Interview: Winners of the Write of Passage Screenwriting Competition 2015

Some quotes from this interview:

“Down Syndrome didn’t give him that smile, helping people did that. “He wasn’t obsessed with the stuff we worry about; money, status, achievement, comparing ourselves.”  -- Penny Gibben.

“Faith in God has been our life support in difficult times. My biggest obstacle has always been myself.” -- Penny Gibben.

“Whenever I pray and ask God about the big things that I want and need in life His answer is always: Write.” -- Penny Gibben.

"Being a Christian in the entertainment industry in the U.K. is pretty tough. We don't really have a Christian film market, and the word 'cheesy' comes up a lot with stories that are overtly Christ centered – even amongst Christians." -- Owen Kingston

"In the UK, our lack of an obvious faith-based market for Christian filmmakers forces us to compete in the secular marketplace, and I believe that's exactly where God wants us."  -- Owen Kingston

"168 is a rigorous and demanding competition. It's taught me never ever to settle for second best, to persevere right to the end, and when things don't work out the way you want to, to pick yourself up and try again. It's humbled me on many occasions, but most of all it's brought me closer to God." 
-- Owen Kingston

Penny Gibben, Best Writer 2015

Owen Kingston, Best Development Executive 2015

Penny Gibben (from Canoga Park, CA) is our Write of Passage Winning Writer for 2015.  That means she wrote the best 12-page screenplay in one week (168 hours) with an advisor called a Development Executive (DE).  Owen Kingston is the winning DE.  Both are interviewed below. 

Prizes include $1,000 cash ($750 to the writer, $250 to the DE), introductions to Hollywood Pros, including Brian Bird ("Not Easily Broken" and “When Calls The Heart”.)

Any WP script may be produced for the 168 Film Festival's Write of Passage Spotlight.  Writers and mentors (DE's) receive screen credit if their film is made.

Penny Gibben is interviewed first (PG) and then Owen Kingston (OK).  The interviewer is John David Ware (JDW). We asked some probing questions and got probing answers.

JDW: Tell us about yourself.  What do you do for work?

PG:  I’m an aspiring screen and stage writer here in Los Angeles. For work I run the website for a women's active wear line called Splits59 based in downtown LA. In my free time I write as much as possible including writing for the drama team at my church, In His Presence in Woodland Hills, CA.

JDW: How did you learn about 168?

PG: My husband, Michael, told me about it. He’s an actor. He and Travis Grenke, who’s a producer and director had worked together on several productions for the Eastern Sky Theatre Company. Travis had approached him about working on the 168 Film competition back in 2014. He mentioned that he was also looking for a writer. My husband told him, “My wife writes. That’s her gift.”  Before that I don’t think it ever really occurred to me that there were any Christian Film competitions, let alone one that was so prestigious. Travis and I started talking and I was really intrigued by the idea of making a film in such a short period of time. It was an awesome experience and Travis was great to work with. We made “The Mantle of Granny Belle” in 2014 and received nominations for Best Comedy, Best Comedy Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress and Best Hair and Makeup. Our make up artist won for Best Hair and Makeup. I was thrilled!

JDW: What was your inspiration for this year’s best screenplay, “The Lawn Boy”?

PG: To be honest the verse itself. I had actually been studying the book of Ecclesiastes on my own for about a month before the Write of Passage. So when the verse was announced I thought, “whoah! It’s a sign!”  One of the things I felt God showed me early on in my study was that Solomon wasn’t exactly the happiest guy considering all his accomplishments. And it seemed to be more than just a “money can’t buy happiness” thing. The 12th verse in Chapter 2 says: Then I turned myself to consider wisdom and madness and folly; For what can the man do who succeeds the king?—Only what he has already done.  Solomon was dealing with a serious case of not being able to live up to his father’s achievements. No matter how wise, wealthy and accomplished he was, there was probably always somebody talking about the incredible things the Warrior King did. As both a military hero and a charismatic leader– not to mention a singer/songwriter - David was just too tough of an act to follow. The drive to achieve something, to make a name for ourselves is powerful. We call it ambition. But if it supersedes our joy it just leads to misery. Ecclesiastes 5:19 is really the other side of that coin.  It tells us that the goal we should strive toward is simply to enjoy life rather than wealth or fame.

