Tuesday, May 25, 2010

An Interview with Brett Nicholson, writer of stuff

Today's interview is with Brett Nicholson. Much like earlier interviewee Ronson Page, Brett is a Texan Nicholl finalist, this time in 2007 with a script called Queen of the Sky. So this is two different guys with similar backgrounds and different experiences. Here's what Brett had to say about his experience.

Where did you get the idea for Queen of the Sky?

I've always been an airplane nut. As a kid I'd always ask for coffee table books on aviation and aviation history. One day while poking around online I saw a reference to the "Nacht Hexen" -- Night Witches -- a group of Soviet women flyers who flew old unarmed biplanes over German troops by night to shriek into loudspeakers and terrorize the sleeping Nazis. That's a cool enough story, but as I was looking into more details, I caught a ref to a female interceptor pilot named Lilya Litvyak who was described as the highest scoring female ace in history. The more I started trying to find info on this cool tale, the more three points became clear:

1-- nobody had ever done ANY sort of Lilya story, in book or movie or even documentary form, and her story was just jaw-droppingly cool

2-- the story was insanely cinematic and "Hollywood-esque" just in its natural state, so it read like a movie as soon as I just plotted out her biographical timeline

3-- the damned story was haunting me. I just couldn't stop thinking of what the story would look like if made into a movie

I'm not usually big into epic dramas -- I tend more towards action/comedy -- but this one would not let me go, so finally I said "I have to try this if only just to get it off my back."

When did you realize it was a great script?

The story itself was so incredible that once I had the info collected and could "see" the story, all I had to do was not screw it up too badly. When I finally cracked a workable way to tell the ending (there's a bit of POV sleight of hand I had to play to make it flow like a proper narrative) and then finally realized what the movie was ABOUT (it's a love story, but not just a simple man loves woman" kind of love, but more about "discovering and accepting that one thing your life is incomplete without-- the thing that you'd risk all to have"), I said to myself "this is good. Really good."

When I finally had it all done and polished, I set it aside for a few weeks and then came back and realized it still had a huge emotional impact when I read it. That's when I started to believe "OK, so this might be REALLY good."

One of the cool parts of that entire experience was trying a form and tone that I'd NOT normally thought of as "in my wheelhouse" and finding that yes, I CAN do that. And also realizing that it's OK to look at yourself in the mirror and say "you're good at this. You kicked some ass with today's output." Too often I think we fall into the trap of becoming SO self-critical that we deny ourselves even the possibility of doing great work or recognizing it when we do. Give yourself permission to dazzle, but stay objective and frosty enough to know how rare and wonderful those moments are.

As a male writer, what do you feel were your greatest challenges in doing justice to a female hero?

This one always amuses me, as I get variations of this a lot from female writer acquaintances-- "did you find it hard to write for a female protagonist?" or "Is it different writing from a female POV?"

Actually, no. I think I EXPECTED it to feel different, but in truth I recall no difference at all. Writing for Lilya, I simply ignored the gender issue entirely and treated her like any "normal" character. What's even goofier is that pretty much ALL of my scripts have a strong female characters, and I've never really thought about what it means to write "for" a female character. Love is love, fear is fear, hope is hope, regret is regret. In a stupid way, I have a theory that it's kinda like teaching a kid to try switch-hitting in baseball. "The thing you need to think about... is to not think about it. Just tell your brain that this is how it ALWAYS feels."

What happened after you were declared a Nicholl finalist?

First let me [talk about] what happened BEFORE I was a finalist. I entered QUEEN OF THE SKY in 2005 Nicholl competition and was promptly dinked in the first round. No problem -- it's a tough competition. I then entered it again in 2006 basically unchanged, and again got dinked in the first. I started to think maybe it was just not what the Nicholl folks were looking for. I'd intended to have some different material ready for 2007, but when the deadline rolled around I was not ready to send in the new stuff, so at the last second -- I mean with an hour left before the local post office closed -- I made a new entry form and mailed in a file copy of the same script. And THAT entry made it to the Finals and won me a trip to LA to hang out with the talented kids -- a twist I still laugh about.

AFTER that weird call from [head Nicholl honcho] Greg Beal (I thought he was playing a cruel joke-- I actually cussed at him for pulling such a low stunt), I had to sit on my hands and not tell anyone for a week, and then when news did hit, I was at the Austin Film Fest when the press release hit VARIETY and HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, so suddenly my cellphone and email lit up. I had something like 80 industry calls and emails come in during the first 36 hours. Lots of cool requests and praise from people who, just a few weeks before, were always unwilling to take my calls or acknowledge my emails (not bitter-- I totally understand how swamped they are).

Of course, all this happened in the final two weeks before the big WGA Strike of 2007, so my trip to LA was a tad surreal in the sense that yes I was a Nicholl Finalist, but there was a strike on, so nobody could meet with me or take my calls. It was like Charlie winning a Wonka Golden Ticket and arriving to find the factory chained and shuttered due to a cocoa embargo. "Hey, buy a ticket again next year, kid-- maybe your luck will hold!"

I managed to get an agent out of the deal -- I will remain loyal to them if only because they took me on when it seems like NOBODY else was getting new representation -- but in some ways the Nicholl Final thing was good for showing just how much work STILL is required. There's no such thing as "done"-- you never write the one script that makes it all easy, or get the rep that makes it all magically happen, or get the access that suddenly makes it all a painless process. The business is tough and insane and damned near impossible, and only the crazy talented and crazy determined stand any chance at all. I like to think I have the chops, so I guess now we'll see if I really have the desire.

Did you join any picket lines during the strike?

