This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 332: With Filmmaker Martha Stephens .
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #332 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing director Martha Stephens, who just did a period piece drama called To The Stars. We talk through her career and how she was able to get this film produced. So stay tuned for that interview. The SYS Six-Figure screenplay contest is open for submissions. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. The regular deadline ends June 30th and then the contest closes with the late deadline on July 31st. So just two more months to get your screenplays entered.
The idea for the contest was simple, find the best low budget scripts and present them to the industry. I’m defining low budget as less than $1,000,000, in other words, six figures or less. Every submission will get read by at least three professional readers and I’ve lined up about 40 industry judges to read the scripts that move out of the first round. We’re giving away thousands in cash and prizes to the winners. Once again, if this sounds like something you would like to learn more about or perhaps enter, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving me 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 mention 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 #332. 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. A quick announcement. A couple of years ago, I set up a Facebook group for SYS Select, but I’ve never really done much with this group. I don’t use Facebook very much personally, so I’m not sure I’m really the best person to run a group like this. I was thinking maybe there’s a screenwriter out there who listens to this podcast who might wanna help out running this Facebook group.
This wouldn’t be a paid position, but I’d be happy to give out a free membership to SYS Select. I would say it probably would be like an hour a week. Basically what I’m thinking is just, we need someone to kind of engage people on Facebook, post interesting articles that would be interesting to screenwriters, and just generally answer screenwriting questions, that sort of stuff, just kinda try build a community around that Facebook page. If you have any interest in potentially running this and helping me with this, just drop me an email email@example.com. And if you have experience with social media, social media marketing, you kind of understand this hopefully better than I do because as I said, I’m not really that into Facebook.
Let me know that in your email too. Again, just send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. So now let’s get into the main segment today. I am interviewing director Martha Stephens. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Martha to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Martha: Thank you for having me.
Ashley: So 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?
Martha: Yeah, well, I grew up in Appalachian, Kentucky, which is the furthest thing from I would say the entertainment industry. I grew up going to the little three screen movie theater in my town and sort of living vicariously through film. At a certain point, I think in high school, I decided I wanted to go to film school and I ended up going to the North Carolina School of The Arts, School of Filmmaking. From there I… after graduating film school, I had no idea how to even get started or where to go. I felt a little intimidated to go to New York or to Los Angeles. So I ended up waiting tables and writing little tiny, personal scripts that I could make for no money. I made two movies, one for $7,000, two features and one for $25,000.
Luckily both of those played at South by Southwest. I think I was fortunate to come in at a time where festivals were really engaging with like no budget, low budget filmmaking. From there I graduated little by little to bigger movies. So my last two movies played at Sundance.
Ashley: Yeah. Nice. And just a quick, just to dig into that a little bit, what was that process like getting into South by Southwest? Did you hire a producer’s rep, was it just a cold submission, did you know someone there? I’m just always curious to hear, you know, there’s always sort of this attitude that you need to know someone and so often I find it is just a cold submission but sometimes the right producer’s rep can help too.
Martha: I didn’t know what I was doing at all because film school, we studied directors and studied the process of making movies and I really understood like how sets function and everybody’s role and all of that. But submitting to film festivals was not something that we even talked about because the school was kind of run like a little studio… weirdly enough. I turned to my friend Erin Katz, so I ended up making this movie [inaudible 00:06:10]. He had had a movie at South by Southwest. So I just kind of picked his brain about like, how to go about the submission process. And he… I do think he maybe sent an email to Janet Pearson the head over there that just said, “Look out for my friend’s movie.”
So I did have a little bit of an in in that regard, but hopefully that’s not the reason that they selected the movie.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. What were some of the tips that Jason gave you, just for making the submission?
Martha: Oh, he just kind of walked me through like, just the… you get on without a box and you do this and you do that and you send in a personal email along with it. So I did those things. It’s been like a decade so I don’t exactly remember, but, and I’m sure it’s even changed since then like the way… this was at a time where you were mailing physical screeners in the mail instead of submitting like digital screeners and stuff.
Ashley: Yeah, I remember those days as well. So what were your expectations, you know, South by Southwest, especially for a $7,000 film. I mean, that’s a really good festival. What were your expectations going to a big festival like that? And were those expectations met or were there some things that kinda surprised you about this experience?
Martha: I think that I was just so excited and like, you know, like a kid at Disneyland going that I had no expectations. I didn’t go in there expecting to sell a movie. I didn’t… all I knew was I was gonna be screening my film to audiences and that was enough for me. So that was great. I ended up winning like an award and it was great. And the same with like my first experience at Sundance. I was just so pleased to just even get to be there and in the company with so many filmmakers, like I admired that I just went in with zero expectations and luckily we sold the movie and stuff, but that’s not even where my brain was at the time. It’s a little different now.
