Set in 1978 small-town Texas, screenwriter R.B. Ripley’s Sugarland tells the story of an unassuming housewife and mother who finds herself laundering money for an up-and-coming Mexican cartel in order to save her family’s century-old, sugar refinery business. The script itself has seen much success on the competition circuit – it placed as a finalist in ScreenCraft’s 2015 Pilot Launch Contest, and more recently took the grand prize in the 2017 Finish Line Script Competition. Ripley himself has also been a finalist in both the Disney ABC and National Hispanic Media Coalition TV Writing programs.
We recently caught up with Ripley to discuss the development process behind Sugarland as well as his overall writing philosophy and approach to craft.
Tell us a bit about your background. How long have you been writing?
Writing is a second career for me – my first was as a musician, which started when I was nine years old. Somewhere in my late twenties I realized that my passion for music had been extinguished and I re-discovered writing, which was something I’d loved to do a kid but always got squeezed out because of music commitments.
After earning my MFA in 2003 I moved to Los Angeles and started the long, slow process of “becoming a writer.” But a few of years after that, I had a pretty horrific accident (and near-death experience) that resulted in a very extended and lingering recovery period. It wasn’t until around 2014 that I was able to finally return to writing in a meaningful and focused way.
Since winning, what has changed about your writing? Any unexpected challenges or successes?
As writers, it’s always energizing when someone responds to our writing. Winning a contest is always a little surreal, given the actual odds. What’s really stood out to me with Finish Line are the mentors – there are so many, and they’re all smart and successful professionals. Mangers, producers, agents, directors – it’s like an intense, holistic master class for our industry.
The mentors are also encouraging and engaged. In the day-to-day slog of being alone in my office, generating ideas, breaking stories, outlining or going to draft, it’s easy to forget that everyone wants great content. These meetings – with smart people who intelligently and passionately discuss stories – bring me back to that in the very best of ways.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about writing?
The best piece of advice I’ve been given was to write about a big idea that’s important to me. It seems like such a simple concept, but it took me an embarrassingly long time to recognize that I was actually writing what I thought was important to others – agents, managers, producers, studios and networks.
This advice came up during one of the most difficult meetings of my career with a development executive. I’m paraphrasing, but she said, “I can’t remember the last time I was so uninterested in a script. And it’s because you don’t seem at all interested in it as the writer.” Ka-boom.
Since I got that advice from the development exec, most everything I write includes one or more of three basic elements: 1. An underdog; 2. A nuclear family of some sort (even if not blood-related); and 3. Some sort of injustice being perpetrated.
None of that is by design, but it’s where my interests and passions exist. That development exec’s advice made me look at what was important and identify patterns in my work. So now, rather than force my way into a script, I allow the entry point to emerge and it’s usually through one of those three portals. If an entryway doesn’t open up, I know it’s not a project for me at this point in time.
With Sugar Land, the Finish Line Contest responded to its core idea and helped me hone it, something not a lot of contests do. At one point, I got a note that was basically, “This show seems to be about a woman learning to trust herself.” That was such a different lens than I’d looked at the script up to that point and it helped me make a ton of small decisions to help make scenes pop even more. That kind of feedback is invaluable.
Once I put something important to me at the heart of every project, that’s when people started reading what I wrote. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also say that a good portion of this also came from improving my craft, how I told the story. But the heart of a project – the thing that fires me up – has become the differentiator.
Tell us a little about your writing process. What is the most important part?
Outlining, for me, is the key to everything. I spend about 85% of any project outlining in some form or fashion. Over the years, I’ve learned to hold off going to draft until it’s simply impossible not to. This is because I’ve wasted too much of my writing life working on scripts whose core structure simply wasn’t ready to support the story I wanted to tell.
These days, until I’ve vetted a logline, a 1-paragraph synopsis, a 1-page synopsis, a 5 to 10-page treatment and a detailed beat outline through my beta readers, I don’t let myself start typing in Final Draft.
Everyone’s got their own approach to how many drafts they write, and often it’s something that’s kind of out our hands as writers (which usually indicates something good, like an actor or producer’s come on board!). But prior to that scenario, I’ve learned from some very smart writers is that most draft problems are outline problems, which is why I spend so much of my time there. It’s so much less stressful to identify and make changes in notecard/outline format. For Sugar Land, I’ve done three major drafts.