JDW: How do you see the verse in your story? 
The 2015 Verse: Ecclesiastes 5:19 “Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil-this is a gift of God.” NIV

PG: Sherman’s siblings, his brother especially, see him as a responsibility. They love him but they have a preconceived notion that he’s helpless or vulnerable to a certain degree. I think all of us set up “standards for success” for ourselves and our loved ones. When that standard isn’t met we get concerned. We want to take action. But Sherman doesn’t have that concern. The fact is he has everything they want him to have. It just looks different from the standard that they set. Really Sherman has gone above and beyond their standard. He has integrity. He has love. He has purpose. And he has faith. That’s actually a pretty lofty achievement. Anyone who can say that is truly blessed.

JDW: The depth of empathy and the understanding you bring to the issue of mental health and disability (specifically down syndrome) is remarkable.  What experiences have you had that prepared you for that? What would you say to those that don’t understand the issue as you do?

PG:  When I was in high school I did a lot of volunteer work. My senior year one of my mentors asked me to help out in a weekend program for developmentally disabled youths. I remember feeling really intimidated going into it. I was overly concerned about what I thought they couldn’t do. But what I learned was how much they actually could do. The thing was their parents and other people like my mentor had been celebrating and building up their abilities not their disabilities.  It was one of the most joyful experiences of my life.

JDW: This is a story that makes you think a lot. We had quite a discussion as this story was measured against the other finalists. What is the message of the film?  To those affected by down syndrome?  To those unaffected and unaware of down syndrome?

PG: The story is not about inversely correlating IQ with happiness. There was a boy in that program with Down’s that I’ll never forget who we called Spiderman. I don’t remember his real name anymore because no one was allowed to call him anything but that, not even his mother. All he wanted to do was help people, because that’s what heroes do. He always had a smile on his face. Down Syndrome didn’t give him that smile, helping people did that. Spiderman could be happy because all the things that typically make the rest of us miserable weren’t what he was focused on. He wasn’t obsessed with the stuff we worry about; money, status, achievement, comparing ourselves and worst of all…the future. When those things are stripped away it’s a lot easier to embrace what you have and what you can give. It’s a lot easier to be grateful too. And that really is a gift from God.

JDW: Are you concerned about how this story will be perceived by those affected by downs?  

PG:  I am a little. I especially don’t want any adult with Down’s to feel like I’m suggesting that they are children. Depicting Sherman as a child is about revealing his spiritual state not his mental state. He’s pure, innocent and childlike. Not because of his Down Syndrome, but because his life’s purpose is to be the best version of himself. He has courage, integrity and self-respect. He’s kind toward others. He honors his family and is humble before God.  His gift is that it comes more naturally for him than it does for his siblings. They, along with most of us, need to put a little more effort and intent into letting go and being grateful.

JDW:  From whose point of view is the story told? Does it change?  How are you planning to shape the story going forward?

PG:  When we see Sherman as a child we’re seeing him with spiritual eyes; how God sees him. If you could look past the surface of most people, I think you’d see a child. Sometimes it’s an angry child, a scared child, a mischievous child. And sometimes you see innocence and joy. I know people like that. They are wonderful to be around. I try to be like that. But I think I’m more of the goofball child.  In any case, the POV does change at the end. It puts us back on the outside again. But hopefully by then we’ve gotten the message that God wants us to be happy, to enjoy life. We just need to get into agreement with Him.
I’m eager to see how the script changes when actors and a director get ahold of it. I look at the script independently from the film. Film is collaborative, I expect it to go through a metamorphosis in production. I’m excited about the idea of opening up opportunities for talented actors with Down’s. 

JDW: Tell us about your family and where you live. How has your environment and family shaped your writing?  What obstacles have you had to overcome in life?  How have they helped your writing? 

PG: My husband and I live in Los Angeles. We are human couches to a cat named Otis. My immediate family is small but I have a huge extended family. I’ve been really blessed in that I’ve always had a lot of encouragement and people who really believed in me. My husband and I both come from strong Christian families who’ve always prayed for us. That faith in God has been our life support in difficult times. My biggest obstacle has always been myself. Writing terrifies me. Always has. But I’m moving past it…actually I’m just kind of over being terrified.  It’s exhausting. There’s so much I want to do. Whenever I pray and ask God about the big things that I want and need in life His answer is always: Write. For some reason that’s the key to whatever it is that He put me here to do. And now that I’m not as scared of it, I’m actually a lot happier.

JDW: Tell us about your pursuit of the arts?

