Interview with 2019 Collyer Fellowship in Screenwriting Winner, Ariella Carmell

by: Chiara Montalto-Giannini

1. When did you know you were a writer?

Growing up, books were my whole world. I read so much that my teachers had to take away my books during class. Eventually, it wasn’t enough simply to read: I wanted to write stories as well. I spent so much time absorbed in my own imagination that stories and characters flowed out of me. When I was 12, I started writing them down and never looked back.

2. When did you know screenwriting was something you wanted to seriously pursue?
 
After writing mostly prose and poetry, I enrolled in an Advanced Screenwriting summer course at USC when I was 16 because I also loved film and wanted to learn the mechanics of screenwriting. Although I was the youngest in the class, I never felt out of place. I fell in love with the particular elegance of screenplays — and found out I was pretty good at writing them! I kept on writing plays and screenplays throughout high school and college.
 
3. What do you think makes a good story and what kinds of stories are you drawn to? 
 
I can’t say I know what makes a good story: I’m still trying to figure that one out. I can say that I’m mostly drawn to character-driven, humanistic stories that are sad and sweet and funny and, most of all, ring true. To me, the best art is honest, unflinching, and a little risky.
 
4. What are some of your favorite books? Movies? 
 
Books: Mrs. Dalloway, Lolita, Middlesex, The Road, Disgrace, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Movies: Harold and Maude, Almost Famous, Metropolitan, Frances Ha, Cinema Paradiso.
 
5. What is your writing process like?  
 
Usually I have a few ideas percolating in my brain at any given time. When I begin to visualize the scenes and characters, I might jot down a description of what I’m imagining. Or I might just start whatever it is — play, screenplay, fiction — and figure out the rest as I go along. With screenwriting, I tend to brainstorm and outline more first.
 
6. What’s the most surprising thing you have learned from writing?
 
The unconscious really does a lot of the work for you. I’ve found the best tactic is to silence my inner critic and let myself write. It’s not always going to be pretty or make sense, but it will reveal things my conscious mind could not make up even (or especially) if it tried. Writing is a meditative practice. I wouldn’t call myself a patient person, but writing forces me to listen to myself on a transcendental level, to let the work reveal itself incrementally. I have to smother my ego and my own restlessness every time I sit down to a blank page.
 
7. What is your interesting “writing quirk?
 
I don’t think I’ve ever written something that doesn’t have a lot of quips or wordplay, even if the piece is very serious. Drama without humor is impossible to me.
 
8. What did you learn and accomplish during the course of the  Collyer fellowship
 
The feedback and support I received throughout the Collyer Fellowship was integral for me to complete my screenplay. I’m most grateful that my mentor Susanna never tried to change the heart of the script to suit some kind of commercial ideal. I felt affirmed in my belief that there is a place on screen for intimate stories that tackle difficult topics like grief and sexuality.
 
9. What have you been working on since you completed the fellowship? 
 
Since I’ve been quarantining, I’ve decided to use this time to work on a novel. I haven’t written much fiction since high school, so it’s been such a liberating adventure so far.
 
10. What do you like to do for fun- when you’re not writing or studying?
 
I love to watch movies, spend time with friends, go on walks, and swim.

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