This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 259: Writer/Director Meredith Danluck Talks About Her Sundance Lab Experiences With Her Latest Feature, State Like Sleep.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode 259 of the selling your screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screen writer and blogger over at www.sellingyourccreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing writer- director Meredith Danluck. She started off with the visual arts, moved into making documentary films and is now writing and directing narrative features. Her most recent project State Like Sleep was developed in the Sundance Lab and is now finished and out for distribution. We talk through her process, how she was able to move from documentaries to fictional feature films. We also talk specifically about this project in the Sundance Lab. So very informative interview, so stay tuned for that interview in just a second.
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So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer-director Meredith Danluck. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Meredith to The Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Meredith: Thanks Ashley, happy to be here.
Ashley: So to start out, maybe you could just give us a quick overview of your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Meredith: I grew up in Miami, Florida and I actually was first interested in visual arts and pursued a career in the art world and through that started working on videos and multi-media installations and then slowly kind of crept more into the video space, music videos and then documentaries. And then in 2012 I did a multi-screen installation that was a four screen feature film called North of South, West of East that I screened at Sundance with Ben Foster and Stella Schnabel and all these great actors. It was really then that I really dedicated everything to pursuing more traditional narrative formats and started working on my screenplay [inaudible 00:03:14].
Ashley: Yeah, perfect. I wonder if you can just quickly give us…like I noticed you had done a budget documentaries when I was preparing for the interview. And I’m always curious, how do you think doing documentaries prepares you for fictional storytelling?
Meredith: Oh my God, I mean, that was my film school, you know. I worked a lot with vice and so I was working on many, many short form documentaries and then a couple of a few feature documentaries. And I also was producing, directing, editing and I think through sitting through hours of interviews and [inaudible 00:03:58] footage and really watching people so candidly, I really developed an understanding of dialogue and character through these real people and the study of these real people. I honestly think that I wouldn’t have been able to make a movie with the confidence that I have or had without that kind of level of preparation that I had for years working in the documentary space.
Ashley: Yeah, perfect. So let’s dig into your latest film State Like Sleep. Maybe to start out you can give us a quick logline or a pitch for the film. What is this film all about?
Meredith: It’s about a widow of a Belgian film actor who returns to Belgium to clean up their loft and kind of go through their stuff and pack up the line that they had together one year later, still very much in the throws of grief and starts looking into his cellphone and kind of going down this rabbit hole unravelling this secret life that he had and build a case for not suicide which is how everyone assumed he died but something a little more notorious. And so it’s using the kind of architecture of a murder mystery to explore a kind of deeper subject matter of grief and relationships.
Ashley: Where did this idea come from?
Meredith: A friend of mine had committed suicide a while back and it really rattled me and a lot of people within our friend group. I think all of us wound up having feelings of guilt and complicity and through that process I noticed everyone kind of building a case of “Well, what if? Okay, who was he with and where was he?” It was almost like we all became detectives of some sort as a way to explain the death as if through explaining it, it would undo it and somehow remove us from any kind of fault. It was a way of dealing with grief that I found to be really compelling. And then I read I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking where she chronicles her experience of the year after her husband’s passing.
She said it was in the first few weeks there was that same kind of almost like [inaudible 00:07:01] that enabled her to have those feelings of, “If I can just explain this I can reverse it,” which is of course not true but it’s something that I think everyone has. I felt like it really lent itself to the cinematic space and thus kind of using the [inaudible 00:07:31] of noir or mystery and all of the red herrings and the double crossing and the misdirection that is utilized in those kinds of films, using them to service this very deep psychological state.
Ashley: And I’m curious because I was going on to my next question, is why go sort of the noir- thriller route as opposed to maybe the drama route? What was sort of impacting your decision there? Was there business decisions in terms of getting the film financed, dramas are harder than thrillers? Maybe just walk us through that process.
Meredith: You know, it really was it just wound up being the tone and the motor of the script as I was writing it. I kept being drawn to that mentality of what happened, you know? What happened to this person, where was he in the few days before. So really like this concept of exploring griefs, exploring the loss due to these circumstances of suicide and the drugs, it lent itself to this genre of unravelling a mystery, and so it just became tonally the thing that really fit.
Ashley: So let’s talk about the Sundance Lab a little bit. This script was developed in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, is that correct?
Meredith: That is correct, yes.
Ashley: So let’s talk about that. I know there’s a lot of people that aspire to get into the Sundance Lab. Maybe you can talk about that process. How do you submit your film and then maybe just walk us through the process once you’re accepted.
Meredith: Oh my God, submitting to Sundance was like submitting to college all over again [laughs]. Well, there’s a couple different ways. Some people get recommended, so if you know someone who’s been in the lab or if you know a director or an actor or whatever. I didn’t really…like I said I had been coming from the art world and I didn’t have those kinds of connections, you know, those Hollywood filmmaking indie connections. So I just submitted and I…you submit I think the first 10 pages of you screenplay and a cover letter and then you go through another stage where you submit your full screenplay and then you do an interview. I mean, this is very…I think there’s like three or four stages and then you get shortlisted.
And then I was accepted and it completely changed my approach to the crafting of the script completely. Just the kind of dogged discipline, being around other writers, the advisors there are incredibly successful, talented screenwriters and just seeing them sharing their processes, it was really eye opening. And then of course you know, it really helped get the script seen in the world.
