Writer’s Corner is a place to get to know outstanding writers, talk about the craft of writing, career advice, share horror stories and find out more about compelling films, television shows, plays, etc. There’s so much great content out there being made by female creators, we should all be keeping an eye on these women.
Today we are featuring our first team of writers: Lauren Hynek & Elizabeth Martin
Lauren Hynek & Elizabeth Martin each started writing their first plays at the age of about seven. Lauren fell in love with the magic of movies visiting her dad (visual effects supervisor Joel Hynek) on the set of PREDATOR as a little kid. Elizabeth spent her tween years writing (badly formatted) fan fiction episodes of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. In high school, they joined forces while working at the same Shakespeare theater in the summers. They continued to work in classical theater together after college, producing plays on shoestring budgets and getting paid out of a passed hat. However, frustrated with the limited roles for women in Shakespeare’s work, they started to dream of creating their own stories — ones that featured strong women that their little girl selves could look up to. They let their imaginations run to tales that couldn’t be tackled on the stage, they demanded the big screen. After spending a few years teaching themselves how to write (and properly format) a screenplay, they swung for the fences and wrote a live action MULAN on spec. Disney bought it and it’s due out in March of 2020. In the meantime, they’ve won a handful of writing contests, wrote a Lifetime movie Christmas Perfection, and were hired to adapt a NY Times bestseller into an hour-long drama series for Alcon Entertainment. Currently, they’re working on a biopic about computer pioneer GRACE HOPPER for Middleton Media as well as rewriting an action flick for a trio of companies. In our spare time, they strive to make the world a more equal place as co-chairs of the Committee of Women Writers at the WGAW.
I’m so excited to see the live action Mulan premiere and I usually start by asking: “How did you get started in the business?” Since Mulan is such a defining project for your careers, can you talk about why and how you decided to write that spec and how it ended up where it needed to be (Disney)?
We were in a period of less-than-full employment and we knew we had to make a big move. A great friend introduced us to producer Jake Weiner. We knew going in that he was looking for four-quadrant ideas based on public domain IP. We spent some time brainstorming and picked our 10 best ideas. We wrote up a few paragraphs on each idea, then went in to Jake’s office to talk about what we could possibly do together. Immediately, he picked Mulan. (For context, this was before Disney’s live-action Cinderella came out but after it had been announced).
But, as we were writing the script on spec, we steered clear of any reference to the Disney animated movie. We went back to the thousand year old Chinese poem and legend. We did a huge amount of historical research to figure out what time period made sense and then built the world out from there.
We passed pages back and forth with Jake as we were writing. When we were about half-way through, Disney announced that they’d be doing more live action remakes of their animated movies and we knew we had to write even faster.
Jake made sure it got into the right hands and we ended up selling the spec script to Disney 24 hours after they got it. And 12 weeks after we had our first meeting with Jake. Totally crazy.
Is there a fun or interesting anecdote about Mulan you would love to share? What can we expect from this live action version?
The big thing for us was wanting to get more women into the story. Obviously, a fundamental of the story is that Mulan is the only woman hiding in this army of men. But the real world is full of women and we wanted to reflect that as well as we could, given the constraints of the story. In the poem, Mulan has a little sister, so we used that. We also made sure her mother was a real presence. And, we created the character of the witch to act as Mulan’s dark double. When the amazing Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver took over the project, they totally got it and maintained and grew those characters.
How does your writing partnership work? What’s the process like for the two of you? Do you always write together in the same room, do you take turns? What are the benefits to having a partner vs. being a solo writer? What are the challenges?
When we first started writing together, we sat at one computer. Elizabeth typed, (because she was faster and it drove her crazy to watch Lauren type slow). We would take turns going to each other’s houses. We would talk through what we wanted the scene to be, Elizabeth tackled more of the action while Lauren thought about what the characters were going to say. Then two things happened that changed the way we did things: 1) Lauren had a baby and didn’t have full time child care which made her house a pretty distracting place to be and 2) we discovered the program WriterDuet. WriterDuet completely changed our lives. (It’s basically a Google doc with screenplay formatting). Now, on days we don’t have meetings, we each stay home. We video conference on Skype and write on WriterDuet. We can both be in the same scene watching the changes the other person makes in real time. Sometimes we’ll divide and conquer and one person will tackle one scene while the other person does something else and then we swap, or sometimes we’ll mull over the same scene together.
