2011 Fellini Awards Winners Jacob Gillman and Matt Diebler
An unpopular and sexually naive 12-year-old engages in a downward spiral of unintentionally perverse get-rich-quick schemes in order to obtain the horse of her dreams.
BlueCat: Tell us a little bit about your script Horse Girl.
Matt and Jacob: Horse Girl is the quirky yet disturbing tale of Bethanne, an unpopular 12 year old who wants a horse more than anything in the world. Accompanied by her trashy younger best friend Sheena, Bethanne tries everything she can to raise the money to buy a horse. Driven largely by her general naivety, Bethanne begins a downward spiral of questionable and at times pseudo sexual money making ventures to bring her dream to fruition.
Horse Girl takes the audience on a darkly comedic and disturbingly endearing journey through the world of an innocent girl who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. In the end, you cheer her success and identify with her cause, but you may be a little unnerved by what she’s become in the process.
BlueCat: How long have you been writing screenplays?
Matt and Jacob: To be completely honest, this is our first feature length screenplay. Matt’s been writing in other media for years and Jacob has worked in film as a practical FX artist, but this is our first screenplay.
BlueCat: How many screenplays have you written? Is this the first screenplay that you’ve written together?
Matt and Jacob: Matt’s written one short film and 3 television pilots. The short was a live action thriller/horror/psychological drama kind of deal (which Jacob intends to direct). Two of the television pilots were animated (one for kids and one for adults), and the third is a live action comedy.
This is the first screenplay we’ve written together, although I imagine it’ll be one of many. We’re already kicking around ideas for others, so keep your eyes peeled.
BlueCat: What was the inspiration behind this story? How long have you worked on the project?
Matt and Jacob: Every middle school in the United States has a “horse girl”. She’s that weird, naïve, and immature girl that won’t shut up about horses. Even though everyone else in her class had moved on to thinking about adult things like sex, she still has a horse covered trapper keeper and two French braids. And her hair smells like powdered milk. Both of us have been fascinated by these girls and we wanted to understand what makes them tick. So we created Bethanne and let her tell her story. We wrote on periodic weekends, so it took a while to write, but as a whole, it took us about 8 months and a case of wine to complete.
BlueCat: What made you decide to enter BlueCat?
Matt and Jacob: After we’d finished the script, we weren’t really sure what to do with it. Neither of us had tried to make a movie on our own before, nor had we tried to sell anything we’d written. So we asked around, and a good friend of ours suggested we try out a few screenwriting competitions; BlueCat was at the top of his list.We did some research, saw that BlueCat offered feedback and criticism for every entry, and immediately entered. It was going to be our first professional critique and, win or lose, we knew that it would be extremely valuable.
BlueCat: Are there any writers that have influenced your work?
Matt: I’m more of a TV guy, so singling out individual writers is a little difficult. Arrested Development and Strangers with Candy have influenced me more than anything else, really helping to shape my sense of humor and the way I integrate it into my writing, encouraging me to push the boundaries of taste. And beyond that, Daniel Waters ofHeathers fame, Darren Stein of Jawbreaker, and Lona Williams of Drop Dead Gorgeous have influenced me somehow (although I can’t say how directly)… I’ve seen each of those movies so many times that they’re seared into my brain.
Jacob: When I was Bethanne’s age, I began watching an unhealthy amount of John Waters and Todd Solondz. I think they’ve collectively made me laugh harder than anyone in the world. They are by far the heaviest influences on this script. Other than that I love Jodorowsky, Pasolini, Makavejev, Hennenlotter, and tons of other weird culty writer/directors.
BlueCat: What’s your writing process like? (As a pair, and as individuals)
Jacob: I haven’t done much writing on my own, but when I do, I like to do it in the bathtub. And I just write down whatever makes me laugh.
Matt: I prefer to lock myself in a room with as few distractions as possible and work until something is done, which is a process that obviously lends itself much better to short films. That’s why when I write more lengthy works, I need company top keep me entertained. I love to write with partners.
As for writing as a pair, that was actually an interesting situation. We are actually a couple, and when we started writing, we’d been dating for about two and a half years and had never taken on something like this. We’d had a lot of people warn us away from it, telling us that working on a project like this can easily kill a relationship. And we did fight. A lot. It took us a number of writing sessions to really pinpoint what each of our strengths were and to learn how to give and take when it came to creative ideas. Eventually, we worked out a system: we’d start every session with a glass or two of wine. We’d write until we started fighting. If it was something that we could both easily let go of, we’d at least try to finish the scene, but if it was something one of us was particularly angry about, we’d just stop for the day. It took a lot of patience and a lot of arguing, but we were both so excited about and invested in the story that we stuck it out. And now that we’re on the other side of it, both the script and our relationship are better for having passed through that fire.
