Interview with 2014 Feature Finalist Kateland Brown
Set against the illegal dogfighting scene in Los Angeles, a gangbanger sentenced to community service at an animal shelter forms a bond with an abused pit bill scheduled to be euthanized.
What was your first script? What did you learn from it?
There’s my first script, and then there’s the first script I really loved. My first script was called The Breakers, inspired by my time as an NJB (National Junior Basketball) player. While it will always have a special place in my heart, it still needs a lot of work. The first script I really got immersed in and still love to this day is Catch the Air — about an adolescent African American female skateboarder, who vows to win the X-Games, hoping to gain fame to locate her estranged father. That script placed in the semi-finals in the Nicholls in 2007. I still love this script and still hope it gets produced.
Hambone is a touching story that never once goes into sappy or corny territory. How did you go about creating that genuine sense of emotion without falling into the trap of making it overly sentimental?
I was taught to not “tell” the reader how to feel. The dialogue and the position in which you put your protagonist, the conflicts he endures, is what the story is and this is where the emotion comes from. For me, the emotion should build steadily from one scene to the next. So, to try to force emotion into a scene with stage directions would feel false, especially in feature writing. The dialogue and conflict should be enough to inform the actor how to play the scene. I hope I did that with Hambone. Sometimes, when I am trying to find a scene, I do overwrite the action lines, and then I have to go back and cut most of them out — because in the end, it will all be there in conflict and dialogue — if you’ve written the scene correctly and have a good story.
Hambone is a lean script that still feels very full. Can you discuss your approach to writing description and dialogue?
I like to listen to people talk. I’m a people watcher. So, I usually take myself on a “writer’s date” and go to an area where I can find people that mirror a character I am writing and I just listen. I listen to how they speak, what they talk about, what they complain about. Then, I try to do some exploratory scenes with my character to get the voice and personality. This is how I evolve my characters, then I steadily add their backstory, what they’ve experienced. When reading a script, I prefer it when the dialogue and conflict jumps off the page; this should really be the story. You don’t need a lot of action lines to “command” the reader – you just need your protagonist, what he says and the challenges he’s facing, because, in the end, we’re all human and we’re all facing the same dilemmas on one level or another.
How did you come up with the idea? And how did you approach crafting the realism of the characters and the Los Angeles setting? Discuss the importance of setting in your writing.
My own dog, Max, is the inspiration behind Hambone. My boyfriend and I had moved into a “pet friendly” apartment and I got this wild idea to adopt a dog. At the East Valley Animal Shelter, we walked the sad halls of whimpering scared dogs and this red dog licked my hands through the bars of the cage. He jumped up on the slatted cage bars as we were walking away, crying and whimpering for us not to leave. From there, we were hooked. He was the nicest dog in the pound and, right then, we knew he was the one for us. I knew he had some pit bull in him but I ignorantly thought he was a mix. When introducing Max to my mom and dad for the first time, they exclaimed, “Katie, you got a pit bull!” I didn’t even know I got a pit bull because it said, “American Staffordshire Terrier” on the adoption paper. Imagine a pit bull face on a longer body. One of our favorite family stories is when we got kicked out of our Los Feliz apartment because of a breed restriction, my parents, who had just met Max, had to take him home for a few days while we found another residence where we could keep Max. (Luckily, we did.) On the car ride home, Max was in the back seat and my dad sat nervously in the front, passenger seat, not knowing what this “pit bull” would do. Then, Max sat his head on my dad’s shoulder as if he had known him all his life, and they’ve been connected ever since. Now, when my mom and dad enter the house, Max does back flips and whimpers for ten minutes before settling down, he’s so happy to see them. Max knows we saved him – he knows we all saved him.
The setting of Hambone depicted who Rickey is, just as Hambone’s circumstances depicted the plight of the dog. Both Hambone and Rickey are victims of circumstance and of their environment and of people not believing in them. So, in essence, the environment is another villain in the piece, working against Rickey and Hambone.
I love to listen to people talk; I live in Los Angeles, so I’ve traveled to different areas of LA, observed and listened to the people who live here. This is the best way to craft realism, to observe and to listen.
What do you do about writer’s block?
If I get stuck, I write exploratory scenes with my protagonist. Put him or her in a different situation and let him or her react, hearing him or her talk and, usually, inspiration comes from there.
When do you find the time to write?
I get ideas when I’m driving in the car, to and from work and while I’m walking the dogs. I’m a morning writer; I have the most energy in the morning, so I try to get two valuable hours each day to either ruminate or write depending on which part of the process I’m in.
How do you schedule your writing time?
