C.J. Arellano On “Case Unsolved”
C.J. Arellano is a gay Filipino-American writer and director, born and raised in Chicago, with a focus in queer-themed and inclusive genre-driven media. In addition to being named one of the ISA’s Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2019, he was chosen for ISA’s Fast Track Fellowship in 2018. His screenwriting has also won awards and recognition from the Chicago International Film Festival, IFP Chicago, Screencraft, The New York Screenplay Contest, and Columbia College Chicago. His directing work was most recently featured at the New York Television Festival, the Independent Television Festival, and the London Short Series Festival. He spoke to Creative Screenwriting Magazine about the experiences that shaped his writing.
Describe your unique personal and professional background and the specific project that attracted ISA interest?
I honed my storytelling craft over the past decade by creating comedic videos for The Second City comedy theatre, freelance writing and directing commercial and narrative video, and editing features for Chicago’s vibrant documentary scene.
My current project is called Case Unsolved, a gay-themed horror feature about a gay couple who accidentally summon a ghost from a cursed 1980s TV show. I wrote the screenplay late 2018, and I’ll be directing it later this year, if my collaborators and I are able to raise the budget for it!
Why did you decide to become a screenwriter above all other careers?
I grew up as an outsider, and not just because of my ethnicity and sexual orientation. I was also just a weird kid! I’d bring a chess set to school and play both sides by myself at recess like that was a normal thing to do! Because of that ‘weird kid’ status, I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the universal truths that bind human beings together, no matter how different we are.
I chose screenwriting because movies have moved me since as long as I can remember – really, ever since I was 4, and I watched Marty McFly try to make sense of the bizarre 1955 world around him as he fought to get back to the future. Movies helped me make sense of myself and the people around me, and I want to share that feeling with as diverse an audience as possible.
What personal qualities do successful screenwriters need to make it?
I can only respond as someone who hasn’t quite made it yet! But what’s served me well in the wild world of screenwriting thus far, is the ability to balance structure and emotion. When you’re writing a script, you kind of have to be both an architect and an artist. You have to know how to build a rock-solid foundation and then paint weird things in the windows. Your audience doesn’t care that the initial incident happened about 10-15 pages in, or that your hero refused a call to adventure because of their core character flaw.
But a version of those structural earmarks does have to be in your script so viewers have any chance of making sense of it. And once those foundational elements are in place, then you have the freedom to make your characters and plot twists as unique and resonant as your crazy artist’s brain will allow. It’s a tightrope walk, and I live for it!
What is your winning script and why did you choose to write it?
The screenplay that caught the ISA’s attention is Case Unsolved. It’s a horror-adventure story that pits a married couple against ghosts and monsters they’ve summoned from a mysterious 1980s TV show. I wrote it after years of fangirling over pop culture properties like The X-Files, Buffy, and The Conjuring. I wanted to write a story that framed queer folks like me as the relatable heroes.
I also wanted to write a story that celebrates good-old-fashioned pulp-adventure storytelling. And I also wanted to explore why our nostalgia for those beloved adventure yarns are so powerful! I wanted all of those things – I’m very much a “have your cake and eat it, too” kind of writer. And I realized that the only way to see a story that met all those specific criteria was to make it myself!
How many drafts did you write before being accepted into the ISA Top 25 List?
The writing process happened in such an accelerated time frame. I wrote the first draft of Case Unsolved in 48 hours. After that, I showed it to a handful of trusted readers and incorporated their feedback, and then did an additional rewrite after looking at it with fresh eyes a week later. All told, it went through 3 drafts by the time I submitted it to the ISA. It’s been through about 3 more drafts since then. The honing and refining won’t stop until we put it in front of a camera.
What did you learn with each draft?
The first draft was about discovering the characters. I love writing dialogue, and there is so much joy in discovering the inflections of how someone would speak in both everyday life and in moments of crisis and heightened emotion.
The second draft was about refining the plot mechanics. Can we get these beats any cleaner? Can we combine elements, or even combine characters? What are all the “moves” we need to make so we can relish in the emotional “moments” that an audience paid to experience?
The third draft was about foregrounding the themes. What are we saying about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? And do our character arcs and plot support that thesis?
What inspires your imagination?
There’s nothing that inspires me more than people trying their best. And since everyone’s ideas of “best” are radically different from each other, that clash of goals and standards is where the best, timeless, and most resonant art comes from.
Do you have a preferred genre, format, theme you write in?
All you need to say is “high-concept genre,” and I’m salivating like a dog in front of a steak. I love horror, action/adventure, sci-fi, comedy – anything that starts with a fantastical premise, but eventually drills down to a relatable human truth.
How do you train and improve your writing craft?
I retain a steady diet of writing blogs and podcasts – the archive of Jane Espenson’s blog is essential, and I recommend it to all writers! But my writing makes the most dramatic improvements when I do anything not directly related to writing. Meeting new people, hearing their stories, learning new skills – in short, living a life! That’s when my writing is really taken to the next level – when I’m nurturing life skills and emotional intelligence instead of just focusing on the nuts and bolts of the craft.
Do you have any mentors, heroes/ heroines?
I’ve worked with Ky Dickens for over a decade. She’s a veteran documentarian and filmmaker, and I’ve had the honor of editing two of her feature documentaries: Fish Out of Water and Zero Weeks. Being such a close witness to how she works and seeing how she tells stories to move audiences to enact social change and seeing how she champions mutual trust and authenticity to get the best from people in front of the camera, whether they’re real people or professional actors. It’s a thrill when you can learn so much from someone just by watching them conduct their craft and being really freakin’ good at it!
What advice do you have for screenwriters wanting to make next year’s ISA Top 25 list?
Write YOU. And specifically, find inspiration from all the details of your life that you’d never think to write about because you think they’re so boring and mundane. I’ve been writing screenplays for nearly ten years, and Case Unsolved was the first script I wrote with a central character who, like me, was gay and Filipino and had a strong affinity for TV shows made before he was born.
Before Case Unsolved, I had avoided incorporating those elements into my writing because I was too close to those traits to see how they could work to create a unique character. I’m so glad that, with the encouragement of trusted peers and mentors, I was finally able to write something closer to my emotional experiences and truths.
What is something that few people know about you?
In the spirit of improving my writing by working on anything but writing, I’m currently getting into pie-making. By the end of this year, I want to be known as “that guy who keeps making pies.” I’m declaring this year 20-Pie-Teen!
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