PG: I really just want to write. People always ask me what kind of things I write. My answer is always: Everything. Plays, screenplays, short stories, novels, songs. I love the written word. I have a blog called “El Haver”. The name is from the Hebrew words El for God or Lord; and haver which means an intimate friend or close friendship. I’ve read a lot of the writings of the early church mystics; Julian of Norwich, Brother Lawrence, Madam Guyon, Jean Pierre de Caussade, St Therese of Lisieux, Thomas Aquinas. These people continue to influence Christian writers today. They pushed people to think outside of the box when it came to who God is and what their relationship with Him should be like. They showed people that true intimacy with God was not only possible but was very likely the very meaning of life itself. I want to share that same message in movies and novels. My blog is sort of my classroom for that. I have to learn the lessons myself first before I can translate them into stories.   

JDW: How did Mentor/Development Executive, Owen Kingston help shape your story?

PG: Owen is awesome. I can’t say enough about him. He laid out a great plan of attack for the writers. Even if I felt doubtful on something, I just tried it anyway. Not only did it work but it inspired me to look closer and really fine tune some things right at the end. Even before I found out I’d made it past the first round I was praising God for having me assigned to Owen. He pushed us to come up with a bunch of ideas, not just one or two. Then we did treatments on the best one. On his advice I ended up doing two treatments because I couldn’t decide between two stories. He also advised us to write two first drafts of our stories from scratch, which was like total genius to me.  All of his comments were spot on.

JDW: What do you mean by “write from scratch?”

PG: Before Owen suggested it, I’d never even thought of writing a second “first draft” without looking at the original (from scratch). You know how they say you can never step into the same river twice? That's because stepping into it the first time changes the river and it changes you. The same is true of writing. You're pulling your story out of a river of thought. If you set aside the first draft and then try to pull out the same story again you'll get something different. Your mind is going to work differently when you're thinking and writing about it. The same storyline but with fresh nuances in its personality.
A lot of writers, myself included, often overcome writer's block by just sitting down and doing a stream of consciousness session. You let all the wild random thoughts, even the dumb ones, run free. Then at a certain point the good stuff starts flowing, at least that's the hope. But we seldom take the same approach when we don't have writers block. If we get really inspired on the first draft we just take that and rework it. But to treat that first draft like it was stream of consciousness and start again from page one is an incredible act of faith in yourself as a writer. You're telling yourself that your best stuff is yet to come. And you're backing it up with your time, effort and creativity. In the end you harmonize the two drafts to pull together the best of both.

JDW: What are your plans for the future?

PG: I’m actually developing a feature with Travis Grenke (producer: “Mantle of Granny Belle”) that will hopefully go into production next year. I hope I get to do more 168 Projects and Writes of Passage. Long term I want to start developing some projects with my husband, Michael, producing and directing. I’ve got a list of screenwriting competitions that I’m planning to write for. I’ve also got a list of stories in my head fighting to get out. So I’ll be looking to set them free. Honestly I want to be a writer full time down the line. But for now I just want to be faithful…and grateful where I am. I’ll let God handle the rest.

Interview with Winning Development Executive Owen Kingston

JDW:  Where are you from and what do you do?

OK: I'm from London in the UK and I'm a writer and a director. The bulk of my directing work is theatre based, but over the last few years I've been pushing doors with my writing, trying to make it in film and television as a writer.

JDW: You are frequent participant in WOP and 168.  What have you learned?  Do you still find it useful?

OK: 168 is where I learned to be a filmmaker, and even though I now have a lot of projects under my belt, I still find being involved very useful. I trained as a theatre director and when I first entered 168 I had very little experience of film. My first 168 film was embarrassingly bad. However, coming to the festival and seeing the high standard of competition was inspiring. The turning point for me was a seminar given by Derrick Warfel on producing for film that was broadcast online by the 168. The film our team entered the following year scooped a load of awards at the festival and it was largely due to that seminar and the effect it had on our work. Write of passage was also very useful for me. In the first year of the competition my screenplay came in third and I won a copy of Final Draft. That was the best prize I ever won – I've used it constantly since. I've contributed to the competition as a DE for the last few years and I find it very rewarding helping other writers. I also find that reading other people's screenplays has a positive effect on my own work. I often find myself giving advice and then thinking to myself 'I really ought to follow that'. I catch myself making mistakes that I've pulled up other writers on, and I become more aware of things I'm doing wrong by seeing my own failings in other people's work.

JDW: Tell us more about the “write from scratch” concept.