Ashley: So how long does the lab…do you actually go up to Utah, Park City, you hang out there for a week or a month? What is the actual logistics of it?
Meredith: Yeah. So the screenwriting lab is actually only five days but it’s really intense and it feels like it’s a month long. But yeah, the screenwriting lab is five days. You don’t actually do any writing there but you have these intense one on one conversations with the different advisors and it’s a few hours conversations and then you have like kind of workshops. We got to workshop with [inaudible 00:11:37] who’s an incredible screenwriter. And then you can apply. Once you’ve gone through the writer’s lab you can apply to the director’s lab where that is a five week program where you are in Utah and you’re able to shoot I think four scenes from the script with actors and you kind of get it up on its feet and workshop it and talk about it and now have different directors and actors coming in as your advisors.
What they do there is an incredibly like collaborative, nurturing environment that is…honestly it’s so supportive and I think it’s an incredible creative environment for sure…life changing.
Ashley: Yeah, perfect. So let’s just talk about your writing process in general. How long do you spend doing your outline verses how long do you spend actually in final draft writing dialogue and character descriptions and scene descriptions?
Meredith: That’s such a great question. I spend a pretty good amount of time getting my outline before I actually like start writing in final draft. I don’t know, you know, it changes. I have another script that I finished a draft of last week and I was joking like, okay well, once you type the word “The End” you’re still really far from the end because it just is that the process is a continual revision. But yeah, for me it’s really important to have a very clear understanding of the story from start to finish and before I sit down to actually write a scene. And then once you get the draft down then there’s something that happens where it becomes much more fluid. The very first draft, the words on paper draft is like once you read through that it’s now telling you kind of what it needs and the characters are coming alive and the revision process starts.
It’s always like there’s something about the second draft that I think is really hard because you’ve worked so hard to get that first draft and then you read through it and you’re like, “Yeah, okay.” I see it, I love it and the characters, the plot, whatever it is you know that it’s there but it’s not what it should be and so there’s something kind of depressing about having to go back into it but that’s just the way it goes, right [laughs]?
Ashley: How can people see State Like Sleep, do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Meredith: I do. It’s available VOD on January 1st and in theaters on January 4th.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. And 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 and put in the show notes.
Meredith: I have Instagram. That’s my only social media [laughs].
Ashley: Okay, perfect. I’ll round that up and as I said put that in the show notes. Well Meredith, I really appreciate your coming and talking with me today. Good luck with this film and all your future films.
Meredith: Thanks so much, good questions.
Ashley: Hey, no problem. Thank you very much, will talk to you later.
Meredith: Thank you, bye 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 log line, synopsis and other pertinent information like budget and genre and then producers search for and hopefully find screenplays that they wanna produce. Dozens of producers are in the system looking for screenplays right now. I launched this service at the beginning of this year and we’ve already started to see some success stories. You can check out SYS Podcast Episode #222 with Steve Deering. He was the first official success story to come out of the SYS Select database. You can learn about all of this by going to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com.
When you join SYS Select you get access to the screenplay database that I just mentioned along with all the other services that we’re providing to SYS Select members. Those services include the monthly newsletter that goes out to our list of 400 producers who are actively seeking writers and screenplays. Each SYS Select member can pitch one screenplay in this monthly newsletter. We also have partnered with one of the premier paid screenwriting leads sites 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 ten high quality paid leads per week. These leads run the game, there’s producers looking for specific types of spec script to producers looking to hire a screenwriter to write up one of their ideas or properties.
They’re are looking for shots, they’re looking for features, TVs and web series pilots, all types of different projects. If you sign up for SYS Select you’ll get these leads emailed directly to you several times per week. Also you can get access to the SYS Select forum where we will help you with your log line and query letter and answer any screen writing related questions that you might have. Also in the forum are all the recorded screenwriting classes that I’ve done over the years, so you’ll have access to all of those as well. The classes cover every part of the writing process 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 would like to learn more about please go to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com.
A quick shout out to the folks who were selected for this year’s The Budget List. The Budget List is the annual list that I put together here at SYS Select which highlights some of the best low budget screenplays that have come through the SYS system and elsewhere. This is the second annual list and at least from last year’s reception it seems like there’s a lot of producers interested in looking at something like this. There’s a lot of producers looking for low budget material so I thought this would be a great way to highlight some of the best scripts that I have interacted with over the course of the last year. So without further ado just a big congratulations to Phyllis [inaudible 00:18:20] Martin Ballet, Lesley and Benjamin Enos. Those are the writers that have been selected for this year’s the Budget List.
Again, a big congratulations to those folks. I will link to the Budget List on the show notes, so if you wanna learn more about it, well, check out some of the loglines for these scripts. Just go to the show notes and click on that link. On the next episode of the podcast I’m going to be interviewing Laura Eason who started off as a playwright and eventually moved into television writing, writing for House Of Cards and now she’s doing feature films. She just wrote a film called Here and Now starring Sarah Jessica Parker. We talk through her entire career as a playwright, how she was able to use that to get herself into television writing and then ultimately feature film writing. So keep an eye out for that episode. That’s it for 2018 for the SYS Select podcast. Thank you for listening and good luck to everybody in the New Year.