“It feels really good to be recognized.” Winning the Nicholl Fellowship!
Geeta Malik, one of the winners of the 2016 Nicholl Fellowship, discusses what it is like to win the award, the subversive nature of comedy, when to ask for notes, and dealing with rejection.
Every year, thousands of screenwriting hopefuls apply to the Academy Nicholl Fellowships, vying to present one of the five scripts that will win the coveted recognition, which is accompanied by a $35,000 prize.
This past year, nearly 7,000 scripts were entered into the competition, which explains why Geeta Malik, one of the six winning scriptwriters, was initially excited merely to place in the top ten percent.
Hailing originally from Colorado, Malik moved to California for her English degree at UC Irvine, before going to UCLA to get her MFA in directing. She made her directorial debut with the 2011 indie Troublemaker, which she also wrote, and since then she has worked on her Nicholl-wining script, Dinner With Friends.
The 2016 winners were Michele Atkins, Spencer Harvey & Lloyd Harvey, Geeta Malik, Elizabeth Oyebode and Justin Piasecki. Creative Screenwriting spoke with Malik about her Nicholl win, the difficulties of writing and raising a family, and why comedy is the best way to tell stories.
Tell us about your script Dinner with Friends.
It’s a story of this girl who thinks she’s much smarter than her parents. She comes home from college after her first year and sees her parents’ world through these new adult eyes. She discovers her father’s been having an affair, and her mother’s been turning a blind eye to it and kind of allowing it to happen. So she goes through this feminist transformation, and in doing so she discovers that her mom has this feminist background as well and was very militant back in the day, and she galvanizes her mom to take action again.
You said in you Nicholl acceptance speech that your script was very personal to you. How did you come up with the idea? Did it come from your personal history to some degree?
To some degree, yes. When I was growing up in Colorado there weren’t a ton of Indian families at the time. So the community was small, and everyone knew each other’s business, for good and for bad.
It was a really supportive community, but I also noticed when I came to college, being surrounded by more Indians than I’d ever been in my life, there’s a lot of back-biting and gossip. You know, it’s kind of like a small town, being a part of a minority that way. So it is based on some experiences I had growing up, and it’s also a creative embellishment. [Laughs] But yes, it is set in a world I’m really familiar with.
Geeta’s acceptance speech
How long have you been working on the script?
I started writing it after I finished my first feature Troublemaker, around 2011. Then I had my first child in 2012 so I took a big hiatus from writing. I tried to write, but it was really hard to juggle nap times and all that. Trying to write and raise a kid is tough. Then I had my second kid in 2014, so I’d been writing it off and on for about five years by the time I submitted it to Nicholl again.
So it wasn’t the first time you had submitted it?
No, I submitted it either the year prior or two years prior with a much earlier draft..
You said in your Nicholls speech that you were happy just to get into the top ten. How long did it take you to get to this point?
The first time I submitted it, it wasn’t even in the top ten but the top ten percent. Like hundreds of people. [Laughs] But even top ten percent was like, “yay, encouragement!” And then two years later was the big one.
Table read of Dinner with Friends.
Take us through it. What is it like to win the Nicholl Fellowship?
It started with a Skype call telling us that we’d won. Once I was announced as a finalist, I started getting tons and tons of phone calls and emails from various agents and producers. And that was awesome! I’d never had any experience like that before in my life.
You know, I’d been desperate to get repped, and I hadn’t any chance for that until the Nicholl, so it was really cool. After they announced the finalists, we got a lot of attention. And then actually having won, I think that’s what solidified it for me to get an agent and a manager.
They have this whole Nicholl week where they introduce us to the committee, and they post the pictures at the Academy, and you know, it’s just really exciting. It feels really good to finally be recognized.
I bet. Especially after having already written and directed your own feature, Troublemaker. I’m surprised you didn’t have representation after that.
My movie, I stand by it, and I’m really happy I did it, but it got virtually nowhere. It got no attention. We didn’t get into any big film festivals, we got really minor distribution; it was a tiny film. It was exhausting to do it that way, you know, guerrilla-style shooting with no permits, so it was really bare bones. So when it came out I did get some interest from producers in general but no one wanted to rep me. No offers came that way.
You said in your Nicholls speech that comedy is “the best way to tell stories.” Why do you think that?
I think for me personally, I am one of those people who really gets turned off from things that are heavy-handed. Like if I see a PSA or a movie that is beating you over the head with a message, I’m immediately turned off by that.
People are often savvy enough to be like, “OK, we get what you’re trying to say,” and I feel like comedy is a really subversive way to get people to think about things. For me, it’s something that comes naturally. I feel like any time I write something, it’s very hard for me to write straight drama all the time. I always interject something that lightens the mood, just because I feel that people are more open to listening to something that is not so, dramatic, I guess, for lack of a better word.
Like the adage to perform Chekov like a comedy.
Yeah, it’s more effective to communicate that way. It almost feels like you’re on the audience’s side, versus drama where you’re just trying to push them to understand your point of view. Comedy feels like we’re all in it together.
Your script – and your features and shorts – aren’t particularly high concept, but instead are more grounded and real, which also makes them easier production-wise. Is that done on purpose?
Definitely for something I want to produce, yes. As a writer or a director, you’re not really supposed to think ahead about how much things are going to cost and stuff like that. But because I’ve been doing independent production for so long, I do think that’s part of it.
But I think also, when I sit down to write a story, my head doesn’t immediately go to aliens. I love sci-fi and I love those kind of films, but when I sit down and I’m brainstorming, I think of funny things that happened to me today, or a piece of conversation I overheard, and how that can be spun into a story. I really like the far-fetched stuff too, but it’s not the thing that comes naturally to me.
