Ashley: Welcome to Episode #305 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing Wendy McColm who is a real do-it-yourself filmmaker who’s done dozens of short films and now has her first feature film out, the indie drama Birds Without Feathers. She built a decent following on YouTube with her shorts, so we talk about that a bit, and then also dig into her feature and how she was able to get that off the ground. Stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode valuable please help me out by giving me review in iTunes or leaving a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook.
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So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer, director and producer Wendy McColm. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Wendy to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today. To start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background, where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Wendy: I grew up in Long Beach, California, so not too far from Hollywood or LA. I made a lot of videos when I was a kid, VHS videos, a ton of them. I did a ton of plays and I did everything I could and then I moved to LA when I was 18. I pursued a career in acting and that worked out really, really well. It turned out for the better and I think… but on the path to that, I found out I had to make my own things to be in things at least before it took off. I think in that time I met my first DP and I found out that there were DPs in the world… big films and I was like, “How are they doing that with the camera?”
So it was like a curiosity that kind of sparked and from there I just decided to try a whole bunch of different ways of moving the camera and what I like to style and then from there it just really started a short film frenzy. I’ve made over 50 short films, and then kinda brought us to here today where my feature is now online and ready to be seen.
Ashley: Yeah. Let’s talk about that first because I’m a big proponent of doing short films as well. And maybe you can just speak to that, what did these short films do for your career? How did they help you advance, just get to that next stage?
Wendy: I feel like I was just making them in the moment, I wasn’t trying to progress anything while doing it. Maybe that’s crazy but I really just wanted to make things and I wanted to make movies and [inaudible 00:03:41] like was just dying to express myself. And I think it just progressed anything I did because, one I was constantly working every tool I had, I was gaining tools as well and trying all kinds of different styles instead of… like if I made a feature like years ago, I don’t know how the hell that would have turned out, I don’t know if I’d be proud of it. But that’s just a different way to work the tools as well, it just depends where you wanna work them.
I was working them in places where it costs you zero to $100 to maybe make a whole short film versus a whole feature film, which now I know how much it costs. Which is at first intimidating to make another one but now I’m like, “Oh, okay. The experience is gonna be different, I don’t need to be afraid again.”
Ashley: I got you. I noticed too, you have a pretty good following on your YouTube channel. Maybe you can just speak to that a little bit. How did you build your YouTube channel? Was it just a function of doing all these all these short films and posting them and gradually building?
Wendy: Yeah, I think it’s just when you have a passion and you… I had no fear at the time of making any of those videos. I didn’t even know what YouTube was, so there was no fear or want or need. It was just kinda like I just wanna make videos, I just wanna learn how to direct, I just wanna learn how to… the ultimate goal was how to be an actor, or how to be an actor or how to e an actor until I realized like, “Oh, I’ve been a director.” And then I was like, “Oh, I couldn’t see myself.” But it just build. I think people like consistency, I think even people like consistency in real relationships but apparently the internet is taking place of real relationships so if you are consistent, I think people don’t know why they like it but I think they build a relationship with your or something.
That’s what I’ve gained because when I moved [inaudible 00:05:42] they were kinda like pissed at me for being gone and it’s kinda like I’m sad because I would like the audience you know… but at the same time it’s like, ‘Well, people have to grow, people have to move forward and I’m making feature films now and that takes a lot more time.”
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. Speaking of feature films, that’s a good segue. Let’s dig into your latest film Birds Without Feathers. Maybe to start out you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is that film all about?
Wendy: Well, it’s about six broken people who gave everything away in order to receive love. And it’s a dark comedy.
Ashley: I got you.
Wendy: I would also say it’s like if you ever wondered what you were doing wrong in the world like everything keeps going wrong over and over and over again, then you just put like a little tiny band aid over a giant wound and you are like, ”Yeah, I’ve fixed it.” [inaudible 00:06:40] dammit, that’s not how you fix that.” I think that’s kinda like shows insides of that kinda life which I think is the life before you wake up and find who you truly are.
Ashley: Where did this idea come from? What was the genesis of this story?
