Meet Austin Film Festival's Screenwriters to Watch 2021!

These are some of the most exciting new voices in storytelling today.

Since it began in 1994, the Austin Film Festival has elevated screenwriters through its many creative initiatives and programs. From its industry-leading Writers Conference, an annual film festival that hosts some of the biggest and most important creators working today, to the largest screenplay competition in the world, AFF continues to be a resource for writers and a hub for creatives to connect in countless ways.

No Film School proudly presents AFF's annual “25 Screenwriters to Watch” list.  Explore the careers, dreams, and origin stories behind these up-and-coming storytellers. They also offer valuable advice on how to break in as a writer!

Enjoy. There's a good chance you'll be seeing their names attached to your favorite new project very soon!

Remember to check out Austin Film Festival's website for more information. And writers, if you haven't already submitted, the late deadline for the screenplay/teleplay competition is May 21. Submit now!

Austin Film Festival's 25 Screenwriters to Watch

  1. L.T. Verrastro
  2. Ann Marie Allison & Jenna Milly
  3. Edward Drake
  4. Matt Ackels
  5. Jenny Kleiman
  6. Sylvia Batey Alcalá
  7. Adewale Olukayode
  8. Joshua Losben and Scott Gabriel
  9. Tillery Johnson
  10. Catherine Wignall
  11. Kazem Mollaie
  12. Nick Fituri Scown
  13. Natasha M. Hall
  14. Boise Esquerra
  15. Alexis Siegel
  16. Taylor Meacham
  17. Nancy Duff
  18. Paul Kowalski
  19. Becca Roth
  20. Emil Gallardo
  21. Aldo Miyashiro, Érika Villalobos, Abril Cárdenas
  22. Aurora Florence and Jeff Dickamore
  23. Troian Bellisario
  24. Kelly Pike
  25. Khaled Ridgeway

L.T. Verrastro

Writer, Fifth & Frankincense, Baskets (FX)

L.T Verrastro is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He has written on the fourth season of Baskets on FX, as well as worked in the writers' room of Portlandia (IFC), Moonbase 8 (Showtime), and Made For Love (HBO Max). In addition to his work in TV, he has written for national ad campaigns for brands that include Spotify, Fox Sports, and Freeform television network.

He was one of eight writers invited to participate in the Orchard Project’s 2019 Episodic Lab, during which he developed his drama pilot Model Man. His action-comedy feature Corpse & Buggy was a quarterfinalist in the Academy’s 2019 Nicholl Fellowship, and his holiday movie Fifth & Frankincense was a finalist in the Austin Film Festival’s Scholastic Entertainment Fellowship for Kids & Family Content.

AFF: What’s the hardest scene or project you’ve ever had to write? How did you navigate the challenge?

LTV: My writing partner and I once wrote a drama pilot called Model Man, which followed the life of a male fashion model in New York City. Given that I chose a career behind the camera for a reason, I found this project to be quite the learning experience, particularly in writing for a character with whom I may not on the surface have much in common. To navigate this challenge, we interviewed many models, male and female, to help us capture an authentic representation of the modeling industry, warts and all. Furthermore, I got to mine my own experiences working in talent agencies to shape the setting of our fictional modeling agency, and I'm pleased that when former and current models read our script, they've found it speaks to their experiences in the business.

My writing partner on the project is a trans man, and we decided to make our lead character transgender too. While that's not something I personally struggle with, the decision gave me the opportunity to touch on issues relating to male body image, which is not often portrayed on screen. It was a challenge to dig into personal body image issues that I, like many men, have faced—you know, that American obsession with biceps, six-packs, and meat-headiness. Soon I found myself not only relating to our character but also incorporating moments from my real life into his fictional one. It was a rewarding experience, and in the end, we wrote a multi-faceted script that I'm very proud of and that went on to garner us many meetings and win a fellowship.

