CWA Spotlight Interview with Screenwriter, Sean O’Byrne
Journalist and writer, Georgia Cassimatis, sits down with Sean O’Byrne to bring CWA this exclusive interview.
Tell us about your writing career. You're from a small town in Canada. How did you end up being an award winning screenwriter for film and TV, in LA?
ANSWER: Well that is a movie in and of itself. My senior year at Princeton I had the epiphany that I was going to be a writer. I didn’t know what kind of writer but some how I just knew that would be my vocation. At Princeton you have to write a thesis to graduate. During my last quarter I took some easier courses so I would have the time to do that work. One course I took was called Film Appreciation. Basically we would watch a movie and the professor lectured on its filmmaker, his life and the context of the movie. I never missed a class. So somehow both seeds were sown that year at Princeton but they didn’t really cross-pollinate until much later.
I went on to get a Masters in Psychology and had a successful practice back in Edmonton. I started dating a dancer and I found most of her Artist friends were some of the most sane people I knew though they may not have seemed so on first blush. One day she asked me, more like dared me to audition for a musical. I did and I got a small part. A year later I sold everything I had, closed my shop and moved to New York City – because if you can make there you can make anywhere – right?
Tell us about your collaboration with David E Kelly. You both worked on the hit series Picket Fences and your award winning film Mystery, Alaska. How did that transpire?
After three years in New York studying theater I moved to Vancouver to look for work. While I was pounding the pavement I wrote a screenplay that won the BC FILM GRANT. I parlayed that into an internship on Picket Fences. Eventually I got to write an episode, which got produced which then got me into the WGA -- suddenly I was a real writer. While there we took up playing for the LA HAWKS a men’s hockey league, a glorified beer league. We were just talking hockey over lunch and it led to a ‘what if?’ conversation… and soon the movie followed.
What are some great writing lessons you learned from David?
Too many to recount but I will list a few.
Discipline, you have to do the work – basically that means ASS IN CHAIR.
Do your research but never let it write the script.
Protect your writing from good ideas – sometimes you are given or get yourself a really good idea but the truth is it is not a good idea for what you are working on and it will lead you down a path to nowhere and sometimes it is really hard to get back to what you originally had.
What are you currently working on?
I just finished a draft of an independent movie I am doing set during the Serbian/Croatian conflict. It is very difficult subject matter but it is ultimately a very inspiring and uplifting journey. I also have a very commercial studio feature I am developing in the genre of the paranormal. I have a series, a quirky legal dramedy set in New Orleans that is in production right now. Post Katrina and the BP oil spill the region is overflowing with stories that are begging to be told.
And I have series that is very documentary style about the Inuit and the north. We hope to start shooting that in the next month or two. It is really a peek into ancient man and culture.
You've had a long, successful career in writing and have written for film, television and theatre. How does the writing process differ from film to television?
First and foremost – time. In series television you have to deliver – now. The great thing about television is once you have ‘found’ your characters; you have found your show. And then week-to-week you can revisit them in new conflicts and watch them find solutions. But for the most part the characters do not change much. For the most part, your characters have insights as opposed to breakthroughs.
In features it is a one shot deal. And generally in this story format your characters have life threatening conflicts and consequences -- whether they are attained (happy ending - studio) or not attained (tragedy - indie).
Tell us about your writing process. It's different for a lot of people: either they get their inspiration late at night, or they go into lock-down in a room all day, or they write when the 'muse' calls. What's your process?
ASS IN CHAIR. Some days the images, emotions and words just flow out. Some days they don’t. But if I don’t sit down in my chair neither can happen.
What inspires/helps you to write?
Quiet time – tai chi – meditation - walks with my dog. Working out in the gym. Music.
What’s the mistake you see most writers make?
Thinking it is easy. Presenting work before it is ready. Settling for the first thing. Writing for what or whom they think would want it instead of their own truth.
How long does it take you to write a film usually?
It is different for every project but when it is really good/happening the script is writing me and then no mater how long it takes it feel timeless – and fast.
How long does it take you to write a television episode?
Depends where in the timeline of the series I am – it's more difficult at the beginning because I don’t really know my characters yet – it flies in the middle of the series because I do -- then it slows down at the end because I am running out of story ideas and you have to find something truthful.
What's been your proudest work to date?
That is like asking what child do you love the most. I have been very lucky that I can say that I have moments in everything that I have done that I am proud of. Really.
Sometimes it is very personal. Sometimes it involves people, places and things that are not in the movie but are related to it.
Your film Mystery, Alaska is about a small Canadian town who get over-excited when their hockey team gets chosen to host a televised event. You're passionate about hockey, and are from Canada. How autobiographical is this? Do you find writers write about their lives?
Yes and no. But I am not going to disclose what is and what isn’t.
I think it is easier at the beginning of your writing life to find and express something truthful when it is close to your own life. In time, if you keep YOUR ASS IN CHAIR you develop the craft and the insights to find the truth in stories that on the face of it have very little to do with your life. Still, though, you are connected to it on a very deep level, in a very deep way.
Your film 100 Days in the Jungle – based on a true story, won the Gemini for Best Movie. And BURN – based on a true story was also nominated. How did you come up with the idea for 100 Days In The Jungle? Again about Canadians – this time oil workers who are kidnapped by Colombian rebels and stuck in the Ecuadorian jungle for 100 days.
It was Canada’s number one news story that year based on coverage and articles. When the eight guys returned they vowed not to speak to the media or reveal what they suffered at the hands of their captors. Myself and another producer thought we could get to one… maybe. We did and eventually we earned the trust of all eight, promising we could not tell the whole story but we could and would give a feeling of the truth of the story. The private screening we had in Edmonton for the workers and their family and friends was one of those never-to-be-forgotten moments. I can’t convey here the emotions that filled that room as they watched their story told to their loved ones, for some of them for the very firs time.
What actress and actor would you love to have in your screenplays? Why?
It is not so much who an actor or actress is for me but much more importantly how they work. Ultimately, film and television is collaboration and discovery. If what we get to is a mutual process then I couldn’t be happier.
Do you have an award winning script in your head you've always wanted to write? Or have you already done that? If so, can you tell us?
They are all award winning in my head!
What's your advice for up and coming screenwriters who are out there doing their thing?
See movies. Take classes. Trust yourself. ASS IN CHAIR.
--- With a journalism career spanning over 12 years, entertainment reporter Georgia Cassimatis works as an LA correspondent for all things 'Hollywood' doing the interview rounds with exclusive exposure to industry heavyweights: from writers, directors, producers and actors. Her articles have been featured in such magazines as US Marie Claire, US Cosmopolitan and Harpers Bazaar. For more information, please check out her website: http://www.georgiacassimatis.com.
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