|Rebecca Sonnenshine is a graduate of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. After working for several years as a production and development executive, Sonnenshine produced the feature film BUNNY (2000), for which she earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination (John Cassavetes Award). She also produced the feature film REVERSION, which premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. She was awarded a 1999 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting for her feature drama MERMAID DREAMS. She wrote the feature film HAPPILY EVEN AFTER, which made its debut at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival. In 2004, she was selected to participate in the Berlinale Talent Campus, and she attended the Film Independent (FIND) Director's Lab with her feature project SEE ME THROUGH. She co-wrote the feature AMERICAN ZOMBIE, which premiered at the 2007 Slamdance Film Festival and was released theatrically and on DVD through Cinema Libre. Her other feature writing credits include WITHIN, currently in post-production, and THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY, which opened theatrically in October 2008.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in a small northern California town called Oroville. It wasn’t exactly the middle of nowhere – but you could definitely see it from there. My parents had both grown up in big cities, so they were escaping to the country. Lately, I’ve been entertaining people with tales of growing up in the “original green movement” – my parents experimented with solar panels, alternative fuels, growing and raising their own food, water conservation, building a geodesic dome. It was a very conservative, red-state place to grow up and we were quite the kooky, fish-out-of-water family. Later, we moved to Santa Cruz, which was much more liberal and bohemian and a better fit for all of us. So I grew up in two VERY different places – and both of those places gave me a lot of material to work with.
When did you find yourself first interested in films? Writing?
I learned to read at an early age, so first I fell in love with books and wanted to be a novelist. Later I fell in love with movies, and I set my sights on making them. My cousins had an early video camera system and we spent hours and hours making ridiculous films and music videos. Spoofs, if I recall. It took me a long time to realize that people actually WROTE movies and didn’t just make them up as they went along.
You went to UCLA and majored in film. What was their program like? Your experiences?
When I was a high school senior, I decided that I wanted to go to the UCLA film school and ONLY the UCLA film school. So I applied to UCLA. End of story. End of applications. Cocky! Then, because my mother insisted, I applied to UC Santa Cruz as a back-up, even though I had no intention of going there. Luckily, I got into UCLA. When I applied to the film school (as a sophomore), I got lucky again and was accepted into the program. That’s been my mode of operating ever since: if I give myself something to fall back on, I’ll probably fall back on it. So I try and remove safe options and give myself NO CHOICE but to take the risk and move forward.
The UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television is a small department in a very big school, so it made a nice change to know all of my fellow students and professors. I loved film school. Really fun. And really hard work. I think you have to put a lot into the program to get anything out of it. Just like the real world, you have to be disciplined and a self-starter. I took every class available to undergraduates, then moved on to some theater classes and “independent study” classes (so I could continue to check out cameras and lights). I was fascinated with tech stuff, so I learned how to operate every piece of equipment in that department. Knowledge that is now, of course, hopelessly out-of-date. Final Cut Pro is a mystery to me; give me a flatbed and I’ll cut a film for you (I think this dates me).
In any case, there are many valuable things to get out of film school, but the MOST valuable thing is friends and colleagues. Unlike writing, film is not a one-man show. You need lots of help to make a film and must, in return, help others.
Strangely enough, I didn’t do a whole lot of writing in film school. I wrote one-and-a-half terrible feature scripts, but I remember lots of the good advice my screenwriting professor gave to me. It just took a few years to sink in. I really learned to write after I’d graduated from film school. I went to work for a variety of production companies – never as an intern, because I was always broke – but as a receptionist or an assistant. I was immediately taught how to read and evaluate scripts and write coverage. I read all sorts of scripts – slush-pile submissions, hot specs, pet projects from various producers, foreign pre-sales (when I worked in distribution), writing samples. I read and read and realized, “I can do this better.” I think you have to read a lot of scripts in order to learn how to write one. Mostly you learn what not to do, which is valuable information.
