Interview with Nicholl Fellowship Winner Micah Ranum!

FSU Classmate and winner of the 2010 Nicholl Fellowship Micah Ranum very kindly answered some questions I had for him about winning and what his life has been like since.

From the Nicholl Website

1. What script did you win with, what’s it about, what do you love about it?

My script is entitled “A Good Hunter.” The story is about a reformed hunter living in isolation on a wildlife sanctuary in Northern Minnesota. He becomes involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse when he sets out to save a young girl from a vicious killer in the wilderness.

I have found that in order for me to really become excited about a project, I need to love the characters. As a writer you spend countless hours with your characters and if you don’t find some reason to get to know them well, the script just doesn’t stand a chance. So while I love writing suspenseful moments, those moments mean very little if you don’t find a deeper connection with the characters and the world they inhabit. For me, Rayburn, the protagonist in A Good Hunter, was a guy I liked quickly. The idea of this man, who is a reformed hunter who now takes care of animals on this isolated wildlife sanctuary, spoke to me. You have to get invested in what it is the main character is after, and in order to do that you have to become attached to the hero of the story.

2. What’s your background? Where are you from, how long have you been writing, how many scripts have you written? Do you want to be a writer/director?

I am originally from Minnesota and have been writing screenplays for nearly the past ten years. Some years have been much more prolific than others, but all together I have written ten feature scripts, most of which I would never show to anyone.

Other than writing, I also went to film school at Florida State University where I earned an MFA in film production. While there, I wrote and directed five short films and had the pleasure of working on countless other students films.

I do hope to direct someday, but as of now I really just hope to forge a career in writing and hopefully directing will fall into place as a result.

3. Have you applied to other contests or festivals? With what results?

The 2010 Nicholl competition was the first screenwriting competition I have ever entered and will likely be the last. As a winner of a fellowship, I don’t believe I qualify for most other competitions.

4. Did you get feedback from nicholl on your writing? Once you were a finalist what was the process from there to winner?

I did not receive any feedback from the Nicholl Fellowships, but I did not ask for it either so I’m not sure what their official policy is on sharing feedback.

Once I reached the finalist level in the competition I was asked to submit a brief letter describing my background and my aspirations for the future, as well as a description of a script that I would like to spend my time working on during the fellowship year. Overall the process was simple and painless. The waiting, on the other hand, was a nightmare! But when the call came from the director of the fellowships, Greg Beal, I couldn’t have been more elated. It was such an exciting moment and much needed validation.

5. Did you meet the other winners? Did anything seem to separate them from others?

I met the current fellows and finalists and also had the honor to meet several brilliant past fellows as well. Most writers tend to live such isolated existences that it is hard to discern what separates a professional from an amateur. How do ten scripts rise to the top in a competition like the Nicholl Fellowships? If I knew the answer to that question I would be happy to share, but I am not sure anyone knows that answer.

There are so many ingredients necessary to make a good script great that if just a few are missing, the story just won’t feel quite right. Basically, tell an entertaining story and make sure it is full of conflict with dimensional characters that a reader and an audience can fall in love with. But first and foremost, fall in love with your own story so that you can spend lots of time necessary to rewrite your work.

6. Tacky question: have you gotten the money? Have you bought anything exciting? Did you have a day job and did you get to quit it? Has your life been turned upside down with calls for screenplay deals and agents?

The fellowship money is not given in one lump sum. Instead it is dispersed in five payments over the course of the fellowship year. But after I got my first check, I did purchase a new Macbook Pro. I had been using a touchy nine year-old imac that is well past retirement age.

Before I won the fellowship I was fortunate to be writing fulltime. My wife and I moved to Los Angeles without much of a backup plan. Once we arrived, and I was able to secure a manager we decided that I would spend a few months writing full time while she would support us. A few months extended into over a year, but we kept seeing progress and it just seemed like the struggle would be worth it in the end. The Nicholl is a huge step and the sacrifices that we made have worked for us, but it has not been easy. While I have supplemented our income with small amounts of production work from time to time, I have been lucky enough to really spend my time working on the craft of screenwriting.

My life hasn’t been turned upside down yet, but doors continue to open. The script has garnered a lot of attention and I do expect good things to happen in the coming year. I already had a manager and an agent so I was not looking to sign elsewhere. But from what I gathered, the writers who did not have representation found it quickly.

7. There’s always grumbling about the race, sex, geographic locale, and genre of the majority of Nicholl winners, though the first three line up pretty closely with submissions. Do you have any thoughts on that? How does it feel to have won with a fairly atypical genre?

Personally, I think the competition is about as perfect as one could expect. The blind submission process ensures that everyone gets a fair chance. No script contains information about the age, gender, etc. of the writer. With that said, if a script comes by about a menopausal woman taking a road trip with her 3 dearest friends, I’d wager that it wasn’t written by a 22 year old guy. Nor is a gratuitously violent slasher flick filled with teen sex usually written by a 50 year-old woman. In that regard, the process is a little subjective, but I think good work usually gets recognized. But gender and race issues are a much larger sociological issue that cannot be so easily pinpointed and dissected in a screenwriting competition.