BlueCat: What are your goals with the script after winning the Fellini Awards?
Matt and Jacob: In a perfect world, we want some generous benefactor to come to us with one of those oversized novelty checks and give us the funds we need to make the movie ourselves. It’s a “filmmaker” kind of movie that would come out the best if we were able to see it through, which is ultimately what we’ve been hoping to do since the beginning. Right now, we’ve started our own production company and we’re getting a budget together so we can start wooing investors, so the ball’s already rolling. It’s going to be a challenge to produce, as it involves both children and animals, but a number of friends have read it, have loved it, and are offering to help us move forward. So hopefully you won’t have to wait too terribly long before you’re able to see Horse Girl on the indie circuit, if not in theaters.
BlueCat: What have you learned from your BlueCat experience?
Matt and Jacob: We learned not to count ourselves out. After we’d seen our criticism from the judges, we really didn’t think we were going to win. They had good things to say, but they obviously had a number of things they didn’t love about it. We were convinced we were down for the count, so we checked out mentally. And we decided against entering other competitions. But lo-and-behold, here we are. Horse Girl was chosen as a winner, and we couldn’t be more thrilled or honored to be here.
And we learned to write the movie we want to see. Just because something doesn’t fit within the norms or the guidelines that everyone expects, or just because something doesn’t feel “Hollywood” enough doesn’t mean it’s not worth making.
BlueCat: What’s next for you as writers?
Matt and Jacob: First, we’re hoping to pull together the funds and direct Horse Girl. But in the mean time, we have a number of ideas we’re working on. Judging from the response we’re getting from this exercise in cooperation, we foresee a long and fruitful creative union.
Our thanks go out to Matt Diebler and Jacob Gillman for taking the time to join BlueCat for an interview. Congratulations Matt and Jacob on being chosen as one of the five winners in our Fellini Awards.
Interview #2 with Jacob Gillman and Matt Diebler
BlueCat catches up with past winners Matt Diebler and Jacob Gillman. The writing partners discuss their experience obtaining a manager and running their new production company – Verboten Films.
1.) When did you start writing screenplays and how many have you completed?
Jacob and I started writing together in early 2010. So far, we’ve written two features: Horse Girl (which won the 2011 Fellini award) and An Occasional Hell, which came together in late 2011. And in the past two years, we’ve amassed a whole collection of notebooks with ideas for more.
2.) How did winning the Fellini award propel your screenwriting career?
First of all, winning the Fellini award gave us a huge boost of confidence that inspired us to keep working and pushing forward with our writing, even when we were feeling less-than-optimistic. It gave us fantastic criticism to learn from and a sense of validation in our particular brand of storytelling. But more concretely, it helped us land a manager (more on that later).
3.) Tell us about your writing process.
To a certain extent, we’re still trying to work our writing process out. We approached our two screenplays in two very different ways. But we have a few key components we’ve learned work for us no matter how we ultimately write.
The first thing we do (something I would recommend to anyone that wants to write) is keep notebooks everywhere. If we think of something funny or see something that strikes us as potentially interesting, we write it down. Sometimes it’s a line of dialog or a phrase that we like. Sometimes it’s an undeveloped nugget of story. Regardless, we write it down. That way when we start ramping up the creative process to start a new project, we have a wealth of ideas to inspire us. Some are good and some are terrible, but they’re all better than staring at a blank page.
Once we have a general idea for what we want to write, we try to take a road trip together. There’s nothing like being forced to sit in a car together with no TV and no internet to foster some focused brainstorming. (And as a side note, I think that not being able to look each other in the eye makes it easier to pitch crappy ideas without being self-conscious or feeling judged.) This is where we develop the characters and construct the general story points.
Once we’ve pounded out a solid creative outline, we start writing. Here is where our approach is still in flux. With Horse Girl, we worked through each individual line of dialog as a team. It took forever and we argued quite a bit, but the final product was pre-edited and really nice shape. With An Occasional Hell, our second screenplay, we would discuss the content of the scene to be written, one of us would compose the scene by himself, and then we’d pass it back and forth editing, re-editing, and coming to compromises on the content. It still involved a lot of arguing, but it was faster. And the final product needed many more rewrites to get it to a draft we were comfortable showing around. So both approaches have their pros and cons. Of the two, we prefer the more meticulous “Horse Girl” model, but that’s only if we have the luxury of time.