I set two hours every morning to write. When I have outlined my script, I attempt to get two scenes done every day. Some scenes are harder to write than others, so the scenes that are really pivotal to character, I really try to distill and focus on. When I was younger, I had a motto to write ten pages a day, to just get the material down and then go back and rewrite. The philosophy was to just “throw it up” in a sense. However, now that I work and my time is limited, I really try to focus on a character’s want and need and motivation, which informs plot. I really don’t want my characters to just “do” things anymore.
How do you stay motivated?
Whenever I hit a wall, I write an “exploratory scene” in which I explore my protagonist; this is where I find out who he/ she really is. My mentor and past UCLA Extension screenwriting instructor, Bonnie MacBird, taught me this technique; she teaches “Screenwriting on the Write Side of the Brain.” In my experience, I really have to know who a character is; otherwise the material will feel false. I did this with Rickey. The first scene where Rickey and Jermaine talk on the roof was one of the first scenes I wrote. I had no idea of the structure of the story yet. I just knew I liked Rickey and wanted to find out who he was. I also wrote the scene where Rickey raps about his mother as an exploratory scene. I asked myself, “How would a teenage boy — who would NEVER openly express his feelings — express himself?” Then, while I was driving, an Eminem song came on, flowing with emotion, and the idea of a rap came into mind and I gave it a try — and it worked.
Do you outline?
I do outline before I write. However, I think it is a balance between inspiration and planning. I’m a firm believer in really knowing who your character is as a person, in doing character bios and in doing exploratory scenes in which you hear him or her talk, know how he or she would react in certain situations. A protagonist’s character, for me, affects the decisions the protagonist makes, thus informing the plot. Motivation is key.
How do you know when a script is done?
That’s a difficult one. One rule of thumb is to make sure that you distill your script down to the necessary scenes that propel the story forward. If you can take out a scene — and the story still works — then you probably don’t need that scene. The craftsmanship of writing is imbuing those necessary scenes with character and backstory, so we connect with the character.
What advice would you give to writers who are struggling through a draft?
My advice is that writing is re-writing. If you believe in your gut that a story needs to be told, it’s your responsibility to distill the story, draft and draft again, until you get it right. I had to re-write Hambone three times and I am so glad I did. I knew I needed to tell a story showing how beautiful pit bulls are. I knew I had to tell a story combating the negative stereotype the media has plagued on these dogs and I knew I had to expose the horrors of dog fighting. So, if you are passionate enough, you will get through it and you will be so glad — and proud — you did. Also, getting feedback from writers you respect and trust is key.
What advice would you give to writers who have just finished a script?
Let it sit a while; get some distance from it; work on something else. Then, go back to it with some perspective. Also, getting a peer group of fellow writers whom you respect is key in getting positive feedback. However, they have to be people you respect as writers, otherwise feedback can hinder instead of help. Each draft of Hambone I took to my writers’ group and, each time, I knew it wasn’t quite right yet, so I kept brainstorming. Valuable feedback is so important.
What has your experience with screenplay competitions been like?
My screenplay Catch the Air placed in the semi-finals in the Nicholls in 2007 and Firestorm placed in the top 10 scripts in the UCLA Extension Screenplay Competition in 2008. However, no experience has been as valuable as BlueCat. The way BlueCat gives you two pieces of coverage from readers who are actually writers themselves and know the craft, is huge! And then, letting the writer re-enter his/her script based on those notes is such an effective idea. This is something I haven’t seen from any other screenplay competition and, for me, makes BlueCat all the more valuable. I would have probably placed highly in this year’s BlueCat, but I don’t think I would have been a finalist if it weren’t for the valuable and constructive feedback the readers gave me – or – without the possibility to re-submit. BlueCat really helped me get the best script possible.
Who are some current writers and filmmakers that inspire you?
Bonnie MacBird, scribe of the original Tron, is one of my biggest inspirations. Bonnie’s an extraordinarily talented and honest writer. Also my mentor, Bonnie has challenged me to take risks and look for truth, pulling the best scenes possible out of me. Bonnie knew there was something in me when no one else did, fostering it, nurturing it and that is so important in screenwriting because so many people try to squash your ideas before they even hatch. Also, your writing is always evolving. As long as you keep writing, your craft is improving, so don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do this. William Goldman and John Hughes are also huge inspirations to me. I love me some teenage angst.
Why are you a writer?
I’ve always loved books and the written word but when I was young, some of my favorite moments were going to Blockbuster and roaming the aisles for that one, perfect movie for a Friday night, one that would make me laugh, cry and feel. I’m an emotion junkie. I just love that feeling of connection; the idea that a writer, whom you’ve never met, can write something that touches you so completely. That’s the power of the human experience.
For professional inquiries, please contact Kateland at [email protected]