Interview with December Diversity Winner
How long have you been writing and what made you want to write in the first place?
When I was a kid, I went through this phase of declaring to my mother what I was going to be when I grew up and she would always cheer me on. When I wanted to be a hairdresser like her, she gave me a hair mannequin to style. When I wanted to study music like my father, she let me try instruments until I found the one I loved, the cello. So when I wanted to be a writer, she gave me a creative writing book. Pretty soon, instead of trading notes with my friends in school, I was giving them pages from a story I was writing. After that, the declarations stopped.
In college, it seemed more practical to combine my love of music and writing as an entertainment journalist. I didn’t even know what a screenwriter was until I saw When Harry Met Sally. The film’s dialogue had its own style and rhythm that just blew me away. When I discovered the writer, Nora Ephron, evolved from her career as a journalist to become a screenwriter, I was inspired to do the same. So, I made one last declaration to my mother, I was moving from Houston to LA to pursue screenwriting.
What genre do you prefer to write in? What draws you to that genre?
I’m a horror and comic book geek, so when I first started out, a lot of my writing reflected that. I wrote a horror feature about Bloody Mary because mirrors in a dark room freak me out. I wrote another feature about a love-sick vampire because I was a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and still am). I got a lot of notes on that script that the lighter moments were really funny, so I decided to branch out into comedy. That’s how I ended up writing a sketch for the NBC Scene Showcase. Writing sketch comedy taught me about voice. It’s easy to fall into the trap of mimicking another writer when you are learning to write, but in comedy if the audience has seen it before, you won’t get the laugh. That forces you to tap into your own unique point of view. Ironically, I don't think I really understood what defined my voice until my mother passed last year. I started thinking about that creative writing book she gave me and how fun it was making up scary stories for my friends. I was just being myself. So things have come full circle and I am back to writing horror, but applying the lessons I learned in comedy about telling the stories only you can tell. My recent horror pilot, The Darkness, was inspired by stories of my family’s ties to practicing Hoodoo folk magic in Louisiana and it’s been fascinating exploring that history.
What's the most challenging aspect of transitioning from journalism to screenwriting?
I had planned to work entertainment journalism, but those jobs are kind of like trying to get staffed on a TV show. It takes time, networking, etc. Usually, you have to start off in what they call “hard news,” which is basically writing about car chases, murders, and fires for local newscasts. It was kind of soul-crushing because unlike horror movies, it was all very real. You have to review unedited footage and police reports of the worst day in someone’s life, so I turned back to creative writing to stay sane.
That said, being a journalist made me a better screenwriter. Writing for a news broadcast, sometimes you may only have 15 seconds to tell the story. That doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but you’d be surprised how much ground you can cover in 15 seconds... who, what, when and where. You quickly learn that less is more, which is key when writing dialogue and action lines. Broadcast television also helped me to understand how people talk. Their conversational style, tone, quirks, personality. If you want a good soundbite, you have to frame your questions accordingly. Just like when a character walks into an unfamiliar situation, they have to figure out how to respond to achieve their goal and that can lead to conflict. That’s great for screenwriting, not so much for journalism. I once asked an actor if he ever got back to Houston to see his family, and it turned out he was estranged from them which nearly tanked the interview. I learned to stick to questions that might reveal their personality or something unexpected. When I interviewed André Benjamin of Outkast who voiced a crow in Charlotte’s Web, he said they did their own animal stunts. When I asked him to give us a taste, he crowed on demand and it was hilarious. You can do the same thing with characters, having them give an unexpected response, to make them memorable.
Tell us three things you're currently digging.
I love the Paper Team podcast. It’s such a great resource for writers about craft and the industry. Second, MasterClass has been an invaluable resource. You’re learning directly from creators like Shonda Rhimes, Judd Apatow and Neil Gaiman. Plus, they have an online community you can trade coursework and scripts with. Finally, when it comes to TV shows I watch A LOT, but I do have some current favorites. Can’t wait for Netflix’s You to come back. That first season was such a mind-fuck. One minute you’re lusting after this guy, the next you’re conflicted because he’s a sociopath. Prodigal Son also has a very unpredictable style that blends elements of a ghost story - his past that haunts him - and dark humor. In one episode, the main character accidentally throws himself out of a window during a nightmare and is hanging by handcuffs while his mother scolds him for changing the locks on her. 9-1-1 has also had some wild episodes like sharks on freeways and tsunamis, but I particularly like the ones that have been character-based like “Athena Begins.” That episode reminded me a lot of what my family went through losing my father. So many things were left unanswered and still are.
What interested you about Roadmap's Diversity Initiative
I’m excited to develop a strong pitch for my pilot and workshop an effective brand for my writing, but I find the best thing to come out of programs like this is connecting with other writers. The worst thing you can do as a writer is to write in a bubble. It helps to have a strong community to pitch ideas or trade scripts with. Giving another writer notes is a great way to learn and a necessary skill if you’re going to work in a writer’s room.
Where can we find you?
My website is ericarland.wordpress.com where I've posted scripts, articles, and videos of my sketches. You can also find me on Twitter @ericarland and on Instagram at erica_r_land.