Wendy: Well, it was from… I mean, for lack of a softer approach, it was because I lost my soul, I think. I lost my soul… People would call that maybe ego death or, I’m not quite sure, but it felt like I lost my soul, that’s also why I stopped making short films. There was like a bit of abuse and gas lighting in my life I accidentally let in. I didn’t know the difference, I didn’t know better, and It kinda consumed me and put me into a place of fear. And like I said, I didn’t have fear before and [inaudible 00:07:39]. I think to get out of it and try to find myself again I needed to make a feature film, I needed to express myself like I always had, but in a grander sense and try to break free of it.
And I felt like if I have gone through this, there has to be at least one other person in the world who feels this way. And apparently, it’s a very relatable film. That’s what I get to hear when people watch it and I’m so happy to hear that. I’m happy to hear that that can help people not feel alone.
Ashley: Yeah. What was your goal with this film? It sounds like your shorts… the goal was just kinda to get better and to just express yourself creatively. Was that the goal? It sounds like maybe there’s a little bit more to this where you kinda feel like you’re breaking the shackles of maybe some of your, you know, the past or whatever. But what was your goal with this? And you can talk about artistically, financially, career-wise. What were you setting out to do with a feature like this?
Wendy: Well, I wanted to see if I could do it. I think that’s like the most, especially when I didn’t think I could do anything anymore. I wanted to see if I could do it. I feel like people could have a lot of justifications why they do things but I mean, you really could just do something because you want to and hopefully that will give you a plentiful life. I did need to break the shackles; I did think that was the best way to do it. It was part of my healing, it was part of what showed me where I was, because during the editing process it really did shine a light on like, “Wow, that was your reality, that is what that really was.” It gives you like a perspective, it’s almost like a recorded perspective of yourself [inaudible 00:09:29].
And like I said, the goal is… I think I felt so alone, I felt so [inaudible 00:09:38]. I knew it was almost like seeking validation in a way. I didn’t know if other people feel this way because no one’s talking about it. And it’s not a drama. Some people who are comforted in their own realities, they might think it’s a tragedy because it’s very uncomfortable for comfortable people. But if you’re uncomfortable or have any sort of sadness, you might laugh at this and think is very funny until you don’t anymore, then you are like, “Oh shit, that’s me.”
Ashley: Yeah. Okay, so let’s talk about the writing of the screenplay. On IMDb it’s credited as created by Lenae Day and yourself. Maybe you can talk about what that actually means, and then you have the writing credit. What does that actually mean, a created by credit versus the writing credit?
Wendy: Well, I don’t really speak about this one because I think when you don’t do contracts before you start a film, there’s always… I think everyone when you… it’s important to do contracts. You gotta do that. Otherwise, there’s always one or two bad apples in a group that will come out and think there’s money. There’s always someone who thinks there’s money. I don’t know, why would they do that? I don’t know like, where do they think there’s money? I’m paying for it.
Ashley: They’ve never made an indie art film, yeah [laughs].
Wendy: I mean, or maybe anything. I don’t know but it’s always hilarious when there’s like one or two people that come out like it’s like something possessed them and they’re like, “This is what’s important.” You’re like, “No, please. Don’t go to the other side. It’s not like that here [laughs].” Honestly the whole cast created this film. I work with my actors heavily, I like to meet with my actors [inaudible 00:11:34] any words in here that you wouldn’t say?” And sometimes they would say, “I don’t say that’s very good, I say that’s fantastic,” and I’m like, “Oh, wow! I love that.” So I’ll change it to that’s fantastic or whatever. And I think that’s normal. I’ve shadowed many directors, Spike Jonze, Janicza Bravo, they work heavily with their actors too.
Spike Jonze says he likes to argue with everyone on his crew including the set designer, like just whoever has the best idea. And so I’ve been inspired by that my whole filmmaking career. I just forgot to do contracts. But I would say everyone created the film and I tried to push that forward but it wasn’t very well received, I think, by a person or two. So, that’s what that means.
Ashley: Okay, yeah. No, and that’s a perfectly good explanation. And I’m just curious about, just in terms of the logistics of this, what does it actually look like? Did you guys have like an outline, the basic story outline and then you go to your actors and have them fill in the dialogue, or do you go to them with a rough script, an 80-page rough script and then you read through the scene, and you can kind of tweak the dialogue from there? How much do you actually have written on the page when you started working with these actors?
