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Screenwriting: Interview with Susan Kouguell

Interview with Susan Kouguell

by Christopher Wehner

SUSAN KOUGUELL- is a screenwriter and filmmaker whose six internationally acclaimed short films have been presented in major festivals and international museums.
Susan Kouguell Full Biography

(Utopia:) First, can you tell us a little about yourself, what drove (bad word perhaps) you to writing, and producing?

(Susan Kouguell) I played the viola since I was nine years old, studied classical music and always believed that I would be involved in some aspect of music. That was, until I took an English 101 course in college and I became hooked on writing - first poetry, then poetry for performance and then film. I collaborated with a partner on six short films and we quickly received a great deal of attention. The films are in the permanent collection and archives in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, were included in the Whitney Museum Biennial, and we received numerous international film festival awards and grants. I think it was a natural progression from music to writing to filmmaking given the similarities of the structure in a piece of music -- to story and film structure. What "drove" me to film was the ability to bring to life the images in my head and to actually put them on the screen. It was also the accessibility to an audience, to see their reaction. More specifically, my na´┐Że wish come true - that the stories and themes of my films were 'getting' a reaction from an audience, challenging them, opening up dialogue and to some degree 'making a difference'.

In terms of producing, my colleagues have told me that I have a 'knack' for putting people together, organizing, and schmoozing. And my 'type A' personality! It's difficult for me to sit and wait for someone else to make something happen, and given the nature of the film business, it seemed like a perfect fit.

Did you always want to write, or were you more interested in filmmaking as a whole?

Writing is my first love. I admit to enjoying the solitude. However, I enjoy the collaborative filmmaking process - especially when the right group of people make it click.

How is television writing different then feature film (other then basic format)?

Generally, writing for series television, one works with a group of writers almost on a daily basis and the deadline pressures are greater.

You've done some extensive re-writing (several credits I believe?), and script consulting. How do you approach a screenwriting "re-write" assignment?

Over the last ten years I have been hired by independent production companies to rewrite scripts. With most of the jobs I was initially the 'Screenplay Doctor' and as we progressed in the consultations, the writer, director and/or producer would ask for my writing samples and then I would be hired to rewrite the project. This progression was actually very helpful to me since I had been working closely on the project and had insight into the direction, style, etc. to where the original writer/director and/or producer wanted to take the project.

My approach to a rewrite assignment is to 1) immerse myself in their project and find out exactly what the inspiration and intention the writer/director and/or producer had in mind for the project; 2)we come to an agreement where the project needs to go and I submit an outline or a 2-3 page treatment 3) I keep the dialogue open with the people who hired me so there are no surprises on either end.

Do you ever consult with the original writer?

Yes, I have often consulted with the original writer and it can be a very sensitive situation. The script is essentially "their baby" and I'm very aware of my position on the project. We share the same goal and that's to make the script the best that it can be. I approach working with the original writer the same way I do as the "Screenplay Doctor" - and that is, to be the objective eye on the project, and to inject new and fresh ideas. The original writer has lived with the project, sometimes for years, and coming on board to rewrite the work gives me the advantage of seeing things from a new perspective and the results have been very positive -- the original writer doesn't feel threatened by me and actually there's a sense of relief on their end!

What has been your favorite project(s)?

There are several favorite projects but the one closest to my heart was "And the Pursuit of Happiness" a documentary directed by Louis Malle. I did the research, production coordinating, and worked on the 5 person crew. It was VERY hands-on and an incredible introduction to feature film production. Louis was very generous in teaching me the ropes and was a great mentor and friend.

Have you ever co-authored a screenplay, and what suggestions would you have for writers about to attempt it? (I've found that if egos are in check, things can work out).

Co-authoring and collaborating can be an exasperating experience. But, it also can be very fulfilling if you are in sync with your writing partner. I know that I'm a perfectionist and very compulsive when it comes to my writing. That is certainly an asset AND a detriment for a potential writing partner. I found that the best approach is to really talk things out with my partner before starting to write. Discuss the goals of the story and know the characters intimately. Scenarios would vary: Sometimes I would work on one scene, my partner on another, or, I would do a draft and then my partner would do a draft. The best lesson I've learned is: Put your cards on the table from the beginning so there are no surprises later on and no egos are hurt. Keep your goal in mind: You want a great script. Be willing to compromise your ideas and listen to your partner.

Now I'd like to focus on the Internet. A lot of websites offer writers knowledge, but there is a growing number of independent producers and companies attempting to find writers via the Internet, is this good or bad? What should writers be careful of?

There is a wealth of information on the Internet and most of it is extremely useful in terms of learning about new companies, screenplay competitions and writing opportunities. That said, there are companies that one must be careful of. 1) Find out what other projects the company has produced. If they are a new company and have no credits to date, ask them for references. If they are not forthcoming, you do not want to work with them. 2) If a company requests a reading fee do not send your script. 3) Never send a script without copyrighting it and registering it with the Writers Guild. 4) If the company offers a screenplay competition, find out who the judges are, read the fine print. Make sure they are legitimate.

How do you use (utilize) the Internet, your company?

My experience has been very positive in presenting my company's web site on the Internet: Prospective clients are able to access information about me and my services. It's been a time saver in terms of researching production companies, for either myself or my clients. We also have a multi-media division ( HYPERLINK )and Jim Hoell is the president. Clients have included Ralph Bakshis Zootoons, R.O. Blechmans Ink Tank, John Wiley & Sons, Fidelity Investments, Arthur Anderson, as well as other Fortune 50 companies. The services we offer include: CD-ROM development, internet media and development, and game development.

Mistakes new writers make most often?

I think the biggest mistake writers make is sending out their script before it's ready. Yes, there are a lot of 'bad films' out there and the response that I've received from my clients and students has been: "If that film got made, then mine certainly can." That shouldn't be your incentive. Remember, your script is your calling card. You have one shot when you submit it. It's very difficult to get a production company/agent to reread the same script. Take your time. Get professional feedback.

What tips would you offer the struggling wanna-be writer?

You must be passionate about your project. If you are not passionate, the potential production company/agent, etc. won't be either. Know your material inside and out. Know how to pitch your project, write a strong synopsis and an enticing query letter. Immerse yourself in the trade publications. Learn what companies are looking for.

Current projects?

I have two original screenplays: "Breathing For Awhile" (Sundance Institute Screenwriters Laboratory Finalist 1997) and "Duke's In Heaven" a recent finalist for the 1999 Sundance Institute Screenwriters Laboratory. Two co-authored screenplays (with Nancy August): "There By the Grace" and "June Bride" is currently being submitted by my agent to companies and talent, and I am happy to say that we're getting very positive feedback.

I am currently co-producing (and was the Screenplay Doctor) on: "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline" which will be shot in England this fall. The writer/director is Fay Lellios; Executive Producer: Emma Thompson; Starring: Cherilyn Fenn and Miranda Richardson. I was the Screenplay Doctor and Associate Producer on "Rum and Coke" written and directed by Maria Escobedo and Produced by Charles Gherardi is currently in post-production.

Any closing thoughts?

Perseverance. Network. The competition is extremely tough. You must love your script and/or your film and that must be conveyed on the page and on the screen.

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