Ann Marie Allison & Jenna Milly

Writers/executive producers Golden Arm (2020)

Ann Marie Allison and Jenna Milly recently wrote and executive produced the feature comedy Golden Arm starring Mary Holland and Betsy Sodaro. The film rights have been sold to Utopia Pictures and HBO for an April 2021 release. Jenna and Ann Marie also sold an original comedy spec It's Wednesday Night to Netflix, are out to cast with an Untitled Jocelyn Moorhouse Project, and are specing a script in the YA space.

They are represented by VERVE Agency and Ensemble Entertainment.

'Golden Arm'

AFF: What was a major turning point in your career?

AMA & JM: A major turning point for us was when we decided to stop listening to Hollywood telling us we couldn’t make the kind of movies we wanted to see. They kept saying no one wants to see a comedy about ladies' arm wrestling, so we just went and made it ourselves. And we had an awesome time doing it!

Edward Drake

Writer/director Gasoline Alley, Apex, Broil

Edward Drake is an award-winning writer and director based in Los Angeles. Starting as a PA on the first season of True Detective, Drake went on to become an assistant to director Mark Romanek and Academy Award-winning producer Michael Sugar at Anonymous Content, and more.

Drake is the winner of the Austin Film Festival’s 2020 Screenwriting Award (Dramatic).

A member of the WGAw, Drake’s feature-film credits include American Siege, Broil, Breach, Cosmic Sin, Apex, The L.A. Trip, and more.

Drake has worked with brands including Nike, British Airways, Samsung, and record labels including Atlantic Records, Universal Records, OWSLA, Island Records, Warner Bros., and more.

AFF: What’s the hardest scene or project you’ve ever had to write? How did you navigate the challenge?

ED: Trying to make men over 60 look as cool as they were in the 80s.

How do I navigate this "challenge"?

I bring the character on the page closer to the star's real-world persona to allow the audience to lean into the legacy of the star. The story can grift on the goodwill of the audience's expectations of their character while being able to subvert said expectations to break new ground.

Matt Ackels

Writer Wake the Body, Circle Triangle Square, Capsule, Trolls

Matt Ackels is a television writer and playwright in Los Angeles. He is currently writing Season 1 of his new drama/thriller series for Amazon. Other projects in development include a TV drama (Skydance Media) and a biopic feature (National Lampoon).

His screen credits include work for Netflix, NBC, DreamWorks, and Bobby Goldstein Productions. His stage credits include seven produced plays—four at Tony Award-winning theatres—which have been touring continuously since 2012. Matt’s work has received awards from the Planet Earth Arts Foundation, the Austin Film Festival, PlayGround LA, and elsewhere. He is of Lebanese heritage with an MFA in screenwriting from USC.

AFF: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

MA: Two things come to mind. One I learned from a book about writing by Ray Bradbury. I'm paraphrasing, but he said something like you have to write every day to "stay drunk on writing." It helped me understand that daily writing is not just about putting hours in, it's also about convincing yourself that this is a worthwhile and realistic pursuit. It's easy for doubt to creep in after a week of procrastination. The second lesson came from a poem by Robinson Jeffers. In talking about the stoicism of a large rock, Jeffers writes: "Failure cannot cast down/Nor success make proud." This attitude has been helpful for me as a writer, as I try to stay even-keel amidst the rollercoaster of this industry, and the emotional swings of the creative process.

Jenny Kleiman

Writer/director Held by Water, Sofa Queen, Double Vision

Jenny Kleiman is a screenwriter, director, and producer, and teaches the Working the Wound Screenwriting Workshop, helping writers develop complex women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ protagonists. She was raised in both Charleston, SC, and NYC; currently residing in the latter with her border collie-mix where she enjoys trying to keep plants alive and endlessly cooking.

Jenny’s work “finds the fun and funny in trauma,” and is united in thematic explorations of changing families, sex, and the taboo. Her short, Sofa Queen, received numerous selections and awards, including the 2020 AFF and Jury Award: Best Short, Film Invasion LA.

