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Three Young Screenwriters Talk Diversity, Pay, and Social Responsibility

Maggie Gyllenhaal awards three emerging storytellers.

Muse film

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” Virginia Woolf declared in her feminist essay, “A Room of One’s Own.” Almost 90 years later, her words inspired Golden Globe–winning actor Maggie Gyllenhaal to find three emerging female screenwriters and give them just that: a room of their own, gratis for one week, at an Autograph Collection Hotel of their choosing. (Admittedly, a much fancier setup than Woolf could have imagined.) In partnership with Autograph Collection, and the Black List, a curator of the best, unproduced screenplays, Gyllenhaal combed through about 20 Black List-selected scripts to find the powerful voices of Amanda Idoko, Sarah Jane Inwards, and Chiara Towne. “Some movies make you feel comfortable, and some make you want to get out of your seat once they’re finished and do something to change the state of the world. All three of the chosen screenplays fall under the latter category,” Gyllenhaal told Muse. And yet, the three chosen screenwriters could not have had more different origins. Idoko, 30, is one of seven siblings raised in the Bronx by Nigerian-American parents who expected her to become a doctor. Minnesota native Inwards, 30, grew up battling a painful genetic condition, which has only recently come under her control. Towne, 27, was raised on movies, learning the ropes from her film-editor mother and famous-writer father Robert Towne. What unites these women, besides sheer talent, is a deep sense of social responsibility. Muse sat down with Idoko, Inwards, and Towne to find out how they intend to shape the future of film and television writing.

 

Amanda, how did you get your start?

AI: I was a biology major on a pre-med track at Cornell. Working in the entertainment industry was never something that I saw as a real career until I went to Cornell and changed my major halfway through to theater arts. Everybody in my family called, “Are you having a breakdown? What is happening?” After graduating, I was an actor and a playwright in New York. Then I came to LA and became an assistant on “Bones”—my first industry job.

 

Did you have a mentor?

AI: Nkechi Okoro has been so amazing. I met her years ago, at the Austin Film Festival, she was speaking on a panel, she’s also Nigerian, and was a writer on “Bones” at the time. I went up to her after the panel and told her, “I learned a lot from what you said, and I’m an aspiring writer, and would love to talk to you.” True to her word, when I moved here, she took me under her wing, and was my way in to the “Bones” gig. She’s the first call I make when I need some advice. She’s taught me to know my worth in this industry. As women and people of color, we’re conditioned to feel grateful to be here. But she always tells me: What you’re doing is valuable; you should be getting paid the same as a white man.

 

What inspired you to start #ShowUsYourRoom, and challenge show runners to post photos of their writers’ rooms on social media?

AI: It was sparked by the Hollywood Diversity Report that comes out every year. We’re hearing the industry talk about diversity and inclusion, and patting themselves on the back. But we’re not actually seeing results. People need to start taking responsibility for creating inclusive spaces. I’m hoping this movement will encourage people to think, “Oh, if I’m not proud to share my room, then that’s a problem, and I need to make some changes.”

 

Chiara, how did you get your start in film?

CT: I grew up in it. My dad was already successful when he had me, and he worked from home. So, I was always in a room where writing was being done, and I had such direct access—whether it was watching directors come over and work with him, or dining-room table conversations about things that needed to be done. The osmosis was so powerful, it’s almost like you don’t have a choice, to know how the industry works and have your own opinions about it and get involved to a certain extent. Before I knew it, I was reading movies and giving feedback. I was lucky because I’m really close with my dad, and he was asking me from the time I was a little kid what I thought about stuff.

 

But today, when you go into a room to meet with people about your work, do you feel like he’s following you into that room?

CT: No, because the reason I’m in a room is because people are interested—not even necessarily in me, but in my material. What is difficult is knowing what a different industry it is now than it was for my dad. It was better for him, and better for movies, and better for writers. That upsets me. Because what does follow me into rooms, occasionally, is people saying, “Your dad, and that whole generation, was so inspirational to me.” And it’s like—if it was really inspirational to you then you would probably give writers more power, and be more interested in challenging and diverse stories. But you’d rather have a “Chinatown” poster on your wall than take a risk on a movie that might be more complex.

 

Tell us about V.I.N., your Alex Haley script.

CT:  My best friend and I were sitting around the dinner table when my dad told a story about Alex Haley, and an interview he did for Playboy magazine with the man who founded the American Nazi party. My friend called me the next day and said, “We’ve got to make sure that this happens.” That’s the movie that I’m spending most of my time on now. The material is so difficult and, unfortunately, timely. When my best friend and I started the film two years ago, American Nazis were something people hadn’t heard about, and that is not the case anymore.

 

Sarah Jane, you had a rough start.

SI: I was born with a birth defect called gastroschisis. And my college experience at Northwestern Film School was comprised of really high highs and really low lows. I was very sick from complications of my birth defect. I couldn’t eat; I had extreme fatigue and pain. I was in and out of school getting major surgeries. But on the high end, it was the first time I really saw that I could work in film.

 

How so?

SI: I grew up in Minnesota in a town where everyone works in the medical community. So, my saying, “I want to work in movies,” was the craziest thing to say. But I’d always loved movies. In 2010, I co-founded Applause for a Cause with a fellow student named Alex Smith. All the students make a feature film every year, and raise money from concessions and donations for a charity in the Chicago area. And they’re still doing it today. After I left college, I had my final surgery, and thanks to amazing doctors at the Mayo Clinic, they basically gave me my life back. I’m not cured, but all of my symptoms are manageable now.

 

How has your illness affected your work and perspective?

