Archive for the ‘script consulting’ Category

May 9th, 2012  Posted at   script consulting
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Anne Renton @ The Laemmle's in Santa Monica

Four years ago director Anne Renton, looking to direct her first feature, found The Perfect Family by Claire V. Riley on Inktip. Off a referral from FIND (Film Independent) we  started working on the script. Anne and her producing partner, Connie Cummings,  hired Paula Goldberg for the rewrite and, well, multiple drafts later (that’s the Cliff Notes version) Anne was shooting her movie with Kathleen Turner, yes, THAT Kathleen Turner, in the lead!

The Perfect Family was the gala closing film at LA’s Outfest last July and is in theaters right now!  Congratulations Anne!!!

April 23rd, 2012  Posted at   script consulting
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Wow. It’s been months since I’ve posted anything. When I launched my website and started this blog I had lofty intentions of posting weekly. Ha! Then I promised myself I’d post monthly. Hmmm. Every other month maybe… Well here it is 10 months since my last post and you can see where all those good intentions got me.

So where have I been? Basically too busy to blog.

Yup, between reading for Sundance and Screen Queensland, mentoring writers at FIND for Project:Involve, consulting on individual projects (comedies, dramas, thrillers and horrors – the past few months I’ve read it all!) and co-writing a comedy with a stand up comedian blogging has fallen to the wayside. (Oh and I also moved which really isn’t any fun no matter how you look at it. )

While being too busy to blog is kind of the problem you want to have (as opposed to needing a root canal for example) I’m back with a renewed commitment to keeping my blog up to date no matter how busy I am.

Hope to see you here weekly, well ok, how about monthly for starters?

And in the meantime you can always follow me on twitter @ruth_atkinson somehow 140 characters is easier to keep up than a full blog entry!



June 10th, 2011  Posted at   script consulting

Working with writers, both new and experienced, my goal is to help them make their script as strong as possible. This process involves on-going conversations about what works and what doesn’t and invariably results in suggestions designed to align the piece with the writer’s overall intentions. Sometimes this leads to suggesting changes a writer may not be inclined to make. Some well thought out resistance is expected from a writer it tells me you know your story. In fact part of your job as a writer is to take a note, filter it through your intentions and rewrite (or not) accordingly.

But during this process I’ve had writers resist further rewriting by saying, “Well isn’t this good enough? Whoever options my script will want to make further changes anyway,” “The concept is there so isn’t it ok if the rest of the script isn’t perfect?” and “All I really need is a strong first act, right?”

Yes, really, I’ve had these conversations.

While no writer wants to languish in the world of rewrites for too long the above excuses are just that – excuses to avoid doing the hard work of rewriting. Sometimes writers I work with get frustrated by how many drafts it takes to get a piece to work successfully. They want to give up and they find ways to validate why they should. I encourage them to hang in there and keep chiseling away at their script. Writing and rewriting is a marathon not a sprint. It takes time to develop characters, fine tune the structure and find your theme. Oftentimes it takes several drafts before you discover what your protagonist’s epiphany needs to be or what your story is really about.

But there are other reasons to keep plugging away chief among them: Your career as a screenwriter.

It’s true your piece will be rewritten when it’s optioned. But hopefully it’s you doing the rewriting. For example perhaps your script has a very solid, commercial idea at the core. A production company can see the marketing potential but the script itself isn’t as strong as it needs to be. So they’ll option or purchase it and immediately assign a different writer. Ok, great, you say, I need the dollars. And sure there’s always that. But there are two problems with this scenario – you may not end up with a credit and the completed movie may not resemble your vision at all. So while you’ve got a few more dollars in the bank you haven’t moved your career as a writer forward. Your only defense is a really well written script that shows your talent, voice and ability so that attaching someone else becomes unthinkable.

Another reason to stay attached to your script is so you have an opportunity to gain the experience of working with producers, directors and actors to develop your project. If you are cut out of the process at the option stage you don’t get this opportunity. You won’t see how a script changes with the input of the creative team. How the actor will interpret the role or finesse the dialogue. How a director’s vision will take your script to a whole new level. You won’t get to be on set to watch it all come together or screen dailies that will give you insight into your work. Not all writers get the chance to see their project through to filming and yes, in the current landscape this is becoming even harder to attain. But why lessen your chances with a script that’s not your best effort?

