We have another Young & Hungry couple on our radar.
Connie O’Donahue is a Sundance Episodic Story Lab Fellow currently living in Riverton, Wyoming, where she works for Wyoming PBS and radio station KCWC. Winner of the 2018 New York Television Festival (with her writing partner Jeremy Nielsen), Official Artist of the 2015 New York Television Festival, and alumna of the ABC Daytime Writers Development Program, her feature screenplays have garnered awards from the Austin Film Festival, Big Bear International Film Festival, Film In Arizona, and the Kairos Prize.
Jeremy Nielsen was stabbed in the face on the first day of his first real job. His current job is as a college professor at Central Wyoming College where he is the Associate Professor of Film. In a former life, Nielsen worked in film production as a cinematographer, shooting films that have played from the Los Angeles Film Festival to Slamdance, to every movie theater in South Korea one summer. A Sundance Fellow in the Episodic Story Lab, Nielsen was a finalist at the 2018 Austin Film Festival and his (and his writing partner Connie O’Donahue) script Ticker won the 2018 New York Television Festival.
How young and how hungry do you need to be to win a place on the 2018 Young & Hungry list?
Not sure what the median age & hunger level are for this list, but we are both. There’s no doubt that we are hungry. My students (Connie’s classmates) mock us about the term “young”, but our grandparents are psyched for us. We think it’s an asset to be older and wiser and perhaps we are proof that good things can happen outside of the standard industry locale.
Describe your unique personal and professional background and the specific project(s) that attracted industry interest?
I (Jeremy) spent over a decade working my way up the grip/electric crew ladder, eventually working up to gaffer. I wanted to make the jump to Director of Photography and decided to produce and hire myself. I needed a script to shoot and tried my hand at writing and everything changed. After writing, producing and shooting a couple of features the lure of screenwriting overtook my other pursuits. But, like most writers, I needed a day job, so I headed back to grad school and earned an MFA in Film and Media Arts, eventually taking a job as a professor at a college in a small rural town in Wyoming. One day, a new student named Connie showed up in class, and her writing was far and away from anything I had read.
Together, we decided to find a project to work on as a team. We initially wanted to create a show we could produce and film locally. Due to some unanticipated circumstances, that project never developed, but our working method did, so we went about creating a new idea, an idea that was free of the bounds of self-producing and strictly formed under the mantra of unique circumstance, populated with compelling characters.
After a brainstorm we had two ideas; a horse in a hazmat suit, and a traveling snake oil salesman. Through the effort of combining these ideas, we created Devil’s Due, a revisionist-history western, set in the 1950s. On a whim, we submitted it to and were accepted into the Sundance Episodic Story Lab. While there we received tutelage from some of the industry’s most successful and creative showrunners and writers.
Our story developed into a piece that featured our unique voice, born from our experiences and geography. We followed that up with Ticker, a dystopian drama that explored the lengths people are willing to go to in order to survive after the collapse of the global economy. That one seems to have struck a chord with people, especially in light of today’s staggering wage inequality and the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. Ticker was a finalist at the Austin Film Festival and won Best Dramatic Pilot at the New York Television Festival.
What personal qualities do screenwriters need to make it?
It sounds so cliché, but you’ve got to believe in yourself because if you can’t get excited about your own work and what you bring to the table, you’re never going to get anyone else to believe in you either. Be willing to take risks, but try to anticipate the consequences (good and bad, intentional and unintended) of every decision you make, because somewhere in the process there’s going to be someone who will ask you why you made the choices you did, and you want to be able to speak intelligently about that. And surround yourself with people who want you to succeed as much as you do. Writing can be a really insulated, solitary process, and you spend a lot of time inside your own head. We’re fortunate in that, as a team, we’re able to maintain momentum because we rarely hit a low point at the same time. Sometimes all you need is one other person saying, ‘Try it again. I think you can do it.”
Why did you decide to become a screenwriter above all other careers?
Jeremy comes from the world of film production, having worked from G&E on up through DP and writer/producer. But I think there’s always been a part of him that needed to mentor others, and he’s got this generosity of spirit that led him to share his own love of filmmaking with others – from kids in the juvenile justice system to a nonprofit youth program, and eventually to becoming the only professor in the state of Wyoming to offer a degree in film and episodic television.
As for myself, I (Connie) took a more circuitous route to screenwriting, working my way through a series of careers from waiting tables at a retirement home to copyediting reports about nuclear medicine and interventional radiology. Back then, I wrote for the sheer pleasure of it. The desire to write professionally was always there but it seemed like an impossibility. I think a lot of women have found themselves in a similar situation. When you’re a single mother living paycheck to paycheck, you’re often faced with difficult choices, and putting your own dreams on hold so that those you care about can pursue theirs is an unfortunate reality, though hopefully, the societal pressure to do that is lessening.
Eventually, I went back to school and got into a film program that was incredibly hands-on and very supportive. I had to petition to get accepted into the screenwriting class (my apologies to that poor guidance counselor who I bugged for months on end), but I’m glad I persisted because that’s where I met Jeremy. We began writing together almost immediately. Our drive and our writing style just synced, and we pushed one another until we felt we were ready to throw our hat into the ring and enter Sundance. Now I can’t imagine doing anything but writing. It’s my raison d’etre. So we came to screenwriting via two completely different paths, but once those paths converged, we knew we had something rather unique to bring to the table.
How do you become agent/manager bait?
