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Screenwriter Karen McCullah Talks Screenwriting, Her First Script and What Inspires Her Writing

By Jameson Brown · May 13, 2015

We like to cover all genres when it comes to the writers we talk to. Lately, we have covered drama and sci-fi, but now we want to delve into the genre that makes us laugh (and cry), comedy. 

Karen McCullah (Legally Blonde, 10 Things I Hate About You) gives great insights into her screenwriting process, the first screenplay she (and writing partner Kirsten Smith) sold and what inspires her daily writing. 

JB: Karen, would you mind giving me your full A-Z as a writer? Where did you start? What initially drew you into this medium of storytelling? 

KM: I started out in Marketing and PR for an investment firm in DC, then ended up living in Albuquerque where there were no jobs to be found. That’s when I started writing, which is what I’d always wanted to do anyway. I started with a novel, got bored, read a book called “How to Write for Film and TV” and decided that’s what I was supposed to do. I’ve always loved movies and it seemed like the best fit, but I’ve since gone on to write novels as well. As for what drew me – my friends from high school always remind me that I would spend most of class writing funny notes and stories to entertain myself and others, so I guess that’s where it all started.

JB: We’d love to hear how you (and writing partner Kirsten Smith) came up with 10 Things I Hate About You AND how you went about getting it seen / made. 

KM: We knew we wanted to write a teen movie and when Clueless came out, we thought Amy Heckerling was a genius for contemporizing a classic, so we decided to try that as well. We chose Taming of the Shrew and figured out which storylines we wanted to keep and update and how we’d go about it and then outlined all the characters and the story while we sat on a beach in Mexico. We wrote it on spec and our manager Seth Jaret got it into the hands of Andrew Lazar, the producer, who got it to Mark Vahradian who was then an exec at Touchstone. A few months later, it was greenlit.

JB: Do you think you gravitate towards a specific genre? Or do you enjoy writing all genres of screenwriting/movies?

KM: I definitely gravitate toward comedy, but I’ve expanded that to include action comedy as well. I just worked on a Jackie Chan movie and it was a lot of fun. And Kirsten and I wrote The Expendabelles, the female version of The Expendables franchise.

JB: What does the day-to-day writing process look like for you?

KM: A lot of sitting in a chair staring at the computer, or lying in bed reading my script, or floating in the pool while I run the movie in my head, or sitting in the sun editing. When I write with Kirsten, we’re usually outside by the pool. And on Fridays we drink tequila.

JB: What has been the absolute most engaging film you’ve been a part of (in the screenwriting and story capacity)? 

KM: I suppose 10 Things, as it had so much story in the play that we had to whittle it down, but Legally Blonde and House Bunny were also a blast to write, as was The Ugly Truth since it was rated R.

JB: What films inspire you as a screenwriter? What screenplays inspire you as a screenwriter? 

KM: The Big Chill is the movie that inspired me to become a screenwriter. I just loved the characters and the dialogue so much. When Harry Met Sally was also an inspiration.

JB: Do you think environment has a large effect on the work produced? Is there a “special place” you go to write, edit, etc.? 

KM: For me, sunshine is important. It’s hard for me to be funny in the rain. Luckily I live in Los Angeles. If I lived in a gloomy place, I’d write much darker material.

JB: From an industry standpoint, what advice can you give on getting your spec circulated? 

KM: Just keep sending query letters to agents and managers and production companies. That’s what I did. I imagine it’s even easier now that you can just email a pdf. I used to print scripts out and drive down to the post office to send it every time I got a nibble. I never understand why writers send me query letters on my website. I’m not an agent. I can’t sell your script.

JB: Do you think you have a “best screenplay?” One that you feel might be the best constructed? 

KM: Hard to say, but there’s one that hasn’t been made yet that’s one of my favorites and I think it’s one of our funniest for sure. It’s called 35 and Single is the New Fat.

JB: Are there any storyline and character insights you can give us regarding Expendabelles

KM: It’s about an undercover CIA operation that involves two groups of femaie mercenaries – one in their 30s and one in their 60s – kicking ass and saying funny stuff.  And it was an absolute blast to write.

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