But I do have to be conscious of not trying to limit myself that way when I’m writing, because it’s always in the back of my head, like, “oh, how am I going to shoot this?” You know, I haven’t ever worked with a producer – on my feature I produced that as well just out of necessity because we had no money [Laughs]. So thinking about how would I feasibly do something if I were to shoot it, that is something I should be consciously be aware of not trying to do when I’m writing.
How has your life been since winning the fellowship?
It’s been great! Like I said, I got an agent and a manager, so I feel a little legit now which is a good place to be! [Laughs] Though it doesn’t necessarily mean the jobs are pouring in; in fact, I actually feel like there’s a huge mountain of writing ahead of me.
When they gave us the phone call that we won, I thought, “oh, this is great, but this is the start of it. This is really the beginning.” I mean, you sort of ‘level up’ and now there’s a whole new level to keep working towards.
It feels like there’s a lot of work to do. I’m working on a TV pilot that I’m really trying to polish, and maybe send out for staffing samples or try to pitch it. I’m working on my Nicholl Fellowship script…So now it feels like, “you’re here, but now you gotta get started,” you know? It’s like…Do you remember that game Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out from way back in the day?
It’s like you finish one boss and move on to the next boss, but that boss is bigger, you know? [Laughs] You keep leveling up, which is great, it’s great to be on the next level, it means you have these challenges in front of you. But it’s not over, it’s not like your career is set by any means.
What is your writing process like?
Whenever I have an idea, I do a really, really loose outline, of what’s going to happen in the beginning, middle and end of the story. I sort of sketch out loose stuff about the characters, but I’m actually not very organized when I’m writing. I’ll just sit down and try to pound out drafts. I’ll just start writing and then I go back and re-write.
I do a lot of re-writing. [Laughs] I think, for me, my process is to get as much as I can out on the page first and then when I go back I’ll say, “Oh, I don’t need this,” or “I need something to explain what I’m trying to say here.” That feels more organic to me.
I have friends who make spreadsheets with all their story beats and stuff like that, but I’m very loose, at the beginning especially. I’m just trying to get it out, and then later I’ll get a bit more organized and revise and rewrite, and then really break it down if I’m having trouble in a particular section.
I’m always envious of writers who can outline everything, and have all the scenes written out on index cards before they sit down to write.
Yes. It’s funny, when I did my English degree I would often do this exercise where you would just write stream of conscious. And I would sit down with my journal or computer or whatever and just write the first thing that popped out of my head. Not even worry about punctuation, just pour it all out on the page. And that really helped, like you’d find one sentence and you’d say, “Oh, that’s what I’m trying to say!”
And I feel I do the same thing now with my screenplays. I just get it all out there and then you’re like, “Oh, I didn’t expect this to happen when I was writing. That’s interesting.” And then you see where the story is actually going to take you.
From your speech, it sounded like you get a lot of people to read your scripts and give notes. At what point do you start handing out your script to people?
When I feel like it’s polished enough for human consumption. Not finished. Or if I’m stuck in one place I’ll send it to some really trusted friends. But I usually try to get it as finished as I can and then I send it out.
I don’t usually send people first or second drafts. I’m usually pretty well into the process before I send it out to people, just so I feel like the formation of the idea is there. And then I’ll send it out and be like, “Hey, does this make any sense? Am I crazy?” Because you sit at your laptop for so long you’re like, “It makes sense in my head, but someone else might think ‘what the hell is going on here?'”
So I always try to send it out as finished as I can. But if I get to a point where I’m like, “I don’t know what to do next,” then I send it out to people.
You also mentioned how often you hear “no”, which is unfortunately a big part of this business. Can you share the worst “no” experience you’ve had?
Oh boy, there are so many… [Laughs] I think it was 2012. I was in the final round for the ABC directing fellowship for T.V. I had applied two or three times before that, and I finally got to the final round. And I went through the final round of interviews, but I didn’t get it, and it was so heartbreaking! That was a big one. [Laughs] But, like I said, I have like four or five of those a year, where I feel like I want to go into my closet and cry. Which I sometimes do.
Actually, it’s funny, I think a month before I got the Nicholl, I’d been rejected from another screenwriting lab that I’d applied to several times. And I was just like, “OK, I’m going to hang it up. This script’s been going nowhere, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, maybe I should just try to put it into production myself”
And then the Nicholl thing happened which was amazing, and I’m so grateful that I won. But at the same time, it’s all very subjective. It either strikes a chord with someone or it doesn’t, and either they push it through or they don’t. It’s hard.
That’s how I buoy myself after I get rejected. By saying “OK, well, it is subjective.” It’s hard to remember that, and it’s not exactly comforting, but… it’s something. [Laughs]
It’s all about getting the script in front of the right person, but that road can be laden with so many denials that it makes you second-guess yourself.
So what do you do to get yourself past those moments?
I think I’m actually pretty lucky, because I went to UCLA and I have my film-making degree, and I feel like I’ve done the independent film thing, so I know how to shoot stuff. So I think the power that we have now is that cameras are pretty cheap, the equipment is pretty doable. You have Kickstarter, you have people doing this kind of grassroots film-making, and it’s been like that for a few years now. So I feel like when I get the “no’s,” especially for a feature script, the back of my head is always like, “all right, well, if I really had to, if I really wanted to, I could find a way to get this made.”
I mean, it’s great to win something like the Nicholl because it gives you visibility, but I want to get Dinner with Friends made! This is a movie I’ve been writing in my head for years now, and I want it to be seen. So that’s the ultimate goal.
And I always have in my back pocket a great friend who is an amazing DP, I have some resources from film school for crew and for cast. That’s always what I tell myself: “Look, if you want to get something made, you know how to do it on your own.”