By not pushing yourself to go that extra mile and do the rewriting required to make your script the absolute best it can be you are only cheating yourself. No one said it was going to be easy but enough excuses! Write a great script so that you can move your career forward and get a credit you are proud of.

June 1st, 2011  Posted at   script consulting
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It’s looking to be a busy summer for films I’ve consulted on!

Ocean of Pearls

Ocean of Pearls will be in theaters in Canada on June 17th, 2011!

You can see it at the Raja Cinema, in Vancouver, the Movie Dome Theatre in Calgary and the Albion Cinema in Toronto.

Check out the trailer here.

The Perfect Family

Outfest LA’s premier gay and lesbian Film Festival, running July 7th – 17th 2011, has just announced that The Perfect Family starring Kathleen Turner will be the closing Gala film. The Perfect Family just had its world premiere at Tribeca where it received rave reviews. Check it out if you’re in LA this July!

You can see a clip from the film here.

May 29th, 2011  Posted at   screenwriting, script consulting
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I’ve often wondered what makes a successful writer. I’ve tossed around many attributes like talent and connections but the one thing I keep coming back to is productivity. A successful writer is one who writes. Who actually writes. Consistently.

For most trying to balance their everyday lives with a writing life can be difficult. But what’s perhaps even more difficult is learning to define and accept your own unique process for writing. Many screenwriting books will tell you to write everyday. Of course this is sage advice. But this isn’t really enough to help you define your process.

In my case I’ve found that it’s very difficult for me to jump right in and start writing. I need a whopping 30 minutes to get in the right mind set. This usually means answering e-mail, checking facebook and reading a blog or two. I use to get irritated with myself for not getting down to work as soon as I sat down at the computer but I’ve realized much like a dancer doing a warm up this is my warm up. I need it to be productive.

I’ve also realized that midway through a project I will invariably reach a point where I think everything I’ve written is completely half-baked. It’s like a mid-life crisis on paper. This has happened enough times now that I know that if I just keep working this feeling will eventually subside.

I’ve also had very good success with chunking down the process into one or two hour blocks. This means that I set a specific time period and for the duration I don’t check e-mail, quickly look up an actor’s name on IMDB, tweet, or call my dentist to set up an appointment. It’s amazing how much more productive I am when I just stay focused.

Another thing I do is work at night. Once again this is something I used to question because it seriously cuts into the amount of sleep I get. But for me I’ve come to see that sleep is overrated! I love working at night. It’s quiet, I can’t make any phone calls, there aren’t any facebook updates (well except from my friend visiting Thailand) and overall it’s much easier to stay focused on what I need to accomplish.

I know a writer who has to clean the house before she sits down to work – even if it takes close to an hour. I know another writer who can only write when fueled with coffee and music. Loud music. Usually something that relates to the piece he’s working on. I have a friend who’s a poet and she’s unable to work in the quiet of her apartment so she spends long hours at Starbucks nursing a single coffee and getting a ton of writing done.

I encourage you to think about your process – don’t judge it – just look to see if there’s a pattern. Perhaps the very thing that you think stands in your way might actually be part of what you need to do in order to be productive. We’re all unique in our process if you can define and accept yours you’ll undoubtedly be more productive. And of course keep writing. Every day. It’s still the surest way to finish your script!

January 5th, 2011  Posted at   script consulting
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This past year I’ve gotten to know several lunatics, gone on a handful of road trips, experienced the struggles of an inter-racial couples in both the deep south and East LA, endured winter in the Sierra Nevada foothills in the late 1800’s, grieved along with a young boy who lost his mother in rural South Africa, took part in the 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square, longed for Santa to bring a coveted Christmas toy, went on a couple of reality shows, visited Japan with a jaded school girl and took a vow of silence in Uzbekistan.