Once I started working in the film business, I learned everything I hadn’t learned in film school. Writing, development, the business side of filmmaking. The real world is the best place to learn all that non-arty stuff. So I highly recommend film school – as long as you don’t spend too much time there and don’t expect to learn everything you need to know about filmmaking.
You were a Nicholl Fellow in 1999 with your script “Mermaid Dreams.” What inspired that script? What was the fellowship process like for you and how did your life change after you won?
I’d been working in the industry for a few years, learning a lot about producing but doing very little creative work, very little writing. And then I had a serious personal crisis that made me reevaluate what I was doing. I decided I didn’t want to work for someone else for the rest of my life, so I left my steady job and started writing. I freelanced a bunch of weird jobs, but mostly I wrote.
MERMAID DREAMS was inspired by bits and pieces of my life. It’s hard to explain exactly where stories come from, but I will say that the script reflects my personality – sort of tragic and hopeful at the same time. I’m sort of embarrassed to say that I wasn’t clear about what a big deal the Nicholl Fellowship was when I entered the contest. I just sent two scripts off and hoped for the best. I definitely didn’t do a lot of hand-wringing over it – I just advanced and advanced and was really surprised when I won. I wasn’t quite prepared for the deluge of phone calls and attention. It was a huge honor and changed my life overnight. I got representation and was suddenly going on dozens of meetings all over town. I quit most of my silly temp jobs – though I still worked as a freelance reader – and devoted myself to writing.
MERMAID DREAMS is one of those scripts that people really like, but it hasn’t been made. Yet. It’s been optioned several times. It’s a pretty timeless story, so I hope that someday it might be made. Hope springs eternal.
I think that I probably would have eventually made it into the film business on my own. But the Nicholl definitely kick-started my career and most importantly, it proved to myself that I could have a future as a writer. After I won, I actually started referring to myself as a writer.
In 2000, you produced but did not write a film called “Bunny,” written and directed by Mia Trachinger. How did you come to produce the film? What was your experience like making the film? What did you learn as a writer from producing someone else’s work?
We made “Bunny” in the summer of 1999, then hit the festival circuit in 2000. I’d taken some time off to write, but I was still dabbling with the idea that I would devote myself to producing (not writing). I met Mia at UCLA and decided to produce the film along with her. It was very low budget, very ambitious. We shot on super 16mm over 20 days. Producing low-budget films is very nuts-and-bolts filmmaking. Dirty and fun. We all drove trucks (I drove the motor home). You learn where to compromise and where to fight for the script. How to maximize a budget and maintain the integrity of a vision. In a lot of ways, it’s the complete opposite of writing. Extremely practical stuff. I have a very detailed knowledge of how films are made once the script is finished, from the contracts to the lighting package to the production accounting – and everything in between.
To be honest, I try not to think about producing when I’m writing, because it can be very distracting. But when a producer tells me, “This is too expensive, we need to change it,” I know exactly how to address the problems. I know how to make things less expensive, less complicated, how to minimize locations and speaking parts, how to turn night shoots into day shoots, how to cut things to the bone in order to streamline a schedule, how to make roles more attractive for actors. And I hope all of that makes me a valuable part of the filmmaking process.
Last year, I ended up producing another film with Mia called REVERSION. Same sort of budget, though this time we ventured into the brave new world of digital technology. Tapeless! Pure data! Very scary and very exciting. I learned a lot of new stuff to stash in my virtual filmmaking toolbox. The film premiered at Sundance 2008, then hit the festival circuit. But seriously, I’m hanging up my producing shoes. Ultra low-budget filmmaking is very stressful and I’m not equipped to handle it anymore – I’m too accustomed to the quieter writing life. I’m sort of a tough bitch when I’m producing, and I really prefer to live a more mellow life.
The film you wrote “Happily Even After” came out in 2004. It was directed by Unsu Lee. Can you tell us about writing that script? How it came to be made? And what was your experience with it during production and once it was released?
