From Beetlejuice to Cinderella – An Interview with Screenwriter Larry Wilson

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Though you may not know his name, you’ll almost certainly be familiar with the many weird and wonderful works of Larry Wilson. His long and prolific production career has included script-writing, producing and directing for an impressive array of films and TV shows, including the likes of Beetlejuice, The Addams Family, The Little Vampire and Tales from the Crypt.

For all his Hollywood experience, however, Wilson’s latest project is something of a new venture: a recently completed, 10-episode web series marks his first creative foray into the world of online media. Called Cindy, the show sees characters from the classic Cinderella fairy tale transplanted into a 21st-century setting, with Cindy herself as the foster daughter/personal maid of TV’s most hated reality TV star, Rayveen.

Together with his talented production team, including co-writer Megan Hannay and producer Christi Haydon-Wilson, Wilson is now raising money on Kickstarter to finish off this fantastic-looking series by giving it the top quality post-production it deserves. Currently, the Kickstarter campaign has raised about 35% of its $18,000 target – a modest enough goal and one that we’re convinced it will meet.

To find out more about the show and how it came to be, MCM Buzz caught up with its creator earlier this week, and soon found ourselves discussing fairy tales, the potential of new media, and evening script-writing sessions measured out in coffee cups…

 

Where did the initial idea for the series come from? What made you want to do a retelling of Cinderella now, and what are you bringing to the story that’s new?

It all started out with this very simple idea of Cinderella told in the style of a reality show, which just felt fun to me. I love fairy tales, and when you’re using them it’s always a case of finding a fresh way to tell a story that’s already been told over and over again. When I first had the idea, I developed it enough so that I was able to start pitching it. I had a meeting with Nickelodeon about it, and they said, “Wow, this is a really great idea, but we did a Cinderella TV movie a couple of years ago, and I don’t think we’re gonna revisit that story again.” Since I walked away from that meeting I’ve been trying more and more to generate my own work and to figure out ways to make things where I don’t have to go around from studio to studio with my hat in my hand.

At the same time, there were all these different elements coming together. In the show, Cindy is played by my daughter, Autry, and this isn’t just dad talking: she’s a really terrific actress, and I’ve been trying for a while to think of something to do with her. Also, I wanted to do something DIY, and started getting very interested in the idea of doing a web series.

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This is the first time you’ve made a web series. How does that experience compare to working in film and television?

In the beginning, the original idea was to shoot it all on cell phones, and really make it like a kind of raw, off-the-cuff, approximation of a reality show. That fell away for a few reasons. First of all, it felt very limiting in terms of how we could tell the story visually. I like things that are lush and cinematic and well-shot, and then we got this wonderful director of photography, Jonathan Bruno, and I thought, “This guy is so good, that to say to him, ‘make it look like a cell phone,’ is ridiculous.” I just wanted to let him do creatively what I knew he was capable of, so in the end, in many ways, it actually became very much like shooting a film. Although it was scripted as ten episodes, we shot it in five or six days, and at the end of it, we had about 115 minutes’ worth of content, so what we basically had was like a feature film. I know that there are other ways to do web series – there are ways where it could be me sitting here Skyping and that would be the content, but in the end, our baby actually turned into, to all intents and purposes, a sort of indie feature. I’m very proud of the fact that we managed to create essentially a full length movie that actually looks really good in that amount of time.

But generally, the whole web series thing – I could go on. I get so excited about these new ways to tell stories and all the opportunities that new media is giving us!

You say the series was shot in six days. How long has the process taken overall in terms of getting from your initial conception, through the writing and production, to where you are now?

I actually posted something about this on Kickstarter. Writing this was quite a different experience to writing something like Beetlejuice. With that, when Michael McDowell and I wrote the first draft, about a week or so in, it just started developing its own momentum and taking on a life and character of its own, and the first draft was finished very quickly.

