Interview with the 2020 Winner

The following is from an interview with 2020 Winner, the brilliant and talented, Ron Podell.

1. What's your background? How long have you been writing? And what made you choose and or transition into screenwriting?

I’m a journalist by trade, having worked as a reporter professionally for newspapers in Indiana, Florida and Maryland. I’ve also worked for national transportation newsletters in Washington, D.C., and have continued in public relations at Eastern Michigan University and, now, the University of Wyoming. So, I’ve always written for a living.

I have always loved movies. As a kid, I grew up watching Saturday “Creature Features,” and old John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart movies with my parents, who introduced me to old films. My first movie I ever saw in a theater was the re-release of “Sleeping Beauty.” I was hooked when the evil queen morphed into a dragon. Over the years, I have watched thousands of movies. Some are great, some not so great. But, I can always learn something from watching just about any film.

As far as transitioning to screenwriting, I remember watching a movie. It was around 2007. I sat there and could predict every plot point and bad line of dialogue. I said to myself, like I’m sure many others have, “I could write a better movie than that.” I just decided I would write scripts of stories I haven’t yet seen that I would like to – and hopefully audiences would like them, too. Every genre has been done. The key is to find a new twist or new way of telling something familiar that will entice an audience to take that journey and experience a little something new along the way.

“Pulp Science Fiction” is the first script I ever wrote. Basically, I wanted to write “Pulp Fiction” as a horror movie, using Tarantino’s tricks of characters overlapping into multiple storylines and writing the story time out of sequence. Maybe it was a little too ambitious for a first script. But, the first festival I ever entered, a little horror festival in Milwaukee, named it the screenplay winner and presented me with a $250 check. That certainly provided positive incentive to keep going.

2. What screenwriting training have you received? And what were some of your biggest breakthroughs?

I’m pretty much self-taught. The first screenplay I read was “Chinatown.” Early on, I bought some of the familiar “how-to” screenwriting books, like Syd Field’s “Screenplay,” Robert McKee’s “Story” and “Adventures in the Screen Trade” by William Goldman. The one I use when writing, especially to check some of the more rare rules of formatting, is Dave Trottier’s “The Screenwriting Bible.”

I did once attend a one-day screenwriting workshop in Tampa, Fla. While helpful, the conversation from the screenwriter later dissolved into Scientology, which made many in the room a bit uneasy.

I think just watching films helps you become a better screenwriter. I think I subconsciously take in the story beats and they become ingrained in your writing DNA.

As far as breakthroughs, winning Writer of the Year at the 2016 Action on Film International Film Festival in Monrovia, Calif. (at the time) was big. The honor allowed me to become a WGAW member through the Guild’s Independent Writer’s Caucus. I’m very proud to be a card-carrying member of the WGAW.

While I have had some of my scripts read by Eclectic Pictures (“Olympus Has Fallen”) and legendary producer Mike Medavoy, I have not yet made that screenplay sale that has started actually making a living at it.

3. What else have you written? What writing habits work for you? Do you write in short bursts or long shifts, in the morning or late at night, do you write at coffee shops, at home, or at the office when no one else is looking?

To date, I have written six feature screenplays and 15 short scripts. I have written drama, comedy, horror, science fiction, action, romance. Whatever I’m feeling at the time is what I write. I have had had three of my short scripts made into short films by directors I met at film festivals. Each of the shorts screened at a few film festivals.

The latest feature I wrote, called “The Cross-Over,” was with a fellow screenwriter named Lana Lekarinou. She approached me with the basic premise and I agreed to co-write it with her, which was the first time I ever wrote a screenplay with someone else. It took us a few weeks to find our working rhythm. Once we did, it was a nice give-and-take and a rewarding collaborative experience.

The premise of the story is a born-again hitman must conceal the murders he didn’t commit from the mob that ordered them. We recently obtained professional notes. Once we incorporate those, we plan to send the script to actor Daniel Baldwin, who has expressed interest in playing the lead character.

As for my writing habits, I sometimes go weeks without working on a script. But, I will always have a story gestating in my head. When I am ready to pour it out onto the page, I typically shoot for writing three pages a day. Three good pages. That can take an hour or two, depending. I usually write at 10 p.m. for a couple hours. I can’t really do it right after work, as my day job requires me to sit and write on a computer. I need a little break from the screen.

I typically do my screenwriting in my den at home. Sometimes, I mix it up by taking a yellow legal pad to a coffee shop or a park outdoors. It just depends. I remember I wrote one of the crazy, frenetic action scenes in “Blood Trigger” while simultaneously sitting in a bar listening to loud music. I think the chaos of that environment helped me channel writing a crazy action fight scene.

4. What's the title of the script you entered, and what's it about?

The title of the script I entered in the Faith in Film International Screenwriting Competition is called “Blood Trigger.” It’s about a female assassin who has to protect her unborn child and struggle to build a new life as she battles the company that won’t let her go. I see it as a female “John Wick” with faith-based elements.

