Interview: Penelope Chai and Matteo Bernardini

Interview: Penelope Chai and Matteo Bernardini

– Penelope Chai and Matteo Bernardini, winner of the 2016 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition with Cinderella Must Die.

Regardless of the fact 2016 turned out to be our best year for screenwriting, with so many fantastic finalist screenplays, Cinderella Must Die was a unanimous pick for the grand prize. Personally, when I read during the quarterfinalist round, 30 pages in I stopped immediately to text Chad (Script Pipeline’s Executive Director) and our development assistant to tell them they have to read this immediately. Part of this was due to the unique spin on the fairy tale, but mostly because of your writing style.

Is style and crafting a unique voice—which is something we constantly emphasize for emerging writers—an area you feel can be refined through “deliberate practice,” meaning an element you can specifically work on, or is it something that simply comes from years of experience? What has helped each of you the most when it comes to basic writing ability?

Matteo: My first job in the industry in Italy was as a reader for a production company. And almost nothing can prepare you for how bad Italian amateur screenwriting can be (it’s a country in its infancy, craft-wise). And almost at the same time, I started reading masters–scripts by Goldman, Coppola, Gilroy. . . . I think what helped was studying the classics, to learn how high this art can fly, and (almost as important) reading a ton of garbage scripts to learn what not to do.

Penelope: I started out writing short stories and found that to be a good way to experiment with voice. There’s a flow to prose writing that helps me ‘drop’ into a character or story. Sometimes I still revert to prose to help me untangle a specific idea or character in a script. I agree with Matteo (and many other writers) that reading screenplays helps identify and develop voice, particularly scripts that are well known for being vibrant and distinctive, like Lethal Weapon. I’ve also started listening to the Blacklist Ear Movies podcast. It’s really great, and a good way to combine script ‘reading’ with grocery shopping or exercising!

Cinderella Must Die contains some universal underlying themes that helps elevate the screenplay beyond the typical adventure/fantasy. What was it about the source material that compelled you to develop the script? Did the ingrained commentaries—the sometimes conflicting relationships between sisters, the ease of abandoning ethics and family for the promise of higher social status—come about naturally, or was it something you kept at the forefront while plotting the story?

The original idea was about propaganda and how storytelling can be used as a form of power and coercion. As we began to explore this idea through the prism of Cinderella, other themes very naturally came to the surface, like social envy, sisterhood, and representations of gender. Then it was a question of what to draw out and foreground and what to leave in the background: how much of this, how much of that? Our first draft pushed the propaganda angle a lot more–there was a whole underground network of fairy tale characters who’d been written out of their stories, Stalin-style. It was fun to write, but, according to our first readers, a hot mess to read! So we focused subsequent drafts on the personal story between the sisters, which is its heart and soul.

The process of writing the actual script: it reads so smooth and effortless, structurally sound, vividly drawn. . . but how long did it take for you to finalize a draft you were 100% comfortable with?

It took 18 months from our first conversations to submitting to Script Pipeline, but that wasn’t anywhere near full-time. We were both working on other projects so squeezed in CMD whenever we could. And we go through phases of being 100% comfortable with it! Right now, we have a whole bunch of revisions we’d like to do to make it better.

How long were you sending out Cinderella before winning Script Pipeline? Was it a newer project you were testing the waters with, or had you been searching for a production company or representation for a while?

Script Pipeline was the first place we sent it—the ink was still wet. It’s now also our favourite place!

What are some of the keys to maintaining an efficient and productive writing relationship?

  1. Hit your deadlines—don’t be an asshole.
  2. Don’t be precious—you’re not Marcel Proust. Every syllable you write can be improved.
  3. Let it go—when your co-writer says what you’ve written is unclear or confusing or not working or not on the page, trust them. They have the benefit of objectivity.
  4. Be patient and compassionate with each other—“No matter, try again, fail again, fail better.”
  5. Laugh a lot—it helps if you share a sense of humour.

The landscape has changed so much over the last 5-10 years, we’re seeing more and more non-U.S. writers rising to the top in terms of the quality of writing (for whatever reason, Australian writers especially). But writers outside of the US with their sights set on the US market typically ask if they’re at a disadvantage because of their location. Do you feel there’s some truth to that? As you both live in Australia, did you have any reservations about submitting to this or other competitions?

From what we’ve heard and been told—in meetings, from friends and contacts, on podcasts like Scriptnotes—there is an advantage to being based in L.A. We’ve also heard that, if you have your sights set on Hollywood, and have the talent and good fortune to get you there, there will probably come a time when you need to be based in L.A. We’re certainly hoping to join that posse of screenwriters, and are both keen to make the move at some stage, but right now we’re managing to get things done with Skype, FaceTime, emails, etc. We also have Australian projects underway so, right at this minute, we need to be here to see those through to fruition.

We had no reservations about submitting to Script Pipeline because it’s a US comp. Firstly, we never expected to win; secondly, L.A. is only a plane-ride away—17 hours may seem like a long flight, but compared to flying from Australia to Europe, it’s a walk in the park!

Script Pipeline was a gift from the gods: it allowed us, two unknowns from Australia, to come to L.A., meet people in the industry, and begin relationships that can now be fostered with the aid of technology and some well-timed return visits!

In addition to the industry interest Cinderella has drawn thus far, you two have projects you’re working on independently of one another, both of which are (I think) based on or inspired by true stories. Is utilizing source material easier, in a sense? Or does it present a host of other challenges?

Penelope: I’m working on a couple of adaptations, but they’re based on fictional source material (a short story and a novel), not real life events. For one, the strength is the premise and the author was happy for us to play fast and loose with the other elements. For the other, I want to preserve as much as the source material as possible. That said, I am needing to dial up the protagonist’s drive just a little—characters in novels can meander aimlessly in a way that characters in films can’t. Even characters who seem to be meandering, like in Badlands or the recent American Honey, have very clear driving forces.

Matteo: Writing stories based on real people and events creates two equally compelling but conflicting impulses. On the one hand, you want to write a story that engages, thrills and surprises, with a beginning, a middle, and a climax. On the other hand, life doesn’t follow the three act structure, so you need to massage the real life events to make the story worthwhile and satisfying. Striking the right balance between respect for the actual facts and people, and making their story worth telling, is the hard part. Everything else is a joy.

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