Catherine S. McMullen on the challenges and rewards of genre screenwriting

03 June, 2020 by Don Groves

Catherine S. McMullen with ‘The Other Lamb’ producer Stephanie Wilcox and director Małgorzata Szumowska (Photo credit: Stephanie Wilcox).

Screenwriter Catherine S. McMullen addresses the challenges of making a living in the genre space in Australia and for females to be recognised in the profession.

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A former production freelancer, she wrote an episode of the second season of Playmaker Media/Stan’s Bloom, two episodes of Fremantle’s Wentworth VR and Princess Pictures’ digital series Parked before her international breakthrough, scripting The Other Lamb.

The English-language debut of Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska, the horror movie follows a group of girls and women who live in a mysterious secluded compound with a man they call “Shepherd,” hailed by critics as combining elements of The Witch, The Handmaid’s Tale, Rosemary’s Baby and Carrie.

Q: In the recent Australians in Film webinar with Zak Hilditch, Ben Young and Natalie Erika James, you said it’s impossible for a genre screenwriter to make a viable living in Australia. Can you elaborate on that?

A: Genre TV shows and films are stronger in Australia than they’ve ever been – shows like Glitch, The Kettering Incident, Bloom and The Commons, and teens shows like The Unlisted and Nowhere Boys do really well both here and overseas.

But we’re are a small market and it’s hard for anyone that views themselves as solely a genre writer to support themselves on just that – at the most, you’d only be able to work in a few development rooms a year.

The double-edged sword of me being so specific in what I want to write, is that I don’t tend to get people asking me to come and write on say, a medical drama. However, in a bigger international market like the US, there are enough shows being made or produced that it’s possible to be that specific in what you write.

Q: You also suggested it is tougher for females to be recognised in this genre. That implies a male bias?

A: I think it’s getting better for women and gender diverse writers working in the genre space, but there’s still a long way to go. Especially when I was just starting to go on general meetings, there was sometimes an assumption from development executives that The Other Lamb was me dabbling in horror for the first time, whereas in reality, I’ve been writing sci-fi and horror short stories and scripts for years.

This bias applies doubly for women of colour writing in this area – I think it’s part of the shift from genre being something where the default is white, straight and male. However, we’re now starting to see stories being told through different lenses, and those films and shows are often doing very well, which means it will hopefully continue to progress.

Q: I assume the critical acclaim for The Other Lamb and being showcased at TIFF, BFI London, San Sebastian, Fantastic Fest and other festivals raised your profile? Has that paid off with offers or approaches from other producers?

A: The response from festivals has been absolutely fantastic, well beyond what I’d ever imagined. We’ve had some great reviews. For me, a lot of the job opportunities happened prior to it being released though – for a screenwriter, when your script starts to get ‘buzz’ and people start to read it, that’s often when other gigs come up, which can be years before it comes out. Whereas I think for a director, it’s when a film is released that they start to see other opportunities appear.

Q: When did you write the script? I see it was on the 2017 Black List, The Hit List and The Blood List as one of the year’s best unproduced scripts, so it was picked up and financed relatively quickly? .

A: I developed the script as part of Film Victoria’s Catapult Lab at the start of 2016, but it was based on a short story I wrote that was published in the Australian genre publication Aurealis Magazine in 2015.

Once the script had been written, it was used as part of my ‘sample packet’ that was sent out to producers when I went out on general meetings. Stephanie Wilcox, the VP of development and production at Rumble Films, read it and really loved it.

We met to discuss the script, and they optioned it pretty soon after that. It has a mostly female cast and has been described as a film that ‘boils with rage beneath the surface,’ and Stephanie didn’t want to dilute that at all.

The producers at Rumble have an incredible track record; they’ve produced films like Drive, Whiplash and Nightcrawler, so I knew they would give it the best chance possible. From there, we pretty much had a dream run in terms of attaching our director Małgorzata Szumowska, who is an incredibly experienced Polish director.

She hadn’t agreed to do an English-language script before, but she connected especially with the religious and patriarchal themes, and from there it went to cast and financing. From that first meeting, to our first day on set, was almost exactly two years to the day, which for a feature, is incredibly fast.

Q: IFC Midnight released The Other Lamb in the US on April 3. Has it been sold to other markets including Australia?