Her newest script and anticipated feature debut, Held by Water, is a terrifying account of one woman’s search for inner healing through the lens of a sex cult. The tale was woven from her unique IRL experience of living in an accidental commune in an Upstate NY hotel for four months of Covid lockdown.

'Sofa Queen'
AFF: How did you break in or get started in screenwriting?

JK: I made my way to screenwriting by trying almost every position in the industry first. In 2013, I was working as a music video and commercial director/producer in my hometown, when a childhood friend asked me to come on board to co-direct and co-produce her feature script. At the time I knew nothing about what I was getting myself into, but decided to give it a read. I realized it was a huge opportunity, and I was just going to have to figure the rest out.

Over the next few years, this project paved the path of what I like to think of as my film industry “grad school” experience. I signed on, we shot an enticing teaser for just $300, built out our materials, and cold emailed hundreds of producers and execs. After about a year, this translated into navigating the complicated world of LOIs, deals, and financing structures with production companies, sales agents, and A-list talent. The process of trying to get greenlit can be incredibly fast-paced and exciting but also grueling. We were always just around the corner from making this feature, but never quite “there.” In 2017, we had a deal fall through with one of the biggest companies in the industry. We were four years into pitching, and the universe was telling us to come up with a new game plan. Over the next few months, my co-director and I decided the best path was to option out the script and move into a less immediate role as co-producers.

When my adrenaline finally dropped, I was left with two major impressions. First, the dangling carrot of industry success can feel like stepping on a “forever treadmill,” and it’s difficult not to get swept up in looking ahead instead of enjoying the present. You have to learn how to enjoy the “in-betweens” and decide which part of the industry makes you happy. And I still needed to answer that question.

I was always envious of screenwriters because I had something to say but no way to structure my ideas. And on a practical note, scripts weren’t going to keep raining out of the sky to direct. So I completely switched tracks, took the initiative to sign up for classes and a writers' group, and spent roughly the next two years fully dedicated to learning the craft via my first feature script, American Princess. Once I felt confident enough in a draft, I threw it up on the Black List platform—where it landed as their #1 Trending Script of March 2019 and placed in the 15 Top Rated scripts for that quarter.

Sylvia Batey Alcalá

Writer Ordinary Joe, Legacies; Writer/director Fame Dogs, The Spectacular Summer of Weredog and Amy

Sylvia Batey Alcalá is a writer-director-actor-hyphen enthusiast, who cut her fangs writing for Legacies (CW) and CryptTV. Sylvia’s social horror screenplay, Sick, was selected for the inaugural Black List/WIF Feature Residency and won Best Unproduced Screenplay at FilmQuest.

Sylvia’s acting background has cultivated the versatility to skate between genres, demonstrated by her digital series, Fame Dogs, winning Best Comedy at the LA Independent Filmmakers Showcase, followed by Indie Series Awards for Best Comedy Series, Best Ensemble, and nominations for writing and acting. Her follow-up short film, The Spectacular Summer of Weredog and Amy, premiered at the Oscar-qualifying Cinequest Film Festival, going on to earn the Hollyshorts Audience Award, multiple Best Comedy nominations, and a Best Actor win.

Sylvia was born in Alaska and ping-ponged around the country before landing in sunny CA. Devoid of a hometown or singular identity, raised alongside a Chinese sister, Ukrainian brother, and biological brother, Sylvia has deep insight into liminal identity and nontraditional families.

AFF: How did you break in or get your start in screenwriting?

SBA: My writing career began as a progression of my acting career. The opportunity cost of auditioning was burning me out, so I started writing roles for myself. Consequently, I discovered a passion for creating original stories, rather than interpreting someone else’s ideas. I began climbing the assistant ladder and generating my own material, writing before and after work and shooting on weekends when I could. I was working as an assistant when I read the series doc for CW’s Legacies and fell in love with the premise. In a wildly optimistic move, I wrote an impassioned letter to the producer, pitching all the reasons she should hire me—and she did! I started season one as the writers’ PA and made my writing debut with the season two finale.

