Breaking in as a screenwriter is tough, so when Script Angel client Dee Chilton recently signed with literary agency Nick Turner Management and had her feature screenplay Darken Ship optioned by producer Jennifer Handorf (Prevenge, The Chamber), we were thrilled! Script Angel founder Hayley McKenzie sat down with Dee to chat about her writing and how she got to this breakthrough point in her career.
Huge congratulations on signing with an agent and getting your screenplay optioned. Can you tell us a bit about how these two breakthroughs came about?
It’s hard to define any one thing that led to this as I think it’s always a matter of stepping stones. Way back when I first started writing ‘seriously’, I was reluctant to get into social media as I saw it as a major distraction, but I quickly realised it would also be a missed opportunity if I didn’t. It offers a global space to communicate, network, observe and gather good information. You do have to filter the wheat from the chaff mind you, and be careful not to let it distract you from your writing. Eventually, after my trips to New York and competition successes last year, and knowing I was going over to Hollywood, I felt I had enough reason to set up a website for myself where anyone who wanted to know more about me and my writing could link to. That and my screenwriting coach at Script Angel had been advising me to do it for a while! Both my Agent and Producer saw my website via something they read on Twitter earlier this year and contacted me to ask to read something. The option and representation offers followed on after face-to-face meetings thereafter. Social media plays a part but it will never beat meeting in person, so you still have to do that. Fortunately, I also enjoy networking and meeting people.
When and how did you realise you wanted to be a writer/screenwriter?
This is going to sound cheesy! I’ve always pottered about writing ‘stuff’ for ‘fun’ but I loved film and imagery and wanted to be a Cinematographer when I was young. I initially trained and worked as a Photographer as a first step on that path, but then got distracted by ‘life’. One night, a few years ago, a character came to visit me whilst I was sleeping and made me promise to tell her story. So, being more of a visual type, I instinctively felt I needed to write it as a screenplay not a novel. First thing I did was look into how I could do that.
Once you’d decided you wanted to write a screenplay, how did you go about learning how to do that?
I read a lot of books about the craft of screenwriting and took some short courses, and I started to read lots of scripts, gradually building up my skills and knowledge. Not just scripts of produced films and tv shows, but also scripts by other new writers and giving feedback on those. And I asked for advice about what else I could and should be doing to improve. I knew that getting feedback on the script would help me to improve it but I did a lot of research about the people offering that kind of service before I handed over my money to anyone!
What was the first script you finished and did you send it anywhere?
Turns out that first screenplay, although a great learning tool, should have been a novel first after all. After many rewrites, and having moved on to write other projects. I already knew that, as a drama from a new screenwriter, it was unlikely to get read by Industry. However, that story still haunts me, so I eventually got the opinion (for advice) from a Hollywood Producer I was connected with. I’m hugely encouraged by his amazing feedback that it offers fabulous ‘Oscar’ bait material, but is only likely to be read once I have credibility as a writer. He suggested a way around that is to write the novel first, as that would likely lead to a film. It remains my passion project, sat in the bottom drawer. One day, I hope, its time will come.
At that stage, were you writing regularly?
As much as work/life permitted. I was quickly hooked and fell head over heels in love with screenwriting. I love that I get to be a Cinematographer using words instead of a camera. As my hubby puts it, “it’s like books with all the waffly words taken out.” I love the discipline and the challenge the format requires. I began to resent full time work keeping me from my writing, so I dropped to part time work. I’ve since been fortunate enough to be able to write full time. If I’m not writing, I’m taking more of those small steps forward.
You write very strong, complex female protagonists, often in the Thriller and Action genres. What draws you to these types of story?
I write what I want to see up on screen. It came about as a natural progression. I worked out what I wanted to write by writing. I took short courses, got feedback from peers and, when I felt ready, pro readers. I began to see a pattern to the type of story I was writing. I learned more and more about my characters, but also dug deeper into myself and discovered the ‘why’ of my writing. My writer’s voice became stronger and more confident, my characters began to take over and write themselves, I did okay in competitions, so I knew I was on the right track.
How many projects are you actively working on at any one time?
It’s hard to put a figure on it, It’s kind of like ‘one on, one off and one in the wash’. I’m constantly working on many things, but deadlines mean I prioritise as necessary and adjust what I focus on the most at any given time. Right now, I have one short film in edit, about to shoot another one, have a new feature in rewrite and am polishing another, and I have a TV series pilot in the planning stages. As well as other short scripts and features, in recent months, there’s also been short stories, poems and even a reality TV series treatment.
