I recently had the opportunity to sit down with charming screenwriter Melissa Brandt, in West Hollywood, to discuss her first feature Cordelia, her creative inspirations, and much more. After receiving a degree in English from the University of Minnesota, and spending time in the finance industry, time at home led to the rediscovery of the literature she studied in college. After taking some writing classes at a university in Minnesota, Brandt earned a Master’s Degree in Literature, a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts and Creative Writing, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Screenwriting. Brandt decided to enter her work into screenwriting competitions and festivals across the country, including Slamdance, American Zoetrope Competition, and, of course, the BlueCat Screenplay Competition.
Her script, Cordelia caught Gordy’s eye. Since that time, Gordy and Brandt have been collaborating to develop the script. Melissa Brandt currently continues to work and live with her family in Minnesota.
BlueCat: What first made you interested in writing for film?
Brandt: I finished my degree in English from the University of Minnesota in the early 90s then, as most English graduates did after college, I took a job in the finance industry. I enjoyed my work there but made the decision to stay at home after my two children were born. While at home full time with the kids, I had the time to explore the literature I loved so much in college. From there I applied for writing classes at a university in Minnesota and took a beginning screenwriting class. I ended up finishing the degree and then working on my Masters in Literature and my Masters in Fine Arts. I found the structure and style of screenwriting very compelling. I actually write fiction too. Both fiction and screenwriting have very different appeals, but I find that in many ways what I imagine when I write is a visual sort of story as opposed to inner thoughts of a character.
BlueCat: What’s your daily writing routine?
Brandt: I sit down most days; I’ll say five days a week. And that’s the hardest part. You can procrastinate forever. One thing that I do that is very helpful and I think other people might think is crazy is I unplug the Internet. I physically go to my modem and unplug it. Then I’ll go and do my work a few rooms away. That way if the temptation is there to surf, I can’t. One other piece of advice a college professor told me that I thought sounded kind of crazy but is now part of my routine is to physically retype your work. For example, my professor would write a short story, maybe 12 pages. Then she would pull up a blank document, have her 12 pages beside her, and retype the whole thing. She would retype her work every day. Gordy actually encouraged me to try it as well and I did. It forces you to filter in a way that you hadn’t before. The act of retyping forces you to consider every single word. You don’t want type any extra words. I think it makes the writing more concise. Normal editing, where a writer might scan down the page with their cursor isn’t nearly as effective. It’s a lot of work but it’s worth it.
BlueCat: Have you always had this need to write?
Brandt: I’ve always written in some form, whether it’s just journals etc. I found that I had a knack for some things and people were drawn to things I wrote, so that encouraged me to continue. Recently, my mom sent me a box of stuff from her attic and in it was a play I wrote in the 8th grade. It was pretty dark (laughs) but there were comedic parts in the play too. I had completely forgotten writing it, but it reinforced that writing has always been a part of my life.
BlueCat: I read that you can find inspiration even from reading a few sentences from a book. Is this true and have you always had this ability?
Brandt: I don’t know that it’s really an ability, but I think as you grow in writing you pay attention to the little things that another person might otherwise miss. I read a quote once that said ‘writers are simultaneously engaged in physical reality and in alternate mental version of the same event,’ and that’s often what is happening in my mind. Also, I think when you seek out images, unusual images, in the day then you find those things sort of come at you more and more often. So it’s just about observing the world around you.
BlueCat: I read that you sort of categorize your writing genre as somewhat ‘dark’ in nature. Why do you think you’re more drawn to darker themes?
Brandt: That’s an excellent question. There are people who are able to write incredibly humorous things, and it’s not my strong suit. I find that I’m drawn to the tragic I guess (laughs). Writers like Tim O’Brien and Toni Morrison and Thom Jones, they all write beautifully dark stories and those are the writers I’m drawn to.
BlueCat: Does music ever inspire you?
Brandt: It does. Music often puts me in a specific mood if I’m trying to write a certain scene. In rewrites I don’t listen to music as often because I need to be more focused; the mood is already there. I might need to pay more attention to a certain line of dialogue or image. But for a first draft, absolutely.
BlueCat: What drew to you writing the story of Cordelia, based on Shakespeare’s King Lear?
Brandt: Well, I remember in about 2004 when I was in a Directed Readings in Theatre class and we had to read a ton of plays in a very short amount of time. It was wonderful, a lot of fun. One of the plays that I read was called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. I was really inspired by the work; it was beautiful. I loved what Tom Stoppard had accomplished. He’s brilliant. I’m not even going to begin to compare my work with what he achieved, but the general concept of Cordelia is a little bit of what Stoppard did, in the sense that it pulls the peripheral character from a Shakespearean play and carries on the storyline. Shortly after I’d read Stoppard, I read King Lear again and that’s sort of when the idea came to me. I started to wonder what happened to Cordelia when she left England? What happened in France? There was a very natural evolution from there.
