An Interview with Award-Winning Screenwriter Kenlon Clark: “Nothing is better than not being able to keep up with the characters’ voices while writing”

By October 31, 2017Main, Screenwriting 101

Canadian-born, LA-based filmmaker Kenlon Clark is an award-winning director and writer with a litany of impressive screenwriting contest victories under his belt. Not only did Kenlon win the WeScreenplay Feature Contest for his science fiction script FORGED (coming in just ahead of an anonymous submission by Ender Games’ Orson Scott Card), he also took home top prize in the ScreenCraft Bootleg Universe Competition. This year, we were also proud to feature Kenlon and his writing partner Will Rubio in our inaugural list of the 25 most-promising emerging screenwriters. We recently caught up with Kenlon for a wide-reaching interview on everything from his artistic influences, to his thoughts on craft and process.

Tell us a bit about your background. How long have you been writing?

I’ve been writing short stories since I was in junior high and even won a few writing contests in school. However, I would say I’ve been storytelling in some form or another for as long as I can remember. Recently, while going through my parent’s garage I found old books that I created, wrote and drew when I was maybe 5 or 6 years old. That blew my mind to see that the seeds of being a storyteller have pretty much always been in me. 

I made short films all through as a kid on VHS trying every filmmaking role along the way. I have been working on feature screenplays in various forms since I went to film school. 

Since winning, what has changed about your writing? Any unexpected challenges or successes?

Other than a few moments of being overly analytical and putting some internal pressure on myself, not too much has changed about the process. No matter what, a first draft will only ever be a place to start, so the only pressure should be on getting to a draft that you can read and edit rather than being too perfectionistic out of the gate and never getting there at all. 

On a success note, I was fortunate to find a great manager Le’Ander Nicholson with Believeland Management. Le’Ander has been incredibly supportive in moving forward.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about writing?

Wow, that is a really tough one because I’m the type of person who tries to read and listen to every article, and podcast I can get my hands on. I’m constantly turning over every rock for that elusive writing secret and I never rest on my laurels! Off the top of my head a few great pieces would be: Quentin Tarantino recommending that you cut the first and last lines of each scene when you’re rewriting, Kurt Wimmer advising to get a strong final image in your head to work towards as you write and Francis Ford Coppola encouraging writers to push to the end of that first draft before getting caught up in the rewrite process.  The list goes on!

Tell us a little about your writing process. What is the most important part?

Outlining is incredibly important to me. I’m a big believer in the outlining process with the outline covering 80-90% of the core details like structure, character, and relationships while leaving 10-20% unanswered elements as you write. It’s a balance because if the outline is too detailed it leaves little room for discovery, inspiration and the voice of the muse which you have to be willing to rely on. But if it’s not detailed enough you can write yourself into a corner and get stuck. 

Although I have written solo over the years I have a co-writer and collaborator on a number of projects named William Rubio who is super talented, creative and incredibly fun to work with. A co-writer definitely prevents writer’s block and eases the burden of figuring every detail out alone. 

One other note thinking about the antagonist of a story and making that a priority is helpful. The antagonists often get shortchanged and relegated to cliche’s but in a lot of stories they can actually be a truly fierce driving force. Once you’ve figured out what your antagonist is trying to accomplish clearly, you’ll be surprised how much faster breaking a story goes in my opinion. 

What does your editing process look like? How many drafts of a single script do you usually produce?

Honestly, I’ve rarely gone back and done a full page one rewrite on a script mainly because I believe it’s important to trust the initial thrust of an idea and what made you excited about writing it in the first place. However, I believe heavily in rewriting where necessary so the editing process is tons of cutting, tweaking dialogue, getting feedback and coverage then streamlining, to make the story more fluid while peppering in moments of character and relationships. It’s more of an interior redesign than completely rebuilding the concept in most cases. 

There are times you do need to rethink an approach and that can be fun too. When Will and I wrote “Forged,” we originally scripted it as a family drama that we could get made on an indie budget or maybe make ourselves. About a year after completing our draft and showing it to some people an industry professional suggested incorporating more of a conspiratorial mystery into the story. The family suffered great tragedy in our story and they said they’d be more interested in the script if we dealt with who was behind the family tragedy. Instead of dismissing the feedback, Will and I got incredibly excited about it and after three months of rewriting “Forged” went from a family drama to a thriller which eventually led to us winning WeScreenplay’s feature contest.  

What does your daily routine look like? How do you mark progress?