Wendy: Well, this is weird. This one is a particular thing I’ve never done before. I worked with all [inaudible 00:13:03] actors except for Lenae, she was just someone I found in a coffee shop. She just happened to dress up like 40 different characters in real life, which is obviously beautiful, amazing [inaudible 00:13:14]. I think everyone else is [inaudible 00:13:20] so I’ve been watching them speak their truth for months, and secretly was writing for them without them knowing, just hoping that they would do the project. And then [inaudible 00:13:35] feature but I just really, desperately wanted to a feature.
I would write five to 10 pages a day with the outline in my head. I would go to the actors with the script or email them that night. Sometimes we wouldn’t be able to meet but sometimes if the DP Nate Cornett, who did a fantastic job, he was only available if he wasn’t working. So this was shot over eight months. Basically, any time he wasn’t working, I had more time to write and if I had more time to write, I had more time to meet with the actors. But I would write the scenes and scripts and then basically ask them if they had any qualms with it, if it felt wrong or right, if words could be changed. And sometimes I wouldn’t be able to meet with them about it. Then one other thing I would do is if there was a little hole in a story, like for example I [inaudible 00:14:33] he plays the cowboy in the film.
We had extra time, there’s a little extra hole in the film and I was like… well, maybe it wasn’t a hole but it was like, “Who do you wanna be in love with? Who would you wanna be in love with if you had to be in love with like a movie star?” So he told me Jeff Goldblum so then I wrote the part for him that he was in love with Jeff Goldblum. That’s kind of how I work with the actors a little bit.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. Okay, so once you had a script you’d work with the actors, what were those next steps form taking that script and moving it in production? And really, it’s about raising the money. How did you go about raising the money and kick starting this thing so that it actually was getting shot over these eight months?
Wendy: Well, I paid for the film myself. Luckily, a commercial I had acted in aired but the production cost was very low. It was all the actors worked for [inaudible 00:15:34] you have a first feature and people wanna help you and I was so lucky to have that help. And there was no pre-production really. It was like I wanted to start doing the film and then I think that week we just started.
Ashley: All the…
Ashley: I’m sorry, go ahead.
Wendy: No, go ahead.
Ashley: All the actors and the crew, are these people that you met doing all these 50 short films, doing commercials, whatever else you were doing, people that you kinda had a relationship with, or were there some people that you just brought on and this was your first project with them?
Wendy: No, there was… I mean, I had worked with Nate on many short films before, you can look at those too but… so we have a rapport. We didn’t have to do much pre-production because I also light, I gaff. So I know if you put the light there it’s gonna look expensive. That’s what doing all the short films really helped with. It’s like he doesn’t really want to do pre-production because he’s [inaudible 00:16:35] I know where all the lights go, he knows that he can trust me to do that, because we’ve worked that way for years. So it just happened to be a perfect timing. And I did pay the DP a little bit a day and the sound a little bit a day, but I cooked all the meals, I did all the moving of the sets, make them look good.
I learned how to do all that from short films, so it’s like how do you make this look expensive? Oh, you clear the room. You make it look as blank as possible or you put one light in there. It’s just years of experimenting and then you’re able to pop, I guess. But I don’t think, I’m not gonna do that for this next one I’m working on. I have three months of pre-production for this next one.
Ashley: I got you. What did your crew actually look like? It sounds like you had a sound guy, a DP and then yourself and that was the crew. You had no production designer, no craft services. Sounds like you did the cooking.
Wendy: Yeah, I did the cooking. Cooper, who plays the self-help guy in the film, one of my best friends, he basically just was the runner. So it was me, Cooper, the sound guy and the DP. And then if I needed anything or like we needed to run to get some snacks or something, Cooper luckily could drive at the time, which he can’t anymore because he doesn’t have a car. But it’s like it just happened to be perfect timing, he’ll never be able to do that job again. And like I said, I don’t think I’ll ever do a film like that again but it was a good way to get the first one done and now we basically upped the stakes now. Now we’ll have to raise more money now and it just kind of, you know, try to beat your own goals and do it differently or better.
I mean, there’s people like Joe Swanberg who told me it took them 15 films for them to start making [inaudible 00:18:37] so many. Probably for no money at all or less money than this. And he didn’t see a penny until after he made 15 feature films. So you can go that route. It gives me confidence to just keep going.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. That’s a great lesson. Let’s talk about film festivals for a second. Maybe you can just talk about your film festival run. How did you target festivals, what festivals did you submit to and ultimately what festivals did you guys play at?