Adewale Olukayode

2020 Austin Film Festival Narrative Student Award 2019, DGA Student Award Winner 2019, Princess Grace Louis D. Srybnik Film Honor

Adewale Olukayode is a writer/director and comedian born in Lagos, Nigeria, and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He now studies at Columbia University’s MFA program for screenwriting/directing. His films address themes of justice, transformation, and healing. His style is influenced by African cinema, which he spoke passionately about at the College de France as a guest lecturer.

Adewale won the 2019 Director’s Guild of America student award and also won the 2020 Jury Award for Narrative Student short film, Home. He is currently nominated for an NAACP Image Award and is working on his first feature Terminal, which was awarded the Princess Grace-Louis Srybnik Award.

'Home'

AFF: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

AO: I’ve learned my biggest lesson through years of practice: journal. My stories come from within. The emotions I have are raw, and journaling allows me to capture those moments and put them in my work. My work is about lived experiences, so journaling allows me to have a Rolodex of emotions to convey onscreen or on set with my actors.

In the same vein, I’ve also learned to trust the contributions of my collaborators. They bring their personal experiences to the work, and I always want to be open to incorporating those because it makes for a richer experience.

Joshua Losben and Scott Gabriel

Writers Space Kids, Grandpa Was a Mobster

Joshua Losben is a graduate of the USC Screenwriting MFA program where he was named the Jack Oakie Comedy Fellow. He was an Academy Nicholl Quarterfinalist and 2019 SFFILM FilmHouse Lab participant. Most recently his feature screenplay Space Kids (co-written with Scott Gabriel) won the 2020 Austin Film Festival. They are currently adapting a book for Scholastic Entertainment.

Prior to starting his screenwriting career, he toured the country as a singer/songwriter and released three albums under the name “Shwa Losben.” He won the ASCAP Robert Allen Songwriting Award for his original song “Chop Chop.”

He loves writing high-concept comedies with flawed characters and heart.

Scott Gabriel started in TV as the founding line-producer of the hit show Impractical Jokers. His most recent television project, Currency, won Best Dramatic Series at both the Independent Television Festival (now Catalyst Content) and SeriesFest in 2019. His family film Space Kids—co-written with Josh Losben—won the Austin Film Festival and Writers’ Conference, and qualified him as a quarter-finalist for a Nicholl Fellowship.

Until the world imploded in 2020, he served as executive director at Visionarists, a New York advertising production company. He has created commercials for international giants like Panasonic, Western Union, and Lufthansa as well as content for human rights organizations like MIT Solve, LifeBank, and Population Action International. His directorial campaigns are recipients of Telly Awards and the American Advertising Federation’s Mosaic Award. He writes, directs, and produces. Ideally not at the same time.

He graduated from American University with a degree in international relations.

AFF: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

JL: It’s important to set deadlines for your writing, but you shouldn’t give yourself time limits for your career. After I graduated from film school, I took a job as a busboy as personal motivation. I told myself I had six months to make a real go at building a writing career. Thankfully I was able to quit that job.

Six years later, I’m only now feeling like I have some real professional opportunities and a library of projects I want to share. I’m glad I kept writing. It’s a cliché, but focus on the work and good things will follow. I hope.

SG: Do the thing you want to do. If you want to direct buddy comedies, direct buddy comedies. If you want to write Elizabethan mystery novels, do that. When you do something and don’t screw it up too badly, you get invited back to do that thing again and again. And if what you’re doing isn't the thing you really want to be doing, you can accidentally find yourself successful in the wrong career. In my case, I was doing a lot of commercial directing and producing 'til COVID hit. So that’s how people knew me and what they called me up to do. This past year forced me to stop all that and focus on writing the things that make me the happiest. And sure enough, it’s been the most productive literary year of my career. (I should caveat that I love my commercial team. They are as passionate about commercials as I am about narrative film, which is precisely why they’re so good at making ads.)