Because of the script’s faith-based elements, I decided to enter the script into your contest. I’m glad I did, as you named it the grand prize winner of your competition. Thank you. This script, to date, has won 14 top awards at film festivals and contests, three second-place awards, three third-place awards and a couple honorable mentions.

5. Where do you look for inspiration and what inspired you to write this script?

I usually just write movies that I would like to see up on the big screen. Every story has been told. The trick is always trying to find a new spin to surprise audiences within a familiar story. Luckily, I’ve retained my vivid imagination since childhood, so I can make things up. As a journalist so many years, I’ve had the opportunity to interview and interact with people from all walks of life. You absorb a lot of human nature and mannerisms, which is all very useful when creating characters on the page.

As a journalist, I also read the newspaper every day. This provides potential for stories or ideas to use within my scripts. People in different professions talk In their own unique way. When you see someone quoted in the newspaper, you can pick up rhythms in dialogue that can be useful down the road.

6. Describe your process? Do you outline your story first? Do you use notecards or a beat sheet? Or, do you simply sit down and let it flow?

I just sit down and let it flow. If I know my first scene and last scene, I know I can get from A to Z and finish the script, which I have always done. It might not necessarily be as I first envisioned, as my characters often take the story in directions I did not initially imagine. When the writing is flowing, it is usually because the characters are writing themselves. But, before I sit down to write a script, I must emphasize the story has been gestating in my head for some time. So, I usually know my story when I finally sit down to write a new script.

7. What was your experience with our festival? Are you happy with your involvement? What did you like most about your experience? And what could we improve on?

I had a wonderful experience with your festival. Back in January, I ran across your screenwriting competition on Film Freeway. I had not entered “Blood Trigger” in a festival or contest in a while, but something was telling me I needed to enter your competition.

I’m glad I did, as you named my script your grand prize winner this year. What I have enjoyed about my experience is that the festival director took the time to call me on the phone directly and let me know “Blood Trigger” was a finalist and took a little time to get to know me.

Joseph, the festival director, has kept in very good contact since, in terms of letting me know when he has sent out my script to readers, managers and production companies affiliated with the competition.

As far as what you could improve upon, I have no complaints. Gaining access to professionals who can potentially help advance my career is the kind of prize that screenwriters desire.

8. What are you writing now and what do you plan on writing in the near future?

Currently, I’m digesting reader notes I have received for “Blood Trigger” through your competition and notes I purchased from a professional reader for my latest feature (with my co-writer Lana Lekarnau) “The Cross-Over.” So, rewrites are up next. I do have a script in my head that I have been thinking about. But, I typically don’t talk about a script until it is written.

9. Any advice for those about to dive into their first feature-length screenplay?

Have patience. A script does not happen overnight. While Sylvester Stallone may have written the first draft of “Rocky” in three days, most of us are not going to be able to do that. I always like to say “Three pages a day for 30 days. You’ve got 90 pages.” In some cases, that may be a feature script. But, feature scripts are typically 90-120 pages. So, it could take a little longer to complete. A little writing each day leads to a whole script. Stick with it.

I remember listening to a screenwriting seminar hosted by John Cleese, who was nominated for Best Original Screenplay in 1989 for “A Fish Called Wanda.” He talked about how it was not an easy road to finish that script. He said he would sometimes “get stuck” in his writing. But, he said he always “got unstuck” because he kept at it. One day, he faced a dilemma on how a scene should proceed. He just couldn’t figure it out. A few days later, it came to him how to write that scene and move the story forward. I’ve had that happen myself. I ask myself “How is this going to work?” A few days later, the answer is as clear as a bell.

Again, have patience. As a writer, you also have to be able to spend long hours by yourself in front of the computer screen. Listening to music while I write helps.

10. Last, but not least, what have been your biggest victories since entering our festival? Any more awards, any representation, any options, connections, new opportunities, and or plans to move to New York or LA?

The biggest victories have come from professional contacts made through your competition. Todd Murata, vp for development and production with MarVista Entertainment, provided me with a one-hour consultation with notes on my script. He was very thorough, and there was a nice give-and-take. He stressed that this was only his opinion, and to use what notes I thought work. I received a “First 15” consult through Roadmap Writers with Justine Wentzell who, I understand, was a former MarVista development executive. She offered a few good notes upon reading the first 15 pages of my script. She wanted me to add something, even a clue, to show a little more back-story about the main character.

And, perhaps, most promising, was a “First 15” consult with manager Andrew Kersey of Kersey Management. He was very complimentary of my writing and said I definitely had my own voice. He said the main character was memorable. From reading the first 15 pages, he asked questions that led him to learn more about what was coming up in the script. He said I definitely was thinking in terms of marketing and audience with my script.

As a result, he said he wanted to read the rest of the script, which was extremely kind of him. I threw out the logline on my latest script “The Cross-Over,” and he was intrigued enough to request I send him that screenplay, too. So, here’s hoping something good to advance my screenwriting career is coming around the corner. Having a manager would certainly open some doors in the industry for me. We’ll see what transpires. I’m hoping I will receive a call back from him soon.

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