This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 308: Writer/Director Lisa Van Dam-Bates On Marla (Body Horror Movie).
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #308 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing writer- director Lisa van Dam-Bates. She just did a cool horror film called Marla Mae. She doesn’t live in Los Angeles and made this movie without a ton of experience. She’s just someone who’s ambitious and went out there and made something happen for herself. We dig into all of that, how this film came to life and ultimately how she got it together, so stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook.
These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast, so they’re very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mentioned in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast and then just look for Episode Number #308. If you want my free guide-How To Sell a Screenplay in Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free, you just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons.
I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide. I’ll teach you how to write a professional logline and query letter and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really, it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. Quick few words about what I’m working on. We’re in pre-production on my new horror mystery thriller film. As I record this podcast episode, we’re in pre-production, but as you listen to it we’re actually in production since I’m recording this a few weeks ahead of time. We’re shooting the first three weeks of December. We’ve assembled a great team.
We have Tuesday Knight from Nightmare On Elm Street in our lead, she’s been fantastic. And we’re casting a lot of other folks in some of the other roles that have a great horror pedigree as well, so the cast is really coming together nicely. It’s a lot of odds and ends to put together, obviously get all this stuff figured out. And as I said, we got less than 10 days now before we’re actually shooting, so gotta figure out all the locations. I got most of that in order but just crewing up, getting shots, getting the shot list together, locations, just all the logistics that go into film production. There’s a lot of stuff so I’m just running around like crazy trying to get it all figured out.
I do have some help with two other producing partners so it’s definitely not all me, but it’s definitely a lot of work even for three of us. That’s the main thing I’m working on this weekend and probably for the foreseeable future. So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing writer director Lisa van Dam-Bates. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Lisa to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Lisa: Thanks for having me.
Ashley: 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?
Ashley: I grew up in Olympia, Washington and moved around a little bit. I lived in Austin, Texas for about seven years and that’s where I first kind of started doing creative things. I’ve been bartending since I was 21, working in restaurants since I was 15 really. And when I started living in Austin, Texas I cofounded a newspaper with Brandon Roberts, who is actually the executive producer of Marla Mae. That was kind of like our first big project and it was just a monthly kind of like alternative of investigative newspaper with little columns and whatnot. So…
Ashley: How did you get into that? Did you have a background in journalism?
Lisa: I did not. No. I’ve always been like kind of a reader and editor, so I just kinda jumped in into that and helped out, did a little bit of… I have an art background so I did a lot of like the ad design and designed some covers here and there and things like that. And that was just kind of like our project for the paper ran for almost two years. Then the whole time people were telling us, “Print is dead.” And I said, “No, it’s not!” But it is. Print is dead [laughter]. There’s absolutely no point in starting a print publication especially if it’s not mostly an online publication. So, we lost that battle and I worked on just a handful of film sets in a variety of capacities, mostly food service. I did a lot of craft services and that type of thing. I was an extra one time.
So I really had very little to no film experience, but a guy that worked with us on the paper who was just somebody we met, a local Austin person, his roommate had a really great camera and they would do film stuff together so I kind of started to get this idea for a script and I was thinking of filming it there with those people. That’s kind of what led me to…
Ashley: I see. So yeah, let’s take a step back. On IMDb you have a number of special effects, makeup and stuff, credits. How did you get into that and do you think that was helping you to prepare to become a writer director?
Lisa: No, I actually never did any of that until after Marla Mae was filmed. So part of one thing when we ran the newspaper was that Brandon, our executive producer and I both did a lot of jobs in making that publication happen. He was able to find a couple of jobs that he was really passionate about and he was excited about and good at. I was hoping to kind of have the same approach in making a movie where by doing a little bit of everything I would find something that I was really into and making blood is my thing. So…
Ashley: What is your goal with all of this film making? Do you wanna be an actor, a writer, director, a makeup artist? What is your ultimate goal?
Lisa: I do enjoy kind of doing a lot of different things. When I’m working on other people’s projects, I really like doing the special effects makeup. I like doing set design and wardrobe sometimes too. But for myself ultimately, I probably am just gonna be a writer, director and do blood.
Ashley: I got you. Let’s dig into your recent film, Marla Mae, or I guess just now it’s called Marla. To start out, maybe you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is that film… what is the premise of that film?
