Julia Skikavich Talks “Missing Pieces”
Julia Skikavich holds degrees in screenwriting, journalism and political science. She is currently on the International Screenwriters’ Association’s list of TOP 25 Writers to Watch in 2019. Her TV pilots Missing Pieces, Survivors: B.S., and Sourdoughs, have received awards and placed in several major contests. Her screenwriting has been hailed for its women-centric approach in tackling intractable social issues.
Describe your unique personal and professional background and the specific project that attracted ISA interest?
I actually studied journalism and political science and landed a politics reporter gig right out of school. It was at a small daily newspaper in the Yukon Territory, which is Alaska’s Canadian neighbor. It might sound a little small-time, but it was a tremendous opportunity.
There’s a lot of interest in the North – climate change, polar bears, diamond mines, oil drilling. So my stories were getting picked up in Canada and the United States. I was getting to have these absolutely incredible experiences and meet insanely unique characters while living in a place a lot of people don’t ever even get to visit. Beyond being a member of the Press Gallery and interviewing Canadian and American public figures, my coverage included sled dog races, large-scale conversation and rehabilitation projects, and Sasquatch sightings.
It was a great training ground for when I moved on to work with some of Canada’s largest broadcasters and news publishers and was dropped into having to report on everything from plane crashes to Wall Street to murder investigations to the Olympics. Journalism left me knowing a little about a whole lot, and ultimately provided me with a deep well of inspiration and a strong sense of story.
It definitely helped me write Missing Pieces, which is the screenplay that first attracted the ISA’s attention. It’s a serialized crime drama that follows the story of a Missing Persons detective struggling with PTSD who gets pulled into a sex trafficking investigation on the one-year anniversary of her son’s death. I entered the pilot into the Emerging Screenwriters Contest and it placed in the Top 6.
Why did you decide to become a screenwriter above all other careers?
I was definitely born a writer. I have a distinct memory of working on a story in the second grade and realizing writing was what I was supposed to be doing with my life. For a whole host of reasons, I initially pursued journalism and I absolutely don’t regret that. It informed me as a writer and a person. But if you work in journalism long enough you start to realize you’re covering some variation of the same stories over and over again. I just reached a point where I wanted to be able to tell the stories I wanted to tell in the way I wanted to tell them. I didn’t feel journalism was the way to do that for the stories I wanted – and needed – to tell.
Screenwriting ended up being a very natural transition for me and it’s felt like a much more organic fit.
What personal qualities do successful screenwriters need to make it?
Persistence. To make a career out of screenwriting, you have to take the long view. It’s a marathon, not a race. Even getting a bit of momentum requires a series of slow, incremental steps. You’ve really got to just persist and push through. So tenacity and a thick skin go a long way too.
What is your winning script and why did you choose to write it?
For me, the ISA Top 25 list wasn’t so much about having one winning script as it was about demonstrating that persistence.
Missing Pieces got me on ISA’s radar about two years ago, but I’ve since been working on other projects. Last year I was really pushing Survivors: B.S.. It’s a Toronto-set, darkly funny TV pilot about an up-and-coming radio host who’s diagnosed with a brain tumor and finds an unsuspecting roommate to help her survive treatment. Only she ends up with a rape victim who’s in the midst of a high-profile trial and ready to give up on life.
It’s really a story of contrasts that looks at public versus private – visibility and invisibility – in a digital age. It’s a question of legitimacy in today’s society.
There’s all this stigma around talking about illness, disability, trauma, and mortality — especially if you’re deemed ‘young’. Instead, there’s this narrative of survivorship. It creates these tiers of legitimacy. What is a legitimate illness? What is a legitimate disability? What is a legitimate cause of PTSD? Is one cancer more legitimate than another? What criteria do you need to tick off to be a legitimate ‘fighter’ or a ‘survivor’? What – and who – are you if you don’t ‘fight’ appropriately or you don’t ‘survive’?
I really wanted to call bullshit on some of it and to try to help people living these realities to be seen and heard.