Geographic locale is simple. Most people who take their work seriously, move to the location that best fits their needs. If you want to become a country singer, move to Nashville; if you want to study Chimpanzees in their native habitat, move to Africa; if you want to be involved in the film industry, Los Angeles is where the industry is. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it from somewhere else, it only means that it’s that much easier to surround yourself with like-minded peers.

It was exciting to win with a thriller; however, I do believe that even genre scripts need to have a good dramatic through line. We have to like the characters and we have to root for them to succeed. Every good script needs several layers to really work on an emotional level.

8. You had a manager who sent this script out to the tracking boards about a year ago. Did she help you with the script? Did you make any changes before sending it to nicholl? Did you get any meetings off of it then?

My manager certainly helped develop the script. I think a good manager will do that, but in the end it is still up to the writer to take those notes and execute. But a good manager will point out the weak moments and should push a writer to do their best work.

I did not make any changes to the script before submitting to the Nicholl competition. I was already working on other projects and felt that “A Good Hunter” was in a good place to submit to the Nicholl.

When the script initially went out I think I had around thirty meetings. After winning the Nicholl, I probably had another fifteen or twenty meetings and they still seem to be popping up several months later.

9. Any advice or recommended resources, books or websites on writing or the business? Words of wisdom for people who are older than 22 or don’t live in hollywood but still want to make it?

There are tons of great books on writing including Save the Cat, Story by Robert Mckee, books by Linda Seger and of course Sid Field. But other than reading those books, study the types of movies that you would like to write, read as many scripts as you can, but most importantly write. I’ve had days where I’ll read all the tracking boards and screenwriting blogs, read chapters in a screenwriting book, and then break down a movie or two, but at the end of the day, I hadn’t written a word. All of that busy work is important but you have to write – make a schedule that you can stick to. The only way to improve is to repeat the process over and over.

And most importantly, learn to rewrite your work. First drafts are never very good no matter who you are. Anyone who thinks they can write one draft and be done is delusional. There are many layers that make up a good script and most of those do not show up until rewrites.

10. What’s next? What are you currently working on?

I am currently writing two more spec screenplays. I couldn’t be more excited about both projects. But have found it never seems to get any easier. It takes hard work to write a script and maybe a touch of insanity to do it over and over and over.

Thanks a lot, and again, huge huge congratulations!

Busy!

Have you ever had one of those weeks where there was just too much going on?  That’s the sort of week I’ve been having.  It’s been good, great even, I’ve just had a lot on my plate.  I love the freelance writing I’m doing but, between working full-time and tutoring and trying to attend local freethought events, my weeks are already too full.  Then I got a special assignment from Social Axcess to cover NCAA Social Media for March Madness — so that required a lot of research, because I don’t know much about American sports, and I know even less about college sports.  This is because I resented being forced to go to prep rallies when I was in high school — I have a block when it comes to school sports.

Then I was learning a courier route at work, meaning I spent all day in a car driving, so I was working overtime and not in front of a computer. And I had a 1500 word piece due.  And I got laryngitis.  And it’s spring, so my allergies are in full bloom.  And someone wanted to consult with me about an editing project, which I just can’t take on right now, but it’s interesting.

Exciting news!  I’m going to the SCA Conference in Washington, DC right before my birthday.  Which reminds me that I need to put together some information on Social Media Strategy for them in the next day or two.  I hope I get the chance to see a little of DC, I went when I was in 8th grade and that was before I’d seen The West Wing and thought that there was something worth seeing in Washington.

And the world is apparently falling apart, but I haven’t really had time to absorb that.  CNN has just had one too many “Where is God in Japan” headlines for me to stomach trying to follow the daily news cycle.  And the Nicholl opened, and TAM registration opened.

So it’s Sunday and I still feel on edge, like I should be working, and there’s still plenty on my plate, but I’m taking a day off.  Of course, my brain is still going a million miles a minute — I don’t really drink, but maybe I just need a drink.

Nothing to do with the rest of this post

Nicholl: Congratulations Micah Ranum

One of my FSU Film School classmates, Micah Ranum, won the Nicholl Fellowship this year! I’m super happy for him. The spec is called “A Good Hunter” and the logline is:

In an unforgiving wilderness, a reformed hunter tracks a vicious killer who may have kidnapped his daughter years ago.

There was only one other logline that looked like it might be something other than a Heartfelt Drama about Important Issues, so I’m doubly happy for him to win with a Thriller. Admittedly, I’m a bit jealous, but I fully intend to throw out the I knew him when card as often as possible. And you know that thing where people say “it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy”? That’s actually accurate.

Nicholl 2010

Didn’t make it to the QFs.

I’m bummed, but trying not to be too bummed.  I know the script is in much, much better shape than it was when it SFed last year — I’ve got industry reader feedback, so it’s not just my opinion.  It comes down to the fact that it’s an incredibly arbitrary process with over 6000 scripts competing, and if you’re script addresses anything controversial or is a weird genre, it’s not unlikely that it might hit someone the wrong way.  That’s all I can guess from the PS, 2 readers liked it and one hated it.