Tillery Johnson

Staff writer Glitch Techs; writer Good Lord

Born and raised in the backwoods of North Carolina, Tillery moved out to Los Angeles after studying English literature at UNC-Chapel Hill to pursue a career as a writer. Initially focused on features, he shifted to writing television and was accepted into the 2016-17 Nickelodeon Writing Program. In 2019 Tillery's half-hour script Good Lord received the award for Best Comedy Pilot at the Austin Film Festival. He most recently worked as a staff writer on the animated show Glitch Techs, which was released on Netflix in 2020.

When he's not in the midst of a global pandemic, he enjoys spending his time performing improv comedy and traveling.

AFF: Share a memorable experience sparked by Austin Film Festival.

TJ: My most surreal moment was definitely having to follow Ron Bass, Dan Weiss, David Benioff, and Catherine Reitman on stage to accept my award for Best Comedy Pilot. Just being in the same room as them would have been intimidating enough, but I had to give an acceptance speech 10 feet away from their tables. That said, my favorite AFF moment happened later that night after it was all over. I went out with a few of the friends I had made waiting in line for screenings, and we stopped by a dingy dive bar where they had karaoke. In the middle of all these locals dressed like cowboys singing country tunes, we performed show tunes from musicals like the theater geeks we were. It was the perfect ending to an amazing week.

Catherine Wignall

Writer Crawlers

Catherine set out to be a serious writer who wrote about serious things but has come to accept that she can’t quite bury her wry sense of humor and is perhaps a little bit funny.

She made her feature film debut with the Blumhouse YA horror-comedy movie Crawlers and is developing a YA rom-com web series with Brat TV. A lifelong lover of mysteries, Catherine is also adapting a female-led detective book series for television with Piller/Segan.

Catherine is a BAFTA LA Newcomer and a Fulbright Scholar. She is also a recipient of the Carl David Memorial Fellowship in recognition of her work promoting positive representation of LGBTQ life.

When not writing or napping, she spends her time wishing she was a witch, a cat in a well-off family, or Harry Styles’ best friend.

AFF: What was a major turning point in your career?

CW: Selling my first script! While on a general with Blumhouse, I mentioned in passing a script I was working on—a Christmas horror YA comedy. Turns out they were in need of a Christmas horror movie for their Into the Dark anthology, which sees them release a new feature each month based on that month’s holiday. They ultimately went with a different Christmas script, but asked if I’d be willing to rewrite my script to turn it into something suitable for St. Patrick’s Day. Two months after graduating from UCLA, I made my first script sale! It might seem odd to see my very first sale as a "major turning point" in my career, but everything since then has stemmed from that.

Kazem Mollaie

Writer/director/producer

Kazem Mollaie started filmmaking with short films in 1999. He holds a B.A. in Cinema Directing from Soore University of Tehran in 2005.

Mollaie has been a member of several organizations such as the Iranian Young Cinema Society (IYCS), the Iranian Alliance of Motion Picture Guilds (Khaneh Cinema), and a member of the board of directors of the Iranian Short Film Association (ISFA).

He is known for his first feature movie, Kupal (2017), and short films like Delete (2011) and Minus (2009).

'The Badger'
His second feature film is The Badger (2020), which was nominated as the best film in the 23rd Shanghai International Film Festival (ASIAN NEW TALENT AWARD) in its world premiere.

AFF: What is one of your most memorable experiences from Austin Film Festival?

KM: Without reservation, my sweet experience was winning the award for the best narrative feature film in this prestigious film festival. Aside from that, the Austin Film Festival is a very precise and specific event in my mind that has an accurate schedule for everything. Its workshops are extremely exemplary that will fascinate any lover of writing.

