Interview Questions by Tom Dever
Screenwriter Anna Klassen is no stranger to success on the competition circuit. Her recent script, 14 words, tells the story of a young woman named Sophia as she attempts to infiltrate a white supremacy group called the Aryan Resurgence. Meanwhile, the cult’s leader is stepping down and his son — who has radical new plans for the group — is taking over. As Sophia inches closer to uncovering the hate group’s darkest secrets she discovers that she’s the key to their biggest plot yet.
14 Words nabbed Klassen the prestigious, fourth annual ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship, which also served as her final stepping stone to securing representation. She’s since signed with WME and is in the process of developing her next projects. Fortunately for us, Anna recently took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with us about craft, persistence, and the state of the industry. Enjoy!
Brief background and how you got into writing. From LA? Move to LA? Did you study writing? Did you always want to be a writer? Etc.
I grew up in Eugene, Oregon and went to college at the University of Oregon, just a few miles from my childhood home. I graduated in three years with a degree in Magazine Journalism, a degree, which, for obvious reasons, does not exist anymore, and moved to Los Angeles for an internship with Newsweek and their then sister site, The Daily Beast. I was soon hired full-time and worked as an entertainment reporter for two years.
When Newsweek broke ties with The Daily Beast and stopped printing their tangible pages, I jumped ship to a tiny startup called Bustle.com. There was only a handful of employees, and I felt like I was taking a big risk, but I really believed in the editors and their mission. Today, Bustle is the largest women’s website in the world, and I continue to run the west coast entertainment operations out of LA.
But movies and moviemaking has always been my biggest passion. Growing up in woodsy Oregon, writing screenplays seemed like a far-away, impossibility. As an entertainment reporter in LA I found myself adjacent to that world, and having regular conversations with filmmakers for my day job only fueled my desire to write scripts. I started writing on nights and weekends, and now, having pursued screenwriting for a handful of years in earnest, I truly can’t see myself doing anything else.
Can you walk us through the process of how you signed with your manager?
Securing a manager was the best thing that’s happened to my writing career. I met my manager, Bash Naran at Plattform, through a mutual friend at Sundance Film Festival, and we instantly hit it off over our shared taste in movies and TV. But I was still a fairly green writer, and the one script I sent him wasn’t enough motivation for him to sign me. A few months later, I won the 2017 ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship, and this generated enough heat for him to officially sign me. I really can’t stress enough how helpful placing in contests can be towards getting eyes on your script and gaining representation!
After I signed with Bash, we had a frank conversation about my goals as a writer and what the next steps were. We brainstormed ideas for what my next script should be, and eventually landed on something I was excited to write and that he felt could help secure the interest of agencies. The script was a based-on-a-true-story idea and very research heavy, two things that, as a journalist I thrived in. When I finished the script, he sent it around to a handful of agencies and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. I had interest from almost every major agency, but ultimately decided to sign with WME because their passion for the project was unparalleled. Not only did they see the script as a great writing sample that could get me work, they wanted to make it, and demonstrated the steps they would take to see it made.
I do want to say, though, that I realize my experience gaining an agent is perhaps unusual, and it is sometimes a much more arduous process. I attribute the positive feedback this script has earned to a lot of planning up front. Bash and I really took the time to find the right idea — something that was timely and untapped, but also showcased the kind of writing I’m good at. It was also a concept that we wagered could have real legs in 2017’s cinematic landscape.
Most writers have to find the time, energy and passion to still write while working full time jobs. Do you have a regimen that works for you?
As someone who writes all day for a living, swapping out my journalist brain for my screenwriting brain at the end of the day can be challenging. But I try to see it as a fun task that I earn, and I try to view it as an escape. Like, OK, I’ve made the money I need to today, I did all the tasks I was supposed to accomplish, now I’m allowed to spend time inside these worlds I’ve crafted in Final Draft.
But yes, it’s tough to find the time. For me, writing in the evening is when I feel most inspired. I try to block out a 3-4 hour chunk of time each night I can write uninterrupted.
For your process in general, do you do a lot of revisions as you go or do you do the vomit draft then go back and revisit?
I revise a lot as I go, but I think the idea of a vomit draft is extremely helpful (NOTE: “Vomit Draft” and “Vomit Scenes” refer to a writer writing just to get something done and workable on paper, paying little attention to consistency or quality) , and I’ve certainly done countless vomit scenes, if you will. When I go back to revise those scenes, I try to read a scene or two leading up to the “vomit scene” so I can get in the mindset of writing that I feel is working. It’s easier to adjust the tone and elements of the scene to match if you can mentally compare it to the good parts of the script.
How many years or projects did you feel you had to put in before you felt your projects were at a sellable level? I ask because a lot of writers want to sell the final draft of their first project.
I’ll be totally honest. I was definitely a baby writer who thought I could sell my first script. Like, it was this horrible, horrible, dog-shit feature that I truly thought I could sell. That was about five years ago and I’ve learned an absurd amount of valuable lessons since. This past year I wrote a pilot script that got some heat from winning competitions, and that is a script I think has selling potential, but I can also see the flaws in it, the ways in which it could be better, updated, etc.