I wrote HAPPILY right after I wrote MERMAID DREAMS and entered it into the Nicholl. It advanced all the way to the semi-finals, but didn’t win. So of course that’s the one that got made. It was my first produced feature script, so it was all very exciting. It was set in San Francisco, and I was there for the entire shoot. It was small and indie, but I loved every minute of it. I loved hanging out with the crew and the charming actors. Being a writer on a set is the exact opposite of being producer – there’s not much to do. You have zero responsibility – essentially, your job is done.
HAPPILY was a romantic drama and it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival before having a successful run on the festival circuit. Festival screenings are the greatest – everyone wants to love your film. Now it’s on DVD, though not widely available. The director just told me that the film has been screening in Europe lately – so it goes to show you that films have a long life.
In March 2007, “American Zombie,” on which you were credited as a writer along with Grace Lee, the director, was released. How did that script come about? What was your experience like before and after the film was finished?
Grace Lee and I are close friends, both UCLA graduates. We decided that we’d love to do a low-budget feature together, so we came up with the idea of a fictional documentary about zombies. It’s definitely a genre-bender – a project that mixes satire and horror. I’d never written something like it, but I HAD worked on several real documentaries. Our process was to brainstorm a bunch of characters and situations and scientific explanations for the existence of zombies, then imagine we had shot documentary footage gathering that information and what that might have looked like. Then we went about “arranging” that footage into a narrative using the standard devices of a documentary film – following four main characters, an event that provides a ticking clock, “unexpected” elements of behind-the-scenes footage, talking heads. In a lot of ways, we went through the motions of making a real documentary. I think that helped give the film a tone of authenticity, even though the subject was completely absurd.
You can’t make an ambitious (lots of locations, large cast, special effects and makeup, night shoots) low-budget feature without a very tight script. That’s definitely a lesson I’ve learned from producing. But we also built improvisation into the script by including a list of questions for each scene that could allow the actors to expand that scene. The actors were all amazing and smart and totally sold the reality of the film. I spent almost every day on the set, mostly to help everyone keep the details of the alternate-zombie-reality straight. If you want all the details and like DVD commentaries, you can rent AMERICAN ZOMBIE and listen to the hopefully-not-too-boring story of making the film.
The film premiered at Slamdance in 2007 and went on to have a very successful festival run. Cinema Libre released the film theatrically in 2008 and now you can Netflix it. I learned a lot about marketing and publicity and self-promotion over the course of making the film. More stuff for the virtual toolbox.
A drama-thriller you wrote called “Within” will be coming out soon. How did that story come about? How did you end up working with the director, Hanelle Culpepper?
WITHIN is a thriller that will be released on DVD in 2009. It’s basically a twist on THE BAD SEED – and it was one of the scripts I wrote during my Nicholl Fellowship year. Hanelle and I both live in Los Angeles, but strangely enough, we met in Berlin (at the Berlin Talent Campus). Once we were back in Los Angeles, I gave her a couple of scripts to look at and her company ended up optioning WITHIN. She’s talented and fun to work with. I think everyone has a little trepidation when working with kids, but the kids in the film were the most adorable, well-behaved, charming kids I’ve ever met. They should be cloned.
Earlier this year, a film you wrote titled “The Haunting of Molly Hartley” was released. You’re credited as a writer along with John Travis. It was directed by Mickey Liddell. What was the genesis of this project? How was working with Mickey Liddell? The producers? How involved were you with the film?
A couple of years ago, I wrote a spec that got me lots of meetings around town (but ultimately didn’t sell). Mickey Liddell liked my writing and hired me to do a rewrite of THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY. The project went through many incarnations, and I ended up working on that script for over a year. Both Mickey and his producing partner, Jen Hilton, are really fun to work with. They were very kind in keeping me very involved through the production and post-production and marketing of the film. It was a very big release – 2600 screens – so I learned even more about marketing and promotion on this film. It was pretty exciting to walk through The Grove and see a dozen kiosks with giant posters. I’ve actually continued working with them; we were pitching a television project this summer and hopefully will be working on a sequel to THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY soon.