Nick Fituri Scown

Writer Come Back King; filmmaker

Nick Fituri Scown is a Libyan-American filmmaker whose shorts have played at film festivals around the globe. He's been nominated for an Emmy for Best Web Series, and his narrative feature debut Pretty Bad Actress featured Heather McComb and Jillian Bell. Outside of writing, he has edited for networks ranging from FX to ESPN to Oprah.

The political ads he worked on this past fall reached over 10 million views across social platforms, and his documentary Too Soon: The Healing Power of Comedy After 9/11 will be released this fall by VICE.

AFF: What was a major turning point in your career?

NFS: Shortly after coming to L.A., a friend got me a job at a little production company. One day the bosses came to the PA bullpen and asked if anyone could do a British accent (they didn't want to pay an actor for one line in a non-union show). I volunteered as tribute, thinking I could just do a Monty Python impression of some sort. I went to set, performed (admirably, I thought), and then immediately went back to being a PA, mopping up the fake blood from the head wound of the character I'd just played. The next day, the bosses called me into their office—oh shit, was my performance that bad!? No, they had a question, I'd said on my resume I could edit, was that true? I nodded. Then go cut the scene you were in. Now, I don't know if this was a test or they thought it'd be funny and/or torturous to make me edit myself, but I cut the scene. Pretty good. Why don't you cut the rest of that segment? I did. Pretty good. Why don't you cut the rest of that episode? Pretty good. Here's another one. And so within a matter of weeks, I went from a PA to an editor. Volunteering to be thrown into the fire and learning that I had the capacity to edit television professionally changed my life. It gave me the ability to pay the bills, make short films, travel the festival circuit (including AFF), and would eventually lead to an Emmy nomination and meeting the producer of my first feature film. All because when someone asked if I could do a British accent, I said yes.

Natasha M. Hall

Staff writer Netflix's Virgin River; writer Iris

A bicultural, first-generation American, Natasha’s family immigrated from Barbados to New York City, where she grew up straddling two worlds. One was a strict Caribbean household, and the other was Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, during the crack epidemic. So code-switching and assimilation became her armor. The two were so different, and they often seemed like surreal fantasies. As a result, Natasha now writes one-hour dramas and fantasies about characters struggling to define themselves, about belonging and love.

Currently in the 2020-2021 ViacomCBS Writers Program, her recent pilot, Iris, has been recommended by senior-level writers on Twitter. She was also part of the original series team at HBO. Repped by Industry Entertainment and UTA, she is a graduate of Syracuse University and Teachers College at Columbia, during which time she taught English through Teach For America in the South Bronx.

AFF: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

NMH: The absolute biggest lesson was learning to follow the fear. There's so much in life that can scare us, things we hide about ourselves from the public because we're afraid of being judged, misunderstood, or dismissed. But those are the stories we probably need to write because they're tapping into something visceral, and there's likely a universal truth underneath that can really resonate.

The next lesson was to take stock of who I am as a person… which included as a wife, daughter, friend, teacher, etc. And not just present-day but also throughout my life. What scares me? Makes me happy? What am I obsessed with? And also why. When I've done the inner work, it informs the page like nothing else because that work also clues me in on the stories I need to tell, making them visceral and specific to me.

I believe that a lot of what makes up a person's "voice" comes from this.

Boise Esquerra

Screenwriter/director

Boise Esquerra is a Native (Hopi) and Mexican American filmmaker who is currently enrolled in the Colorado River Indian Tribes in Parker, AZ. He is a recent graduate of the New York Film Academy (Screenwriting), where he was at the top of his class. He holds a BA in Digital Filmmaking and Video Production with an MFA in Filmmaking and has always had a great passion for the entire spectrum of his craft and every aspect that goes into it. Being Native American allows Boise an opportunity to de-stereotype much of the tropes about his culture while bringing these stories to a much more modern, universal, and truthful platform.