SI: My dad is a hematologist, and he gave me the advice: “Some people save lives and some people make them worth living.” That sentiment has always infiltrated what stories I want to tell. When I was sick, and couldn’t go anywhere, my escape was movies and TV. I binge-watched “Say Yes to the Dress” for weeks on end!

 

Tell us about your script “Jellyfish Summer.”

SI: It’s the story of a young black girl in 1960s Mississippi, whose family takes in two young refugees who have mysteriously fallen from the sky. When I first started writing it, there’s an element where refugees are put into camps, and my writing group at the time, this was a couple of years ago, one of the notes was: “I just don’t feel like we would put all these people into these camps with cages.” Now, of course, it’s happening on the border. A lot of this stuff has been happening for a while—it’s not new—but a lot of people, myself included, were ignorant to how bad things really were. So, I wanted to look at how we keep repeating the same problems, the same inaction, the same non-solutions.

 

Amanda, what’s your script about?

AI: “Breaking News in Yuba County” is about a wallflower woman who buries her dead husband and reports him missing so she can get media attention. It’s a dark comedy, similar in tone to a Coen brothers movie. It’s based on a play I had written, “Punching Glass,” which was about a family of women who were dealing with the death of the patriarch of the family—a man who had walked out on them six years earlier. I was really into the idea of: What you do with the body of someone you used to love but don’t anymore? So that was the starting point for it, and it grew into what it is now.

 

Amanda created #ShowUsYourRoom, Sarah Jane has Applause for a Cause, and Chiara works on videos for NGOs. You are a very socially conscious group. Why?

CT: I think it is so deeply obvious that we are at a crossroads where you can’t just worry about yourself, because we’re all so interconnected. Growing up in a globalized world, we might be one of the first generations that really understands that. You can’t avoid responsibility to others.

SI: I think it’s also a how-to-help situation. A lot of people really want to help…

AI: …and don’t know how. I think everyone has a responsibility to make this world a better place. You don’t have to be a politician. There are so many ways to change minds and make things better. Activism can be in representation and in storytelling. Socially raising the level of awareness helps build a society that’s more inclusive, that’s able to reach to the next person and say, “Oh I see you’re human, because I watched this show, and now I understand a different perspective.” For me, I just want to see black people doing normal, everyday things. I don’t want all of our stories to always be around depression or a struggle or slavery. I want it to be like—here’s this black person… just chilling. You know?

 

Do you think Hollywood is more receptive now to hiring women and people of color?

AI: Honestly, I was starting to feel like: “Oh, diversity is hot now? Let me get my diversity shows in.” And I think we have to make sure the people who are telling those stories are from that community.

SI: There’s still a long way to go. I’m a big optimist and believe in the goodness of people, so it feels like a lot of people out there genuinely want to help and change that. But, it hasn’t yet gotten there.

CT: I think one thing that would be really useful is if we, as women and/or people of color, didn’t have to advocate for ourselves to get paid equally as men—if people who were in charge of that could actually just be proactive.

 

And if we all talk openly about what we are being paid.

AI: Yeah. 100 percent.

SI: When I first came out here, I was very lucky that I worked with people—both men and women—at a production company, who were open to talking about pay. And I don’t know if that’s the norm, it’s probably not, but it was huge. This feels like an outlandish dream to have, so I really struggled with knowing my own worth. I really connected to it when Amanda said it. So being among other people who were talking openly about pay changed my financial situation and my own perspective on my worth.

CT: I feel really lucky, being in a unique situation, where I got a lot of male support growing up. But I also think there are certain things that men just don’t understand, and that they can’t help with, because nobody’s ever treated men in this way. It can be hard to put yourself in that place—to really understand what it feels like to be constantly cheated. It’s almost impossible to convey that experience. And so, coming up with a network of people who can compare notes all the time is really helpful.

AI: I know with TV writers there’s a movement of getting those numbers out. There are lists: “What level are you at? How much are you making?” To get a clear picture of the pay disparity. But it’s also important to look at: “Who are the writers who are having to repeat levels?” I was a staff writer three times, and that’s a problem that happens a lot with minority writers. Again, it’s having the idea pushed on you that you should be happy just to be here: You really want this job? Be a staff writer again.

 

Here’s a challenge to all you young writers. I can’t bear to watch another TV mother or grandmother in the kitchen, making sandwiches, and having no agency. How will you write more interesting elderly female characters?

SI: First off, they’re already interesting. I think it’s just about making sure you translate real life into your work.

CT: Older female characters, when they’re great, are always the best characters in a movie. “Downton Abbey,” you look at Maggie Smith’s character, or “Phantom Thread,” Lesley Manville’s character. The best. So, for me it’s a question of: How do I turn that person into the fantasy? Like, how do I turn that person into the person that I want to be? How do you get people to want to imitate the older lady and not the fumbling 45-year-old man?

AI: I started as an actor, so I’m always writing from the actor’s perspective. I’m always like: Would I want to play this role? I try to make every character that I write that important and that fleshed out. And I like messy characters—they’re always more fun to watch. But we don’t get to see a lot of messy middle-aged women.

 

Have you all decided where you’re going to spend your week at an Autograph Collection Hotel?

AI: I’m going to Madrid, to the Palace hotel. I haven’t been to Spain before, and my sister is going to be teaching there for a year.

CT: I haven’t been to Rome as an adult, and I would really love to go. The idea of being able to go outside and speak Italian for a couple hours a day could be really interesting. I think it alters the way you perceive things—the language you’re using changes your experience. So being in a place where I can do that and then go back to working in English sounds really fun. But I also haven’t been to Athens. And I would just love to learn more about that part of the world.

SI: I’ve narrowed it down to either Venice, Italy, or Paris, France. But Chiara is going to disown me if I don’t choose Paris.

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