Lisa: Marla is about a woman who is a waitress and she gets an opportunity to get a free IUD from a family friend that kills everyone she has sex with.
Ashley: Okay. Where did this premise come from? What was the genesis of this story?
Lisa: I had never written a piece of fiction. I had written like a couple of columns and some research articles for our paper, but I just decided like, “Okay, I’m gonna write a screenplay and we’ll see how that goes.” So I was just fishing around for ideas, stewing on things for a while. And I had just this really uncomfortable, horrible appointment at Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood in Texas is like a whole other… it’s like a compound with barbed wire fences and really high gates because people there…
Ashley: Are trying to [inaudible 00:07:51] yeah.
Lisa: Yeah. So it was like my first time… I’m coming to Planned Parenthood in Olympia and I think a couple of protesters with signs is like a big deal. But going to Planned Parenthood there was a little bit traumatic and then once I was inside it was just a whole… just a really uncomfortable experience. And I was like, “Oh, this would be a good thing to put in a movie.” And it kind of snowballed from there.
Ashley: Okay. And I’m curious too just in terms of the genre, I mean, when I first heard the premise… you have a really high concept premise, so I applaud you on that. It’s a really great premise for a horror movie. It felt very reminiscent of those old school horror movies, like Rosemary’s Baby where it’s just really creepy and there’s a lot of sinister, below the surface. Were you aware of that, were you thinking of that, are you a fan of these films? Maybe just talk us through that process, a little bit of deciding on this idea and what influenced you.
Lisa: Yeah. I am a fan of Rosemary’s Baby, so thanks for mentioning that one. I’m not a fan of a lot of… a lot of people draw comparisons with certain movies that I’d rather not ever see again and not be compared to. I think one thing that was important to me is just showing people what it’s like to be a woman dealing with these issues and I think that there is something really inherently scary about being a woman and dealing with reproductive rights in general, but especially right now. So it feels extra relevant.
Ashley: Yeah. Perfect. Let’s talk about your writing process. Just a couple of quick questions. Where do you typically write? Do you have a home office, do you go out to a Starbucks and you need that sort of ambience of people around you?
Lisa: I’m actually super… I cannot concentrate in a coffee shop. I really wish I could because I’m a little bit OCD when I’m working from home. l can’t sit down and get anything done. Like if I have a load of laundry to do or if there’s anything to do in the home, I’m like, “Gotta do that first.” When I wrote Marla Mae I just had a really comfortable good chair, I had just started fostering this little blind chihuahua whose name was Marla Mae. Actually, that was the… that’s who the movie is named after. So I just had kind of thought through the idea a little bit and decided it was time to sit down and start writing. I actually wrote the whole script in this open source software called Emacs. It’s a little bit… the format was a little bit off, but…
Ashley: It was free [laughs].
Lisa: Well, of course. Hung out in my chair with my little writing snuggle buddy, and I didn’t… That was my first time writing anything of that nature so I didn’t have an outline or any… I didn’t really have a process, I was just writing and deleting and adding more. The first version of the script was 400 pages. I didn’t know that that was insanely long. So I had a couple people read it, they were like, “Yeah, this is all over the place, this is way too much.” I got some really good feedback from some film people and from random friends who are writers. Then I just kinda went back to work reediting and retelling, refiguring things out. And the final script was like 120 pages and only has one scene from that first script. So things changed a lot.
Ashley: Yeah, sure. When do you typically write? Are you someone who writes in the morning, early in the morning, late at night? What is your writing schedule when you get in the groove?
Lisa: I am not a morning person at all. Nothing in the morning, please. I’ve gone through periods where I tried to be really good about sitting down and just writing something every single day, and that will typically be really late at night. I’ll set aside like an hour for writing a day. Lately I’ve been less… I’ve been working a lot on other people’s projects and I’ve been kind of all over the place. So I have a lot of various writing projects that are unfinished right now and I have not been super dedicated to seeing them through.
Ashley: I got you. So I wonder if you can give people a little advice on that approach to writing, where you have a 400-page first draft on your next scripts. Have you gone back and spent more time with an outline and tried to come up with a draft, or is that your process that you feel like it basically worked for you so that’s just going to continue to be your process?