All of these amazing worlds, and more, I found in the pages of the scripts I’ve worked on. As a story editor I get to travel the world without having to stand in line at the Jet Blue ticket counter or debate whether or not I should let security “touch my junk.” So to all the writers I’ve worked with this year thank you for letting me inhabit your worlds without having to cram myself into an economy seat or deal with a surly flight attendant who’s stingy with the liquor.

January 5th, 2011  Posted at   script consulting
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The Black List is a list of Hollywood’s most liked unproduced scripts. Originally started in 2004 with contributions from 75 studio and production company executives it has grown to include the opinions of over 300 executives. Past nominees since produced include Lars and the Real Girl by Nancy Oliver and Oscar winning Juno by Diablo Cody.

Well worth a look…. 

November 28th, 2010  Posted at   script consulting
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Predicament, a New Zealand produced black comedy / thriller, written and directed by Jason Stutter screened in Los Angeles on November 5th as part of DGA’s Directors Finders Series in partnership with The Screen Directors Guild of New Zealand.

 The screening went very well and landed Jason an agent at Paradigm. Congatulations Jason!

Directors Finders was established in 1998 by the the DGA Independent Directors Committee . The purpose of the series is to spotlight undistributed independent feature films and their directors. Since its inception the series has screened 100-plus films and more than half of those screened have been picked up for North American distribution.

August 28th, 2010  Posted at   script consultant, script consulting
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No not a list… just a great new movie directed by Quentin Lee and written by Koji Steven Sakai, which I helped shape as a script consultant, playing in Los Angeles at the Sunset 5 August 27-September 2nd 2010.

Great review in the Huffington Post you can check out here or  the LA Times review here.  And the review in The Examiner here.

August 4th, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting
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So what’s this thing called marketability and do I need to worry about it as I write?

As a script consultant this is a question I’ve been asked by writers many times and it’s a good one. The answer is yes, and um, well, no. How’s that for confusing? I’ll try to clarify…

Marketability (or commerciality) is a term used to describe a project’s viability in the marketplace. Key here is how likely it is to draw an audience. Anyone reading your script (from agents to production or distribution companies) will be taking a look at the piece with an eye to its marketability. If they determine that the project is unlikely to find an audience they probably won’t want to move forward with it. 

There’s a pretty straightforward bottom line at work here: if no one comes to see the movie then there’s no way to make money on it or recoup the investment in it. Makes sense right? It’s the same thing you’d ask yourself if you were an agent considering investing many hours of valuable time to sell the script or wondering if you should put up millions of dollars to make the movie.  

So if your project is going to gain momentum in the marketplace there needs to be some element of commercial viability.  Now you’re probably wondering how this is assessed. Well there are many, many factors that come into play here. Budget, cast, director, genre, and hook are just a few.

BUDGET. Is the piece low,  medium or high budget? Determining this is key because it dictates what other elements will be needed to ensure the piece finds an audience. For example a low budget indie made for a million dollars doesn’t need the cast required by a big budget studio piece. 

CAST. Will the script attract cast that are meaningful enough (ie: recognizable) to draw an audience? Grown Ups is a good example of this. While the script is pretty thin on story it’s done over 142 million at the box office and continues to draw an audience primarily because of the cast. Anyone reading the project in it’s initial stages would have seen the castability immediately.

DIRECTOR. Is the script strong enough to interest a director who will elevate the piece and increase the likelihood of it attracting an audience? The Hangover is an example of a script finding the perfect director (Todd Phillips) for the piece. In a different director’s hands it could have easily been an edgy art house film with a niche audience. Director appeal would have been apparent from the first read.

GENRE. In very general terms genre pieces, such as thrillers and action films, will attract a wide audience while dramas are traditionally more challenging because they often lack a clear, easy to market premise. If the script is a drama then the other elements (cast, director, budget, hook) become a bigger piece of the puzzle.  

HOOK.  This is an assessment of the script’s overall uniqueness and is the most important question to ask when thinking about marketability. Without a clear, original premise that can be used to market the piece you will likely face an uphill battle when trying to find representation, financing or distribution. Hurt Locker, The Hangover, and Up, all have highly original ideas which can be easily conveyed. Just take a look at their trailers or posters – the hook is easy to see. 

These are just a handful of the questions agents, development executives and production companies ask themselves when evaluating a script’s marketability.