What does your daily routine look like? How do you mark progress?
My schedule depends on where I am in the writing process. If I’m actually writing a draft, I work from 5 am – 9 am, and always on a specific allotment of pages for the day (usually 2 to 3). Over the years, I’ve learned that early morning works best for this, jumping in before life intrudes and sucks up my admittedly limited brain-space. For me, it’s the least satisfying part because by this point I’m so familiar with the material, it feels a bit anti-climactic and I’m ready for it to be done! So, scheduling this and seeing substantial progress every day is the key to success.
If I’m breaking story, outlining, or developing a pitch, that’s usually mid-morning to early-afternoon, like a 10 am to 2 pm schedule. It helps for me to get up and get going, have some breakfast, do a little reading and get the gears turning before diving in.
I always try to schedule meetings in the afternoons, that way I can guarantee writing time every day before I’m on to other things and the day gets away from me.
Finally, I’ve become a big proponent in celebrating milestones. Wrote ten pages this week? Great, go see a movie! Finished note-carding a pilot? Awesome, go buy those shoes you’ve been eyeing! The truth is, there’s always more work to be done, and it’s never good enough. So, celebrating progress, is a way to define success on an ongoing basis, rather than waiting for something to sell or for someone else to say good job. Now, when one of those happens, it’s icing on the cake.
On that note, what’s your favorite aspect of writing for the screen?
Having an audience watch is thrilling and terrifying and magnificent. A very close second (or perhaps a tie?!) is breaking story – that period in the process when characters, motivations and plotlines reveal themselves. Every day is as series of delightful little surprises. For me, that the magical part of writing, and what really nourishes me through the more tedious parts.
Have you ever written in another medium? What unique challenges do different mediums possess and how does it inform your screenwriting?
I started as a playwright and still adore it. Writing for the stage is nearly all character and dialog, and those are definitely my strengths as a screenwriter. Usually, when I get asked by a writing colleague to give notes, it’s because I can help improve character and dialog. I think that’s my main contribution to a room. But my secret? I love structure. And because it’s something that doesn’t come naturally to me, I kind of obsess over it and read everything I can about the topic. Now, I’m constantly looking for how structure is born out of character. To me, that’s how it all makes sense.
What about other aspects of filmmaking. Do you ever direct, act, edit, shoot? What’s your favorite?
I’ve directed a couple of shorts and have really fallen in love with behind the camera. The first time I directed, it was on the advice of a writing mentor when I had a bout of writer’s block. Her advice was to find a way to look at writing through a different lens – and I took her literally. In short, the experience was revelatory (and in no way, is that hyperbole).
Directing what I’d written made me see unnecessary dialog, overwritten action/description, useless locations – the horrifying list of my deficiencies went on and on. While directing threw all of my shortcomings into high relief, it completely changed how I write. In particular, it showed me how to write a much stronger reading draft, which for practical purposes, is all we writers need to be concerned with (until something’s bought and greenlit and that phase begins). In short, it focused me on telling a great story on the page.
What is one challenge writers face that you feel isn’t talked about enough?
Looking back, I wish I’d had some kind of crash course in notes meetings. There’s often so much going on and so much subtext that it’s easy for two people to come away having experienced two entirely different meetings. Asking smart and useful questions is a true art. There are few things I enjoy more than watching a good writer do that. Defensiveness is left outside the room. They’re engaged, open, and curious. And they know that it costs nothing to jot down a suggestion, even if it’s something they don’t agree with.
The flip side is for us writers to be very clear about those two or three elements that truly define the project, and being able to plainly articulate why they’re the project’s DNA. I’ve watched too many writers argue about every little detail only to miss the big notes. This is another huge plus with the Finish Line competition – I don’t know of another contest that gives writers notes sessions and allows them to re-submit. In a way, it mimics what we do in the real world: submit a draft, get notes, rewrite and re-submit. That kind of experience is invaluable for writers and is something I wish I’d had access to ten years ago.