Ashley: Yeah. That’s great. Thank you for sharing that story. So let’s dig into your latest film To The Stars. Maybe to start out, you can just give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is this film all about?
Martha: Yeah, it’s a very classical coming of age story set in the early ‘60s in Oklahoma about this teenage social outcast that enter days attempting to be invisible. And then she befriends this new girl that comes to town and the new girl sort of helps her see herself for what she really is, which is like a beautiful human being. So it’s very much a female empowerment friendship sort of in the vein of, I feel like studio films from the ‘80s and ‘90s like fried green tomatoes, that kind of story.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. So how did you get involved with this project? How early in the writing process did you get involved? Did you get a completed script, did you get pitched the idea and then help in the development of the script? Maybe talk a little bit about that, just kinda how this script came across your desk and ultimately how you got involved with it?
Martha: Yeah. So my producer, she… an agent sent her the script and she decided she wanted to option it and she thought I would be good for it. So she sent me the script, it’s by this great lady, Shannon Cleary. I read it and I felt instantly like an instant attraction just because I might have a mild obsession with like mid-century Americana, and just the idea of getting to do a period piece was, I was stoked. And it just, it was beautifully written and the characters, you wanted to spend time with them and they were three dimensional and yes, like there are certain archetypes here, but it’s like, it works. It’s like a formula that works time and time again. And so I just, I wanted to do it.
So I had a conversation with the writer, Shannon and kind of pitched her my vision for it. She liked I guess, what I’m selling and wanted me to come on to direct. So it was my first time directing someone else’s screenplay.
Ashley: I got you. So now in a situation like this, is it fairly typical that scripts are coming to your producer, your producer is giving you stuff? The reason I’m asking is because I get people emailing me all the time, they’re saying, “Well, how can I get in touch with this director or that director?” And I’m always just curious to hear from the horse’s mouth. What is an appropriate way for writers to network and meet directors, and how do those… what’s that flow look like for you? How do those scripts ultimately end up on your desk?
Martha: I mean, I have agents and managers that will send me a script if someone submits it to me, but also, I mean, if someone can track me down personally… Like I’m at a place where I’m totally happy with like cold submissions or if they speak to one of my producers or whatever. Most of the things that I’m attached to right now are either, they came from me or they came from my producers. I’m actually not attached to anything that my agent or manager brought to me a moment. So yeah, I think like if you’re Martin Scorsese maybe you don’t want cold submissions or people tracking your information, but I’m fine with it.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. So as this process… you had a conversation with the writer, you got to know her a little bit, I’m curious what the development process looked like. Were there some things of that original draft that maybe you thought didn’t work and maybe needed to be tweaked? And maybe talk about that sort of development process. How do you… you’re coming in kinda late to the game where there’s already a fairly polished screenplay. How did you approach the writer and what did that look like in terms of doing any kinda rewrites or tweaks to the script?
Martha: I really felt like my entry point into the story was what I was going to be able to bring to working with the actors and performances and like the visual language of the film. So the tweaks are pretty minor. The only thing I asked Shannon was if she wouldn’t mind dialing back some of the melodrama, because it’s a pretty, you know, it feels like a ‘60s melodrama, like a Douglas Sirk film in a lot of ways. And I just thought as much as I like that sort of thing, sometimes modern audiences prickle at it a little bit. So it’s just, there was like a few scenes that we just, yeah, it was a little, added a little more restraint to them. But beyond that, it’s pretty much the same story.
Then there was maybe one character that I wanted to develop further. Like the mother character just seemed like on the page she felt a little bit too much like a villain. I wanted to give her some grace and make all the characters you feel empathy. So yeah, but I really enjoyed the process.
Ashley: What advice would you have for writers on taking notes from a director? Just some general guidelines. Maybe there can be something… I know as a writer myself it’s always been difficult, getting those notes, you’re precious with your script, and sometimes those can be hurtful and emotional. What advice would you have for writers who are potentially gonna get notes from a director?
Martha: Yeah, it’s so hard to say just because it really depends on everyone’s personality. I think that I’m really into collaboration and I don’t think that I’m the kind of person that would come in like guns blazing and telling you what’s wrong with your script. I like it to be a conversation back and forth and just really listen. So yeah, I… Shannon and I are very close now. I actually stay with her when I go to LA. So like, we kind of had a dream situation and that we really just got each other and enjoyed collaborating. But yeah, I don’t know how to answer that. Like because I know that like right now I’m rereading Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and I’m just like Jesus Christ. Just like how awful sometimes people were to each other.
