NSI Features First writers talk about the Toronto Screenwriting Conference

NSI Features First is presented by the National Screen Institute in association with Telefilm Canada

Above from left: Susie Winters, Shayne Metcalfe, Ryan Bright and Stephanie Law

Our NSI Features First writers recently completed their second training boot camp in Toronto, including attendance at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference and story editing with screenwriter Corey Mandell. As part of all our training courses we ask students to write about their boot camp experience.

NSI Features First is a renowned development training launch pad for writer/producer teams working on their first or second feature film. Teams meet with top-level experts throughout the program and receive $7,500 towards the final development and packaging of their feature film project.

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Susie Winters | Writer, All-In Madonna


The moment that stuck out most to me during the Toronto Screenwriting Conference was the panel I Am: A Discussion on the Female Gaze featuring Jennifer Holness, Robby Hoffman, Tracey Deer and Courtney Jane Walker. If you attended, you will know what I mean but I don’t want to spend any more time talking about Paul Haggis. Perhaps that illuminates how I feel about him.

It was very surreal to see the voices of Degrassi, Shoot the Messenger and Mohawk Girls all mingling together. While each panelist’s opinion differed on the ways in which we move forward as a filmmaking community (it was even proposed that white men be cut out completely!) it was agreed that women have internalized years of oppression and trans people, black, Indigenous and people of colour have faced significantly more.

This isn’t news to me but, before the panel, I didn’t think these conversations happened in industry filmmaking. I thought this talk was left to my favorite female independent filmmakers. However complex it is to work within this patriarchal system, I believe in these writers breaking new ground in these TV shows.

My experience with the rest of the conference was incredibly eye-opening. While I thought film writing was underrepresented and few speakers took on the discussion of the writing craft itself, there was still much to gain.

Most important, and most reassuring, I learned that the only path to success is writing stories that are true to myself, rather than stories meant to please the market.

While many writers emphasized this point, Corey Mandell’s workshop illuminated the importance of writing truthfully and authentically, and highlighted the real implications of not doing so.

As a very intuitive editor and educator, he was able to pinpoint the places in my script that lacked energy, revealing the parts of my story that I was actually passionate about.

“Writing is an energy transference business.” Every structural mistake in my script can be traced back to the story I want to write, versus the story I did write. I’m excited to break it open again and I know the next draft will turn a corner.

Shayne Metcalfe | Writer, Hunting Season

Shayne Metcalfe

The weekend began with a short walk from the hotel to the Super Channel social where I found Melissa Kajpust (program advisor) and my fellow NSI colleagues. We spent the night mingling with a room full of writers that included the likes of Paul Haggis.

In morning I was off to the Toronto Screenwriting Conference. Highlights from day one included The Beaverton writers room panel where we could observe firsthand how a comedy room works. This was in contrast to another writers room where the team from Kim’s Convenience discussed their process and a more rigid schedule with breaks and hard start and stop times.

The afternoon of day one included a panel of US producers Mark Ceryak (Gran Via Productions), Alex Foster (Middleton Media Group) and Allison Friedman (Color Force).

These executives shared stories about the challenges agents can present in getting a project off the ground and the type of projects they are looking for (answer: good stories).

Color Force noted that they deliver to FX and look for projects that fit their first-look deal. Each company has roughly 15 TV series and 15 features in development at this time. Their projects can have budgets in the $200 million range.

To end the afternoon we sat in on a conversation with Adam Reed, creator of Archer. Adam shared some funny stories about his writing journey up to the point of Archer getting picked up.

Highlights from the second day included a session called Story Design For the Current Marketplace where script guru Corey Mandell blew apart traditional screenplay structure and proposed ideas for a non-formulaic approach to writing.

The afternoon gave us an opportunity to hear about the business side of the US studio. Rick Olshansky (AMC Studios) and Steve Hoban (Copperheart Entertainment) discussed how projects move forward.

I was surprised to learn that US pilots cost $5 to $10 million and are not common. Another interesting thing is the amount of scripts they purchase but don’t produce. [Roughly, they plan to] purchase or commission-to-write 70 scripts and select seven for development.

The last day of the conference ended with Paul Haggis sharing stories surrounding the journey towards two Oscars.

Paul spoke about choices made that ultimately put writing before family. Relationships were sacrificed on a quest towards a golden statue. He talked about two failed marriages, how he needs medication to sleep and now lives by himself. Not sure how many audience members still want an Oscar after hearing his tale.

The next two days were filled with four heavy sessions where Corey Mandell spent time on each of our scripts.

Corey has this ability to make you look at your work in a fresh light and won’t stand for anything that isn’t authentic. He does this with kindness and encouragement. I left knowing that I have some hard work ahead of me, but with the inspiration to become a better writer and enjoy the process every step of the way.

