T. Siena is one of ISA’s Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2020. Born in the US and raised in a rural Italian village, her earliest memories are of hiding in the forest around Gypsy campfires and listening to the Romani people’s music. When she began writing, her tales emerged as raw, but lyrical prose. After years of studying the masters of storytelling, honing her skills, and learning to trust her voice, her first novel Kentucky Blood, was endorsed by best-selling authors Tom Franklin and Dennis Lehane. Her latest screenplay, Border Dogs was chosen as one of two Grand Prize winners of ISA’s Fast Track Competition in 2019.
Being of two worlds and of a family of cultural and religious opposites, she has enjoyed multiple perspectives and inhabited many roles, including mother, teacher, businesswoman, optometric physician, and founder of an animal sanctuary. But her passions have remained unchanged and she looks forward to creating more compelling stories in prose and pictures that have something unique to say, and make us feel less alone in our increasingly fragmented landscapes.
What was the script that won you a spot on the ISA Top 25 Writers To Watch and what is it about?
Border Dogs-el Corrido de los Perros is a pilot for a 1-hour TV series. This high-stakes, character-driven, modern Western is set in a small community near the Arizona-Mexico border. A notorious, mixed-race coyote and pawnshop owner and an anglo, ex-border patrol superagent square off in an old mining town that has been the convergence of multiple cultures and bloody conflict for centuries. This battle, on the surface, is that of old-world cunning vs. new world tech that will send shock waves into the small community, and will forever change the landscape and its citizens.
What inspired your story and why do you think it resonated with the judges?
After living in Hispanic communities and working on Indian reservations in Arizona as an eye doctor for over 20 years, I have witnessed an incredible complication of the lives of these people and their politics in the wake of the Patriot Act. I believe that the judges found the subject matter timely and compelling and a fresh take on these dynamics.
What are you exploring thematically in your screenplay?
That the old ideals of colonialism, separation, and dominion must give way to real cultural evolution for communities to survive our rapidly changing world. And that as Michelle Obama so eloquently said, “the difference between a broken community and a thriving one is the presence of women who are valued.”
What aspects of your life experience found their way into the story?
On an intellectual level, as I was raised in a complicated family with parents whose ideals and moral postures represented polar opposites, I believe I have a unique insight and ability to tell stories that accurately reflect the world and render complex characters and situations that resonate with a wide audience. On a practical level, I understand criminals and would-be saints, know a lot about guns and the people on both sides of the law who wield them.
How did you approach the writing process?
While I have been creating worlds and characters in my mind since I can remember, I began writing with the intention of honing my craft many years ago. I adored literature especially the long-form-and aspired to be a novelist. My first novel, Kentucky Blood, now being revised at the request of my literary agent, read more like an entire multi-season TV series only in the wrong format…I’m working on that now.
What feedback did you get during development and how did it contour subsequent iterations of your story?
When I began Border Dogs I also tried to write it as prose, a short story, then a novel, but I just couldn’t fit the form. So I began to study screenwriting. I used dozens of resources, including online classes and reading as many screenplays as I could find. When I had a draft I thought was ready to show to someone, I hired an excellent editor, Matt Bird, the author of The Secrets of Story – a book I also highly recommend to writers in any medium. I used Matt’s notes and created the draft that I finally began to send to screenwriting contests.
What personal qualities do successful screenwriters need to make it?
So many. But if I had to pull out the most relevant, I would say an unquenchable curiosity about the world and the real-life stories that play around us every day, and the ability to uniquely and clearly process these and distill them into powerful and evocative stories that are so relevant to the human condition that they appeal to a universal audience.
What misconceptions have you discovered about establishing a screenwriting career?
And I’m laughing now… pretty much everything I ever thought was a misconception. Mostly because I knew nothing of the world at all other than admiring the finished products ie. film and TV.
I can say, unequivocally, that the best education I have received in the industry has come from the ISA. When I first watched Craig James’s YouTube video How to Get an Agent or Manager, I was intrigued by this community that was created by and for screenwriters and whose sole purpose was to assist them in getting their stories into the world.
I joined immediately, have made use of the generous and invaluable resources the ISA offers, and have had a dramatic elevation of my craft and knowledge.
Other than writing, how do you train and improve your writing craft?
While my writing has always benefitted from a rhythm of taking in stories in books/audiobooks, TV, film etc. and rendering my own stories, I have recently realized how dependent the quality of my work is on my own personal growth, and that what tends to hold me back from my best writing isn’t a technical skill, like how to write more scintillating dialogue, but instead is a mindset, a resistance to change, that is internal and needs constant maintenance for me to continue to improve.
Do you have any mentors, heroes or heroines?
My heroes and heroines have always been those who fight for the rights of those who are powerless and brilliant storytellers. My ultimate heroes and heroines are those who do both. Some of these to me:
Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood… I know, they aren’t screenwriters, but I am also inspired by the current trend that the screenwriting industry is seeking and adapting many of the works created by these evocative storytellers.
What inspires your screenwriting?
The stunning beauty and horror, resonance and irony, harmony and discord, all at once, of life on this planet in this high Anthropocene era.
What is the current status of your project?
With the help of the ISA and a complete series bible and a polished pitch, I am currently seeking potential producers.
What advice do you have for screenwriters wanting to make next year’s ISA Top 25 list?
Commit to your writing, treat it as the precious career and calling that it is. When you do this, your work will reflect that you are a professional.
What is something that few people know about you?
I have done animal rescue, both wild and domestic for over thirty years. And I only have one legal name.