Interview: Award-Winning Filmmaker Edson Oda on the Sundance Screenwriters Lab Experience

Brazilian-born, LA-based filmmaker Edson Oda is no stranger to success. After beginning his career in advertising before moving on to pursue his own creative projects, Oda has seen his work recognized by multiple major film festivals, as well as the Latin Grammy Awards and Quentin Tarantino’s Emerging Artist Contest. He also served as Latin America’s representative at the CLIO AWARDS at the age of 26, where he was chosen as one of the top 12 creatives in the world under the age of 30. Since then, he’s completed his MFA at the University of Southern California, and directed a number of award-winning short films, all of which display a singular style that’s quite unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Don’t believe us? Check out the incredible Malaria:

This year, Edson was selected to participate in the much coveted Sundance Screenwriters Lab for his original screenplay Nine Days:

“In a place distant from our normal reality, a reclusive man charged with interviewing candidates for the privilege of being born must choose between an applicant tough enough to survive versus one for whom he has unexpected feelings.”

How’s that for a log-line?

As it so happens, The Script Lab recently caught up with Edson Oda for an in-depth discussion on his career, from his earliest days as a copywriter, to his advice for aspiring screenwriters. Enjoy!

So, the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab. Any aspiring writer will tell you that’s about as good as it gets. Where were you when you got the news?

I was actually in São Paulo, Brazil – in pre production for a commercial that I was about to shoot. I got the news through a Skype call. Being selected for the Lab was a long time dream. I’ve applied several times over a period of about five years, but was rejected each time. It was hard to receive so many “we are sorry to inform you” letters but somehow I think they motivated me to improve my writing.

In any case, the experience so far has been amazing.  The institute has a huge amount of respect for the artist and for what he/she wants to say. In the lab we’re reminded of the power of our writing and our responsibility as filmmakers. We live in a society, and our work inevitably will have some sort of impact in the world. Words are powerful, and we are constantly reminded of that.

That’s why we are constantly encouraged to carve and craft each line, each act, and each description in our screenplay. Simply because we know that our stories matter.

Let’s start with your background. Was writing always a part of your DNA?

I was born and raised in a very small city in Brazil, called Mogi das Cruzes. I don’t know if writing was always part of my DNA, but I always liked to create things – drawings, origamis, little cartoons. 

At 20 years old I got a job as a copywriter in an Advertising Agency. On the next ten years, I wrote many, many commercials scripts before starting to write/ direct my own short films. At that point I was more like a self-taught filmmaker, but I was always a fan of several Filmmakers who went to film school, so I decided to head to the United States to pursue a Masters in Fine Arts at USC.  

Can you give us some idea of the films and filmmakers that have had the biggest impact on your work?

There are so many. Honestly my taste is a mess and it’s funny because I rarely 100% dislike a movie; so I usually see some beauty in films, even when others definitely do not. In this way I can say that I’m influenced by all kinds of different things, from a diverse range of places and genres.

To list some filmmakers and films, I would say Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), Norman Mclaren (all his experimental shorts), Woody Allen (Zelig), Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove), Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love), Chaplin (City Lights), Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal), Win Wenders (Wings of Desire), Hirokazu Koreeda (After Life) Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), Jackie Chan (Druken Master II) and of course, Sylvester Stallone (Rocky).

Did you find the film school experience beneficial? 

Yeah, as I said, I went to USC where I studied film production in the Masters of Fine Arts program. It was helpful, of course, but I feel like no matter who you learn from, you also need to filter the information you receive.

I really learned a lot, of course, but I also learned that filmmakers need to protect their vision and beliefs; otherwise all we’re really doing is baking a cake that we ourselves would never want to eat. And I saw that happening quite frequently in school.

But, for sure, in my case, film school was a great way to understand the craft, practice my skills and make great friends and collaborators. Also, since I wasn’t from the US, it gave me access to a knowledge that I’d never have access to in my country.

George Lucas once said learning to make films is easy, whereas learning what to make films about is very hard. How do you decide what to write about?

I usually try to find something that I would not see anyone else but me doing. It’s connected to answering the question: if I didn’t exist, what kind of films would never exist either?

It may sound kind of metaphysical, but I do believe that everyone has stories that no one else could tell, and I’m always trying to find mine.

Do you have any particular genres or subjects you consider to be strengths or weaknesses?

Not really, I usually like to experiment and try a lot of different things.

But I would say that I really like experimental work with a strong narrative attached to it. 

How about your daily routine? What’s the most important part of your process?

I’m very methodical. I think it’s kind of a heritage from basketball training when I was younger. But now, instead of setting goals like shooting 500 balls or running 5 miles a day, I set goals related to my writing. I think the most important part of my process is being patient and setting times to do specific things and respect what I told myself to do. It’s quite hopeless some times because there’s no immediate reward.

It’s like in The Shawshank Redemption, when Tim Robbin’s character escapes from the prison (25 year spoiler-alert incoming). When he disappears, it looks like magic at first, but soon the guards find out that every freaking day he was digging a tunnel in his wall, using a tool of the size of a smart phone. I believe that writing is something like that. You read an amazing script and it feels like magic, but I’m sure the writer had to work some hundreds of hours on it, every freaking day.

Have you ever thought about giving up writing? Why didn’t you?

Yes. As I said, writing is tough because it doesn’t give you an immediate reward. Also you spend a lot of time by yourself, which sometimes leads you to not so great thoughts.

But the reason I didn’t give up is because I really believe there’s something I need to say, and I want people to hear it. I have no ambition to change the world, or be remembered, but I do have a strong desire to feel something through my work and hopefully make other people feel it too.

Moving on to the state of the industry more generally, how heavily do commercial considerations play into your work?

I think it depends on what I’m writing.

For example, for this script that got me to the lab (Nine Days), I never stopped to think about whether or not it was going to sell. I wasn’t worried about what might attract execs, agents or producers. I didn’t even think about pleasing anyone at Sundance. I just thought about writing something small, intimate, and very personal that I could shoot by myself if no one else was interested.

Of course, I can’t think like that for everything I write; but I believe that even when someone is paying you to write something, you can’t be self-conscious about what would make this or that person happy. I really believe that you have to write something that connects you – as a human being –  to the piece. If you do it well enough, probably many more people will be connected to the material too, because we are all human beings – and, surprisingly, quite similar to each other.

Something that makes me sad though is when someone tells writers that they have to write X or to do Y to sell the script. That’s BS, or as we would say in Brazil, “cagada”.

Because even if you write X, there’s no guarantee that you’ll sell your script or have your film made. Sure, I know a lot of people who are not doing X, who are not selling anything either. However, if the chances of success and failure are the same – doing or not doing what people tell you to do – why bother write something you don’t believe in?

Ok, wrapping up – best single piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

If you want to be a writer-director, write something small, intimate and very personal, that you’d be able to make yourself. I got this beautiful advice from Quentin Tarantino, after winning a short film competition he judged.  

Best single piece of advice you have to give?

Make time to do something that has nothing to do with writing, like salsa dance. I don’t know if your writing is going to get better, but you’ll probably have more fun, more friends and less suffering in your day.

And finally, where will Edson Oda the writer be one decade from today? 

At Starbucks, enjoying a Caramel Frappuccino. And writing.

For more of Edson’s work, head on over to his website!