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Amy Amani Talks “When In Rome” & “Dazzleland”

Amy Amani Talks “When In Rome” & “Dazzleland”
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Amy Amani is one of ISA’s Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2020. Here is her writing journey. When I watch a movie or TV I like to be transported, to escape. My writing reflects that need to break from reality and to be a bit cheeky in the process. Ghosts, goddesses, demons and ethereal cats populate my magical worlds.

I started writing in 2008 when life circumstances forced me to stop acting and directing and find a new creative outlet. My sometimes writing partner and I thought it would be a good idea to write a sequel to Northern Exposure. Then we came to our senses and wrote Crossing the Divide. A sweet and quirky pilot about sweet and quirky people in a sweet and quirky mountain town. Since then we’ve written a feature, A Trick of the Light (optioned) and Dazzleland which was snapped by Mozark Productions and was in development for a while. 

All on my own I wrote an educational animated series about an adventure-seeking Abakus (produced). Then I adapted the award-winning children’s novel Fintan Fedora the World’s Worst Explorer. My latest project, When in Rome, is a fantasy teen sitcom inspired by my years in an all-girls Catholic boarding school in the 80s in Italy. 

What was the script that won you a spot on the ISA Top 25 Writers To Watch and what is it about?

I actually have two scripts on their Development Slate, but I think it must have been the second one, When In Rome that landed me a spot on the list. It’s a YA sitcom about a fourteen-year-old girl who is just starting at an all-girls Catholic boarding school in Rome. There are two versions of the script, one with overt magic (the protagonist is a Roman goddess) and the other with magical realism. In both versions, the protagonist uses her imagination to cope with the new and stressful things around her. So, for example, when she and her friends make the big mistake of sitting at the Borgias’ table (my Mean Girls) in the cafeteria, the confrontation turns into the restaurant scene from Goodfellas. Later, when the girls are plotting their revenge against the Borgias, the scene becomes a montaged homage to heist films. That’s just the pilot. The season will cover all the things fourteen-year-old girls go through, but from the unique perspective of being at this particular school and filtered through the vivid imagination of the protagonist.

What inspired your story and why do you think it resonated with the judges?

I’ve had the story percolating in my brain for many years, since before I graduated from high school as, coincidentally, I went to an all-girls Catholic boarding school in Rome! Even while I was there I knew there was a story in it. I wrote the opening scene years before I figured out where to take it from there. Then I read an article about Ana Lily Amirpour and how she wrote The Bad Batch using fairy tale structure. It all seemed so obvious to me after that and I was able to write the pilot fairly quickly. In fact, that may be what resonated with the judges. Fairy tales are rooted very deeply in our culture and subconscious. It’s a comfortable, familiar place to be; easy to relate to. And in the case of When In Rome, it’s also romantic, exotic and funny.

What are you exploring thematically in your screenplay?

The need to fit in coupled with the ability to re-invent yourself.

What aspects of your life experience found their way into the story?

My family moved a lot when I was growing up. I moved twenty times and went to fifteen schools by the time I graduated from college. Sometime around the seventh grade, I realized that these people at this new school didn’t know me. They didn’t know how dorky and shy I was. I could change anything I wanted about myself. So I did! And with the next few moves after that, until tenth grade, I made changes until I was happy (happier) with myself. That’s what my protagonist knows going into this new school in a new country. She can become whoever she wants. Obviously, it doesn’t go that smoothly, but she learns and grows along the way.

How did you approach the writing process?

Once I finally got going I vomited out my first draft. Then re-wrote a couple of times. I really like to use the function on Final Draft where it reads my script to me in amusing digital voices. So I did that a couple of times and something felt really off, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. So I wrote out little scene descriptions and put them on different colored post-its depending on who was in the scene, and did it contain magic or not. Then I stuck them up on the wall and I could instantly see how lopsided it was. I moved the post-its around and rewrote it that way! Then I got feedback from various people, submitted to various contests and rewrote and rewrote.

What feedback did you get during development and how did it contour subsequent iterations of your story?