Who are you currently repped by, and what is your relationship like with them? On a day-to-day basis? Week-to-week?
My manager is Brad Mendelsohn of New Wave Entertainment. I’ve been with him for several years and we’re pretty much a perfect match in terms of personality and taste. This summer, I signed with new agents, Bradley Glenn and Dino Carlaftes of Kaplan, Stahler, Gumer, Braun. They are both really energetic and smart. I’m not a high-maintenance client (I hope), but I keep in close contact with them through e-mail. I probably talk to them on the phone at least once or twice a week. They send me on meetings, and I do my best to be charming and fascinating and make those meetings mean something. Working with a rep is a partnership, and you have to make sure you hold up your end of the deal.
Do you do much research when preparing to write a script?
It depends on the script. I’ve done several genre scripts that involve a lot of research – recent projects have involved research into carnivorous insects, turn-of-the-century New York, witchcraft, ghost mythology, Jewish mysticism, zombie lore. But I also write more straightforward dramas that involve zero research and rely mainly on my observations of human nature. I get most of my best ideas when I’m traveling – I think it’s the fact that I break up my daily routine. I’m a super geek girl – I like museums, I like to read, I like taking classes, I like to travel. I like to people-watch, I like to talk to strangers (not in a creepy way, I’m just interested in hearing good stories) and I’m a hopeless eavesdropper. Hopeless! Oh, and I like to walk. Walking is a window on the world around you.
In regards to pitch meetings, do you have any recommendations or pointers for other writers? What is your process like?
I don’t know if I have any definitive words of wisdom. I’ve always been a shy person, but I definitely have a streak of ham in me. Personally, I NEVER wing it in a pitch meeting (though I know some people love the thrill of winging it). I always prepare a detailed pitch, then work out some answers for any questions the exec might have. Preparation makes me feel confident – and it’s very important to be confident and excited about your project. It’s also important to have fun with it – you’re not operating on someone’s spinal cord. You’re telling a story. You’re enticing someone. How fun is that? One more tip: don’t rush through a pitch. Take a deep breath and take your time. I spend part of my pitch preparation playing an instrument and singing. Forcing yourself to slow down and sing the song at the right tempo is good practice for slowing down and pitching the story at the right tempo.
What about feedback on your work? How do you handle that?
I’m very open to notes. I started out on the other side of the table – in development – so I used to be the one GIVING the notes. Most people just want to make the script better and put a lot of thought into their notes, so I’m always willing to listen to any and all ideas. I’m pretty good at deciphering notes, too – sometimes you’ll get a random note, but you can usually pinpoint it to a very specific problem in the script.
If you’re asking people for feedback, you have to choose your readers carefully. If you’re receiving feedback you didn’t ask for (from executives or producers), at least give the appearance of being open-minded.
Do you rely much on feedback from friends and/or your representation?
I have a few friends that I ask to read my work. Not all of them are screenwriters – my best readers are a friend who is a novelist and a friend who just likes to read my scripts. I also read for a few friends in return – though I’m very selective about it these days. I basically only read for people I really, really like (I’m a good note-giver, I think). And I definitely rely on my manager for feedback on my scripts. Some people join writers groups, but I can’t handle the volume of reading required – I think I burned out working in the business for so many years.
What’s a typical writing day like for you?
I’m a day person. Not a morning person, not a night owl. I like to write in the middle of the day, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Not very bohemian, I know. In the morning, I like to sleep and go hiking. At night, I like to watch Laker games, go to the movies, hang out, have cocktails. I’ll venture into my favorite coffee shop to write every once in a while, but I like writing alone. I try and focus on getting a page count every day – usually between 5 and 10 pages a day. That’s my system and I’m sticking to it. Sometimes when I have a meeting during the day, I get all hyped up and find it hard to calm down enough to write. But I definitely try to write every day, even if I’m just writing notes about future ideas.
How do you prepare before you begin a script? Do you write an outline or treatment?