Wendy: Off the top of my head, I can’t say the whole list but it was a pretty good run. We just picked like my top favorite film festivals in hopes, like of course Sundance and South by Southwest and Slamdance. Those are the top three I think, at least in my book. And then of course you have the spring ones which is like in New York and [inaudible 00:19:38] just three to five at first and just hoping for the best. And we got an email from Sundance which I’m told that was really good and the person said it was great but they only… they kind of like turn into a star festival basically now. Then we got the call from Slamdance and yeah, that’s like one of the top five festivals to be in and it’s perfect for that.
It’s such a wild, weird film and they really celebrated us in it and because of all the write-ups and everything that came out of that festival, we never had to submit again. People just called me up or emailed me. And I just said yes to everyone. And it was a great ride. I mean, if anything the [inaudible 00:20:40] after the film came out online. Yeah, people are watching it, I hear from people once in a while how great it is. But that journey on the film festival circuit just living presently in the moment with everyone and watching everyone’s film and really celebrating film, really a special time. And we went to Munich, we went to [inaudible 00:21:04], God, we went to… yeah, we went all over the world, Texas, Montana, [inaudible 00:21:14]. Those are ones I can just think of on the top of my head. Those were all… it was just fabulous.
Ashley: Yeah. And do you have any tips for submitting, did you do anything special with Slamdance? You always hear getting the producers wrap and these kinds of things, did you do any of that stuff or it was just a cold submission?
Wendy: You know, that’s where it’s kinda nuts. I don’t know any of that stuff doing it. I just was like…
Ashley: …submitted it.
Wendy: Submitted it on the last day too. Final… I’m kinda nuts you know, so it worked out.
Ashley: Yeah, no, perfect. I mean, your passion that’s where you’re riding on. It’s just your passion for film, and I think that shows through. How can people see Birds Without Feathers? Do you know what the release schedule is, you know where it’s available?
Wendy: It’s released. It’s ready. Go see it. We already did its theatrical run which that’s also a godsend. We got picked up by Synergetic, they’re a great company. And yeah, you can see it, you can rent it, or you can buy it online and…
Ashley: Okay, iTunes, Amazon, all of that stuff.
Wendy: I think iTunes, they had some trouble getting that up so I think Vimeo is the best way to do that and you can see the link in Birds Without Feathers Instagram bio. You can see the link in my bio on Instagram @wendymccolm [inaudible 00:22:39] and Cole classic, I hear, is what people say.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. Wendy congratulations on this film. I will round up all those links and put those in the show notes. Thanks again for coming on this show and I wish you luck with this film and of course luck on your next film. I look forward to hearing about that.
Wendy: Thank you so much.
Ashley: Thank you. Will talk to you later.
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On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing screenwriter Jamie Graff. He’s got a number of produced screenplays as well as a few projects in development. He’s another great example of a real hustler. Like myself, all of the success he’s had has been without an agent and manager. It’s just him out there hustling and doing the work. And in the interview, we really dig into his various sales and deals and he’s very candid in how these deals actually came about and how these scripts got sold and how these movies got produced, so stay tuned for that episode next week.
To wrap things up I just wanna touch on a few things from today’s interview with Wendy. I love bringing people on the podcast who have a very different approach to filmmaking than myself. If you listen to this podcast often, you’ll note I’m very pragmatic and deliberate. But it seems like Wendy is much more about being creative and just doing work that she’s passionate about. There’s really no one way or right way to go about this. To me it’s more about figuring out who you are and then adapting your approach to your personality, to your talent and your skill set. But the big take away for me is just how hard she works. She’s done 50 short films over the last half decade or so and now she’s doing features.
No matter what approach you take, you’ve got to do the work. You’ve gotta be willing to go out there and just make things happen and do the work. And she’s doing the work, she’s not making excuses, she’s just out there making her films. I hope it inspires a few people out there listening to this right now, especially if you’re one of the people listening to this podcast who maybe is not as pragmatic and deliberate as myself. Maybe you don’t necessarily relate to my approach, and that’s totally fine, but hopefully somebody like Wendy can kinda come on and give you a little insight into her approach and maybe that’s a better fit for who are and what will work for you. Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.