Though there are writers who have done it, I think it’s incredibly difficult to sell the first script you write. In general, having a career as a screenwriter is to expect a lot of rejections and a lot of time revising. It’s a sad reality, but I think it ultimately makes you a better and more bankable writer.
I think a lot of writers have a misconception about simply sitting down and having great writing come forth from their fingertips. Do you have a specific process or method where you work your material up to the professional level? Outlines? Treatments? Beat sheets?
No matter what I’m writing, whether it’s a true story or completely fictitious, I like to do a lot of research before I put my hands on the keys. I will do months of research — reading books, watching movies, reading scripts, and sometimes even doing interviews — before I FADE IN. For me, I feel like I’m doing good work when I’m confident and comfortable in the subject matter.
Once I have a solid idea of the world or characters I want to create, I will (reluctantly) make an outline. For whatever reason outlining a script is like pulling teeth for me, but it helps me tremendously in the long run. And I try to make it as specific as possible, sometimes including bits of dialogue or little character interactions that I know will inspire me to flesh out the scene later. As a general rule, for me, doing as much legwork as possible before I actually start writing is the best way to success.
From a craft standpoint, what do you feel is the hardest part about getting a screenplay where it needs to be?
The hardest part of getting a screenplay where it needs to be, for me, is not being precious — or stubborn — about any one scene. A lot of times I’ll give my manager a draft and he’ll be like, “cut this, we don’t need it.” And you just have to do it. He asked me to cut an entire major character from a pilot I had written, and that wasn’t easy. But in the end, he was right, we just didn’t need that character and it made the pilot so much stronger.
I think it’s easy to stay inside your own brain when you’re writing, but at the end of the day you are hopefully creating something that will appeal to more people than just you, so listening to other people’s opinions, especially people you trust, is crucial in the revision process. Filmmaking is a collaboration, after all, and successful screenwriters learn to kill their darlings and work well with others.
From a purely career standpoint, were there any aspects that were much harder than you realized? Anything that was easier?
Everything is so hard! Everything. There is nothing about this industry or screenwriting that is easy. Screenwriting itself is difficult, getting people to read your stuff can be challenging, and actually getting paid to write movies or TV?! Fuggedaboutit. I’m kidding, sort of. But it definitely feels frustrating sometimes. I think the hardest part is the uncertainty. Let’s say you get staffed on a TV show for two seasons. When those seasons are over, will you get hired on another show again? It’s hard to say.
This business has no guarantees — financially or otherwise — so I sort of had to have an honest conversation with myself and ask if not having financial security was something I was willing to give up. Does my want to do write outweigh the possible risks? For me, it did. I wouldn’t be as happy doing anything else, and that’s what I try to remind myself.
Even for a writer as successful as you, surely you have had to face rejection at some point. Any advice for writers dealing with the discouragement that comes with it?
Any writer who is anyone has faced an enormous amount of rejection. I am no one, and I’ve faced plenty, too. One thing that helps me when I get negative feedback, for example, is to realize that everyone’s life experiences, their perspective on the world, and their taste, is different. I once wrote a super gritty crime thriller with a female lead that an agent said was, “too dark to have a female protagonist.” Now I’m not saying everyone who gives negative feedback is a misogynist, but his particular view on the world made him hate my script. That same script won a screenwriting contest a few months later, so it’s all a matter of opinion.
And, of course, I’ve gotten plenty of negative feedback about scenes or scripts I’ve written that I realized in retrospect were truly just awful, but it doesn’t make it sting any less. Most writers are somewhat sensitive creatures, but we have to find it in ourselves to not let the criticism or notes or “no’s” be so crippling we stop producing good work. Because negative feedback and rejection can be incredibly discouraging, but it is an inevitability. There are a million scripts and screenwriters in this industry, and people who have power are always looking for reasons to say no, because it takes so much time and money and effort to make movies and television. But that’s what makes the yeses all the sweeter. If you love the work, at least give yourself a fair shot at doing it for real. Don’t let a handful of rejections deter you from really giving it the ‘ol college try or producing your best work.
If you could go back 5-10 years and give yourself one craft or career tip, what would it be?
Be patient and study hard. Know that what you want to achieve will take many years, but in the meantime, write as much as possible and read as many scripts as you can get your hands on.
Now that you have the agent and the manager– what’s next?
I have high hopes for the script that got me signed. My agents are enthusiastic about the possibility of it getting made, so right now we are trying to attach producers and talent and go from there. And of course, more writing! I’ve got a handful of ideas brewing that I can’t wait to dive into.
And for grins:
Favorite movie you’ve ever seen: The best movie I’ve ever seen?! Now that’s a loaded question. I’m not sure I can give you an answer, but the best movie I’ve seen in the last five years is Whiplash. Hands down.
Best script you’ve ever read: Anything by Taylor Sheridan. I’m a big fan. Hell or High Water, if I had to choose just one.
Favorite book: Slaughterhouse Five. Ugh, that’s such a pretentious answer. But I’m gonna stick with it — Slaughterhouse Five.
Best music to listen to while writing: The Social Network soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Motivating but not distracting.