The Academy Nicholl Fellowships launch screenwriting careers. Just ask Sam Baron.
Founded in 1986, the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting competition awards up to five $35,000 fellowships each year to screenwriters who have made less than $25,000 in their lifetime for film and television writing.
In recent years, more than 7,400 screenplays have been submitted for consideration each year, with approximately 5% moving on to the quarterfinals, less than 2% advancing to the semifinals, and only ten screenplays making it to the final round before the final five screenplays are chosen for the Fellowships. At each stage, new readers evaluate the scripts, including Academy members starting in the semifinal round. (Submissions for 2016 Nicholl Fellowships closed earlier this month, but now is the time for emerging screenwriters to work on their scripts in preparation for 2017.)
Writers lucky enough to become Nicholl Fellows can find their screenwriting careers take off almost overnight. One of those writers is Sam Baron, a 2014 Nicholl Fellow based in London who won for his screenplay The Science of Love and Laughter. No Film School recently connected with Baron to find out what actually happens after you win the Fellowship.
"When the finalists announcement comes out to say you're in the top ten, in the next 24 hours, you get 800 emails."
Before we get to our conversation, here's a short scene reading from The Science of Love and Laughter from the 2014 Nicholl ceremony featuring Tessa Thompson (Dear White People, Creed, Selma) and Jack O'Connell (Unbroken, '71):
No Film School: First, congratulations on becoming a Nicholl Fellow.
Sam Baron: Thank you.
NFS: Tell us a little bit about the story of The Science of Love and Laughter.
Baron: The Science of Love and Laughter is about a neuroscientist who has reached a precipice in his life: he's in the wrong career, the wrong relationship, and he's on the verge of doing something really destructive when he discovers that his wife has cancer. This triggers a sudden desire to save his marriage and to rediscover the good in what he had and the original reasons he had for choosing everything he did.
But the film looks at the different shades of that. Is that really the right thing to do? Can cancer save a marriage? Should cancer save a marriage? What are the different types of love and relationships that one can have? Should anyone really aim for that perfect postcard marriage? If you don't have that, is it a failure?
It's about the complexities and contradictions that make us all human, rather than any easy answers. Those are the kinds of films that I tend to gravitate towards, and that was very much what I wanted to do with this film.
"When I was first starting to write screenplays, I would often just vomit my life onto the page. That doesn't really work."
NFS: Your Nicholl acceptance speech is very moving and you touch on your inspiration for the film. Can you tell us where the story came from?
Baron: The film is thematically autobiographical but 100% fictional. When I was first starting to write screenplays, I would often just vomit my life onto the page. That doesn't really work. I'm a writer, which means I'm naturally an observational kind of person, and that means I'm quite a passive character, which is not what you want in a film. There's no drama unless you create the drama.
So what I really wanted to do was to distil the truthful emotions and ideas and complications, then to funnel all that into a fictional micro-story, where you can unpack and explore those themes rather than just saying, "This is what happened, so this is what has to be on screen." I think that's what's great about film, if you can pull it off—it can feel real, even though you are actually constructing it.
NFS: I think that's a trick that a lot of emerging writers have to figure out, myself included. Take what has happened to you in your life, then figure out how to make it work in terms of a narrative, because our lives aren't structured as narratives.
Baron: Right, exactly. Something I like to do when I write is to go through these personal "thought exercises." For example, take my life as it is now, then ask, "What would happen if a certain person in my life suddenly revealed himself or herself to be a different kind of a person?" or "What would happen if this external disaster were suddenly thrust into my life?" From there, it's very easy to think, "Well, I would do this, and then this." So you can create something that feels very personal, but without it being bound to historical truth.
"If you copy and paste a chunk of dialogue, you don't get to feel those lines. Whereas if you're actually typing them, key by key, you're in that character's head."
NFS: Getting back to The Science of Love and Laughter, how long did you work on it before you actually submitted it to the 2014 Nicholl Fellowships?
Baron: A long time. It was three or four years, I think. But I was working full-time while writing it, so I was writing evenings and weekends. For some of that time, I was working on set as a production assistant, and would do 12 or 14-hour days. Then, on the night bus home, I would scribble down scene ideas and just pray for the day off when I could type them all up.