Lisa: I really fought against that process for a while because it’s so wasteful and silly and I just… I had written a lot of outlines in detail and not wanted to jump into the actual writing until I had a more formulated idea. That hasn’t seemed to really work for me when I’m writing solo. I’m co-writing a feature right now and that’s working really awesome for co-writing. I think we need to be on the same page and really have that structure. But when I’m just writing by myself, I think that in the writing, I’m kind of figuring things out. I think everybody does it differently and I have not really fine-tuned my perfect method yet.
Ashley: Yeah. How long did it take you to write that 400-page script?
Lisa: That took about… it was exactly one year between the time I sat down and wrote the first page and the first day of production.
Ashley: Oh, okay. So pretty quick actually. A 400-page draft and then cutting it down, and basically you did a page one rewrite on the 120-page script.
Ashley: Yeah. And how many versions were in between that 120-page version and the 400-page version?
Lisa: I would say probably like… I did a couple versions where I was trying to just edit that first big monster, and then at some point I realized that I just kinda had to rewrite it and then after that rewrite I probably had like 10 versions. So there’s a lot…Yeah, things moved around a lot.
Ashley: Yeah. Let’s talk about the development process. When you had this 400-page script, you gave it to this producer that you just mentioned, Brandon, I assume. Who else did you give it to and who else gave you notes on it?
Lisa: I was working with… I had a friend of a friend who was… we were looking to possibly be the DP, and she kind of skimmed it, she didn’t really give me notes. I had a couple writing friends from… that we had hired for our newspaper in various capacities and I had them read it and they didn’t really… they weren’t necessarily film people, they didn’t really have constructive… I think also a lot of people are hesitant to give you actual criticism because most people just wanna hear that their thing that they made as good. So I got a lot of compliments but I know it was not good. So there’s that. One person that was so helpful was… I just went to kind of like a meet and greet film night in Austin and randomly met some older guy who had just finished a short film and he was like, “I just wanna give back to the community and help people out.”
He read the whole thing, thank you, and wrote a two or three page analysis on what the issues were and what I should really concentrate on. And that was super… it wasn’t something I wanted to hear at the time, but as I showed more and more people in film, I kept getting the same notes back. And that really helped me realize that that was something that needed to be addressed.
Ashley: Yeah. For sure. So how did you approach screenplay structure with this? Had you read any of the books, Blake Snyder, Sid Field? Did you understand even the three-act structure, the turning points? Did you have any of that stuff in mind? So it was just free form, you were just writing intuitively.
Lisa: I was just writing in this program that doesn’t even… I’ve been a movie fan for a long time and I realize now that I was not watching movies the same way that I do now back then. So I didn’t have… I didn’t know what a shot list was, I didn’t know… didn’t understand anything about cameras or any… like literally nothing. I knew nothing, and I just decided to do it anyway.
Ashley: Yeah. I applaud you for that. And what about genre requirements? Did you study some other similar films and try and get some of the basic beats down just in terms of pacing and tone and stuff?
Lisa: No, I really was trying to do… I had something very specific in mind that I was trying to do and I didn’t see a huge correlation to anything that was existing. I really was trying to do something a little bit different. So I think in that sense it was probably more helpful not to be over knowledgeable about what’s out there because I think it can be really easy to kind of put yourself in a box. And that first script definitely could not be fit in any box, but… I’ve always been a horror fan and I wasn’t really interested in making a non-horror movie. So that was kind of the only set thing.
Ashley: I got you. Okay. So once the script was done you boiled it down to this 120-page script. What were those next steps for you and Brandon to actually get this thing produced? Did you do around a financing, did you go out to friends and family, did you finance it yourself? Maybe you can give us a little insight in that. I know this interview is gonna be inspiring to other people. I know there’s a lot of screenwriters out there, they have their script and they’re looking like what is that next step to actually going from screenplay to getting it into production?
Lisa: We self-financed, not very much money. I think you can spend a lot less money than people think you can. I got really lucky in that I moved back to Olympia to film because we had tried setting things up in Austin, that was the original goal was to film in Austin, Texas and it just was not happening. There’s too much… there’s a lot of commercial stuff there, a lot of LA productions that come through. It was just like anytime we had somebody lined up to do a position they would get hired out from under us. It was just a couple of months of that and I decided like, “You know what, we have all these…” I grew up in Olympia, I know people I can ask for favors for locations and stuff, so it’s just easier to do it here.