4.) Do you have a manager now? If so, what was it like obtaining one?
Getting a manager is a tough thing, and we were lucky to snag one. After our success with the BlueCat Fellini award in early 2011, we were able to market Horse Girl as an “award winning screenplay.” With that kind of outside validation, we were able to get more people to put their eyes on it. We gave a copy to everyone we knew (after we’d registered it with the WGA, of course), and hoped that if enough people read it and enjoyed it, somehow a door would open for us. Luckily, a friend passed it to a friend who happened to be starting his own management company. He gave us a call, we took a meeting, and he offered to represent us.
In terms of advice, I know it’s cliché, but the best thing you can do is hone your craft and keep getting people to put their eyes on your work. This industry works through friends of friends of friends, and if you can impress people enough for them to start talking about you, you’re making a huge step forward.
5.) I understand you’ve started your second screenplay, titled “An Occasional Hell”. What’s it about?
An Occasional Hell (which we finished in early 2012) is a dark comedy about three small town church-goers trying to free themselves from the sense of imprisonment they experience in their daily lives. A pastor’s wife with social-anxiety disorder, a fetishist with a conservative spouse, and an abused housewife all try to discover themselves, only to face the consequences of breaking free. The three stories are separate but parallel, coinciding and intermingling through their association at the church, ultimately culminating in an interconnected web of events that lead to each story’s dramatic conclusion. It’s Magnolia had it been written and directed by John Waters.
6.) Is your writing process different now that you’re a more experienced screenwriter?
As I said, we’re still trying to work out the specifics of our writing process as a team, but overall, we’re learning to be more disciplined. Sometimes we have to write whether we want to or not; it’s generally better to keep moving forward, even if you’ll have to do more rewrites later. And since we’ve starting doing a little directing, we’ve become a lot more aware of real-world practicalities when writing, of how a scene can be shot for a budget. We do our best to not let it hamper our creativity, but it’s a useful thing to keep in mind.
7.) You have also started a production company called Verboten Films. Can you tell us a bit about that?
We used some of the Fellini Award prize money to open a production company we called “Verboten Films.” At first, we opened it with plans to try to raise money and shoot Horse Girl all on our own, but we realized early on that we’d be better off getting much more practice directing and navigating the world of a “filmmaker” before investing that much time and energy into a such an ambitious project. Instead, we’ve spent the past year using the Verboten Films label to direct music videos. So far, we’ve finished two low budget videos for a fantastic indie band in Los Angeles, and we’ve submitted our most recent, Baby Its Magic (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TDHE9Pbh2E), to a number of film festivals around the country. It was most recently featured at the Not Enough! Music and Arts Festival in Portland Oregon.
8.) What are your goals for the future?
Our long-term goal is to earn a living as a filmmaking duo, writing and directing movies that have a specific point of view. But in the short-term, we want to start directing narrative shorts to fill out our directors’ reel, gain some valuable experience, and give us something else to submit to festivals. And while we’re at it, we’re hoping to start working on our next screenplay. We’ve written a screenplay a year for the past two years, and I’d love to keep the tradition going.
9.) Would you recommend other screenwriters to enter the BlueCat Screenwriting Competition? Any advice for them?
I would absolutely recommend other screenwriters enter the BlueCat Screenwriting Competition. The constructive criticism alone is worth the price of admission. Whether you agree with everything they say or not (and you don’t always have to), it’s a fantastic resource to read professional opinions of your work. And don’t get discouraged; we’ve had some readers completely hate the screenplays we’ve written, even the one that won this competition. Not every screenplay is going to appeal to every reader, so keep at it. But always at least consider what your readers have to say.
Also, as a general rule, love your characters. Even your villains. People really respond when they’re reading a screenplay that feels like it has genuine affection for its subjects. Even if you’re abusing them, do it with love. If you’re indifferent to your characters, the audience will be too.
And finally, keep trying. We’ve lost most of the contests we’ve entered, but we won one of them too. Keep retooling and refining your work and keep putting it out there. You may never get anything made by putting things out there, but you’ll definitely never get anything made keeping it hidden on your computer’s desktop.