Ryan Bright | Writer, We Came From the Sea

Ryan Bright

Three months after the first NSI Features First boot camp, I found myself back in Toronto.

First up was the Toronto Screenwriting Conference. The discussions on story and the industry were amazing. I sat at a roundtable with Adam Reed (Archer) who made me feel better about my erratic writing process.

At another roundtable, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers (Halt and Catch Fire) recommended all writers go into therapy. But if there was one thing that kept coming up in the many talks, it was the importance of a unique voice – something that will stand out, be noticed and matter.

Next we had one-on-one sessions with Corey Mandell. He was critical and blunt with all of our projects but as quick as he tore the scripts apart he was there to build the writers back up.

He helped me realize how much I tend to overvalue plot, often detracting from the central focus and heart of my stories. He also hammered home the concept of essential context which I gather is a fancy way of saying, “Hey Ryan, stop being so subtle.”

Five days later I was heading back to Vancouver, tired and overwhelmed. I watched War Dogs on the flight. The performances were good, but the script left me unsatisfied. I wondered if it could have used more essential context. Or maybe it got too swept up in plot. Either way, it was a reminder that screenwriting is effing hard.

Stephanie Law | Writer, Smash Smash Revolution

Stephanie Law

“Don’t go into this business unless you’re willing to sacrifice everything.” Paul Haggis spoke to a theatre filled with aspiring and senior-level writers, working and non-working writers, and laid out his truth.

It took him 30 years to learn how to tell a story. And he still struggles. I don’t believe he meant this to be discouraging. And for some of us, there was real comfort in his admission.

Over the conference weekend, there were some common themes that emerged: writer as guardian of the heart of a project (Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers); specificity comes from telling your story from your perspective/your secrets (Marti Noxon); and great writers break rules (Corey Mandell).

We often talk about the need for characters to be authentic and honest. However, it’s also critical that we apply the same standard to ourselves as writers. This is what Marti Noxon calls having “a passionate engagement with self” – a curiosity about what makes you tick. In fact, in only being honest with himself did Paul Haggis stop caring and wrote what he wanted. That spec script became Million Dollar Baby.

Finding a character’s “heart of darkness,” as Corey Mandell terms it, necessitates digging deep to find that character’s worst nightmare and secrets, and then escalating through it to create great drama.

This is the struggle every writer faces when we put pen to paper. In fact, I realized and would argue that authenticity and honesty in our work cannot exist until we acknowledge our own truths, nightmares and secrets.

If that sounds like a horrible way to live to non-writers, perhaps one can then come to understand Paul Haggis’s quote about sacrifice.

At the end of the day we are all struggling to be understood and to understand. We’re more than storytellers. We’re truth-tellers. If we stay true to that premise, perhaps then we’ll have a real shot at telling a story that not only we love, but that others love. Then perhaps the sacrifice would have turned into something unexpected: the greatest gift of all.

After the conference we were treated to two days of story editing with Corey Mandell which included one-on-one feedback from Corey on our projects.

I came into the process thinking I knew what to expect, and I came out of the process with my mind blown.

It’s as if you’ve been seeing the world in colour only to find out that you haven’t. In fact, you’ve been seeing the world in black and white. And if you’re really lucky, maybe there’s a hint of grayscale. Then you learn that everything you thought was true about yourself as a writer – your strengths, weaknesses and process – have been un-truths. Not lies but side effects of the root cause of all your struggles.

You learn quickly that you must un-learn what you thought was true and re-learn how to see the world in colour. Most importantly, you must learn how to bring others along on the journey [and show them] how to see that world through your eyes, your vision.

If this all sounds somewhat ethereal, it isn’t. Corey enlightened us with the tools we, as individual writers, needed to push ourselves to refine our processes and then perhaps enable us to tell great stories and become great writers.

I learned that I am an intuitive writer – something I had never heard myself described as before. I also learned that I have major blind spots and that all these years I have been conflating story design with issues of story execution.

Years of frustration and confusion – not understanding how readers couldn’t see and feel what I was – and Corey was able to shine a light on WHY. Not only why, but also what I could do about it. How I could train myself to become more conceptual. How to build a story that would be impactful to me and the audience.

It was like being given the key to the car for the first time. While the road trip to success isn’t assured for any writer, I finally felt that I could see the guideposts along the journey and understand how to navigate towards them. A privilege that I hope all writers will experience in their careers.

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NSI Features First 2017 is funded by Presenting Sponsor Telefilm Canada; Supporting Sponsors Entertainment One, Super Channel, Corus Entertainment and Breakthrough Entertainment; NSI Core Funders are Manitoba Sport, Culture and Heritage and the City of Winnipeg through the Winnipeg Arts Council.

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