by Jim Cirile
Rising star Jen Derwingson is a Disney Fellow, which means she beat out a huge amount of folks to win a coveted slot in Disney's feature fellowship program. A graduate of USC, her award-winning charming short film comedy ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE (watch it HERE ) got her career rolling, and it's been a steady ascent ever since. We caught up with Jen to talk about the Fellowship and what it all means.
Jim Cirile: Thanks for chatting with us, Jen. Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get into writing?
Jen Derwingson: I started off directing theater in college. I went to Stanford undergrad, and started directing while spending two terms at Oxford. After graduation, I worked in London for a little while, and then had a small company in San Francisco with some college friends. I then applied to film school and went to USC in the MFA Production program. I thought I might also like to write, but I knew I wasn't a playwright. I wrote a couple of scripts at USC, and discovered that the form of the screenplay fits with the way my brain works.
JC: What was the USC experience like? Would you recommend the program to others?
JD: I had a really good experience at USC. I got to make a lot of films, which is what I set out to do. I would recommend USC -- or any film school -- to anyone who is prepared for the realities forging a career in the entertainment business. If you're not willing to spend 10 years after graduation to really get something going, you'd be better off not having $100,000 in student loans.
JC: Once you decided to get into feature writing, what happened next? How many specs did you write before you started getting attention?
JD: I don't think I made that decision. I started writing so that I will be able to direct. When I got out of film school, I was basically looking for any job I could get. My first job was as the writers assistant on "The Dead Zone." It was an amazing experience -- I learned a ton from a lot of gifted writers. At the same time, I was writing a feature spec. I showed the spec to the showrunner who I was working for at the time. He really liked it, and I think was planning to put me on staff for the next season. Then he got fired, and the new EP (executive producer) didn't want to put me on staff. I felt like I had learned as much as I could as an assistant, so I left. A few months later, we sold that script to Stephen J. Cannell's company.
JC: Cool. What was that spec about?
JD: "The Yellow Wood" is a metaphysical thriller about Miranda Hanson, a woman who is haunted by the childhood death of her sister. After experiencing a recurring nightmare about the day her sister died, Miranda uses lucid dreaming techniques to "wake up" in her dream, change what she did, and consequently witness the murder of her sister. Seeing the murder changes everything, and when Miranda wakes up, it's to an entirely new reality. Now, everything in her life is threatened, including her own life, and Miranda is impelled to return to the scene of the murder to make it right.
Following the sale of "Yellow Wood," I was hired to write the remake of the British thriller "And Soon the Darkness," which shot earlier this year in Argentina, and just finished post. I was rewritten by the director, so I share writing credit with him. But it will be my first produced feature. I also wrote a draft of an adaptation of the book "Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah" by Richard Bach. This was sort of a spec for hire situation, where I would only get paid if the script got set up. I decided to do it because it was such a passion project for me. Luckily, it did get set up at Warner Bros. last fall for Zack Snyder. I have no idea if I'll be able to continue on the project. I have first rewrite, but the studio has the right to throw out my draft and go back to the book if they want to. So, we'll see.
JC: Sounds like a lot of cool stuff going on. So why did you decide to apply for the Disney Fellowship?
JD: After those early successes, I spent a year pitching for assignments that I didn't get. So it was a lot of work for almost no payoff. Although, some of the ideas I pitched I'm now turning into spec scripts. For several months before the writers strike, I was pitching a remake of an RKO film to one of the producers of the "Rush Hour" movies. It took a few attempts to adapt the kind of movies I like to write ("Yellow Wood" has a pretty complicated plot with multiple realities), to the kind of movies that this producer makes. I finally came up with a take that he liked, and then the strike happened and killed that project. After the strike, RKO decided to remake their horror library instead of their thriller library, so that project was out.
So I was essentially out of work for two years, and had to go back to working a day job. I got a job at Disney, and my orientation was the same day as the writing fellows from last year. That's what sparked my decision to apply. I thought it would be a good way to get my career back on track and hopefully step it up to studio-level projects.
JC: How did you feel when you'd found out you had won?
JD: I was ecstatic. I got to quit my day job (again) and focus solely on writing.
JC: What's it like working over there? Is it exciting, hair-pulling, a little of both? Do you have to go there every day? Do you have a mentor?
JD: The first few months were pretty intense. I was asked to come in with five pitches, which I did. They liked one, and I worked on it for a while before the studio decided it was too complicated. I came in with five more, simpler ideas, which they liked, but which were too similar to other scripts they and other studios have in development. So I went back to the well again, and after a week of sleepless nights, finally came up with four more - one of which they sparked to. That was about 6-8 weeks of non-stop work -- nights, weekends, etc. Once I got a pitch approved, it calmed down. I then went on to treatment, did two drafts of that, and then was approved to go to script. I just finished the first draft last week.
I sometimes go into the office, sometimes work at home. It depends. I'm going into the office more these days because there are fewer distractions. Plus my office is right down the hall from Walt Disney's office, so that helps with the inspiration part of it.
I have a team that consists of an executive from one of the production companies on the lot and two Disney executives. They've all been really encouraging and helpful. There's nothing like sitting in a room with a bunch of smart people trying to figure out a story.
JC: When is the fellowship over? What happens then? And what happens if any of the material you develop while there gets picked up?
JD: The fellowship is over at the end of next March. At that point, Disney can opt to put the script into active development. If they don't, they'll essentially put the script into turnaround, and I can take it out as a spec. I will also still own all of the ideas I pitched.
JC: Any funny stories or anecdotes regarding the program you'd care to share?
JD: Our offices are on the same hallway as Tim Allen's production company -- but their offices are hidden behind a wall with a poster of Rudolph. If you press Rudolph's nose, it rings a bell in their offices and they'll come and open the door.
JC: That's hilarious. Thanks so much for your time, Jen. Can you offer any advice or tips for our readership who might be trying to follow in your footsteps? What's your 'secret sauce'?
JD: Rewrite until you can't rewrite anymore, and then rewrite it one more time. "Yellow Wood" was only the third script I had ever written. But I rewrote it at least 10 times before showing it to anyone. Then a few more times before showing it to my industry contacts. Then a couple more times based on their notes before it went to agents and managers.
I think you learn much more rewriting one script 10 times, than writing 10 first or second drafts. It's all about quality, not quantity. I think one of the main things that differentiates a good writer from a lesser one is how much they're willing to rewrite.
Note: Jen also advises us the Disney fellowship program for features has been discontinued. Henceforth, the Disney/ABC Fellowship will concentrate on TV. Obviously the economics of it were a factor. What a shame.