I was starting to send out the script just as more reverent discussions about inclusion, equality and diversity were really bubbling up in our social consciousness. So, the stories of the two women in Survivors: B.S. seemed to resonate. The script placed well in several contests and was getting decent coverage. I was still sharing my successes on ISA Connect and that momentum got noticed by ISA’s Director of Development, Felicity Wren. Then that persistence in growing my career got recognized by ISA including me in the Top 25.
How many drafts did you write before being accepted into the ISA Top 25 list?
I think Survivors: B.S. was on its third draft when it started placing in contests. Missing Pieces was on its second draft when it placed in Emerging Screenwriters. There have been several drafts since then.
What did you learn with each draft?
Coming from a journalistic background has impacted the way I write. Working in the news means you just have to sit down and write – quickly and accurately. It also means you learn to put a story to bed. So I’ve developed into a writer who doesn’t toil over a script for months and months and months (or years).
I do have a process and go through a series of drafts, but I generally start taking my script out pretty early for notes so I can use that feedback for the rewrites. I like spending time with my characters and getting to know them. But I also like to see and hear what’s landing with readers and audiences. So I take as many notes as I can. I take my scripts to workshops. I participate in table reads.
Ultimately, a script likely goes through about three drafts and then tweaking and polishing. That doesn’t mean I don’t ever open my scripts again after that. But I do take a get ‘er done approach. I really believe the most important thing in writing is to finish it. A finished script can be fixed. It can be taken out – bought, sold, made.
What inspires your imagination?
Environment. I’m an observer so I spend a lot of time people watching, nature watching, walking, sitting, and just looking at the world around me. I often see things other people miss. As much as I love watching television and film, I adore landscapes, nature, and geography. That’s likely the Canadian in me. But I’m purposeful in my settings. I obsess over how my characters would think and react in different settings. So I do put a lot of thought – and find a lot of inspiration – in place. I want my setting to be its own character. The place – landscape and geography – should raise its own questions and tell its own stories. Every place does – if you stop, look and listen.
Do you have a preferred genre you write in?
I usually write serialized TV drama. I like character stories so I appreciate long-form storytelling. A lot of my writing is a little dark, often with a socio-political commentary or some sort of courts-and-crime slant. But at its heart, it’s really coming-of-age stories based around unlikely friendships and complicated familial dynamics. Sometimes that means writing a thriller; other times a challenging speculative fiction.
How do you train to improve your writing craft?
Write. Screenwriting is a muscle you need to constantly flex and train. I read – books on the craft and scripts. I watch all kinds of television – not just shows I like. I talk to other screenwriters — and to producers and actors. And I talk to people who aren’t in the industry to understand what they like and don’t like and why. I take notes whenever I can. I attend classes and workshops. I go to conferences and seminars. I’m constantly learning and working at becoming a better writer and storyteller.
Do you have any mentors, heroes/ heroines?
You really need to have mentors to find in-roads in this industry. I’ve been lucky that both in journalism and working in factual/reality television, I’ve had editors and producers who’ve been supportive of me as a writer and in my transition to screenwriting. I also went to night school to get a college diploma in screenwriting, and two of the instructors there really challenged me and helped me grow as a writer. And, then joining the ISA and getting on the Development Slate has helped. Felicity has been a great resource for advice, support, and advocacy.
What advice do you have for screenwriters wanting to make next year’s ISA Top 25 list?
Write and keep writing. Have more than one project you’re ready to take out – and then take full advantage of the resources and opportunities ISA Connect provides. Network with other writers and producers, get out to some seminars and events, post your loglines, apply to gigs, enter contests, share your successes. They’re good people at ISA and they want to help you succeed. Showing dedication to the craft and persistence in moving your career forward will get noticed.
What is something that few people know about you?
As a kid, I went through a period where I wanted to be a magician. I quickly realized writing involved just as much conjuring – and arguably provided more career opportunities and financial stability. But I still have a few tricks up my sleeves.
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