So should you be thinking about any of this while you write?

This is where the no part comes in. I’ve found that scripts written solely with the marketplace in mind rarely work well. Good writing comes from your unique ideas and the way you see the world. It’s far more important to tell a story you want to tell with your original voice than it is to think about the marketplace.

Yet, that said, once you’ve written your piece it’s important to be able to stand back and honestly assess it’s marketability. This will help you to be realistic in your expectations. If you write a script about a young woman’s search for her AWOL father in the bitterly cold Ozark Mountain’s (Winter’s Bone  – a very good low budget film that’s done 4 million at the box office) know that it will probably find a smaller audience than Inception (soon to reach 200 million). And will therefore face some limitations when seeking a foothold in the marketplace. 

So first and foremost write the story you want to tell. Write it really, really well. Then take an honest look at it’s market potential and proceed with realistic expectations around how your piece will be received in the marketplace.

June 30th, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

Writing a script is hard work. Writing a great script even harder. No one sets out to write a bad script so what does it take to write a good one? In my many years as a script consultant reading and developing material I can sum it up with:

A good script is a great idea well told.

So what’s a great idea?

A great idea is a compelling premise, an original hook, a central idea that we’ve never seen before.

Hurt Locker about a bomb squad in Iraq is a highly original idea. The Hangover about three guys who lose the groom on the eve of his wedding is another example. Lars and the Real Girl about a man who falls in love with a blow-up doll is a very unique concept. Even Little Miss Sunshine, which uses a pretty conventional road trip conceit, has an original idea at its core.

All of these are examples of scripts that are based on great ideas.

But it’s not enough to have a great idea. You have to tell your story well.

So what does this entail? Well many things but there are some building blocks that need to be in place.


The story has to have a compelling protagonist with a clear goal that we care about them achieving.


The main character has to be in relationship with other characters who help or oppose their goal. They need to shed light on the protagonist and be engaged with them in a meaningful way.

Great dialogue.

Not expositional, on the nose or irrelevant. It has to define character not overshadow it.


The plot has to be tension filled and move forward with urgency and suspense around the outcome. The climax has to be satisfying and relate to the protagonist’s overall goal. We should feel the main character has been transformed by the story events and that the overall piece has a satisfying, emotionally compelling arc.


The script has to have a clear point of view and be about something specific. When the reader turns the last page or the audience leaves the theater they should know what you were trying to say even if your intention was simply to entertain.

While a lot of elements go into telling a story, if these building blocks are not in place chances are your story is not working as well as it can. And it’s probably not going to work successfully.

So what makes a good script?

A great idea well told.

June 23rd, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

Do you remember working on group projects in college? Remember how hard it was to get everyone on the same page and to pull their weight. By the time a movie is screening in theaters several hundred people may have been involved in the process. No other art form is as collaborative as film and the potential problems, roadblocks and insurmountable crises are numerous when you have so many people working on a project together.

In my experience as a script consultant, involved in the very initial stages of development, and having worked in production and distribution the fact that any film makes it to the screen is an incredible achievement. 

The process goes something like this…

It all starts with the writer of course. An original story (or adaptation) has to be written. Assuming this is a spec (commissioned scripts follow a slightly different path but encounter the same uphill battle), the writer then has to get it to someone who can get the movie financed. This might be an agent or a manager who shows it to the studios or maybe the writer has hooked up with a producer who  takes it out to production and distribution companies.

Once a studio or production company likes the film (this could take years!) they need to put together the financing. In our ever-changing landscape of filmmaking this can be a very complicated process involving co-productions, soft money, private investment and pre-sales, among others. This is a Herculean task in itself and many well-written scripts are unable to find someone willing to put up money to make the film.

Once money to make the film is secured, the film starts casting and / or searching for a director. Another major hurdle here is casting which depends on an alchemy of finding the right talent, for the right money and a convergence of schedules. Same with the director. And let’s hope all these people have the same vision and don’t end up in jail on the first day of principal photography (don’t laugh it’s happened!).