OK: Yeah, what I encouraged the guys to do was, in writing their second draft, start again with a new blank document and not refer back to their previous draft at all. That way they make sure they have had at least two passes at every single bit of their screenplay. Too often when writers redraft they only really change the very worst bits, and some bits of mediocre dialogue makes it all the way through to the final draft because those bits were never the most critical things to fix. If you take at least two passes at every line you find your overall dialogue quality goes up because you reconsider every single moment and at the end you have something to compare everything to. It only works though if you start again completely from scratch and don't refer to your first draft at all. It's a trick I learned through doing Write of Passage as a contestant a few years back - my DE then (Cole Luck III) made me do it, and I think he learned it from his father who was also a screenwriter. His advice was actually to print out the first draft then completely delete it from the computer and start again. It sounds extreme but it really helps to get past some of the lazy traps writers easily fall in to that can leave sub-standard writing in your screenplay. 

JDW: What do you see as some differences between telling stories in the UK vs. in the USA?

OK: Most British people (like a lot of Europeans) have a sort of innate snobbery about them. I don't know where we get it from, but it's there. When it comes to film, that snobbery manifests itself most strongly over things that are very emotional. British people see 'cheesiness' everywhere – so where an American audience might be moved by a big emotional climax at the end of a Hollywood movie, a British audience would be turned off and think of it as 'cheesy'. A great example is the movie 'Pay it forward'. It's a lovely movie, but most British people I know complain about the ending because they think it's too cheesy – for a lot of people it ruined the film for them. This was a huge issue for our team the year we entered our film “Child's Play” into the 168. We agonized over the ending as most people on the team were concerned that it was too 'Cheesy' – including my co-writer and co-director. I'm much more American in my taste, so I didn't have the same issue with it, and as the film was being entered into a competition hosted in America with an American board of judges I insisted we leave the ending as it was. I'm glad we did, as it went on to win a bunch of awards at the festival and audiences seemed to really like it – especially the ending.

JDW: How is the tolerance for things of Christ in the media?

OK: Being a Christian in the entertainment industry in the UK is tough. We don't really have a Christian film market, and the word “cheesy” comes up a lot with stories that are overtly Christ centered – even amongst Christians. A lot of the screenplays I read for WOP would not work for a British audience, and the same could be said for quite a few 168 films – even some award winners. That's not to say these screenplays and films are bad, it's just that British audiences – even Christian audiences – seem to recoil from the idea of a “Christian film.” The British tolerance for being preached at is even lower than that of your average American audience, and we're even more sensitive to things being too “on the nose.”  I'm not sure this is an altogether bad thing for British writers, or people writing for the British market however, which sounds strange, but I'll try and explain why I think that.

Christian artists should ask ourselves why we want to make films and who do we want to make them for? Most Christian films are made to appeal to people who are already Christians. If you sit the average non-Christian down in front of a Christian movie they are likely to groan and roll their eyes a lot – it's very unlikely they'd choose to pick up a Christian movie over and above something that wasn't obviously Christ-centered. Even if the movie is really good, there's a stigma there. If that's the case in America, it's doubly so in Europe.

 While I can see the value in creating family friendly content with a Christian worldview as an alternative to Hollywood's standard offerings, I don't think Christians should only make movies for other Christians, and it seems like that's what the rest of the world expects Christian film makers to do.

I want to touch Non-Christians as well as Christians with stories that reflect my world view. Cinema is an incredibly powerful tool for social change and Christians should be grabbing hold of it with both hands and using it to extend the Kingdom of God. We should not be content with preaching to the choir.

In the UK, our lack of an obvious faith-based market for Christian filmmakers forces us to compete in the secular marketplace, and I believe that's exactly where God wants us. It  also means we have to be more subtle. If you're competing in mainstream film and television then you have to create work that has a broad appeal and this often means conforming to the prevailing conventions of the industry, but the author's worldview will always shine through in their work – the audience absorbs it without even realizing - and that is why I believe God wants Christian writers to compete in the secular marketplace. How much better is it to have a TV series created by someone whose worldview includes a loving heavenly father intimately involved in the lives of His creations, where good triumphs and the world is ordered in accordance with His divine plan, than to have a TV series created by someone with a nihilistic, atheistic worldview, where bad things just happen to people, death and violence are seemingly random, good hardly ever triumphs and if it does it's through blind luck, and no-one, not even the writer, seems to care whether central characters live or die.

