Every time I get frustrated with my career or this business in general, I find myself with a new idea for a screenplay. Some times it seems like I need a set back to be able to write something new. A new rejection, a delay in production, another pass from a production company, all those things push me toward creating. My creativity is definitely a glutton for punishment.
I think a lot of times my anger works better as writing fuel. Got yet another rejection for my big budget drama? No problem, I’ll just write something new. Something with a more modest budget and maybe a better chance of being made.
The only renewable resource a writer will always possess is creativity. And mine seems to work best when I’m angry, frustrated and feeling powerless.
And those were all traits I gave to my antagonist; Parallel Annie in the sci-fi thriller “Occupants.” The premise came to me after I pictured this woman who feels unheard, beaten down by life, defeated, just mad as hell.
Then I gave myself the challenge of writing something that takes place in one location and with only two actors. A married couple. Something I know all to well from being married for many years. (A third actor was added later in rewrites, and ended up being played by Star Trek: Voyager’s Robert Picardo!)
In a sense, the found footage genre found me, because the next thought that came into my head was: “What if they are recording themselves and see something bizarre when they start to review the footage? What if they discover a Parallel version of themselves?”
And that’s how “Occupants” was born, in a sense. I have a happy couple on one side and an “unhappy couple” on the other. They are the same people and they are not at the same time. Each couple made different choices in life that lead them to the life they have at the moment. And Parallel Annie is so mad that her other self is doing better than she is.
This character gave me an amazing outlet for my own frustrations and I’m ever so thankful to her. I learned a lot about myself writing this film. It poured out of me so quickly, I even surprised myself. I wrote most of the first draft on a 12 hour flight to Brazil and completed the rest in about two months. I knew those women well because they are me. The good, and the bad, that live inside of me in a sense.
They both would never describe themselves as good or bad, one of the reasons I stayed away from using those words. They are Original Annie and Parallel Annie. And I honestly wished they could both win at the end, except they both want the same thing: Original Annie’s life.
The most heartbreaking thing a writer can ever do is fall in love with their characters because we have to put them through hell and it hurts so much. But nobody ever paid to see a movie where someone starts happy, nothing happens, they end happy. You’re supposed to give them the hardest time possible. And I love and hate that.
Once the script was completed, properly revised and polished it was time to start submitting. I had made a career New Year’s resolution in 2013 to try at least one new thing that year. I had known about Inktip for a while but I had never used it. So I signed up for the newsletter and any time I saw a lead that matched one of my scripts, I submitted. I have a lot of specs and most of the producers on Inktip are looking for modest to low budget scripts.
The premise alone got me a lot of script requests. I took a few phone calls from producers potentially interested and I had a feeling this one would really go soon. And it did. “Occupants” was optioned by producer Howard Nash within a year of my first submission and went into production a few months later.
Of all my scripts, it’s one of the few that existed as a script only for such a short amount of time. Shortly after being optioned I had my first meeting with director Russ Emanuel. The icing on the cake for me was that both Russ and Howard wanted to stay true to my original idea and the rewrites were minimal.
I have some specs that have been dancing around for 10 years. For every project that goes into production in less than a year, there are five others that can take a decade. Yet another way this business is all about embracing the unknown. For someone who is a huge planner like myself, the waiting to see what happens part of this industry drives me nuts. And the only way I can stay calm is to explore these feelings creatively. I get the benefit of healing and catharsis through my art and I also get a new script to shop around.
It’s not easy not to know. You never know which choice will lead you where. All you know is that every choice you ever made has brought you to where you are now. But would you be better off had you chosen differently? Those are exactly the central ideas behind “Occupants.”
The well known screenwriting advice: “write what you know,” never made a lot sense to me when I started in this business in my early twenties. What did I even know back than? Nothing. I knew nothing. Does that mean I shouldn’t write at all? But now, after years of character-building disappointments, mistakes and successes I understand that it’s okay to explore what you don’t know in life through your writing.
And even hidden under the mask of sci-fi “Occupants” is an extremely personal story in many ways. But if I were to take “write what you know” literally, I would have never dared to write sci-fi.