I received a really wide variety of feedback and only used the comments that resonated with me. Sometimes it was fairly obvious that the reader simply could not connect with their inner fourteen-year-old girl and absolutely hated it. Other times it was obvious that the reader knew exactly what the characters were going through. Generally speaking, their notes were more constructive. I have ended up with two different versions because I receive just about equal feedback that it either didn’t have enough magic or had just a bit too much!

What personal qualities do successful screenwriters need to make it?

For me, it is bull-headed stubbornness and a staunch refusal to give up. Also, don’t stop learning. I watched a webinar by Max Timm of ISA the other day. While he didn’t discuss any concepts that I personally hadn’t heard before, it did serve to inspire me to go back and think about a project I’m currently working on in a different way. I also recently taught a class (Writing for Stage and Screen) which forced me to think about the basics in ways I hadn’t done in a while and use those skills.

What misconceptions have you discovered about establishing a screenwriting career?

Back in 2008, I wrote my first pilot with my sometimes collaborator, Scott Gibson. Within six months of posting it on InkTip it was optioned. We thought, “Wow – this is easy!” Obviously, it’s not. Either with Scott or alone I have since had three more scripts optioned and one pilot in development. Still, the only thing I have had produced was an animated series for an educational company in Spain. (I never even saw the final product.) It’s not easy. Overnight success takes many years. And far fewer people than a newbie might think are out to steal your IP.

Other than writing, how do you train and improve your writing craft?

I take classes almost all the time. I am part of a writing group in real life and a member of several online groups. I watch films and TV and then read the scripts of the ones that really hit home for me. I also read scripts for research – how did that writer make that certain aspect of their story work?

Do you have any mentors, heroes or heroines?

I would love to be Tina Fey when I grow up. But I have come to terms with the fact that it may not happen, mostly because she already is Tina Fey. I have had several mentors: Steve La Rue who was a development executive and instrumental in the development and production of such television classics as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, Millennium, King of the Hill, Battlestar Galactica, and The Simpsons.

David Nichols (who championed my script Dazzleland through the development process with Mozark Productions, and whose executive and co-executive producer credits include Grace Under Fire, Caroline In The City, and Evening Shade, Roger Eschbacher who is a prolific writer for animated series like Littlest Pet Shop, New Looney Tunes, and Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated.

I know all three of these guys through my time working as Stage Manager at the Groundlings. Then, since moving to England (did I mention I live in England now?) Karol Griffiths who is a script supervisor, script editor, and development associate and has worked with the Coen Brothers, Steven Spielberg, and Seth Macfarlane has become a friend and mentor.

What inspires your screenwriting?

Different things. Scott sent me a series of photographs of abandoned amusement parks which inspired us to write Dazzleland about a decrepit park inhabited by ghosts, which includes a love rectangle between living & dead characters, and a cold case murder begging to be solved. When In Rome is essentially my teen-aged biopic. I’m working on a romcom right now that is also basically a biopic (I apologize now to the men who will be depicted in it) and an animated feature about a cat and its nine lives which will draw heavily from the three furry beasts who let me live in their house with them.

Almost everything I write has an element of magic in it. I like the entertainment that I watch to be escapism, and that comes through my writing, too.

What is the current status of your project?

When In  Rome and Dazzleland are both available and looking for a good home. They are both on the ISA Development Slate. Dazzleland is also on Filmarket Hub’s Excellent Script list and has received a bit of attention from European producers.

What advice do you have for screenwriters wanting to make next year’s ISA Top 25 list?

I think you really need to have more than one polished script, even if only one script gets you onto the list. Also, be gracious about notes. And don’t be a jerk. Felicity and Max from the ISA are great people and they care about their writers. So be nice to them and everyone else you meet on your screenwriting journey.

What is something that few people know about you?

When I was a kid I would “write” myself into shows I liked. I would figure out how I could feasibly be a character in that world, who my friends would be, where I would live, etc. My favorite, and the trickiest to work myself into, was Battlestar Galactica (the original series). Mmm, Dirk Benedict.

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