For us there are more benefits than drawbacks to having a partner. (Really, the only drawback is splitting the money). We always carpool, so someone is always the navagatrix. It cuts down on getting lost. Features are really a numbers game — how many can you pitch in a year? How many can you write? We can definitely tackle more as a team than either of us could do solo. We rarely have writer’s block because that would mean neither of us has an idea how to start or an angle to look at something from. Studio notes are easier. Since we’ve challenged each other and talked through a lot of possibilities about the way a story could go, we can almost always say “yes, we talked about that option…and here’s why we didn’t do that.”
Our number one rule when it comes to writing is just, “butt in chair.” Having a partner means being accountable to another person. On days when we just write, we’re usually at our computers at 10ish until somewhere between 4 and 6 depending on what we need to accomplish (we’re solar powered). The sheer act of showing up, sitting at the computer and putting SOMETHING on the page is the most important thing. We can always make it better later. And often the willingness to allow something to be bad at the beginning is what helps us get to the good parts. When we first started writing together, we wanted shooting draft quality from the start. We would get into long, stupid fights about details, only to discover later that it was the big picture that needed to change.
Writing with each other means it is essential that we get on the same page early. Our first step these days is an outline. We try to work out as many details and solve as many problems as possible in that outline stage — before we have a chance to fall in love with a bit of dialogue or an image. It leads to way fewer fights.
Being a team helps us be less precious about things. Since just about everything we write is the product of both of our minds and hearts, it’s easier to cut what needs to be cut — nothing is personal. It helps us be extremely flexible.
When did the two of you know this writing partnership was a good idea? Was it professional “love at first sight” or did it take some time to decide to commit to one another? Does either of you ever write without the other? Are there any solo projects?
We met working together — we were hired at the same theater company, Shakespeare and Company in Lenox MA, when we were teenagers. We exchanged our labor for acting lessons. We were assigned house managing duties in the Edith Wharton theater together — Shakespeare and Company did adaptations of her stories in her actual house. It was very cool. We took tickets and served tea and cookies to the guests at intermission. It was a wonderful place to be for the summer, and it meant we knew we could work well together right from the beginning.
We both continued to work in theater until after college when we realized we both had a secret desire to write screenplays. Doing it together seemed much more fun than figuring out the ins and outs of both writing and navigating this business alone, so we teamed up. We argued a lot writing our first script: a highly original horror about teens in the woods stalked by a serial killer. We know. You’ve never heard something so fresh and original. 🙂 But, after surviving that first attempt and still loving each other, we knew, this partnership could work. And it’s still more fun than writing solo (something we only ever do when the other one is really sick and we’re on a deadline).
Since writing careers are filled with ups and downs, can you talk about how the two of you deal with rejections, and failures? Is there a lesson you feel you’ve learned the hard way? Anything you would have done differently?
We have made so many, many, many mistakes. In fact, it’ll be the title of our book someday: Mistakes Were Made, a Hollywood Journey. (DIBS!)
We try not to beat ourselves up about the mistakes. We try to figure out what we’ve learned that we can use going forward and hang on to that. Which doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes lie on the floor and lament our fate. We just try not to do it too long.
Having a bunch of projects in various stages also helps us move on from our losses. First of all, there’s not much time to grieve. We’re probably on a deadline. But, even when we’re not, we try not to put all our passion and time into one project — it hurts too much when it dies and it feels like a bigger waste of time. When we’re juggling, we can (hopefully) cry a little and move on to the next thing.
That’s the big lesson we learned the hard way. We spent two years working on a job early on. And that movie didn’t get made. We didn’t have reps guiding us, getting pitches set up for us. We should have been writing more spec scripts, but we were foolish and didn’t. When that movie died, we didn’t have a ton to show for the time and we had to scramble for the next gig. Of course, the next gig ended up being Mulan, so it worked out. But we learned our lesson: never put all your eggs into one basket.