I am really surprised and bummed after how well it did last year, but I guess that just underlines how much luck is involved.

3 weeks to Christmas

I wanted to have my rewrite of Bible Con and first draft of Dyke for a Day done by Thanksgiving.  I also wanted to have a business plan for the former ready for my trip to SC at Christmas.  You know, so I could sort of test the waters for raising the money there.  So new deadline, Dec. 22.  Except I’m working days, nights and weekends.

It would help if my health wasn’t undermining my energy and I was less easily distracted by QI, which is my new favorite thing in the universe.

In other news, I got my feedback from ScriptSavvy, and for the most part the notes are very good.  If you really want decent notes on your script, I would send off to them long before I did to Zoetrope or any other script contest.  My only complaint is that the notes have a tendency to talk down to the writer, as though they aren’t terribly bright and don’t know anything about screenwriting.  I’m sure this comes from an attempt to guess what you can assume the author knows.  They don’t appear to have a terribly high opinion.

I got a 48, which is about 5 points off an honorable mention score, and 7 off a win.  I guess that means a strong rewrite could be a winner.  One thing I really don’t like about the Nicholl is the complete lack of notes, even for the people who advance.  That’s true of many contests, but it’s definitely a flaw in the Nicholl and a strength of ScriptSavvy.

Go to 47:55 of this YouTube video to be incredibly impressed by Senator Parker of NY.

Delinquent

I’m sorry I’ve been so lacking in interesting things to say.  At the moment I’m just showing up to work and trying to write a business plan.  I’m doing a slight re-write of my Nicholl Script, “Bible Con”.  I’m hoping to have it and a new script ready to send to Nicholl this year.

So, I dunno, not a lot going on.  I’m about to start working on editing a short, but I haven’t actually started yet.  I spend a lot of time trolling the internets for jobs.  Yeppers.

Otters

Too Cute

Netiquette

I received an e-mail from a director who is looking for a script and who was told to e-mail the Nicholl Semi-Finalists. He sent a mass e-mail that had all of our e-mail addresses in the TO: field.

After replying with my logline and synopsis, I included a PS about how impersonal it is to send an obvious mass mailing and that not everyone wants their e-mail to be revealed to a bunch of strangers, and that he should BCC in the future.

I mean, maybe that’s not cool of me, but I feel like someone should tell him. Maybe he just doesn’t know about the BCC. And he really should. Because I don’t really mind having the e-mail addresses of my fellow semi-finalists, but they might mind.

Nicholl: First Phone Call, 17th Contact

I was sitting here in a pleasant reverie, remembering my trip two springs ago to visit New York and the Daily Show, just before I graduated film school.  I was trying to figure out where I should live and work and my family friend Gail Lieb has a talented son who works at the Daily Show and as a writer.  Anyway, I’ve always loved New York, and going that spring was really beautiful, and it was really difficult to commit to moving to LA after such a lovely spring week in NYC.

Anyway, I’d just sent Josh an e-mail telling him how much I’d loved his book, especially the formatting.  (What?  I like the formatting.  Shut up.)  And I got a phone call from one of those previously mentioned big guys.  Actually, it was a different person at the same big guy agency.  But he called me, so that was exciting.  And he expressed interest in the Mockumentary genre and was very pleasant on the phone.  He’s based in New York, and for some reason, that struck me as really awesome, since that’s where I was in my mind.

17: it is one of my lucky numbers, because it’s prime and 3*17 is 51, and I always thought that was cool because 51 looks prime, but it isn’t.  (Why are you always harshing my nerd high?)

Me, Gail, and Spring in New York

Me, Gail, and Spring in New York

Nicholl: What I’ve learned so far; 15 and 16

What I’ve learned: You don’t break into the industry with a Mockumentary.

People really enjoy reading them, but no one wants to make them or believes you can write based on them.  Which is weird because there’s a screenplay sitting there that they really enjoyed, but despite the success of The Office and Best in Show, and reality style in general, Mockumentaries are apparently too difficult to set up in Hollywood.

I wrote the screenplay because I liked the story and I love mockumentaries, I really never thought it’d be getting attention from Hollywood.  From small indie producers, maybe.  Maybe I hoped Christopher Guest would somehow find it on his reading list.  But I didn’t figure Hollywood would be interested.  And I was wrong in that they seem to have liked reading it enough to stay in touch with me, but not enough to take it on board.

15: Congratulations on your recent 2009 Nicholl Fellowship success! We read about you and would love to read your script BIBLE CON.

At *** Entertainment we manage about 50 writers in television and film, and produce feature films as well.

I’ve attached our **** Entertainment release form, and need it filled out for each piece of material being submitted. Despite its stringent language, I can assure you this is an industry-standard release form. Please fill out the form and either scan and email with the script, or fax the release to *** and then e-mail the script, or you can throw it all in the mail as well – our address is in my signature below.

16: I actually got this a long time ago and missed it

Congrats on your script being a semi-finalist in the Nicholl competition!
Sounds interesting–may I read it?  My company manages screenwriters and playwrights and we are always reading new screenplays to find potential clients we can introduce to the Hollywood studio system.
Can you email me a copy?