I think it boils down to a couple key things. First, you have to work at it. What’s that saying? The only way to become a writer is to write? I would add that you also must read. Read everything. Good scripts. Bad scripts. Scripts that inspire you and scripts that make you want to throw in the towel. Novels. Poems. Advertising copy. You can learn a great deal from those who have come before you.
Don’t be precious about your material. Understand that it’s a collaborative process and first and foremost a business, so don’t bristle when other people offer their suggestions. Know that you’re capable of coming up with more than one great idea. And get out there and network. You might hate it. It might suck. Too bad. It’s part of the job. You have to be good in a room, partly for the sake of your own career, and partly because you’re representing your agent/manager as well, and his or her reputation is on the line right there beside your own. Be curious in the world. Learn a little bit about a lot of things, and a lot about those things that really speak to you. Study history, sociology, criminal justice, psychology – it’s not enough anymore to just be good at doing what thousands of other people are good at. Nurture what makes you unique, and respect the uniqueness of others.
Where do you get your creative inspiration?
For us, it’s all about the characters. They’re the audience’s way into a story. Until they care about the WHO, the WHAT doesn’t matter a rip. If you put a cardboard cutout in front of an erupting volcano, or set it adrift on a life raft, nobody’s going to care, because we have zero emotional investment in the cardboard. Fortunately, we’ve both had wildly different experiences with a wide variety of characters in real life – from Jeremy getting stabbed in the face on his first day of work in a correctional facility, to me (Connie) hitchhiking down the coast of Western Australia in a convoy of semis (okay, my mother probably doesn’t need to know that part) and we infuse our work with bits and pieces of the people and places we have known.
If you’re a people watcher, you’re surrounded by inspiration. Then it’s just a matter of taking the characters we care about and putting them in a situation that challenges everything they think they know and want to protect about themselves.
How do you decide which ideas are worthy of pursuing?
Everyone is capable of producing interesting ideas. Lots of stories are worth telling, but finding the right timing in your life is key. You will live with an idea for months or even years so finding a big picture connection to the work is an important motivator. If an initial idea leads to questions and a quest to find answers, then you owe it to the characters to follow it through. Ultimately, stories for the screen desire audience participation, but first off, they demand author participation; if we find ourselves participating, by asking questions, then we go deeper.
Do you have a writing brand in terms of interests you gravitate towards?
We like to think of ourselves as monster hunters, because we are constantly on the lookout for a new way to take a primordial fear and bring it to life. Fear of death, fear of becoming irrelevant, fear of losing control. Those stories can happen in a variety of settings, to a variety of people, and our job boils down to finding a combination of the two that will resonate with an audience on a very personal level.
Our bent has been grounded sci-fi because we enjoy world-building, but our current project is a contemporary piece set in middle America. That’s the thing about monsters – we’ve all got them, and although they manifest in different ways, there isn’t a person alive who doesn’t have one or two hiding in their closet waiting to devour them. We gravitate toward stories that drag those monsters into the light, whether it’s in the reimagined world of a nuclear wild west or the soft sexism of the oil and gas industry. Our work tends to be dark and gritty, but accessible. Like a pit bull in a Christmas sweater.
How do characterize the current state of the industry and opportunities for emerging writers?
Recently, an executive pointed out to me, “there are only 52 covers of Entertainment Weekly each year, and 400 shows competing for that cover.” That is incredibly exciting because while it means there are more TV shows being created, which impacts the selling market, it also means that this is a time for wild risks. Creativity is being rewarded and that is inspiring.
How do you train and improve your writing craft?
Writing, Reading, Watching, Re-writing. Repeat. Talent is subjective, but dedication is not.
What are the qualities of scripts you read that don’t get industry interest?
We both read a lot. I (Jeremy) teach college screenwriting courses and Connie regularly volunteers to read for festival competitions. There is no recipe for a successful script, but there are tried and true ingredients. Your stories need the freedom to develop and ironically, that freedom comes from structure. For a script to succeed and speak to the reader, it must succeed on two levels; the page and the structure.
At the base level, a script must contain proper grammar and spelling; have characters and conflict, and be in the correct format. As you move up the level of hierarchy, the demands on the writing increase; realistic dialog evolves into artistic and compelling dialog. Prose that isn’t confusing evolves into prose that paints a picture in the reader’s mind, with a minimum amount of words. Exposition that simply provides background evolves into exciting expositional action that can turn a story on its heels and keep the reader guessing. Structurally, a script must hit some certain, unavoidable moments, moments that have risen to the top of story structure and always work. Things like conflict, characters, goals, protagonists, and antagonists.
You must be able to write on both the size of a single page and the scale of an entire story. If you cannot, you won’t get interest.
What advice do you have for screenwriters wanting to make next year’s Young & Hungry list?
Consistently practice. Protect your practice time. Tell a story you care about. Be sure to seek support (friends and family) and feedback (people who can be objective).
What is something that few people know about you?
We’re both total dorks. Our brainstorming meetings are somewhere on the spectrum between a college midterm cram session and an episode of Jeopardy where every category is ‘Obscure Movie Quotes.’ We run those meetings like a mini writers’ room, with a lot of give and take, because we both thrive in a collaborative environment. And, while we take our work very seriously, we are careful never to take ourselves too seriously, or become precious about our own ideas or pages. We’re both looking for the best story, and it doesn’t matter who comes up with it. It’s a lot of hard work, but a hell of a lot of fun as well.