Is the process of writing a Lifetime movie different than writing a live action film for Disney?
The main difference is budget. Our Mar Vista Christmas movie, Christmas Perfection, had a budget of around a million. Mulan is…considerably more than that. For Mar Vista our target was 95 pages, 5 main locations, no more than 12 speaking parts, and the prime directive “Christmas in every frame.” Writing a movie like that is a lot like writing a play. Focus on character and dialogue and don’t make too much dependent on scenery and location.
On Mulan, especially as a spec, the sky was the limit. There was no holding back, just “what is the coolest thing we can think of?” It’s amazing to have that kind of freedom with a story.
But there are also some great things that happen from having to write within constraints. In fact, in general we’re happy to have a sandbox to play in. Being creative within that box is sometimes when we have the most fun.
How about going from writing feature film to hour-long series? Is the process very different? The hour-long project you’re working on is also an adaptation, and the two of you have experience adapting things since Mulan is also an adaptation. Can you talk about that process?
So far, we haven’t had a TV project get beyond a pilot script, so we can’t really speak to the process of true long-form storytelling. There is a huge difference though in writing a pilot and writing a feature script and it’s not about page count. It’s about how open ended things are. In a feature, almost all the threads need to get tied up. If you set it up, pay it off. (And, if you don’t, make sure you have a good reason.) But a pilot requires setting up things that might not get paid off for episodes, or for an entire season. At the same time, it has to stand alone as a satisfying thing to read. It’s a challenge for sure.
Most of our work is some form of adaptation. Even Christmas Perfection, while technically an original, was an executive’s idea that we pitched on and got the job. We’re working on an action movie right now that is a rewrite, so again, it’s really an adaptation.
We really do like boxes. Once those walls of theme, character, genre, tone, all get set, that’s when we can really let loose and be creative. Adaptation is fun for us because it gets so many of those aspects out of the way quickly. “This is the basic story we need to tell. Cool. Now, let’s play.”
What advice do you have for writers wanting to break into the business?
Write. A lot. We’re big believers in Malcom Gladwell’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice before you’re an expert. And this job is really, really hard. We love it, but it’s HARD. So, failing often is super important. It’s how you learn and therefore how you reach expert status. And fifteen years into our screenwriting journey, we’re still wrong. We’re still learning. We still fail. Just, hopefully, less often.
In terms of our practical advice on breaking in, we always say: contests! We won or placed in several weird contests on our way to joining the WGA. The newer, the weirder, the more likely we were to win, so we focused on those. We got a couple of decent paychecks, got our first studio option, and eventually, one of the contests led to a job that got us our union card.
Do the two of you have a passion project you’d love to see come to life soon? Something you wrote that hasn’t been picked up anywhere yet but that is a dream project? Can you talk about it?
Yes! Producers Amie Coué Arbuckle and Colin Hudock brought us on to adapt Farida Khalaf’s memoir THE GIRL WHO BEAT ISIS into a screenplay. It’s a totally amazing true story. Like so many Iraqi women and girls, Farida was captured by ISIS in 2014. But she never stopped fighting. She escaped captivity and took five other girls with her on a harrowing flight to freedom. Farida is currently living safely in Germany. We were lucky enough to get to travel to her and interview her for the adaptation. When we first met her, we realized every detail of her memoir was an understatement. She’s even more inspiring, more compelling, in person than she is on the page. Her story is challenging to tell, but ultimately it’s about how hope, love, and friendship can endure, even in the darkest of times. This incredible story deserves to be experienced on the big screen. We’re hoping to find a director who is as inspired by Farida as we are.
What are you working on now?
A total dream job with an amazing female director and some real Hollywood legends. Sadly, we can’t talk about it yet.
You can watch Christmas Perfection on Hulu.
The short we wrote, Boy Eats Girl: A Zombie Love Story, is making the rounds at festivals now. You can check out the trailer and screening schedule at: https://www.boyeatsgirlfilm.com/
What’s your website, social media handles etc?
@MartinandHynek on Twitter.