Unless Christians choose to compete in the secular marketplace, the prevailing nihilistic, atheistic worldview of writers creating some of the world's most-watched content will continue to prevail, and will continue to drip-feed itself into the minds of believers and unbelievers alike. We will never reverse that trend if we content ourselves with writing nice stories that are only ever going to be watched by other Christians. In the UK, Christian writers don't even have the option to do that – our only option is to compete in the mainstream marketplace – and I think maybe that's a blessing in disguise.

JDW: As a writer/producer in 168 what have you learned? What would you tell young writers about your experiences?

OK: 168 is a rigorous and demanding competition – it's tight deadlines and strict parameters have tested me more than any other film making competition ever has, and I've entered quite a few now. It's taught me never ever to settle for second best, to persevere right to the end, and when things don't work out the way you want to, to pick yourself up and try again. It's humbled me on many occasions, it's brought some amazing people into my life, but most of all it's brought me closer to God.

Writing for the 168 and for WOP requires your very best work. You cannot take things for granted or take a lazy approach to any part of your writing. But if God has given you a gift as a writer, then that is your gift to keep and as Romans 11 tells us it is irrevocable (Rom. 11:29 “for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable”). You will not lose your gift, it will not be taken from you, and when you have need, it will be there. If you write with honesty and integrity, and with the conviction that comes from the Holy Spirit's work in you, then you will touch people's hearts with your writing. You may not win every competition you enter, or have every screenplay optioned or produced, but your work will glorify the one who made you. What better thing is there than that?

JDW: What are your plans for the future?

OK: I would love to write my own series for television here in the UK (or anywhere, really), and I would love to write feature films. I have a feature in development at the moment, which would be just the break I'm looking for. I can't really say much more about that at the moment, and these things have a tendency to develop themselves away into a puff of smoke, but the potential is there at least for something exciting.

I'm also interested in innovation, and the cutting edge of where entertainment is going. There's a phenomenon here in the UK that has become massively popular in the last few years called “Immersive Theatre.” At the moment, it's just starting to spread across to the US. There are a couple of shows in New York and I've heard of something planned for Los Angeles. Coming as I do from a theatre background, I've been fascinated by how this hybrid art form combines theatre, film and the world of computer games to create a new form of entertainment that is hugely popular  - particularly with young people who do not fit the traditional theatre-going demographic.

There are many things that brand themselves as “immersive” - we have a group in the UK called “Secret Cinema” which screens famous films in unusual locations where they re-create the world of the film and allow their audiences to immerse themselves in it prior to screening the film itself. They have had great success in the last year by recreating the Hill Valley town square for a screening of “Back to the Future,” and turning the inside of a vast warehouse into both Mos Eisley and the interior of the Death Star for a screening of Star Wars.

For me though, the very best immersive theatre creates it's own detailed world and fully immerses the audience in it. Some of the best shows I've seen in this style have filled huge buildings with elaborate sets and then played out a story with a large cast of actors – sometimes upwards of fifty – whose characters play out their stories simultaneously, with the audience free to roam wherever they like within the building. It's like living inside a TV series or a movie, or a computer game, and you get to pick and choose which parts of the story interest you the most and focus in on them.

It's impossible to see everything in one sitting, and inevitably you miss out on some parts of the story in order to watch other parts, but the overall effect is that you get drawn into the lives of the characters in a much more powerful way than you would watching them on a screen or a distant stage.

There is a production of Macbeth playing in New York at the moment that does exactly this. They set the story inside a hotel, and you can experience the story from the point of view of any of the characters simply by following them around as they travel around the building. Of course, you can't see the whole story from every character's point of view in one sitting, but the intimate, personal interactions you have with the characters you choose to follow more than make up for that, and the world that is created for you to explore is full of cinematic detail.
You enter a character's bedroom and you can rifle through their drawers, read their letters and absorb the details of their lives. It's a totally different experience to sitting in a theatre and watching a play or a film from the comfort of your seat – it's an active and very personal experience that requires your participation, and is consequently something that can only be achieved in the context of  a live performance.

It occurred to me, watching a show like this, how powerful and engaging it would be to present the Bible in this way. To allow an audience to follow Jesus around, or one of the disciples. To eavesdrop on the secret discussions of the Sanhedrin. To be present at the last supper. I'm currently raising money, and looking for a large vacant building, to start just such a project. I want to stage a modernized retelling of the last week of Jesus' life in this manner, in the hope that it will engage Christians and non-Christians alike with the Gospel in a powerful new way. It's a bit of a gamble, but I believe God is in it. I'm looking forward to making it a reality.