And we were moving, we were planning on moving away from Austin anyway. So came to Olympia, decided to just sell finance. I found a couple of really amazing people on Craigslist and… which is like crazy lucky. Most of what you find on Craigslist is complete trash. A couple of those people kind of put me in touch on local Facebook film groups and that’s where I was able to hire out the rest of our positions and stuff. Then I just did a lot of… like Brandon and I have very opposite skillsets and we were able to cover a lot of… you know, Brandon and I did pre-production all by ourselves and we were able to do 20 jobs each on set as well.
Ashley: Yeah. And so what does that look like casting in Olympia, Washington? Is there a good acting community that you were able to tap into? Did you feel like you’ve got some strong actors? That always feels like the big trade off, exactly what you just mentioned. Outside of LA you can get locations, that sort of stuff is generally a lot cheaper than LA. The downside is the crew and the cast as you don’t get as experienced people in crew and cast.
Lisa: Our crew was super amazing. It’s people that I still work with all the time and they… I was the one who didn’t know anything and they were all pretty seasoned professionals who we’re… most of whom are like really good friends still, so I got really lucky there. With casting I just pulled a bunch of favors. I had the guy who plays Marla’s boyfriend in the movie is one of my good friends from middle school that I happened to run into when we were in preproduction and he’s done a little bit of acting and he was actually my boyfriend for like two weeks in sixth grade. So I was like, “Hey, you wanna be my boyfriend again on camera?” And he was like, “Sure.” And then the guy…
Ashley: Did he have some acting experience?
Lisa: He had done a couple short films and he lives in LA, but he has family up here so he can come up here pretty easily. So that was just a lucky one. And then one of my best friends that I’ve known since like fourth grade agreed to play the rapist, the stalker rapist. So just little favors like that where I’m like, “Okay, you’re not an actor but I need your help.” And I got really lucky that my friends we’re awesome. They killed it. And then the people that I did hire that were strangers to me… Again, I did a lot of Craigslist open auditions and posted in a lot of local Seattle… a lot of Seattle Talent. So just like local Seattle actors groups as well.
Ashley: Okay. So then once you got the film produced, what were your next step to finding a distributor? Did you guys go and do the film festival route, did you just cold submit to a distributor? Maybe walk us through that process a little bit.
Lisa: So we did apply to a lot of film festivals and I see the value in that. I see that it’s great networking and it does get a little bit of hype surrounding your movie, but it’s not what it was made out to be. A long time ago I think that you could go to a film festival and find a distributor there. I did get a couple kind of like little distribution offers, a couple of film fests, but nothing substantial or solid. And film festivals are expensive, especially for a self-funded movie. Like I’m a bartender and I paid for all of post-production with tip money over the course of a couple of years. So it’s like I just didn’t have the resources to pour into prioritizing film festivals and flying all over the country to meet people and do that.
I worked on somebody else’s film and met a producer who has like helped sell movies in the past. After working with him, I just reached out to him and I was like, “Hey, I’d love for… anywhere from you selling the movie for me or just kinda showing me the ropes and helping me figure it out.” And we double-teamed it and ultimately he is the one who found the distribution deal that we went with.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. Who is your distributor?
Lisa: High Octane Pictures.
Ashley: Okay. Perfect. So what’s next for you? You talk about you’ve been working on some other projects. What other stuff do you have cooking up?
Lisa: I have a couple little scripts floating around that are not anywhere near anything. And I’m really excited about… I’m co-writing and I’m gonna co-direct a horror feature that is kinda coming together. We’re about to start fundraising for that, so starting to get excited about that.
Ashley: Yeah, perfect. And I always like to just end the interview by just asking the guest if they’ve seen anything that was maybe a little below the radar that you think screenwriters really should watch. Anything, Hulu, Netflix, anything recently you’ve seen that you really loved?