With Cindy, however, my writing partner, Megan Hannay, had a very demanding, full-time job at the time that would keep her at work until 7.30 in the evening. I teach scriptwriting at UCLA, and Megan had actually been a student of mine about a year before we started working on Cindy together. Right from the first time she showed me anything in class, I thought, “Oh boy, this girl has got something going on that I really like,” and so we soon went from being student and teacher to being creative colleagues and friends.

When I first approached her about Cindy, we initially agreed to spend a couple of Sundays doing a “beat sheet”, just outlining all the ideas we thought might fit into the series. Then, we met on Tuesday nights in a café called the Insomnia where we would write episodes together. The first one was tricky – it came a little slowly. The second one was a little easier, and by the third one, we were like a machine. It was crazy! We would basically have an episode written in a couple of hours! And then we’d have a week to polish it before we met the next time. And I remember that same thing happening that I had with Michael McDowell on Beetlejuice where you stop and say to each other, “Gosh, this is getting really good, isn’t it?” Then you shut yourself up because you don’t wanna jinx it! So it was written over ten Tuesdays, ten weeks of coffee, and then we went into pre-production.

The thing about doing stuff on low to no budget is, you’ve got to start finding people who are passionate about it and who are willing to work for it because they believe in it, and that can take months. But the writing? Two months, basically.

Where did you actually shoot it in the end? Did you have to find locations or did you just use people’s houses?

Here’s a soap opera for you: it was shot in my former house. It was the last few weeks I was going to be there, and it’s a beautiful house in the Hollywood hills, very light with lots of windows. In a way, that makes it kind of like a kind of home movie, which is a lovely thing to have. And then the house was sold just weeks afterwards.

It must have been quite an intense experience working at home with family and friends. Was that ever difficult?

(laughs) No, never! It was always wonderful! Without going into too many details, I’m very proud of it because it was shot under very intense circumstances and a lot changed in our lives at that time. Yet , whatever the emotionality of it was, we would go into it and just make the work the focus, and do what was best for the project. It’s great now in hindsight to have done something that we can feel so good about even though it was done under very stressful circumstances, honestly. One day there’ll be a web series about the web series!

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Tell me a little bit about the character of Cindy. In a lot of Cinderella stories, Cinderella herself is a bit of a blank, so how have brought her to life?

Well, I have a sixteen-year-old daughter, and it means that I’m often surrounded by teenage girls. Quite often I’ll be in the car, driving Autry and her friends around, so just as a kind of fly on the wall, I think I’ve developed a pretty good insight into teenage girls. I also have another, older daughter so I’ve been through this before.

The thing that’s really striking about that point in your life is that everything is intense, everything is hitting you hard, everything is a drama and your emotions are pitched really high. So one thing Megan and I wanted was for the Cindy character to draw on what we saw as realistic sixteen-year-old girls’ experiences.

In a lot of other Cinderella retellings she is endlessly optimistic with a song on her lips and a smile in her heart and all that stuff. I didn’t want to give Cindy that kind of unearned optimism. Although she has a very dark streak to her, a lot of it is just her circumstances. She feels trapped and is despairing about her situation, and without giving too much of the plot away, some people might wonder why she doesn’t get up and walk out, but it’s not that easy for Cindy.

Another key difference between Cinderella and Cindy is that I look at these ten episodes as being like the first act of a screenplay or a story. Cindy is going to go off and she’ll have a lot to learn and a lot to explore over our subsequent seasons.

How about Seth? This isn’t a character you’ve adapted from the fairy tale – this is one that’s completely your own creation, so what is he like and what is his role in the story?

Having worked in the movie business and in production my entire life, I’ve noticed that there’s always a Seth around. He’s just a young, anxious guy who wants to break into the entertainment business and is looking for a way to get his foot in the door. Like Cindy, he’s 16, but he’s definitely a bit self-centred. He also hates the Rayveen reality show he’s working on.

At the moment, I live in a big apartment complex with a film school right across the street. A lot of the kids end up staying in these apartments, so I overhear their conversations all the time and I recognise them completely because I’ve been them. A lot of the self-centredness is just the business, you know – it’s all about, “if I can convince this person to take this” and “if I can just get this break” and “if this person calls back”.