I was really burning the candle at both ends. I think that contributed to how long the writing process took. I was also learning a hell of a lot while I wrote it. I did a lot of drafts. I did something like 26 drafts of the film. I wouldn’t do that many now, but I am a big believer in the iterative process of repetition, especially if it's an early script in your writing career. And even now actually, I tend to write out a draft from scratch every time. So, if I've just got a bunch of notes to implement, rather than opening up the same old Final Draft file and going in and tinkering, I find it's a tremendously helpful process to just write it all again from scratch. The good stuff you remember and the bad stuff falls away.
NFS: So when you're doing that, you're not even referring back to your other script, you're starting from page one?
Baron: Yeah, I'll usually just start page one and if I need to, if I have some particularly tricky thing that I know for sure I got right in the previous script, I'll go and have a look at it and see how it worked. But even then, I won't copy and paste it. I'll type it out again into a new document. I think there's something about it flowing through your fingers. If you copy and paste a chunk of dialogue, even if it's only four lines, you don't get to feel those lines. Whereas if you're actually typing them, key by key, you're in that character's head.
"The Nicholl always had this weird aura around it. It felt like such a holy grail that I would never quite stand up to."
Also, as I was writing The Science of Love and Laughter, I was lucky that I was working in the film industry. I was surrounded by a lot of like-minded young people like me who were also writing scripts, and we all read each other's scripts to give notes. I recommend this to everybody who is starting out writing scripts.
I know some people can be very precious about showing their work, but I am very much a believer that you should write it, show it, put it up on its feet, let it take a battering, let your ego get bruised, and then dive back in.
NFS: Had you ever entered the Nicholl Fellowships before 2014?
Baron: No. I had entered other contests, but the Nicholl always had this weird aura around it. It felt like such a holy grail that I would never quite stand up to. But the reason I did enter it for the 2014 contest was that I really thought the script was in a good place. At that point, I hadn't worked on it for six months. I felt it was finally ready.
And by the way, that doesn't mean that I haven't subsequently done a major new draft, because I have [laughs]. It turns out there was lots more to improve. But at the time, the stupid 2014 version of me thought it was perfect.
NFS: Let’s rewind for a minute. Can you tell us a little bit about what your film career was like before you became a Nicholl Fellow?
Baron: I think the Nicholl announcements come in October. I finished the draft of that script the previous November, so nearly a full year before the Nicholl announcements. The script was at a point of being “ready” in November 2013, so at the start of 2014, I sent the script out and got an agent in London, and a producer expressed an interest in making the film. Although that ended up not happening because the producer turned out to be a psychopath. You can put that in.
NFS: I can? Okay.
Baron: Oh yeah. So a few months before any of the Nicholl stuff happened, I started taking meetings with production companies. The script was out there in London as a writing sample, so things were beginning to happen a little bit, but then the Nicholl announcement in October completely changed everything.
"There's no such thing as an agent to get you an agent. So, how are you supposed to get in?"
What happens is, the finalists announcement comes out to say you're in the top ten. In the next 24 hours, you get 800 emails. They're all from people that you don't know, and you have no way of filtering them to know if they're trustworthy or not. And bear in mind, just a few months earlier, I had this experience with the psychopathic producer that had gone horribly wrong, so my antennae were way up.
Then, when you actually win the Nicholl Fellowship, there are another 800 emails. They all want to read the script. They all want to talk to you either about producing it or representing you or managing you.
Luckily, I managed to pick really good people from amongst all of those, and now I have a wonderful producer for the film, and a great manager and agents in LA, in addition to my agent in London. It was a very noticeable gear-shift moment, where suddenly it all started to happen.
NFS: When you came out to Los Angeles for the Nicholl ceremony, did you take a series of meetings?
Baron: Yeah, I came out for a week for the ceremony and that was truly the most insane week of my life. The Nicholl committee puts on a whole range of events for you, including workshops and advice sessions with producers and representatives. You get to tour the Academy Library, which is awesome.