Lisa: Oh God, this is like… I don’t know why but I am so terrible at picking information out of my brain on the top of my head. Like ridiculous. I’ll go to trivia and it’ll be like, the answer is Olympia, Washington, and I know all of the, like all of the clues, and I’m like, “I don’t know. Can’t think of it.” So I’ll have to think on that. I can message you if I come up with anything but…
Ashley: Yeah, no worries at all. How can people see Marla Mae, do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like, when it’s gonna be released and where it’s gonna be shown?
Lisa: I know that we’re doing kind of like a pre… you can preorder it on Amazon Prime. That will be out November 5th, that’s the official release date. And beyond that, I’m not entirely sure. I know that that’s gonna be after we do that kind of like official release that it will be available on more VOD platforms.
Ashley: Okay. Perfect. What’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing I’ll round up for the show notes.
Lisa: I really, really am terrible at social media. I am the worst. I’ve been… it’s like I have had an Instagram for 10 years and I have like four posts and I just…
Ashley: Yeah, you and me both. I’m right there with you.
Lisa: [inaudible 00:24:39] And it’s crazy… I’ll do all these cool effects on other people’s movies and they’re like, “Where can I look at your Instagram to see this stuff and…”
Ashley: Yeah. That’d be a great place to put them. Yeah.
Lisa: I’m this horrible person who never takes pictures, I never have my phone out, I’m just… So you can follow me on Instagram @lisa.vandambates maybe it’ll give me some incentive to actually use it. I’m a kind of a recluse and I’m terrible at social media.
Ashley: No worries at all. So well, Lisa, I really appreciate you coming on and talking with me today. Good luck with this film Marla and good luck with all your future projects as well.
Lisa: Sweet. Thank you so much.
Ashley: Perfect. Thank you. We’ll talk to you later. Bye.
Lisa: Okay. Bye.
I just wanna talk quickly about SYS Select. It’s a service for screenwriters to help them sell their screenplays and get writing assignments. The first part of the service is the SYS Select screenplay database. Screenwriters upload their screenplays along with a logline, synopsis and other pertinent information like budget and genre, and then producers search for and hopefully find screenplays they wanna produce. Dozens of producers are in the system looking for screenplays right now. There have been a number of success stories come out of this service, you can find out about all the SYS Select successes by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/success. Also on SYS podcast Episode #222, I talk with Steve Deering who was the first official success story to come out of the SYS Select database.
When you join SYS Select you get access to the screenplay database along with all the other services that we’re providing to SYS Select members. These services include the newsletter, the monthly newsletter goes out to a list of over 400 producers who are actively seeking writers and screenplays. Each SYS Select member can pitch one screenplay in this monthly newsletter. We also provide screenwriting leads, we have partnered with one of the premiere paid screenwriting leads services, so I can syndicate their leads to SYS Select members. There are lots of great paid leads coming in each week from our partner, recently we’ve been getting five to 10 high quality paid leads per week. These leads run the gamut.
There’s producers looking for a specific type of spec script to producers looking to hire a screenwriter to write up one of their ideas or properties. They are looking for shorts, features, TV and web series, pilots all types of projects. If you sign up for SYS Select, you’ll get these leads emailed directly to you several times per week. Also, you get access to the SYS Select forum where we will help you with your logline and query letter and answer any screenwriting related questions that you might have. We also have a number of screenwriting classes that are recorded and available in the SYS Select forum. These are all the classes that I’ve done over the years, so you’ll have access to those whenever you want once you join.
The classes cover every part of writing your screenplay from concept to outlining, to the first act, second act, third act as well as other topics like writing short films and pitching your projects in person. Once again, if this sounds like something you’d like to learn more about, please go to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com. On the next episode of the podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing filmmaker John Suits who just did a sci-fi film called 3022 starring Omar Epps. We talk through this film and how it all came together for him. He also was on the podcast a few years ago, it was Episode Number #44 so I will link to that in the show notes. Definitely check that out.
Usually the first time I have somebody on the podcast, I sort of ask for their origin story, where they’re from, where they… how they got into the business and sort of their early parts of their career. I don’t necessarily wanna repeat that same thing so when I have someone on a second time, I usually just refer people back to that first episode. If you didn’t hear the Episode Number #44, definitely check that out before next week. It’ll just give you some sort of background on John and how he got into the business and worked his way up to writing and directing a lot of these feature films that he’s been doing over the last few years. So anyways, keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s the show, thank you for listening.