You’ve also had success in short films. What made you decide to write short film scripts?
It started as a challenge at my first London Screenwriters Festival just after I decided to be a screenwriter. We were asked to turn to the person we were sat beside and vocalise to each other what action we were going to take. My neighbour said he was going to make a short film. I said that in that case, I would write a short script. You learn a lot from seeing the ‘bigger picture’ involved in writing for screen. Bringing our words to life is more accessible with a short and it gets you into collaboration, which as a screenwriter you must be comfortable with.
How long does it take you to get from idea to polished spec script and has that changed over the years?
Developing your craft skills and understanding of story and character, as well as yourself., takes time. I think that all shows in your writing. It took me a long time to get my first two scripts finished and rewritten numerous times as my knowledge increased… except they are still not good enough in comparison to what I write now. I still love those learning scripts and one day hope to go back to them and elevate them to where they need to be (time permitting). I’m much faster now but, for me, it’s not about speed, it’s about the quality of that first draft and allowing it enough time to breath before going back to it with fresh eyes. If you start with a solid foundation, it’s easier to build. When you then knock it about in the remodelling it doesn’t fall down or give you so many headaches, it just remoulds to a better shape.
Do you set yourself deadlines for completing each script?
I used competitions and initiatives as deadlines in the past. As the results of those things are always subjective. I considered them as ‘fire and forget’ motivations; if something did well that’s a bonus, but I didn’t expect it to. I’ve also had deadlines set by mentors and working with Script Angel helped me knuckle down more and stop messing about on social media!
When you finished writing your first spec script, did you have an idea of where you wanted to be with your writing in five years’ time?
It was my dream to see that first script brought to life, it still is, but I’m following my heart and going where fate takes me now. I quickly realised it’s as much about the collaboration for me. I wanted to be working in the Industry with my scripts being the catalyst for successful films, not only for me but for everyone involved in bringing them to the screen. I therefore needed to discover the stories only I could write and how to write them well.
How long did it take for you to get from finishing your first screenplay to getting your work optioned and getting an agent, and did you have a plan for how to get there?
I finished my first script in 2012 and signed in 2017 so that’s five years. There wasn’t a grand plan but I just took it one step at a time. Each thing I did was a stepping stone to the next thing and it gradually built over time.
What made you decide to start working with a screenwriting coach at Script Angel and how did that change things for you?
I’d previously worked with a fabulously supportive mentor to develop the basic idea and first draft of Darken Ship but still I hadn’t quite developed my ‘brand’. After some rewriting, that script was getting me a lot of positive results and read requests, but somehow was not quite making the mark. I couldn’t put my finger on why, so I knew it was time to invest in myself, identify a career strategy and find out exactly what I should write. That’s when I turned to Script Angel. Another writer, who was working with them at the time, recommended them to me. She’d said that her screenwriting coach “had a lovely way of telling you when the work was rubbish, and helping you figure out how to fix it”. When I looked into them I could see that they had extensive script development experience in the the film and tv industry. And they specialise in helping you elevate a script over multiple drafts and, most importantly for me at that time, they help you develop a strategy to develop not just your writing but also your career.
Together we were able to identify my writing strengths and build my portfolio to showcase those. We also identified my writing USP and I started to focus my work around that. On the Screenwriter Coaching programme I was set deadlines for each rewrite. It was tough-going but it really made me push myself. As well as rewriting Darken Ship, we wrote two other scripts and outlined another idea. The work we did together really helped me build my confidence in my writing and take myself seriously as a writer. I treated my writing like a job which I think helped me to feel less like an imposter and more like a professional screenwriter. Working with Script Angel was really where I turned the corner. Everything else has followed on from then.
What was your experience of trying to get the industry to read your scripts in the early days?
It felt impossible. I had many days when I thought it not worth going on and was going to wrap my hand in but I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had the support of many incredible people who helped me through those days. I’d also had low days like that during my Navy training so knew that at those points you have to draw on your reserves, push through the pain barrier and keep putting one foot in front of the other. You have to stop obsessing about the end result and focus on the journey and enjoy it for what it is. Live in the moment. Fight the small mental battles to win the war. If you’re not enjoying it, frustrating as it is, you might need to lower your expectations or even change your direction.
Writers often feel that they’re stuck in a catch-22; they can’t get read by producers unless they have an agent, but they can’t get an agent without having producers interested in their work. You’ve worked incredibly hard to get your work widely read so can you tell us what you did to overcome this problem?
