Interview with Christine Conradt

I’ve been wanting to do an interview for awhile now. So, I was happy when I approached Christine and she graciously accepted my request. She’s a screenwriter and producer, with over 35 made-for-television movies for networks like Fox, Lifetime, and USA. On September 15th, the International Screenwriter’s Association is hosting Life As A Horror/Thriller Writing Professional: Find Out What It’s Really Like With Produced Screenwriter Christine Conradt. The teleconference is free and space is limited, so sign up today. For more information on Christine, please visit her website.

10 Questions with Christine Conradt

1. Your IMDb page is more than impressive. At the time of this post, you have 37 titles listed as a writer, with multiple produced credits each year since 2005. How bad do you feel if you go a day without writing?

That’s a great question. I’ve never been asked that before. I actually do feel somewhat guilty and incomplete on days that I don’t write. But it’s not because I feel like I’m being lazy. I think I’m just an inherently creative person and creative people need that outlet every single day. We thrive on it. On days I don’t write, I find myself doing other creative things like cooking or scrapbooking or creating new art for my walls.

2. You could very well be the poster child of a disciplined writer. Would you mind delving in your daily writing routine?

Sure. Like I said, I write pretty much every day. Because I often have multiple projects going at once, and therefore multiple deadlines, I have a huge white board calendar in my office that I use to plan my daily page goals. I like writing in the morning, so I usually start early and work until I reach the day’s page goal. Sometimes I finish by 4pm, sometimes 10pm. If I know I’m having lunch with a friend or need to run errands, I plan to complete fewer pages. I typically schedule about 15 pages per day, and I always give myself two days where my goal is only 5 pages just in case something happens and I fall behind.

3. I recently read the Braddock and Robinson home in The Graduate were the same location. You wrote a great article on locations. There’s your imagination and then there’s where your imagination meets practicality. I’m of the opinion the latter takes more skill. At what point in your career did you develop this principle?

I don’t think I’ve mastered it yet. I still feel disappointed when reality doesn’t live up to what I envisioned in my head. I think I got a lot better once I started producing though. When you only write, you get to play God. You get to create every detail of a made-up world. It’s purely creative. Producing is creative too, but it’s creative problem-solving. It’s constantly trying to figure out how to overcome problems and merge the world on the page with the real world.

4. If you could write a movie for any star, alive or dead, who would it be and what kind of world would you put them in?

I would have to say it would be River Phoenix. I was such a fan when I was growing up and even watching his movies today, he brings so much depth to all of his characters—especially for someone so young. If he hadn’t passed away, I think he’d be the most sought after actor alive. If I were to write something for River, I think I would put him in a world where he is horribly flawed and trying desperately to alter his own destiny by defeating his demons.

5. Ernest Hemingway once said, “as a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.” As a writer, how important is it for you to empathize with the world around you?

It’s everything. I’ve written serial killers, necrophiliacs, teenagers, gang members, and a lot of crazy women. If you hate your characters, or judge them, it’s impossible to relate to them. Like every real person, a character is made up of layers. No one is completely good or completely bad. Their choices come from a culmination of experiences combined with their view of the world. You have to empathize with them to make them seem real. If not, they’ll be simplistic and one-note.

6. Since 2000, two women have received Oscars for Best Original Screenplay (Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation, Diablo Cody for Juno). You could say the same for 1956 to 1999 (Pamela Wallace shared her Oscar for Witness with two men, Callie Khouri for Thelma & Louise). You’ll find similar statistics for Best Adapted Screenplay (Fran Walsh, Diana Ossana, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Emma Thompson).

How would you describe attitudes in Hollywood regarding female voices in screenwriting?

I think historically speaking, the entertainment industry has viewed female-driven stories as less powerful than male-driven stories. But it’s not unique to the industry, I think it simply reflects social attitudes towards the types of problems men face versus those that women face. I heard on the radio the other day that 80% of the new jobs created after the recession have been given to men. That suggests to me that when it comes down to a time of limited opportunities, employers choose to hire men over women because there is more pressure for men to support their families, while there is still a belief that women can find a man to support them. It’s just the society we live in. Films mirror what’s happening in the real world and filmmakers reinforce male and female stereotypes all the time. The good news is, if you look at the female characters in all the films that you named, they are characters that go against that stereotype and the fact that they won means that audiences (and the Academy) appreciate films with well-drawn female characters.

7. You’ve written a good amount of thrillers. I think I could walk out on a limb and say that’s your favorite genre if I weren’t so afraid of heights. So, why thrillers? Is it the genre you’re best at, your favorite, or both?

It’s probably a combination of both. I find that once you do something well in the entertainment industry, people like to believe that’s all you can do until you prove otherwise. With that said, I’ve always loved anything macabre or scary or thrilling. By the time I was 12, I think I’d read almost every Stephen King book written. There’s something very intriguing to me about the dark side of humanity and the depth of human depravity the conflict it creates not just for society, but within the individual. Fear is such an intense emotion, we can only feel it for short periods of time without being deeply affected. Fear makes us reassess our lives, or limitations, and our choices. That’s what I love about thrillers.

8. How does the production process change your script? I’m sure it’s different with each, but generally speaking, what have you grown to expect each time they set up cameras and film people speaking your words?

The worst is when the director doesn’t understand the script him/herself and you end up with actors saying words you wrote, but they’re not being delivered the way you heard them in your head. On the flip side, I’ve worked with amazing actors that not only get what was in your head, but know how to make it even better. When I wrote Stephen McHattie’s character in Summer’s Moon, I created what I thought was a very sadistic, insecure serial killer. When I saw the dailies, I was shocked at what McHattie brought to the role. He made the character even scarier than the one I created. When that happens, it’s an incredible feeling.

9. What’s your greatest strength as a writer? Character? Structure? Dialogue? Action? How do you feel you went about developing it?

I’ve been doing this for a while now, so at this point in my career, I think I’m pretty decent at all of them but if I have to pick one, I’d say character development is probably my forte. When I first started writing, like most new writers, I was best at dialog. It’s the easiest component to write. The more you write, the better you get at figuring out how to create layered characters. When you’re 20, you write characters that are 20. When you’re in your 30s, you’ve accumulated enough experiences with different types of people to write characters of any age, both genders, and to build those characters using pieces of yourself and people you know. By that age, you’ve had your heart broken, been in love, made mistakes, discovered yourself and re-discovered yourself, lost a loved one, faced death, overcome a few fears, become confident in who you are, can pinpoint your shortcomings, and understand why self-reliance is important. If that doesn’t help you write better characters, I’m not sure what would.

10. A lot of people say the best writing is on television. I always thought the best writing was on paper. All in seriousness, what’s the last thing you saw — television or film — and thought was well written? For me, it’s a toss up between Billy the Exterminator and Ice Road Truckers.

I actually love “feel-good” reality shows like Billy the Exterminator. He always re-releases the creature back into the wild where it can live a happy, productive life. That aside, I find different shows well-written for different reasons. For example, I think Big Bang Theory is very well-written because I know I could not write those characters. Two of my favorite films are Buffalo ’66 and Memento. Memento was brilliant because the structure, premise, and characters all came together so perfectly. I love Buffalo ’66 because it’s so simple of a story and yet the characters are so well-drawn. To turn an ex-con kidnapper into a hero that you don’t just care about, you kind of fall in love with, takes an incredible amount of skill. Not a single line of dialog was wasted in that film. Those are just a few examples. I find myself impressed all the time by good writing both on the big screen and the not-quite-as-big screen.

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