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Stowe Story Labs exists to help emerging screenwriters, filmmakers and creative producers get work made and seen.


How Not Winning The Nicholl is Getting My Movie Made

By Paul Bissett

Screenwriter Paul Bissett relaxes at Stowe Story Labs’ Writers’ Retreat

Screenwriter Paul Bissett relaxes at Stowe Story Labs’ Writers’ Retreat

Mid 2016 - I had just finished the first decent draft of my feature screenplay titled IN SEARCH OF AN ENDING – a risky title I know, as reviewers could have a field day with it. It is also the project I took to the Stowe Labs as an outline in 2014, and then to the Writers' Retreat as a draft in 2015. Both programs were extremely helpful in developing the script to the solid draft stage.

So, it was time to submit it to the competitions. There’s only two I put any credence in – The Page International Screenwriting Awards (which I fortunately won bronze in back in 2014 with a different script), and the Nicholl Fellowship (which I’d never entered before).

When writers ask me about my opinions of screenwriting competitions, I generally tell them I enter them for judges feedback. As an uncredited writer, one of the hardest things is getting my stuff read by industry people. Competitions offer a chance at that, and for a bit of extra cash they’ll usually provide some critical – and, most importantly, honest – feedback.

I paid my money, filled in the forms and submitted the script.

As the months went by, the script continued to progress in both the Page Awards and the Nicholl Fellowship. Quarter Finals, Semi Finals, Top 100… I can’t begin to tell you how frustrating it is to enter a competition to get feedback only for it to keep progressing through the rounds... just kidding. Of course it’s exciting, but they don’t give you the feedback until you’re out of competition. So I had to be patient. Eventually, I placed in the Top 10 of the Page Awards and Top 50 of the Nicholl Fellowship – and finally I received the feedback I was after…

"A funny, surreal, absurd and unexpectedly charming story that deftly mixes philosophy, whimsy and satire."

"The dialog is mad genius"

"The style feels very Charlie Kauffman, it’s that kind of brilliant"

That last quote was particularly uplifting as I am a massive Charlie Kauffman fan.

All flattering and nice, but I was looking for things to work on. The script was receiving praise instead! I’m not complaining, but it was unexpected and I wasn’t sure what to do with it.

Then, out of the blue, I received an email from one of the Nicholl Fellowship judges, Peter Howitt. He told me how much he loved the script and was blown away by the dialogue and intertwined stories and cleverness and said he’d never read anything like it. I sent the email to my business partner because I thought it was pretty nice to have that personal touch from a judge.

“Holy crap on a cracker!”, he cried.

“Holy crap on a cracker!”, he cried.

My business partner phoned me straight away and excitedly asked “Is that Peter Howitt who directed Sliding Doors and Johnny English?”

Holy crap on a cracker! Yes it was.

Peter and I emailed back and forth a few times about the script, talking a few ins and outs, when I finally put myself out there and wrote “If you’re interested in directing it, then we should have Skype.”

Not only was he interested, but we were Skyping later that day. Deep breaths calmed my anxiety (a bit).

Peter is a very funny and friendly Englishman who lives in Canada and we got on well straight away. He agreed to direct my movie and said he had a producer he wanted to bring on, Gary Preisler.

Hang on, … was that the Gary Preisler who has made films with Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins, Sharon Stone,  Mickey Rourke…

Holy crap on a cracker! Yes it was.

The next six months were spent rewriting the script. It’s amazing how much can change in a script that received so much praise. As it got pulled apart and put back together, a lot of the complexity was removed – not just to simplify the end product, but also so that people who were to read it (producers, agents, distributors, actors) wouldn’t be confused by it. I found this a difficult process because I loved the complexity in it.

Kauffman/Being John Malkovich

Kauffman/Being John Malkovich

So, I called my mate and Stowe Labs mentor Chris Millis to talk about it. I told him I was feeling like a lot of what I loved about my script – the Charlie Kauffman-esque quirkiness – was being lost to make it more commercial. He told me that ultimately I have to be happy to see my name up in the credits, but even though Charlie Kauffman is brilliant, not many people watch his movies.

So, I had to put my trust in Peter and Gary that their guidance would make a movie that would remain quirky but would also be commercial.

So, I listened to their notes and wrote and rewrote.

It seems to have paid off. Industry people reading it are pretty much universally loving it – sales agents, actors, other creatives. There are now two oscar-winning and one oscar-nominated people on our crew. Sales agents and distributors are already interested, and the project is receiving private equity finance.

Now, as 2019 settles in, our lead role is cast, other big name actors are in consideration for supporting roles and we are planning to start shooting in Toronto in June.

So, when people now ask me what I think of screenplay competitions, I tell them it’s a great way to get honest feedback, and you never know who might read it.