Then my English agent set up lots of meetings because I didn't yet have an American agent or manager. There were a bunch of people who were interested, but I hadn't signed with anybody. So I met lots of them, and also production companies who had read the script who wanted to meet. I ended up doing incredibly full days for one insane week. It was amazing.
"You have to be hustling, meeting the right people, so that by the time you’re ready for an agent, the agent has already heard of you."
NFS: What have you learned about the business of screenwriting since getting your agents and manager?
Baron: I remember that before, I used to find this whole conundrum very confusing, this idea that you need an agent so that they can submit your material to production companies because otherwise production companies won't read it, but the agents don't seem to want to read your material either, and there's no such thing as an agent to get you an agent. So, how are you supposed to get in?
Baron: What I realized is, the agents actually do this for a good reason. They're not in the business of creating a career for you. You have to do the first 10-15% yourself. That means both making stuff, like a short film that gets you an award at a film festival, or a script that has become a semifinalist at the Nicholl, or anything that's making a little splash.
But simultaneously, you have to be hustling, meeting the right people, so that by the time you’re ready for an agent, the agent has already heard of you, or was about to hear of you anyway. If you get an agent before that point, it'll just be a frustrating relationship.
NFS: In the year and a half since winning the Nicholl Fellowship, what has your writing career been like?
Baron: It’s been really busy. I got my first writing commission in February 2015 doing a big rewrite on a film project. I can’t say what it is because it hasn't been announced yet, but it's a really exciting film. I spent most of last year working on that and just finished a few months ago.
After that, I did a new draft of The Science of Love and Laughter, because we're getting closer to shooting it, and I've been developing a new original spec script. I’m also developing a TV series with a company in London.
NFS: Have you felt any pull to move to LA or stateside since winning Nicholl?
Baron: I love London and I love the filmmaking community here and the industry here. I'm an Englishman, so this is home, but of course, I've thought about moving to LA and I may move out there at some point.
"The day after I got the Nicholl, I got rejected from two other screenwriting contests for the same draft. There is no objective thing called 'good.'"
NFS: I think there's an advantage to not living in LA if you already have your representation and you're already known in the industry. I've heard from other writers who are successful and don't live in LA that your time is precious. So when you do spend a week in LA for meetings, people want to make the most of your time. You don't get canceled on a lot, things like that.
Baron: Another Nicholl Fellow gave me that advice. "Even if you do move out here, don't tell anyone. Always be visiting."
NFS: Yes, exactly. Well, here's the obligatory question separate from our Nicholl conversation. Can you tell us a little bit about your particular writing process?
Baron: I tend to alternate between different approaches. Sometimes I write alone; sometimes I write with other people. I have three collaborators who I particularly come back to for one-on-one collaborations, from time to time.
Sometimes I sit at a computer the whole time and type out an 80-page document, talking to myself, where I'm just trying to figure it out and try to simulate collaboration with the two hemispheres of my brain. Sometimes I write by hand. Sometimes I just vomit out 120 pages of first draft and then try to figure out what the hell it is. Sometimes I'll spend months and months outlining something to figure out if it works, or doesn't work.
I do have one particular thing I like to do, where I send myself emails about a project. Gmail stacks your messages in a single thread, so each project has its own thread. So I'll be out at the supermarket and have an idea, see something, or overhear something and think, "That definitely relates to that project," and quickly email it to myself. Once there are about 100 messages in a thread, it feels like a viable project.
NFS: What advice do you have for other screenwriters who are considering the Nicholl Fellowship?
Baron: The Nicholl Fellowship is fantastic and it's completely worth entering. It's also worth bearing in mind that they get thousands of entries, and if you don't win the Nicholl, it doesn't mean that your script is bad. I feel like it was a confluence of luck and hard work that got my script to finals, and I do recognize the importance of luck in that balance. One more reader could have taken a disliking to it, and it wouldn't have won.
Literally the day after I got the Nicholl Fellowship, I got rejected from two other screenwriting contests for the same draft. So it's important to realize that there is no objective thing called "good." You just have to write the script that you write, then once you think it's ready, put it everywhere you can, enter every contest, and try and get the world to pay attention to it.