Susan Turley Goes “Back In Time For Christmas”
Susan is an award winning screenwriter and filmmaker. Her feature directorial debut The Mo Of Mi played in over 30 independent film festivals across the country and abroad before it was acquired and distributed by Ardustry Home entertainment. Her second feature film Changing Spots was produced from her award-winning screenplay of the same name where it also found nationwide success on the festival circuit before distribution by Pet Projects Entertainment. The film is currently being adapted into a novel. She is also one of ISA’s Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch.
She currently resides in Los Angeles, pursuing her passion of storytelling and working in television as a promo writer/producer for the Judge Judy court TV show at CBS.
Describe your unique personal and professional background and the specific project that attracted ISA interest?
After graduating from the University Of Texas, I ran my own production company in Austin for 10 years before relocating to Los Angeles. During that time, I created hundreds of stories for my clients in the form of commercial campaigns, company image pieces, documentaries and PSA’s – all of which I enjoyed. I realized very early on that no matter the project, I tended to treat it very cinematically. Even though my company was successful, I always felt drawn to write fictional stories for the screen.
When I lost my mom unexpectedly, I knew it was the time to take that leap because life is short and if you’re not pursuing or living your passion, you’re not really living – you’re just existing. I then wrote, directed and produced two feature films and a bunch of shorts that found great success on the festival circuit. I was hooked and realized it was then time to make a career move. I relocated to Los Angeles and while pursuing screenwriting, found another exciting and fulfilling career working at CBS.
I first came in contact with ISA after taking a master writing class with Max Timm. From the very first class, I knew I had landed in a special place to nurture and grow my screenwriting craft, and with Max’s help, take my writing to the next level. Over the next few months, my TV comedy pilot placed 6th in the ISA Fast Track fellowship program and a newly finished Christmas script caught the attention of a Disney producer who optioned it for a year.
I then began working with Max and The Story Farm developing multiple new projects and building a bigger body of work. The option with the Disney producer ultimately ran out without a sale, but I always believe the universe will deliver what’s right for you at the right time, and that’s exactly what happened. I’m happy to say that just this past October my Christmas script found a great home on the ISA development slate working with Max and Felicity Wren, the director of development. From the beginning, they have been true champions of this story and I love working with them- they’re terrific! (Creative Screenwriting Magazine’s editorial team agrees.)
Why did you decide to become a screenwriter above all other careers?
I’ve been making cinematic stories ever since I was a kid – maybe much to the chagrin of my neighborhood because I was always in production on something and wrangling my friends and their parents to be part of my projects. I had a cheap video camera that was my prized possession, and because I didn’t have any way of editing it once it was shot, I got really good at visualizing how the scenes should go together and just shot it all in camera. It mostly worked. I ran across a picture the other day of me directing my first “film”. I was so little! I must have been about 9 or 10. I sometimes think I had more confidence then than I do even now. Confidence is an important thing to cultivate and protect. Having the confidence to be vulnerable and let your muse in to tell your stories really takes practice.
What personal qualities do successful screenwriters need to make it?
It seems everything I think of comes down to all the Ps.
Passion. It all starts with that. Nobody is going to love what you do more than you – if you don’t love it, you may find success to sustain you but it won’t fulfill you.
Perfection. You have to let go of the perfection and just get the words down.
Patience. Productivity. And Prioritizing for writing. Being a screenwriter has always been something that I knew I was already born AS, but have spent a good part of my life defining, chasing and sometimes wishing away. Writing – good writing – is hard and sometimes the struggle feels daunting. I’m a pretty patient person and I definitely look at all of my projects as a long time commitment. I often end up working on multiple projects in multiple genres, weaving in and out of them. It takes perseverance working your craft every day – even if it’s just a few incremental sessions throughout the day that only add up to a cumulative hour. Putting an hour in every day – I’ll take that.
And, lastly, Permission. Don’t wait for anyone’s permission, including your own, to just go for it. Whether it’s writing the script or producing the film – there’s something very satisfying about making something and you learn every step of the way. Once you set your intention, it’s amazing what kind of momentum the project can gather.
What is your winning script and why did you choose to write it?
I have a Christmas script called Back In Time For Christmas that has caught the attention of the ISA producers. They always say write about what you know and of all the scripts I’ve written over the years, when I write about something close to home, people really respond. This is a story about a woman who goes back to her hometown in the snowy Midwest, for what she thinks is a work trip. But she’s soon transported back in time ten years to when her mother was still alive and her high school sweetheart had just proposed.
What did you learn with each draft/ iteration of your script?
With each draft, I’m able to dive deeper and learn not only more about the themes that I want to express or the characters I’ve created, but I learn more about myself as a screenwriter and the themes that are important to me in general. More often than not, every story I write – be it comedy or drama – tends to have similar resonating threads. Joan Didion once said “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking…” The more stories I create, the more I am intrigued with unearthing new sides of myself that help me see things in a whole new way. Writing, to me, is exactly that.