So the film is cast and the perfect director is lined up. Now we have physical production where any number of things can go wrong. From location logistics to crew dynamics (more than one mutiny has been staged by unhappy below-the-line crew) but let’s assume everything comes together and the film is shot. Whether or not this happens within budget is worthy of its own post.

Then we’re into post-production (or into re-shoots if necessary). Many say the film is really made in the editing room and I’d agree. Visual effects, sounds effects, and music are added here.

So now we have a locked film and the marketing people work their magic to design materials to promote the film. Dollars significantly affect how successful the campaign will be but hopefully people will be drawn to the theater to see your movie.

So there you are on a Friday night, talking to your friend, munching on your Red Vines and waiting for the movie to start. It’s the end of a busy week and maybe you’re bitching about your boss or that co-worker you’ve got a crush on. The last thing you’re thinking about is the hundreds of people who have been passionately involved in making the film you’re about to watch.

For them making the film was likely an intense labor of love. There were probably tears, hugs, fights, disappointments, compromises, and celebrations. A decade may have passed since the writer wrote The End on the final draft. Yet somehow they all came together to craft the movie you’re about to see.

So as the curtain rises know that you’re about to witness a small miracle. The miracle of filmmaking.

June 16th, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

As a script consultant, determining the theme of a script is one of the areas I often focus on with writers. Figuring out what your story is really about is essential to the success of your piece. Without a clear central idea, the script can easily lose its way and the audience is unlikely to connect to the film.

Focusing the theme of your script can be surprisingly difficult and there are many theories on what your theme should be. I’m a little more flexible on that front and look to the main character and their journey to define what the story is really about.

 One way to approach fine-tuning your theme is to look at your protagonist’s arc. Generally what your story is about is articulated by what the protagonist learns over the course of the piece.

With this in mind…

The first act defines the main character’s primary goal. Ideally they should have a conscious goal (external) and a subconscious goal (internal). For example in Up Carl’s conscious goal is to fulfill his and Ellie’s lifelong dream of getting to South America. Subconsciously he’s looking to reconcile his grief and the loss of his wife.

The end of the first act is a twist that complicates their goal and raises the question: will our protagonist achieve what they want?

As the story progresses through the second act the main character encounters escalating complications on the way to achieving their goal. The end of the second act is the protagonist’s lowest point, an all-is-lost moment where it seems they are not going to achieve their goals.

Still with me? Because this is where the theme is most clearly articulated…

The second act turning point forces the protagonist to look at why they haven’t achieved what they wanted and leads to an epiphany that tells us what the story is really about.

In Up the second act turning point is when Carl is forced to choose between saving his house, which Muntz has set on fire, and helping Russell rescue Kevin who has been taken by Muntz. Carl, unable to let go of his connection to Ellie, chooses his house and in doing so upsets Russell.

Carl retreats to the house and sadly looks through his scrapbook where he finds a note from Ellie thanking him for the adventure of their life together and encouraging him to go on a new one. This causes Carl to look at his situation from a new perspective. It’s Carl’s epiphany and the moment that tells us that, while the story is a fun adventure, it’s really about reconciling loss. Carl has actually achieved his subconscious goal.

This beat reinvigorates Carl and he goes off to look for Russell only to find he’s taken a handful of balloons and set off to rescue Kevin himself. Carl, having learned what he needed to learn, chooses to go after Russell. The climax is a do-or-die battle that tests Carl’s commitment to Russell.

The resolution of the piece shows Carl stepping up for Russell at the Boy Scout meeting and confirms that Carl has indeed reconciled the loss of Ellie and is willing to move on to the next adventure. Because Carl’s epiphany is so clear, and extremely moving, the piece resonates and it’s easy to see what the theme of the movie really is.

Looking at your protagonist’s arc, specifically their epiphany and emotional transformation, can be one way to see if your theme is being articulated clearly enough for it to have the emotional impact it should.

June 9th, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

It’s the weekend. You’ve just spent 20 bucks on a movie and popcorn. As you leave the theater what’s the first thing you do?

If you’re like me you’ll turn to your girlfriend, buddy, husband or mother and ask them: what’d you think?