When Seth decides that he’s gonna make this other reality show about Cindy, he’s actually seen a fairy godmother appear – he’s witnessed a miracle, in a sense, and he’s got it on film, and when he first approaches Cindy with his idea, it’s all about him. This is his big break, and this thing will absolutely make his career. But then Cindy kind of has her “Cindy effect” on him and it starts softening him, and he starts falling for her, and even though he still really wants his show to be a hit, a lot of the self-interest turns into him trying to help Cindy and wanting what’s best for her.

On the subject of characters, I notice that you’ve called one of the “evil step-kids” Tuesday. Is that just an in-joke for Addams Family fans or is there any connection between Tuesday and Wednesday?

No, that is exactly what it is. Wednesday is nicer, let’s put it that way. Tuesday is in no way a nice or likeable person. I’m glad you got it, though!

With series like Once Upon a Time and Grimm, there are quite a lot of fairytale retellings around at the moment. Have any of these existing shows and films influenced Cindy at all or has this evolved separately to all of that?

In terms of any specific show having an impact on this, not so much, really. But I see all of these shows and I find it really exciting. One show that I’ve really fallen in love with recently is Sleepy Hollow.

I can actually look back over what’s been quite a long career now and see that, in a sense, I’ve always dealt in fairytale stories. Fairy tales always have substance and they always really speak to people, and I love this whole movement to revisit those stories and find unusual ways to tell them.

The thing that I think had more influence on me for Cindy was reality shows. I can’t watch them. I don’t blame anyone who likes them or anything, it’s a very personal thing, but they make me cringe. I can’t even really be in a room with them on. So I started out wanting to make fun of reality shows and stand that format on its head and I thought that using a fairy tale would be a fun way to do that.

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As you mentioned earlier, as well as writing scripts, you’re also a screenwriting teacher, and as one of the perks for supporting Cindy on Kickstarter, you’re actually offering script consultations to people. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

This is going to sound so cheap and so easy, but so be it. I’ve taught screenwriting in various forms for over 20 years now, and I’ve had some pretty terrific students, a couple of whom I’ve been able to work with over the years. But 95% of the people who come into my classes will never finish their script. And I always tell my classes that: 95% of you will fail, but you’ll only fail for the reason that you never finish your screenplay.

That many? That’s amazing that all those people will pay all that money for the course and still not actually finish!

I know – you’d think, right? And it’s not cheap! I say that, too – just be aware of the amount of money you’re spending on this stuff, on your computer and all the screenwriting books and all of that. And so again, this feels so stupid and so obvious but the great truth of it is – for any writer, working on any kind of project, not just for screenwriting – you need to find a schedule for yourself to work. And it can be fifteen minutes a day, five days a week. You can do it in a minimal amount of time, but you have to make writing a habit because then, like all good habits, when you’re not doing it, you miss it. If you don’t habituate yourself to writing, nothing is ever going to happen for you.

What will happen with most people is that they’ll get to about page 60 of their screenplay, which is where it gets tough, and they will find a reason why they can’t go further. It might be, “Oh, I’ve got so many other classes I take” or “I’ve got to leave it alone for a while, I’ll come back to it” or “Oh my gosh, I picked the wrong idea, I should have written the other idea”. So 95% of those students, when we get to the end of the course, I’ll never hear from them. The advice is so simple: you’ve got to write, you’ve got to make a schedule and you’ve got to make it important in that way.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of literature about the neuro-biology of happiness and there’s a lot of really fascinating research going on right now into what makes us happy. It turns out one of the most important things is to have a combination of pleasure – those things that we just do because they’re fun – and purpose – the things that we do because they have meaning to us, and that require a sense of discipline. So there you have it: it’s not just me saying this, there’s the science to prove it, too!

 

The Cindy Kickstarter campaign is running until Wednesday 29th October, and is looking to raise a total of $18,000. To donate, or to find out more about the series, visit the campaign page. You can also follow the Cindy series on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Click play below to watch the Cindy trailer.


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