When I’m heavy into the writing process, my routine usually consists of writing in the afternoon to evening for 3-5 hours (on good days) with a killer playlist being fed to my brain nonstop. It’s mentally taxing to write for more than five hours a day unless there is a deadline. It is the type of exertion that makes you feel great about life though! 

When I’m collaborating on a project, I’ll usually write on a computer.  If I’m writing alone, I like to write longhand on notepads and then transcribe the script and make revisions that way. Writing directly on the computer is much faster when you are working with a co-writer (as well as considerate if you have unintelligible handwriting!) so it expedites the process.

If you have the option, I think working to a page count every day is incredibly motivating for first drafts. If its possible I like to go for 10-15 pages a day and push through to a first draft in about a week. That doesn’t always happen and you feel like a vegetable for a few days after if you meet the goal, but it’ll get things going faster. 

In terms of craft, what’s the greatest challenge you faced during the writing of your script? How did you solve it?

The ScreenCraft/ Bootleg Universe script (which is a short screenplay) flowed through me in one sitting. It was one of those writing experiences you never forget. The structure, characters, and voices were so clear that I didn’t want to get up from the computer and actually laughed out loud to myself as I wrote it. Basically, I was a human conduit for the story to become real. The main challenge has been actually pulling off the film, beyond just writing it, but that’s par for the course in filmmaking. And not challenging in a negative aspect, just taking the steps to actually execute a production in a practical sense. But honestly, I’ve loved that part too!

With “Forged,” I think Will would agree that changing the genre of a solid script while keeping the characters and throughline intact was the most challenging, but it was still a lot of fun and we’ve had a fantastic response from that screenplay. 

On that note, what’s your favorite aspect of writing for the screen?

In terms of the actual writing process, I would say writing dialogue and action scenes for sure. Nothing is better than not being able to keep up with the characters voices while writing, especially when they say things that surprise and scare you. Obviously, it’s like taking a peek into your subconscious, so its entertaining, therapeutic, and frightening. 

Regarding actual production seeing actors speak your dialogue and breathe life into your script is equally exciting. I love when actors interpret the characters in ways that I didn’t expect, which humbling as they can open your eyes to new interpretations and elevate your material. 

Have you ever written in another medium? What unique challenges do different mediums pose and how does it inform your screenwriting?

I’ve mainly written screenplays, however, I’ve written many short stories over the years and tried my hand at some comic book writing on my own (I’m an artist and comic book lover as well). I love storytelling so whatever form the ideas can ultimately take I’m fine with so long as they stop clanging around in my head and bugging me all day!  

What about other aspects of filmmaking. Do you ever direct, act, edit, shoot? What’s your favorite?

I’ve worked professionally in almost every aspect of filmmaking with sound, composing score and CGI being the exceptions. I have extremely gifted collaborators in those areas, so no need to pick up another trade!

I’ve thankfully made a living directing, shooting and editing various productions for over a decade in LA. In the past few years, I’ve directed, edited and shot 7 music videos for an amazing Grammy-nominated group called Above & Beyond, directed various ad work for brands like Adidas and Chrysler and just last month, I directed and edited a video for an Atlantic Records group called “Theory of a Deadman.” 

With the Bootleg Universe shortI was not only able to write the script but also storyboard, direct, shoot, edit, composite the VFX and color grade it myself.  The script was quite ambitious so thankfully all those years of making various projects were poured into that film. As well, I had the support of Adi Shankar, ScreenCraft, Buffalo 8 and GreenGlow Films, so I’m super excited for everyone to see it! 

As for my favorite aspect— its tough to say but if I was forced to choose— writing and directing are my favorites followed closely by editing and then shooting (although I consider myself a cinematographer only on things I direct!). 

What is one challenge writers face that you feel isn’t talked about enough?

I think becoming familiar with as much of the filmmaking process as possible from start to finish will strengthen your writing. Once you’ve tried directing, editing, shooting or producing your perspectives on what is necessary to make something work (or make something at all!) is amplified along with understanding the immense pressure a film set can bring and how to handle multiple spinning plates. It helps you cut down on excess and think about what a director, producer or actor might respond to on the page. 

It’s comfortable to stay in a cocoon with the laptop churning out ideas but becoming more informed about production and post-production, especially editing, will make you a better writer.  Visit a film set if you can, collaborate with others, get out and make something.  Even if it’s not very good.  Then do it again and again until someone sits up and takes notice. You don’t have to be a master of every aspect but there is something about learning each step in the filmmaking process that retroactively strengthens the steps that came before it. 


 

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