NFF Success Story: Jenny Deller, FUTURE WEATHER

Nantucket Film Festival (NFF): Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of FUTURE WEATHER?

Jenner Deller: The story started with a few seemingly disparate ingredients. I've always been curious about people who survive an incredibly difficult blow in childhood—abuse or abandonment—and come out with strength and self-awareness. How do they avoid being damaged? This was not my story, but I am close to people who have stories like this. I also have a powerful childhood memory of waking up from a nap to find myself alone in the house. I thought I had been abandoned.

I wanted to create a film that felt like a "Young Adult" novel. I wanted to tell a mother-daughter story where the roles were somewhat reversed. I wanted to set it in a rural locale, specifically Southern Illinois, where I grew up. The environmental element came into the picture, because I knew the girl in the story took refuge in nature. After reading a terrifying article about global warming, I felt compelled to pull this issue into the girl's awareness. There were so many meaningful parallels between her survival story and this larger survival story.

The real spark came when I began listening to my main characters, Lauduree (the girl) and Greta (her grandmother). They had very specific voices and were incredibly willful, so my first draft was really about following where they lead me.

NFF: How long had you been working on the project when you decided to apply for our Screenplay Competition in 2009?

Deller: I finished my first draft of the script in the spring of 2006.

NFF: I understand you shot trailers for the film as early as 2006, before you submitted to the Festival. Is this a method you would recommend to upcoming screenwriters looking to get their work seen?

Deller: I don't know if I would recommend making a trailer for up-and-coming screenwriters; perhaps you partner with a director to make a very polished short film you're going to submit to festivals. But a trailer could certainly be useful for directors and writer-directors looking to fund and self-produce a feature-length script. We used them as a way to help investors and grant-makers visualize Future Weather. For people who don't typically read scripts, a trailer or short film can quickly transmit a world, tone, and characters. And perhaps more importantly for first-time filmmakers, it can demonstrate your abilities. It can be hard to convince people to give you money to direct a feature based on a script alone, no matter how good it is.

 

NFF: How did the time you spent at the Screenwriter’s Colony affect your script or writing style?

Deller: The most formative aspect of the Colony for me was getting so much focused attention on my script in a concentrated period of time from such thoughtful, experienced writers. Two months before I got there, I had gone through the Screenwriters' Lab at Film Independent, where I got a lot of feedback on the script from Meg LeFauve, a writer-producer. And at the Colony, I was getting feedback from a different industry guest every weekend, plus I traded scripts with the three other writers there. In a sense, all of this feedback pointed to more issues than I could solve in the three and a half weeks I was in Nantucket. So I spent a good deal of time sifting through feedback, isolating problem areas, looking at structure, sub-plots, and creating new possibilities for the action that characters might take.

The meetings with the other writers and directors that [the Colony's] Chase Palmer brought in were so valuable. They could articulate what they had taken away from my script, talk to me about my strengths and what they felt was missing, and bat ideas around—all while being completely respectful of what I was after; it was like script therapy. It gave me the courage to rewrite the script and push myself to make it stronger.

That said, I was very aware of receiving so much feedback and that all of these voices had the potential to take me in a direction I ultimately wasn't comfortable with. That awareness forced me to do a lot of soul-searching to figure out how to make the script stronger without compromising the story I wanted to tell. In a sense it made me commit more fully to what I thought was important.

I knew there were certain areas of the script that were dear to me, that I needed to trust in. And there were other sections that were less sacred. I knew I owed it to the story to dive off and try exploring new directions and possibilities, while still staying true to certain experiments I wanted to try.

As a viewer, I can get totally sucked into plot-driven narratives, but it does not come as naturally to me when composing a story. Character and setting are my natural strengths as a writer. The colony helped me spend more time exploring action and plot; and find ways to make bolder moves while still staying true to what I could imagine these people really doing. I showed up every day and essentially did a lot of riffing in different directions. It was great preparation for the rewrite that I did that fall after the colony.

NFF: You submitted Future Weather to a number of screenplay competitions including NFF's. What advantages do you find come with applying a script competitively versus a short film?

Deller: Screenplays are a more malleable form than short films. If you find yourself in the lucky position that qualified people are actually paying attention to your script, it can be very productive for developing a feature film that you wish to direct. A short film in competition is rarely considered a work-in-progress or a template for a longer form. It can be a great calling card, but may provide less opportunity for developing your work in a collaborative environment.

 

NFF: In the realm of a low budget film such as Future Weather, what element did a presence like Lili Taylor's add to the project?

Deller: Lili certainly elevated the credibility of the project for some people, but more often, the fact that she was involved generated a genuine interest in the project. Lili makes interesting choices as an actor; she’s drawn to good scripts and unique directors, so people in the business are curious to know what she's working on next. Her collaboration also helped me get more grounded in my vision. Even though this was my first film, she respected my role as writer and director. She was incredibly generous. We had the rare opportunity of getting to develop the character together well before shooting. Lili wanted to visit some 8th grade science classes together, which brought a lot more specificity to her character and the classroom environment in the film. We had great conversations about her teaching philosophy.

NFF: Did you find yourself having to make changes to the script during the duration of the shoot? If so, what was that like for you as a writer?

Deller: Yes, I did. In one instance, I had to rewrite a scene the night before we shot it, because the location had changed from what was in the script. In that instance, it was fairly simple: the new location was just as logical to the story as the original, so I just had to ask myself what would my character do in this location? It was great to have the actual set available for testing out the rewrite. I do remember second-guessing myself a bit at the time because the new scene was much shorter and simpler, but in the end I think it meant I had just over-written the original. Most of the time you don't need a lot to communicate the heart of a scene. And having to make last-minute changes due to the limitations of the shoot is the kind of high-pressure situation that forces you to cut to the essential a lot more quickly. That said, during the shoot, I don't think I had the perspective to go one step above that and know which scenes were essential to the overall narrative. Our days were extremely tight, and towards the end of the shoot, the line producer asked me if there was anything I could cut to make some of our longer days. But in the heat of the moment, every scene seemed necessary to the story. It wasn't until I got to the editing process and we were putting everything back together, that it became much clearer which scenes were not essential.

NFF: Do you have any specific advice to give to other aspiring screenwriters?

Deller: Every writer’s practice is different, and writing is not necessarily fun for every writer, so it may not always be helpful to compare yourself to other writers you know. Write what’s close to your heart and try to take feedback with an open mind. Knowing what to do with that feedback can take time and really listening to your inner direction. But if you are patient and trust yourself, your impulse will teach you what’s important to you as a storyteller and can force to you make stronger choices. In other words, you may not be doing something wrong; you may just not be making your choice as strong and direct as it needs to be to work. And like everyone says: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.


Edited by Bill Curran. Interview conducted by Stephanie Myers.