I believe in outlining and careful preparation – but that’s very much in line with my personality. Outlining is not the fun part of writing a script – it’s the heavy lifting. My process goes something like this: I have an idea, I write a bunch of notes and decide if it’s a movie or not. I do a loose outline of scenes, then I try and structure it with index cards on the wall. From those cards, I write a detailed outline. Rearrange the index cards. Rewrite the outline. And then I’m ready to write the script. If it’s an assignment, then I usually have to write a treatment from the outline before I can go forward with the script. I think everyone has to experiment and come up with their own process. When I was first starting out, I’d always think, “I don’t know how to write a script!” and crack out all the screenwriting books. Now I have a method that works for me.
How do you tackle rewrites?
Every rewrite is different. I always print out my script and mark it up like a development executive. I like literally seeing the red pen. Sometimes, if I’m in serious trouble, I have to re-outline the whole script and re-do the index cards. But I feel like my careful preparation now prevents me (I hope) from making critical structural errors.
What things do you feel more writers need to recognize about themselves and the industry as a whole?
I think everyone realizes screenwriting is a difficult road. A big gamble. It will probably take longer to succeed than you imagine, though some people get lucky very quickly. It’s a hard thing to pursue part time, so I’d suggest throwing yourself into it as completely as possible.
I think when we’re young, we want to believe that if we just write a great script, our talent will see us through. Simple. But a lot of other factors are involved - luck and timing and serendipity. Some people find this randomness discouraging, but I find it gives me a reason to persevere. Hope is the thing with features, you know. Persistence is the shiny golden sparkly key in this business.
Also, making your way in the film business requires a laundry list of “other” skills. You have to be disciplined, a self-starter, a fast worker. When you go to meetings, you are expected to be charming, fun, entertaining. Good in a room, as they say. Someone that people want to work with. You have to be able to pitch a story, take notes, accept rejection graciously. Screenwriting is more social that you might imagine. Embrace it.
And never forget karma. Try to be kind and helpful to others, and don’t trash each other’s scripts. Or strangers’ scripts. Be nice! It will make you a better writer.
As a woman, do you find it difficult at all working in the business? Is it a male-dominated world still? Is that ever a problem, do you feel?
I went to film school, so I’m used to being around a whole bunch of guys. The films I’ve produced have actually employed primarily female key crew members – writer, producer, director, DP. But as a screenwriter, I feel like I’m always bumping up against a business model that suggests women are a niche audience. As in, women don’t watch movies and female stars can’t open a film. I’m not sure that business model is accurate. But there it is and you have to be aware of that if you’re writing stuff with female characters.
What are you working on now?
I’m pitching a half-hour single-camera television project about zombies with Grace Lee. How could we resist? Everyone loves zombies. I’ve also had a great response to a couple of original pilots I wrote. On the feature front, I’m just finishing a gothic thriller that takes place in the Lower East Side tenements at the turn-of-the-century. I’m working on a ghost thriller called THE FOLLOWING. And I’m working on a new drama, TEACHER, about a thirty-something woman who moves into her mother’s empty house and starts up an affair with her old high school English teacher. And by drama, I mean a good story with a lot of dark, comedic elements.
Finally, what are some things that you know now that you wish you'd known when you were first starting out? Also, what you can say in terms of being “pigeonholed” as writer? Have you been, do you feel?
The standard advice is that it’s best to find a genre and stick with it. It’s good advice – just not easy to follow. I see how it might be confusing if you write broad comedies AND erotic thrillers AND teen horror AND animated family films. It’s all about branding yourself as a writer, finding your niche. So I’ve tried to establish a range for myself, a territory that stretches between drama and horror/thriller. I skate around that rink with my sparkly roller-skates. It’s fun. I love drama, but I also love the genre stuff. I was that geek girl who went to the midnight movies with all the boys. I feel like that range gives me plenty of arenas to work in.
Finally, take all advice with a grain of salt. A lot of this business is trial and error. You’ll probably devise your own method of working. No one has the magic potion – but try and enjoy the pursuit of it.