BlueCat: Did you have to do much research to write the script?
Brandt: I reread the play many times and a version of Lear written by Nathan Tate. That came out a few years after Shakespeare’s play. He basically took Shakespeare’s play but gave it a happy ending. There’s also the actual history. It can get really muddled. My goal was to try to get a feel for the authenticity of the time without trying to get caught up in the other histories of Cordelia. I tried to evolve the characters arcs from the direction that they had in Shakespeare’s play and explain why some of the characters react the way they do.
BlueCat: What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
Brandt: You know, one of my favorite parts is the ending and I don’t want to create this massive spoiler before the film’s created, but the ending is very important to me. I hope that a few of the things that I love about the screenplay, like Goneril and Regan, are the things audiences will like as well. In Shakespeare’s story and in a lot of literary theory, Goneril and Regan are two of the most hated female characters; they’re despised. I love the fact that I gave them a little bit of a story to perhaps create sympathy for these two characters that are commonly disliked. I hope that people who love Shakespeare appreciate it. I hope that they don’t feel like I’ve ruined things. I hope audiences will take away the universal themes involving family. How as parents, you do the best you can, but often you make some pretty major mistakes, and as children, it’s very difficult to forgive your parents for those mistakes. I think that’s a universal theme, the dysfunction and heartbreak that comes with family.
BlueCat: What do you think is the most rewarding part of writing a script?
Brandt: It’s pretty incredible to be able to move people in any way, and I think ultimately that’s the goal of art. For humanity, art gives us a way to learn and grow without having to experience the same hardships that the people who came before us did. On a more selfish level, probably the most rewarding thing about writing a script is the act of creation. I get to spend those weeks in my imagination, which is such a privilege for me.
BlueCat: In the beginning, did you send your work to festivals?
Brandt: I did. I sent them to several competitions. Actually, my first screenplay was called Dog Year and it finished in the top thirty in 2005 or 2006 in The American Zoetrope Competition. It was also in the top 50 in the Slamdance contest. From both of those I did get calls from indie producers so it was great. It gave me the encouragement to continue writing.
BlueCat: How did you get involved with BlueCat Screenwriting Competition?
Brandt: I submitted my first script to Gordy for feedback, and he really responded to what he read. Then I went to one of his workshops in Chicago and he remembered me from my prior screenplay and from there we developed a working relationship. Soon after, he emailed me and asked what else I was working on and I pitched him Cordelia. He loved the idea and asked me to send him a draft of the screenplay and I did.
BlueCat: What are some of your favorite film scripts?
Brandt: I really love Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me; that’s a beautiful script. I enjoy a little bit of everything I read. I think Juno is a wonderfully written script. I really enjoyed Inglourious Basterds, and I think In the Bedroom is fabulously written. Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April is a very fun script. Ghost World is great. I could go on and on.
BlueCat: Do you have any new projects you’re working on?
Brandt: I’ve started to do research on a project I have in mind for a screenplay. I don’t want to give too much away. Actually what inspired me was a picture of an empty bed. The story that I’m now doing research for is historical as well. It’s connected to a historical figure but is going to be written in contemporary times. That’s my next one. I also continue to work on my fiction and hope to have a work of fiction published one day.
BlueCat: What is some of the best advice you’ve received about screenwriting?
Brandt: I had a wonderful professor in college, who was a very harsh reader, and one time he took a red pen and wrote ‘YUCK’ across several pages of a screenplay that I’d written. It was actually great. It taught me to be thick-skinned about criticism, and I found he was right. The pages sucked. You learn to really value those readers who give you solid criticism like that. That was a huge learning moment for me.
BlueCat: During the times when you feel a little creatively drained and don’t have that much energy to write, how do you summon the creative energy to get yourself writing again?
Brandt: Reading is a huge source of inspiration for me. I am very inspired by a line or two of other writer’s works. I’m reading Hamsun’s Hunger right now and it’s pretty spectacular. In the book, he writes about God poking his finger into the character’s brain. I haven’t been able to get that image out of my head. Music works to inspire me too. A line of music often will carry me a long time. Poetry inspires me.
BlueCat: What advice can you offer aspiring scriptwriters?
Brandt: Persistence is important; write and write and write. My first draft was written very quickly but the work is in the rewriting. I’m a very determined person and even I find the rewriting process to be exhausting, so you have to be in it for the long haul.