I was going to -- I knew a bunch of folks walking at Paramount, and I was set to go walk for a few hours right around dawn one morning but decided (around 3:30 AM the night before... as I stumbled back to my hotel from the Cat and Fiddle...) that the Cause could probably survive just fine without me, and that I owed it to The Wife (who was arriving that afternoon) to look and feel as rested and recovered as possible for the last few days of the week as she joined me for some social stuff.

I did get a strike shirt out of the deal, and I accidentally wore it to the local Cinemark the week after and didn't realize why the ticket attendant and manager were both eyeballing me intently as I bought my popcorn and headed to my seat. Later that night when I saw my reflection in the mirror I laughed out loud, as they likely though I was a one man picket line, there to spread the leftist message back here in Tom Delay Country.

You coach little league. Have you written a little league script?

Not yet, though everyone keeps asking me. I have some ideas that I like, and I'll probably turn to that this summer since it seems one of those projects people seem to ask about. If/when I do, I'll make every effort to make it not what people expect from a LL movie. Show me the normal way to do something, and I'll then set myself to doing it some totally different way. I'm cantankerous and spiteful in the extreme, but I also have my negative qualities.

What are you up to now?

I've got a wild college comedy ("ANIMAL HOUSE in the 80s") that I keep managing to not really wrap up, a rather wild Viking action-adventure concept that I am in love with and trying to get moving towards completion, and rather oddball Christmas comedy that I need to go back and start to polish and tighten. There are a few producers who are talking to me about some ideas, and we're trying to find a project we're all equally excited to work on, so maybe I'll actually get my pro shingle hung before the end of this year. Maybe.

What do you wish you’d done differently?

Right after college -- around 1989 -- I cam very close to just heading to LA and trying the waters then. I opted to stay in TX and start a family and try to get some contract writing gigs (which work fine 'til I became Mr Mom for a decade...), but in that time I spent tending kids, I sorta lost all thought of trying to be a screenwriter. I wish I'd not lost that hunger and focus -- I wish I'd not sleepwalked through a good 8 or 9 potentially useful years. I've always been a good writer -- I started writing professionally back in junior high -- but screenwriting is such an oddly specific and singular form that it usually requires some years of fumbling about before suddenly things start to make sense and you begin to understand the technical requirements of the form. I wish I'd gotten up to speed sooner, so that I could now have more years in which to potentially make cool stories which might maybe possibly find life on a screen somewhere.

What's so great about Texas?

Chris Vogel -- who is NOT from Texas -- once remarked at a conference that "Texas is a lot like Ireland and Russia and some other places in that it has a strong tradition of storytellers and story telling." The ability to spin a good yarn is till much valued here to a large degree, so the notion of telling lies for fun and profit doesn't seem all that totally bizarre. I was happily surprised to discover that there's a lot of Texans doing just fine out in that there movie bidness.

Also, being brought up in Texas tends to ingrain in you an appreciation for people who went their own way or who took a risk. Texas was for most of its history a rough and slightly wild place to try and make a life, and that absolutely affected the state's persona and character: many times history is writ by one man refusing to follow everyone else's lead. In the Great Melting Pot, Texans still tend to appreciate their unique history and heritage.

Plus it's just fun to annoy the hell out of all you non-Texans. ;-)

The LOST finale: rage-inducing waste of time or tear-jerkingly awesome?

No idea, no opinion -- I never saw more than 10 seconds of the show, and that was from the first season. I have limited free time, so I tend to not spend it watching series TV, preferring instead to do kid activities (baseball, scouts, cubs, etc) or watch old movies or write. Similarly, I never saw a single moment of the Sopranos, or Deadwood, or 24, or ....

If you have any questions for Brett, leave those suckers in the comments.


  1. Two years of not making it past the first round, then finalist in the third!!! Well done sir, that's a hilarious story. Sad, but hilarious.

  2. You would adore Deadwood, and it's not that big of an investment in time, comparatively speaking. You really should make an effort to see it.

  3. Brett, what if your agents ask you to move to L.A.? What if they think that's the next step?

  4. Peter--
    I think the two years of first round dinkage were a huge help in keeping the ego in check. I knew it was a good script even when it wasn't performing well in 05 and 06, and by the time it finally met a friendly first round judge, I was mature enough (gag) as an aspiring screenwriter to have a far far better appreciation and perspective on what the honor did mean (and DIDN'T mean...).

    I remain tremendously proud of that Finalist thing, and unbelievably thankful for all the Nicholl folks did to help give my would-be career a huge boost, but I am also humble enough to know that luck is a huge part of that honor, and lots of really great and deserving writers will never get to experience that rush.


  5. Joan--
    I love David Milch -- he is a totally mad genius -- and I know at some point I'll have reason and opportunity to grab the DVDs and re-discover the series, but for now it's kinda like Paris: someplace I know lots of people like having gone, and some place I'll likely get to at some point, but not some place that's super high on my immediate list of must-see destinations.


  6. Harry--
    If they make that suggestion, I guess I'll have a long talk with them to understand why that's being suggested, and then maybe I have a long talk with the Wife to see if we concur.

    But for now I'm not seeing that as imminent or even likely, as one of the reasons I most liked this rep (Brant Rose Agency) was their support of helping work things so that the re-lo was not a requirement. I'm perfectly fine to traveling as needed for whatever is needed, so that's not an issue, and with multiple daily nonstops from HOU to LAX I can fly there and back in one day if need be.

    For now the goal is "get a toe in the game." Once that is accomplished, we'll then take serious stock of which toe it is, which game, and how much more foot is needed and where.


  7. Thanks for your answer. Also, Deadwood was kinda boring.

  8. Them's fightin words, Harry.

  9. Interesting interview, I think that this it's a great production, thanks for share it.


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