I quickly understood that I had no real control over any of that, all I could control was my writing and my writer ‘brand’. I had to trust to ‘luck’ and a belief that somewhere out there in the world, someone was looking for scripts like mine, we just had to find each other. Therefore, I appreciated I must not only keep on writing and writing better, but I also had to get my work out there somehow. I had to network, in person and online, to create possible opportunities for the future. I spent time searching for opportunities and over probably a two-year period I sent Darken Ship to about 400 people, competitions and initiatives. And I kept reworking the script over that time. Many writers think it’s about knowing someone on the inside; it’s a closed shop unless you are well connected. Film and TV is a competitive business but it’s also a collaborative environment and people like to work with people they know, or know of. In a world where Producers, Executives and Agents are inundated and time-pressured, why would someone choose to read your script(s) over anyone else’s? Whilst it may be because yours are well written and hard to ignore, and have maybe garnered awards or some other ‘recommendation’ to get them onto their radar, it’s even more likely they have responded to you as a writer and a person. We can all learn from each other and share a love of story. One day someone asks you to send them something, but you can’t demand or expect that, it has to come naturally. I think that’s how you create your own ‘luck’. Of course your work has to be ready or that is a wasted opportunity I believe it’s as much about you being genuinely interested in, and being supportive of, other people, building connections and creating opportunities for yourself and others. Nobody responds well to someone who is ‘desperate’ or all about ‘what can you do for me’ and obviously looking for a ‘magic bullet’.
Becoming a semi-finalist in the prestigious Academy Nicholl Fellowships was a huge achievement. Did it open doors for you and if so, how much of that was you pro-actively using that success to get more widely read?
Reaching the semi-finals of the Academy Nicholl Fellowships definitely helped. It’s one way for Industry people to filter scripts to read with a degree of confidence that their time won’t be wasted. I would say that placement, and all the other ‘heat’ on my writing this last year, shows a consistent progression and gives me credibility as a newer writer. It has also helped build my own confidence when querying and pitching.
How do you think getting an agent will change things for you? Will you still have to network and get yourself and your work out there?
I don’t think anything changes with regards to networking and creating opportunities. It’s a collaboration. I see us as a team; an Agent/Manager gives you increased access but they’re not there to do the work for you. You still have to get in the room, get the job and get the job done.
What do you want to be doing in five years’ time? Do you have a plan of how to get there? Does your agent help in this?
I’d like to think I’ll have a solid reputation as a screenwriter who’s great to work with, who has laid foundations for some incredible filmed content that has been a joy to create for all those involved in making them, and which have been enjoyed by large audiences. My plan to get to that position is to keep on doing what I have been doing; writing my heart out and doing my best but now, with the help of my Agent, I’ll be guided as to what those projects are. I aim to continue on as I have been doing: to keep on working to the best of my abilities, to write my heart out and keep improving, to take the pain and the pleasure of screenwriting and the film and TV Industry with equal measure. I aim to keep on learning from my peers and those who have gone before, both writers and filmmakers and surround myself with like-minded people who enhance my writing and life experience. I will remain a positive force and excellent collaborator, always open to suggestions, criticism and notes, and remaining mindful of the best needs of the project.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to someone starting out?
I mentioned stepping stones earlier. I’d suggest you do one thing each day that makes you feel like you took a step ahead, even if it is only a tiny one. You’re facing a long, steep learning curve and uphill struggle towards what will feel like a huge mountain top. For each of us, the path to ‘success’ (however WE choose to define it) will be different, so never compare your journey or yourself against anyone else. If you treat rejection is par for the course and ‘success’ as a matter of perseverance, patience and statistics, instead of feeling down for too long every time you get a ‘no’, you can see it as a positive step towards a ‘yes’. You’ll feel everyone else is doing better than you, that you’re not good enough and never will be, and feel like giving up. I’d say don’t look at the top of that mountain, just focus on the next step. Soon you can look down and see how far you’ve come on YOUR journey.
About Dee Chilton: Navy Veteran. Optioned screenwriter represented by Nick Turner Management. Athena List Finalist. Academy Nicholl & Austin Semifinalist. Winner New Blood Competition. Slamdance Quarterfinalist. Selected Black List/Athena Film Festival writers lab in NYC, London Screenwriters Festival Talent Campus & BBC Writers Room Screenwriting Masterclass.
Find out more about the Screenwriter Coaching programme Dee took part in.