Articles & Advice

Amanda Overton – Young & Hungry

Amanda Overton began her scholarly adventure as a molecular biologist, working in genetic labs for a few years before she realized that line of work was far too micro a lens for her to explore the question of how people work. She jumped ship and began studying film and television, eventually graduating from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts with two masters degrees. Her thesis film, the teenage lesbian superhero webseries, Edge of Normal, sold to Big Frame for their Wonderly Channel.

Since graduating, Amanda has worked her way through some seriously excellent TV rooms including HBO’s True Blood and True Detective, Amazon’s Transparent, I Love Dick and The Tick, Netflix’s epic martial arts extravaganza Marco Polo, the upcoming Umbrella Academy, and the adaptation of Joe Abercrombie’s fantasy trilogy First Law. She just finished serving as Executive Story Editor on a TV adaptation of League of Legends, which brought her love of video games, epic fantasy, and complex, unique characters together under one magical banner.

How young and how hungry do you need to be to win a place on the Young & Hungry list?

You don’t need to be young — you just need to have a well-crafted, original script and the connections to get it out there. This took me 10 years to accomplish. So as to the “hungry” question, for me it was a matter of being tenacious — never relenting no matter how long it takes.

Describe your unique personal and professional background and the specific project that attracted industry interest?

In college I studied genetics and worked in several research labs. I loved genetics because I felt like I was unlocking the secrets of life — we were striving to understand how complex, organic systems work on a foundational level. 

I took a hard right turn and began studying film, eventually winding up at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. But as it turns out, my love of story-telling and my love of genetics aren’t that far removed — stories also strive to understand complex systems — why humans are the way we are, what binds us together, what makes us different, and how these similarities and differences express themselves in our societies… The geneticist in me is still trying to figure out how people work, but now on a more macro scale.

Most of my work taps into modern cultural anxieties and projects them into a heightened future or fantasy world. My pilot The Divide follows a brother and sister as they travel from California to Colorado during an apocalypse brought on by a man-made disease.

Their journey takes our modern fears and failures and re-evaluates them in a primitive, vast and gorgeous landscape; a violent and dangerous world that we all want to believe — despite no longer needing to struggle daily for survival — we still have the strength to endure. The siblings face relentless physical and emotional hurdles — and in doing so
hold a mirror up to our society and ask what in it is really worth fighting for?

My most recent pilot Moon follows the last bastion of humanity struggling to survive in a colony on the moon. It’s a desperate world, where a relatively few people’s decisions have immense weight, enough to alter the course of our entire species — a familiar landscape in our Trump, Kim Jong-Un world. Hope comes when a thief and her small group of salvage worker friends find a colony ship finally returned after its 300 year journey to a new earth. Now 122 people will get to leave this dying rock — but how do you choose those lucky souls? What in humanity is worth saving and who could possibly be qualified to make that choice?

What personal qualities do screenwriters need to make it?

Screenwriters need to have two mutually exclusive skill sets. First, you have to be able to sell yourself, and speak passionately about your own work. But once you convince a  producer or showrunner to buy into you, or your great ideas, you also need to be able to execute those stories, both in a script, and if you’re a TV writer, onscreen through every stage of the production process. It’s a tremendous amount of knowledge to master that can really only be learned on-the-job. Having a good mentor has been essential to my career growth.

Why did you decide to become a screenwriter above all other careers?

Mentors. Plain and simple. I wouldn’t be a screenwriter without the guidance from the filmmakers I’ve assisted the past 10 years. I worked for a writer-director who was kind enough to include me in every aspect of the industry with respect to her career — it wasn’t long before I realized if I wanted to be able to tell stories, I would at least need to understand how to write them. Becoming a screenwriter came organically out of the process of learning how others told stories.

How do you become manager bait?

I worked as a Script Coordinator for many years and was eventually promoted to writer. Being staffed on your own is a big draw for managers and agents, as is already having industry connections that will eventually get you hired. But ‘staffability’ is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what agents and managers are looking for — selling pitches, and eventually running a show, is what brings in the big bucks and they are definitely looking for that ambition and skill set.

Where do you get your creative inspiration?

I read. Or more aptly, listen to books while sitting in traffic or walking my dog. One of my favorites is lecture series called Big History — it looks for common themes across all disciplines and makes bold projections about where the world is headed based on where we’ve been. This is how I approach everything I encounter — I look for common threads in seemingly disparate places.

How do you decide which ideas are worthy of pursuing?

If I’m passionate about an idea, I pursue it. Yes, sometimes my agents or managers weigh in on what’s “salable,” but my work is so much more infectious if I love the themes and characters.

Do you have a writing brand in terms of interests you gravitate towards?

I write grounded sci-fi that feels like it could happen tomorrow. I focus on character stories that explore our differences, if only to show how similar we really are.

How do characterize the current state of the industry and opportunities for emerging?

The shifting landscape to short-order series is particularly tough for young writers. TV writing is an apprenticeship industry and the old network model, with 22 episode orders, was a good training ground for young talent. The WGA had protections in place to make sure these shows provided space for on-the-job instruction to occur. But more and more short-order series aren’t including lower levels on their writing staff, citing them as too risky an investment. If there is a staff writer spot it inevitably goes to promote an assistant that’s been promised the job through months (or years) of development work. Getting this coveted spot is now akin to winning the lottery — and many talented, experienced, hard-working young writers are stuck in a waiting game. I’d love to see more short-order shows recognize the apprenticeship nature of our industry, or see guild protections extend to these shows that now make up the bulk of our content.

How do you train and improve your writing craft?

I wrote a lot of sides and read a lot of scripts as a Script Coordinator. I also write a lot of original pitches or pitches based on some of my favorite books. Maybe these will sell, maybe they won’t, but this is how I figure out what themes and character dynamics I gravitate towards — which helps when an IP comes your way and you only have a weekend to whip up an original take.

What are the qualities of scripts you read that don’t get industry interest?

Honestly, the scripts that don’t get industry interest aren’t well-crafted. Compelling characters in a well-written, well-executed story almost always garner attention, regardless of subject. Individual ideas aren’t all that unique, but their execution is what sets them apart.

What advice do you have for screenwriters wanting to make next year’s Young & Hungry list?

Help those around you in anyway you can — people want to help those who’ve helped them. Be a good person and people will want to work with you again. Eventually the seeds of kindness sprout into wonderful, unexpected opportunities.

What is something that few people know about you?

I know kung fu!
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