Rachel Kempf Talks “Dirty Words”
Rachel Kempf is one of ISA’s Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2020. She is a screenwriter with a passion for kick-ass female-driven comedy and a shameful history of writing smutty romance novels (don’t judge). Her scripts have gained numerous accolades from Slamdance, Cinestory, Austin Film Festival, Script Pipeline, Hollyshorts, and the PAGE Awards, and was hired last year by Gidden Media to write a romantic comedy based on her and her husband’s love story.
What was the script that won you a spot on the ISA Top 25 Writers To Watch and what is it about?
My feature screenplay Dirty Words is a romantic comedy about a cynical writer living in a sexless marriage who risks losing her sweet, but romantically clueless husband when she takes a job writing erotic romance novels.
What inspired your story and why do you think it resonated with the judges?
I spent three years as a writer and editor of romance novels and it was the weirdest job I ever had. There’s a lot of crazy minutiae about the romance industry that made their way into the screenplay that I think lends it an air of authenticity and a peek into a fun and funny world.
What are you exploring thematically in your screenplay?
I think a lot of people today have a love/hate relationship with romance. There are plenty of reasons (high divorce rates, embarrassing clichés, terrible pop songs) to be cynical about it, but hearing we’re loved and expressing love for others remains, at its core, something we all desire. Allie (my protagonist) and her husband Sam begin the screenplay totally in love with each other, but believing that mushy gooey romance is an unnecessary component of their relationship. As a result, their relationship (and sex life) has suffered. Being forced into a situation where she’s forced to realize how much she misses romance in her life has the potential to save her relationship, but she’s terrified if Sam doesn’t feel the same way, she’ll end up losing the love of her life in the process.
What aspects of your life experience found their way into the story?
Like Allie, I didn’t go into romance writing as a fan of the genre. I was a pretentious writer who wanted to write Important Literary Novels and got stuck slumming it in the smutty book industry. Ultimately, I found out that writing in a genre has its own challenges and pleasures and I became a stronger writer for tackling them.
How did you approach the writing process?
The first draft of this script was written when I was a graduate student in screenwriting at UT Austin. My intro to screenwriting instructor had us outline the script over the first weeks of class, then turn in about 15 pages a week to be workshopped. Having firm weekly deadlines was extremely useful when I was first learning the craft of screenwriting.
What feedback did you get during development and how did it contour subsequent iterations of your story?
I had a strong character arc in mind from Allie from the outset of the screenplay because we’re driven by a lot of the same conflicting emotions, But the fictionalized aspects of the story—her relationship with her husband and other secondary characters went through a lot of changes and I was able to refine their character arcs with the help of my writing workshop.
What personal qualities do successful screenwriters need to make it?
I’m of the mind that anyone who writes consistently and keeps writing will improve and ultimately succeed over time. A while back, I made a resolution to write for at least three hours a day every day – without exception. 651 days later, I’ve kept up with that resolution and, in that time, have been more prolific and improved my writing more than I have at any other time in my life.
What misconceptions have you discovered about establishing a screenwriting career?
I’ve heard many times that you can’t break in without some combination of getting representation, networking your butt off, or winning Nicholl, AFF, or one of the major TV fellowships. Plenty of screenwriters have broken in this way, but I sold my first feature screenplay through a Stage 32 contest and am currently fielding offers for Dirty Words as a result of ISA’s Table My Read Competition. Every professional screenwriter you talk to will likely have a different nuanced story of how they got their first job.
Find what plays to your strengths and pursue it.
Other than writing, how do you train and improve your writing craft?
I am very methodical in my writing and frequently take notes on movies or screenplays in the genre I’m working in. But the two things that consistently help me get unstuck in my writing are reading good novels and watching weird movies—the more avant-garde, experimental, or out of the mainstream, the better.
I think it’s important to not only know the conventions of the type of screenplay you’re writing but as many ways as possible to break out of those conventions and do something different and unexpected.
Do you have any mentors, heroes or heroines?
My first screenwriting teacher, Cindy McCreery, has been a wonderful instructor, cheerleader, and promoter of my writing from the moment I met her. She not only taught me the craft of screenwriting, but helped me find my voice in comedy. I also consider my aunt Paula one of my personal heroes. She was a journalist and one of the very best people I’ve ever known. She died late last year, but I remain inspired by the life she led, the work she produced, and her unconditional support of my writing.
What inspires your screenwriting?
I keep a chalkboard above my desk marking the number of days in a row that I’ve written for three hours a day. The panic I feel at the prospect of having to erase the board and replace that number with zero is an enormous motivator.
What is the current status of your project?
I’m currently entertaining offers from an independent director and a production company interested in the script.
What advice do you have for screenwriters wanting to make next year’s ISA Top 25 list?
There is absolutely no value from staring at a blank page for hours on end. Trust me, I’ve tried. Many times. If you can’t write the good version of a scene or outline, write the worst version you can think of, and then write why it’s bad and how you could make it (even marginally) better.
If you can’t write any version of it, write a different scene or outline something else. If you can’t write anything at all, write down the reason you can’t write and then think about things you can try to solve that problem. If you can’t figure out how to solve the problem, ask another writer for advice. Screenwriters love giving advice. It gives us something to do with our big dumb egos.
What is something that few people know about you?
Very few people know the pseudonym I wrote my smutty romance books under. And no one else ever, ever will.
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