough, sometimes that’s the one that makes it into the movie, just because it seems fresher. But it’s good to be there, because you have opportunities to do that. Or sometimes with the blocking of a scene, you have to add an extra line, like an exit line or something, so it’s always good to be there to be able to do that. Plus it’s just fun to walk on the set and be like, “This is exactly how it looked in my head. How’d you guys do this?” That’s always cool.
To hear the rest of the interview, listen to the podcast below.