We’re all critics and usually have an opinion on the movies we see. Sometimes you may not know why you liked or didn’t like the film, you’ll just have a gut reaction. As writers it’s important to fine-tune our critical skills so we can better assess whether our material works or not. While movies are inherently subjective, in general, a well-told story that follows proper structure will connect to an audience.

So what does a successful movie, and therefore screenplay, need to have?

A Strong Protagonist with a Compelling Goal.

In Up Carl was so driven to pursue his and his wife’s lifelong goal of exploring the wilds of South America that he tied balloons to his house in order to get there.

Hurt Locker’s Sergeant William James disposes of life threatening explosives in war-torn Iraq.

In Little Miss Sunshine The Hoover’s are determined to get Olive to the pageant no matter what.

These are all incredibly powerful goals that we can easily get behind and become invested in for the duration of the movie.

Meaningful Conflict

Obstacles that stand in the way of our protagonist’s goal keep us hooked into the story to find out the outcome. We’re driven to find out if our hero will achieve their goal.

Russell complicates Carl’s goal at every turn as does Kevin, Muntz, the balloon-tethered house and of course Carl’s inner demons.

James faces one bomb after another, each one more difficult than the next, including a body bomb left inside a young boy and a human time bomb he’s unable to diffuse in time.

The Hoover’ face all sorts of complications on their quest, from a broken van to an untimely death.

An Emotional Transformation

We go to see movies because we want the experience of transformation. Even the most straightforward action films have the emotionally satisfying experience of good triumphing over bad. Without this element it’s unlikely we’ll connect to the film or find it satisfying.

In Up Carl fulfils his and his wife’s dream and is able to reconcile the loss, enabling him to return to his community a changed man.

James returns home and discovers that the only life he’s cut out for is military life and leaves his wife and infant son for another tour of duty.

And while we want Olive to get to the pageant what we really want is for her family to reconcile their differences. Which they do after Olive’s stunningly inappropriate performance.

These transformations all make for very satisfying movies and, while a film like Up has a happier ending than say Hurt Locker, both films resolve the central character’s goals and make for meaningful films.

Without a clear goal, meaningful obstacles and an emotionally satisfying resolution it’s unlikely you’ll connect to a movie. So the next time you leave the theater and you’re not sure why you did or didn’t like the movie you can ask yourself if it had these three essential elements: strong protagonist with a compelling goal, meaningful conflict and an emotional transformation. Chances are if you liked it these elements were there working in concert to tell a compelling, entertaining story.

June 2nd, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

Sometimes it’s not until we look back that we can see how the events of our lives have led us to where we are and those seemingly inconsequential moments suddenly take on a whole new light.

As a script consultant that’s what I do when I work on your script. I look at each beat and connect the dots to see what the overall significance and meaning is. Like this:

True Story. At 8 years old I’d memorize the entire TV guide every week. If someone in the family wanted to know what was on they didn’t flip through the guide – they asked me. I always knew.

True Story. The movie Diva (1981) changed my life. My older sister, just back from college, dragged me to the subtitled French-language film. I asked so many questions in the first 10 minutes that she hissed at me to shut up and refused to clarify my confusion. So for the very first time I was forced to sit back and actually watch a movie. Breathtaking. Spellbinding. The music from Diva haunts me still.

True Story. While waitressing in Victoria, BC one of the regulars, a local TV/movie producer, asked me if I’d associate produce a telethon with him. I reminded him that while I was a struggling writer and artist I was really just a waitress. He didn’t care. I figured he wanted a date. But he didn’t. He really did want someone to work with him because his regular associate producer / talent coordinator was out of town. Timmy’s Telethon was 21 hours of live television broadcast throughout Vancouver Island every spring. OK, it was pretty hokey but we raised a bunch of money for kids and it kick started my career in film and television. If it wasn’t for Arthur Rabin I’d probably still be serving Margaritas and chicken wings to unruly college boys.

True Story. Sold everything I had to move to LA for a development job working with writer/director John Kent Harrison. That was just about 15 years ago. Dropped the desk job when I had my two kids but kept working in the part of movie making I like best. Screenwriting. Working with writers, directors and producers to develop material. Telling stories.

This is mine. I can help you tell yours.