I guess my advice is try to work with people that you think you’ll like working with because you’re gonna be engaging with them for possible years on a project. So be cautious of who you work with.
Ashley: Right. Exactly. Yeah. Good advice. I’m curious, as this process is going along you said your producer brought the script to you. Did you have any business discussions, sort of practical marketing discussions about this film with your producer? And I’m just curious to kinda get what your producer was kinda giving you and how big of a… how long of a leash he was giving you to be creative. I mean, when I get people coming to me asking for advice, a period piece drama is about the last thing you would sort of recommend to someone just from a marketing sales perspective. So I’m curious. It’s interesting to me that your producer is the one that actually championed this project and kinda put it together and brought it to you. What sort of business discussions did you guys have as you’re going through this process?
Martha: Yeah, I mean, it started out, she had a script, there were no cast attachments or anything, and I think what our angle was getting some really young, fresh, interesting actors and making a teen movie, like an endearing teen movie that girls would wanna watch at slumber parties. We were also trying to kinda hit on the nostalgia factor. Like right now everyone’s obsessed with the Spielberg ’80s. I tried to push the idea that well, women in their 30s right now, we’re thinking about how we missed early’90s, like Now and Then, and My Girl. That was my angle. It’s like how to approach finding the financing for this. Hopefully, a lot of people will watch it this next week when it shows up on demand and we will get that teenage female audience that I was hoping to attract.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. How long did it take, from the time you first read that script, how long did it take before you guys were actually in production?
Martha: Let me think. I read the script in twenty… a year maybe. Maybe a year. Yeah.
Ashley: Yeah, I got you. Perfect. So what advice would you have for people looking, especially screenwriters since that’s kinda the focus of this podcast? What advice would you have for screenwriters just who are looking to break in? It sounds like your route was sort of starting out with a low budget indie film. Do you recommend that route? Is there some other routes now that you’ve advanced in your career, looking back, are there some other routes that you could potentially recommend to an aspiring writer-director?
Martha: I mean, I guess my advice would be, I think all too often, people are trying to write to appeal to what they think people want. That doesn’t seem like that’s a great way to spend your time, I guess. I would write what you want to write and what appeals to you instead of the trying to like appease whatever is the zeitgeist, or whatever you think is going to sell. Because I think that when you’re reading a script that’s being… that’s produced strictly for that reason, you feel it like on some subconscious level. It doesn’t feel like love or personal. So that would be my advice and maybe that’s like terrible advice. Maybe you should just write like a copycat version of whatever was the biggest movie of the year. I don’t know, but I…
Ashley: Yeah. No, no. I think without the passion, you don’t really have much. I mean, we’re… it’s a creative business, so without that passion, what do you really have?
Martha: Right. For sure. For sure.
Ashley: So just to wrap up the interview I always like to ask the guest if there’s anything they’ve seen recently, especially as we’re all trapped at home. Is there anything under the radar you’ve seen in the last year that you think would be interesting to an aspiring writer or director?
Martha: Well, I love watching… I like revisiting older films and this past week I watched Hard Times by Walter Hill for the first time with Charles Bronson. And it’s just such a lovely human story, but also with action and I loved it. I thought it was such a tight little perfect little movie. So I would recommend finding that and watching it.
Ashley: Okay. Well, perfect. That’s a very good recommendation. How can people see To The Stars? Do you know what the release date is gonna be?
Martha: Yes. It comes out April 24th and you can find it on all live streaming or whatever platforms like Amazon, Fandango, iTunes, et cetera.
Ashley: Perfect. Perfect. And what’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Anything you’re comfortable sharing, Twitter, Facebook, a blog I’ll round all that stuff up for the show notes.
Martha: I don’t really do social media too much, but I do have an Instagram page. You just look up my name and you’ll find like once a month I’ll maybe post a picture of like a beautiful landscape from a hiking trip. That’s as active as I get.
Ashley: Yeah. Perfect. Well, Martha, I really appreciate you coming on and talking with me today. Good luck with this film and I look forward to hearing from you again with your next film.
Martha: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Ashley: Thank you. We’ll talk to you later. Bye.
Ashley: 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 actor and writer-director Clark Duke. He’s had a good run recently in comedies like Hot Tub Time Machine and Hot Tub Time Machine II. Now he is behind the camera with his first feature film. It’s a film called Arkansas, which he co-wrote and directed. We talk through his career, breaking in, how he got into the industry and ultimately how he got this project produced. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.