What misconceptions have you discovered about establishing a screenwriting career?
I didn’t always feel that I had a unique enough background to be able to tease out all these wonderfully authentic universal stories that people cared to know. It held me back earlier in my career. I always thought I had to get out and experience the world to have something to say. But the truth is, I’ve always had something to say and stories to tell and of course the stories and points of view have evolved and changed over the years as I have evolved.
Another early misconception for me was that you had to write every day or you weren’t a serious writer or serious about your craft. That thought may work for some people, but what has helped me break through and turn out work successfully is to first, identify myself as a screenwriter and then recognize that there are some days I’m just not going to get to writing because life gets in the way.
I always jot notes on my iPhone notes app, usually when I’m not even trying to work on a scene or a piece of dialogue – and that’s when I’ll be churning out five pages of good stuff in an hour because I’ve given myself permission to circle the work until I can land and get it down quickly.
What inspires your imagination?
People watching. Nature. Long road trips. Walking. Naps. I’m a big fan of story naps. Sometimes breaking story is brain fatiguing and you just need a good little story nap to rest and figure it out. A nice little Cabernet also inspires me.
Do you have a preferred genre, format, theme you write in?
I used to say that my preferred genre was feature dramas – both of my feature films were dramas – but even within those, there were a lot of comedic moments sprinkled throughout. I strictly wrote features that I envisioned producing myself and then suddenly I happened upon a great sitcom idea and wrote a comedy sitcom pilot. Then another. I’ve also written several TV comedy spec scripts. They are all vastly different projects and formats, but the general theme of my work tends to be strong female characters with a wicked smart sense of humor and a strong passion to nurture and take care of their loved ones at all costs, and sometimes to their own detriment.
How do you train and improve your writing craft?
I’m part of a small group of really smart and talented writers. It’s a great, supportive group in so many ways, especially for setting and keeping intentions and helping each other reach goals. I also attend workshops and networking events – especially anything related to the ISA. They are such a wonderful organization filled with passionate, creative artists themselves who support and connect you to their resources and a wider network. Max, Felicity, Craig and Molly from the ISA – a wonderful group of people!
Do you have any mentors?
I’ve had so many great mentors over the years – from my brother starting his own business and finally succeeding after 13 failed attempts – he mentored me in starting and succeeding in my own business. My mother – it may have always just been her job to read my stuff because you know, she was my mom. But she not only was my biggest fan, she was my first editor, co-creator and sounding board.
And okay, she’s technically my boss, but Judge Judy Sheindlin is one of my personal heroines. Most people don’t know that her on screen career as a TV judge was her third successful career, and even within this career, she is creating and always turning over passionate and relevant new ideas while helping everyone else around her. So after running a successful business for a decade and finding success at the network level at CBS in my current career, I feel like I might have saved my best career for last – becoming a successful screenwriter. nd I don’t mean monetarily successful, but successful everyday putting stories into words and into motion on the page. Writing has always been with me since I was very little. It’s not easy but the reward is in the doing.
What advice do you have for screenwriters wanting to make next year’s ISA Top 25 list?
Keep writing. Share your strides – big or small with every one – build a network of fans and support. The ISA is an incredible resource and community. I’ve made wonderful friends and meaningful connections through the ISA. We spend so much time by ourselves writing – it goes without saying that you can’t do it alone. It takes a strong body of work, a wide network of support filled with love and dedicated professionals andof course, the ability to keep going even when it feels like you’re treading water and not moving forward with your goals.
This is a roller coaster ride of a career – you can go months or sometimes painfully longer without meaningful output or confirmation that you should be spending your time writing and not doing just about anything else that is less work and probably a lot more fun, but then the next moment it will seem like all those little things you planted – a script contest submission or listing your screenplay on a script listing site – will pay you back with favorable feedback and contest advancement or specifically, in my case, with a Disney producer finding my work on a script listing site and optioning it the next day. It all can happen just that fast. I think the most important thing is the long view. And enjoy the times in between when you’re filling the well or just doing the housekeeping of living – it’s all part of the fabric of your life and it all matters.
What is something that few people know about you?
I have a painfully embarrassing NEGATIVE sense of direction. I can get turned around going down a long hallway to a restroom. I wish I was kidding! You know that saying, “Those who wander are not lost…” Well, I wander a lot and am usually quite lost. Thankfully GPS has solved a lot of my getting lost mishaps while driving, but I would like to add that in the many times when I’ve gone the wrong way, I ended up discovering little treasures – a new favorite restaurant off an alley, or a gorgeous park tucked between skyscrapers, or a secluded street lined with ornate craftsman homes that look straight out of a fairy tale.
So, in retrospect, maybe it IS true…those who wander are not lost.
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