Interview with Marilyn Fu (The Sisterhood of Night)
We sat down with Marilyn Fu, who is the screenwriter and co-producer of The Sisterhood of Night starring Georgie Henley, Kara Hayward, Kal Penn and Laura Fraser. She is a writer/reporter for LIFE Books, a research editor for T: The New York Times Style Magazine and a member of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, for which she moderates discussions with filmmakers, producers and actors. Here’s what she had to say about her journey:
BlueCat: Tell us a little bit about your backstory: have you always wanted to be a writer, where’d you go to school, what do you like to write, etc.
MF: I loved reading as a kid and I used to walk down the hallway at school with my nose in a book. That wasn’t exactly a friend-attractor! My big dream was to have a book published in the library one day and I was always writing little stories that were dark and romantic and complicated. I got into screenwriting because I had a professor at UPenn, Marc Lapadula, who sort of pulled me out of my hazy partying phase and said, Look, you’re pretty good. You should keep doing this. I liked poetry and playwriting and fiction too, but movies seemed like the most exciting and immediate way to tell a story and reach people. I still get such a thrill when I walk into a movie theater – it’s like walking into a church. I have a print of Charles Dickens by Robert William Buss where he’s in his study and different figments of his imagination are drifting around the room. It can be a little bit like that for me when I sit down to write, on a good day. I just dream and forage for interesting things to get on the page while eating a lot of junk food to stave off boredom.
BlueCat: What was your first job out of college?
MF: My first job was working in a video store by Columbia University where I was going to film school. The owner was this guy named Gary who answered the phone like the Moviefone guy – remember that? There were wall-to-wall stacks of videos and I’d have to swing around on a ladder like a crazy person to get them down. Then I’d go home with my bag stuffed with everything I could get my hands on and it was my film school phase so I was watching Kieslowski and Wong Kar Wai and Lina Wertmuller, all these beautiful artistic films in bulky plastic VHS cases. I remember watching a movie called Jesus’ Son with no idea that I’d make my first film with that whole producing team (Lydia Dean Pilcher, Elizabeth Cuthrell and David Urrutia).
BlueCat: What was the most important step in launching your screenwriting career?
MF: Well, I think writing as a career is an ongoing endeavor and I’m still figuring out how to write the things I love and make it a career. I do feel very lucky to have made a movie (The Sisterhood of Night) and I think the biggest thing that helped that along was the director, Caryn Waechter, and I being accepted into Tribeca All Access, which is a program that runs during the festival and connects underrepresented filmmakers with the industry – I’m Taiwanese American. My script for Sisterhood won the Creative Promise Award the year it was in TAA and we met our producer Lydia Dean Pilcher there. She brought on Elizabeth Cuthrell and David Urrutia, and they were our first fairy godmothers who really believed in the project and put in financing.
BlueCat: How do you feel about screenwriting competitions?
MF: I think they’re great. I think we have to keep finding ways to break the barriers that exist between really good writing, and the industry of producers, financiers, actors who can all join forces to turn it into an actual movie. At every stage there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors, a lot of other people and obstacles that can muddy this connection. So the more we can identify and access new writers and their work directly, the more transparent the whole movie-making process becomes and the better chance we have of seeing some quality movies in the marketplace. Competitions definitely help with that.
BlueCat: Tell us about your film, “The Sisterhood of Night.” What compelled you to write it?
MF: I adapted the screenplay from a short story by Steven Millhauser, so it was his imagination that first sparked everything. Around the time I read his story, my mom called to tell me she was selling the house I’d grown up in. She wanted me to come home and clean out my closet. I ended up sifting through old yearbooks and photos, notes my best friend passed me in class, mix tapes, journals. I still had a scrap of paper from my first boyfriend with my initials written in blood! Stuff like that. Millhauser’s story, which I interpreted as a sort of investigation into the secret life of teen girls, became the perfect skeleton with which to include all these artifacts from my teen years, “evidence” if you will, of what it means to be a teen girl. As a writer, so much randomness in my unconscious ends up in the work. At one pretty early stage of the script I was a reader for Bluecat, and that’s why the guidance counselor (who’s played by Kal Penn) is named Gordy after your very own Bluecat founder!
BlueCat: What was the most challenging part about writing “The Sisterhood of Night” for you?
MF: It’s strange to say, but I had such a beautiful time writing and rewriting the script that there wasn’t a most challenging part necessarily. I had so much support. Our producers felt that it should be set in modern times with social media instead of the 90’s, and that was a big and very smart change. On set I was writing new scenes on the fly and figuring out what character beats were missing and filling them in. I was so immersed in the world of the movie that I could slip in and out of the characters automatically. There’s so much stuff we didn’t use that we could definitely make a TV series out of it. I think the most challenging part was actually realizing that to get the screenplay made I had to be more than just the writer. This meant taking an active role in the financing and casting and the discovery of our audience, I mean just about everything. Everyone on our team does their job and much more.
BlueCat: What step of the process is “The Sisterhood of Night” in?
MF: We’ll have news on our commercial release very soon. And we’ll be the centerpiece film at the Woodstock Film Festival on October 18.
BlueCat: What’s your favorite piece of advice for aspiring writers?
MF: It’s hard to say because everyone’s so different. But I think finding ways to stay inspired is important for all of us. Those things for me include the obvious like reading a lot and watching movies, but also going to art galleries, wandering around NYC, daydreaming, people-watching, putting my toes in the ocean, being alone, listening to music, knowing what’s going on in the world, daydreaming more.
BlueCat: What’s next for you as a writer?
MF: I just finished a horror script which was basically a big experiment to see if I could write a genre movie with my sensibility in it. So I’m putting that project together now. I’m sitting in on an acting workshop next month with Larry Moss. I’m curious how that will affect my characters. I’d love to write for TV so I have some pilots in the pipeline. I just want to keep getting better, trying out new things and seeing where that takes me. I’m ready for anything.