Interview: Joanne Sarazen—From Playwright to Screenwriter

Interview: Joanne Sarazen—From Playwright to Screenwriter

In 2017, Joanne Sarazen made a creative change.

After over a decade as a playwright, theater artist, and actor in Montreal and Toronto, she transitioned to films. Sarazen gained entry to the Canadian Film Centre’s writer’s lab, where she wrote her first feature film Tammy’s Always Dying, which premiered at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival.

Soon after she started working on Backspot—a drama about two cheerleaders as they navigate the world of competitive cheerleading. Its produced and stars Reservations Dogs’ Devery Jacobs and Evan Rachel Wood. Ahead of its release, Sarazen told me—and Pipeline Artists—about getting her start in the industry, collaborating with director D.W. Waterson, and what she hopes audiences take away from Backspot.

I’d love to know about where you were born and raised.

I'm from Ottawa, Ontario. When I was 18, I moved to Montreal for about a decade to go to university. I was a playwright and an actor. I did experimental theater in warehouses. I moved to Toronto and did more experimental theater in warehouses and waited tables for a decade.

Then I transitioned into films in about 2017. I attended a program called the Canadian Film Center with my first feature. Which was very, very lucky.  That feature was shot in 2018 and premiered in 2019. From there, I started working on Backspot, after, I would say, 15 years of waiting tables.

How did you become interested in screenwriting?

In Ottawa, I really started out performance-based and acting. By virtue, when I moved in the early 2000s, acting roles for women weren't fantastic. There wasn't a ton of diversity. I sort of began writing, not for myself, but my core social circle, which was quite diverse. All because the auditions we were getting were so bad. So I started writing.

I did some writing in high school. I put on some of my own plays. I really enjoyed theater. I admired plays and playwrights. That was a really interesting way to become a multi-disciplinary artist within the theater. I learned how to direct and write, because you don't always get the role. You've got to be able to do other things.

As I developed as a writer, I liked it better. I got to be alone, I got to eat bread, which are two of my favorite things to do.

When I first moved to Toronto, I was still a struggling playwright. I was part of a writers group with a bunch of my contemporaries. We would just bring 10 pages a day of something. As I was developing this thing, I thought, I think this might be a movie. This isn't a play. I had a friend who attended the Canadian Film Center (CFC). She suggested that I apply. I just sort of took my shot. Luckily, I was accepted.

When I got there, I realized really quickly that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Everybody else did. But it was a wealth of resources. They really fostered a family dynamic between myself and the people that I went to the program with. Devery Jacobs and D.W. Waterston were both in the program with me. That’s how I met them and started working on Backspot.

I had to learn really quickly. But that being said, you always wind up working with the people who appreciate what you bring to the table.

After the CFC, how did you get involved with Backspot?

I worked with both D.W. and Devery on little projects at the lab. I believe it was in 2020, D.W. asked me if I would give notes on their beat sheets for the concept of Backspot. We had such a good time working together. We all had a meeting and they asked me if I would write it. I knew nothing about athletics and nothing about cheerleading. But what I thought was so interesting about the project, and what we all agreed on, is that making a queer story where the core conflict has nothing to do with being queer was really important to us.

Class, intergenerational feminism, female ambition are things that I like to explore in all of my work. We were very much aligned on the themes that we wanted to explore. Those were sort of the core beats. We knew there would be a championship, that there would be a coach who was a bit older, so that we could explore that aspect of intergenerational feminism.

There would be a healthy, queer relationship. Those things were set in stone. With the rest of it, they allowed me quite a bit of freedom to explore the sub characters and the relationships. It was a pretty collaborative process. But I also felt a lot of artistic freedom within it as well, which is not always the case.

What was the collaboration process with D.W. and Devery?

I would write a draft. We’d have a brief meeting. Then I'd go off and apply their notes. There would always be a conversation. I think I did three drafts before we started putting it out there. This was around four years ago now. But then every time you have a new producer on board you get a set of notes from them. We’d have discussions about how to incorporate them without compromising the core vision. When the cast came on, there was also a conversation of dialogue tweaks. All in all, there were probably 10 drafts.

Was it written with Devery in mind?

Initially, we weren't thinking of Devery. At some point in time, we were thinking that she would be a smaller character. Then D.W. was like, ‘I think it should be Devery.’ And of course, it should be because she’s incredible. By the second draft, we were writing it with her in mind. However, I will say that during the process, she very much had a producer hat on. That was great, because working with actors early on in the process can be kind of overwhelming when you're just trying to plot out what the story is.

Talk about assembling the cast—did getting bigger names change the film?

Honestly, no. We knew we'd have to get a pretty high-level cast, because we would need money to make a film like this. The film was still made for very little money. But it's a sports movie, so you still need a certain amount of money to do things. In order to get money, we needed a certain caliber of cast that would bring people to see the film. Right from the beginning D.W. wanted Evan Rachel Wood, that was the dream goal.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

I think we made a high-octane sports movie about something you don’t usually see in the sports movie genre. It is really important. I think the big thing for all of us was the idea of ambition. Ambition is not the enemy. It's how you process that ambition that can either be healthy or unhealthy. We hope we’ve created a film that doesn’t demonize ambition and that shows some ways a person can mitigate the pressure they are under.

What are you working on next?

I have a bunch of things lined up. It seems like jinxing it to talk about. I’m usually always working on at least four projects simultaneously that are in different stages of development. We'll see what happens.

Becoming a working screenwriter is quite interesting. I feel incredibly fortunate. But the thing about screenwriting that's interesting is that everybody wants to talk about what you're doing, like, four years after you did it.

How do you work on four projects at the same time?

I try to have deadlines. I’m pretty fast, which comes from having to write plays in warehouses while working full-time jobs. But I have to compartmentalize. I will deep dive into one thing. That will be the center of my universe. Then I will take one day to completely forget its existence. Then the next week another thing will be the center of my universe.

Backspot is in theatres across Canada and the U.S. and also available on VOD.

*Feature Photo: Joanne Sarazen

Raised in England but now based in the US, Gregory has written for the BBC, New York Times, The Guardian, GQ, and Yahoo Movies, to name but a few, all while defiantly trying to keep his accent.
More posts by Gregory James Wakeman.
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