A: TrustNordisk is handling international sales and it’s been sold in over 25 countries, although no sale in Australia unfortunately yet – hopefully soon! We had an incredible festival run, but my one disappointment is that I wasn’t able to have a screening in Australia, even an informal one, as we released a few weeks after lockdown.

Q: Your father is well-known Australian science-fiction author Sean McMullen and your first short story was published when you were 10, so clearly you always wanted to be a writer. You graduated in 2011 with a double degree in Arts/Law from the University of Melbourne but didn’t aspire to be a lawyer?

A: I’ve wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember. My dad is a writer and my mum managed libraries and community services before she retired, so I think if I did something other than writing, it would have been a surprise. I grew up at sci-fi conventions, and have been lucky enough to meet many of my literary idols. I started out wanting to write novels, and I only really started to think about film and TV as a teenager.

I did my double-degree for the usual reasons – supporting myself writing full-time seemed like a pretty unlikely dream, so I thought it was a good idea to have a bit of a back-up. I was an absolutely atrocious law student though – I failed Administrative Law three times, and to this day, I’m still not sure what the difference between a solicitor or a barrister actually is.

When I finally made my way into writers’ rooms, I actually found my law degree useful again – structuring your reasoning around an idea or a pitch, and being able to support it, is very similar to running a line of argument for a case or in a legal essay. It’s about supporting your idea, and providing examples, without becoming too attached to one line of thought. It’s just that now, I’m doing it to try and argue why a character should die, or for a particular ending for a scene.

Q: Before becoming a screenwriter, you worked as a production freelancer in various departments on shows including HBO’s The Leftovers, Syfy series Hunters and Childhood’s End, Matchbox Pictures’ Nowhere Boys and the movies Cut Snake and Paper Planes, so that gave you a well-rounded view of the production processes and helped inform your writing?

A: If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, and in a position to work in production in some capacity, I can’t recommend it enough. I started out as an office coordinator and assistant to Tony Ayres at Matchbox Pictures, which was my first ‘real’ industry job, and then from there, transitioned to working in production in various departments.

While it can be a very all-consuming area to work in, it was such invaluable experience to see what actually goes into making a TV show or feature, as well as all the creative decisions that have to happen once a script actually goes into production. As well as helping me write more produceable scripts, it also showed me when to let things go – you might love that scene with hundreds of extras, but if it’s not able to be done within budget, then you have to know how to change it if needed.

Q: Writing and serving as consulting producer on two episodes of The CW/Netflix’s Two Sentence Horror Stories was your first US gig? How did you get that?

A: My job on Two Sentence Horror Stories was a combination of The Other Lamb getting attention and having my work read by a lot of development executives. One producer in particular who liked my writing suggested me to an executive at Stage 13, and they then read my script on The Bloodlist, a horror-specific script list. My incredible showrunner Vera Miao, was staffing her writers’ room for a horror anthology show, and we had a meeting and immediately clicked.

I’d done some development work in the US before, but that was my first US writers’ room and it was an incredibly rewarding and life-changing experience. Vera’s vision for Two Sentence Horror Stories was horror told through a diverse lens, and with writers Pornsak Pichetshote and Leon Hendrix III, I’m really proud of the stories we told, especially on network TV. It’s had a great run since then, and people seem to be watching it during lockdown as well, which is nice.

Q: On a personal note how are you coping with lockdown? More time for writing? Itching to get back to Los Angeles when travel restrictions are lifted or happy to stay in Melbourne?

A: I’m very lucky – I had just finished up in a writers’ room for Netflix and was back in Australia for a few months, when everything started happening with COVID-19. I’m very much loyal to Melbourne, so it’s been lovely being able to be here for a bit longer.

I’ve been writing during lockdown, but have also definitely had up-and-down days – it’s hard to focus or create something new, when the world feels like it’s on fire. I feel very fortunate to be able to work and write during this time though, compared to friends and colleagues in live events or production – the government has very much been missing in action in terms of supporting one of Australia’s biggest industries.

I’m working on a few things in development, but trying not to plan too far ahead – it feels like there’s so many seismic shifts going on in the world and the industry, that it’s just about waiting until we have a clearer picture. Until there’s a better idea of what international travel will look like, it’s hard to plan anything. That said, I have found that because of lockdown, suddenly meetings that I would have had to come to LA for, can be done over Zoom – so I’m hopeful that some of these new practices will ultimately benefit Australian creatives trying to get a foothold in the US in the long run.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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