During his time in Los Angeles, he has gone on to write and direct multiple projects. His latest short, Blackwater, a dramedy about a Native American country singer who is sentenced to 180 days of wellness therapy after 10 years of reckless alcoholism upon returning to her home reservation. Blackwater has gone on to be in competition and has officially screened at the 2020 Austin Film Festival, Slamdance, Hollyshorts, Nashville Film Festival, and many others thus far.

Looking towards the future, Boise hopes to continue to write, direct, and create in hopes of helping pave the way for diverse inclusion within the filmmaking industry—specifically strong Native American representation.

'Blackwater'

AFF: How did you break in or get your start in screenwriting?

BE: In 2011 I started making little shorts films after a life-changing stint in the hospital where I had to drastically change my way of living due to substance abuse/dependency. It was at that point I fell in love with storytelling and the process of "from script to screen." Since then I have gone off to earn multiple degrees in filmmaking and screenwriting and have been loving it ever since. Filmmaking is my absolute calling in life, and it all begins with the story and script.

In 2018, after earning a BA and an MFA in filmmaking, I continued my education in screenwriting at the New York Film Academy in Burbank, CA. During that time I worked hard, doing my absolute best in whatever it was I was writing at the time. Eventually, it was a course titled "Transmedia" that helped me create the episodic pilot Blackwater.

Blackwater was a success on multiple levels, screening at many film festivals (including Austin Film Festival 2020) and would eventually help garner representation at Inclusion Management in Burbank, CA.

Alexis Siegel

Writer Kimchi & Kugel, Prodigal Son

Alexis Siegel is a rare breed—a Jew raised in Houston, Texas. After attending Greek Orthodox school for 11 years, Alexis escaped to the promised land (Los Angeles) where she attended USC’s film school. Over eight years later, she’s gone full-Angeleno, although the Texan in her will always consider vegan queso to be sacrilege.

Alexis is currently the writers' assistant for the Fox drama series Prodigal Son where she co-wrote episode 112 as well as forthcoming episode 210.

Alexis writes quirky, comedic dramas with female anti-hero protagonists. She is an Austin Film Festival finalist, Walt Disney Television Writing Program finalist, Black List featured writer, PAGE Finalist, and won second place in Austin TV Festival’s pitch competition. When she’s not in front of her computer screen, Alexis can be found hip hop dancing, overanalyzing past conversations, or petting strangers’ dogs at Runyon Canyon.

Alexis is represented by MGMT Entertainment.

AFF: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

AS: Build a community, but don't latch onto everyone you meet. Not every person wants to be your mentor or join your writers' group. But when you do find like-minded writers, foster those relationships! It is crucial to have that creative and professional support system.

In the name of giving out advice to younger writers, I'll also throw a shout-out to Script Anatomy. I recommend their classes to every aspiring TV writer I meet.

Taylor Meacham

Writer/director To: Gerard

After graduating from Emerson College in 2014 with a BA in film production, Taylor Meacham moved to Los Angeles to work in post-production management on Disney’s Tinkerbell and the Legend of the Neverbeast. Although he began his career in animation management, Meacham’s affinity for storytelling drove him to spend spare time working on his own live-action shorts.

In 2015, Meacham was hired as a production coordinator on DreamWorks’ Trolls. After completing his directorial debut in To: Gerard, Meacham has had the ability to work creatively on various other DreamWorks projects—moving him into the role of storyboard artist on The Croods: A New Age and the upcoming Puss in Boots 2.

'To: Gerard'

He continues to explore stories that observe how unexpected moments in our lives can lead to unimaginable gifts.

AFF: What are some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned?

TM: I used to feel the need to shortcut my process of writing. I always tried to skip over that writing phase early on that is still about discovery in order to get to the final page as quickly as possible. Now I’ve learned patience with the writing process and to enjoy that part of the process no matter how slow it might be because, in practice, it is where some of the best large ideas can come from.

I’ve also found that asking for help or advice is an asset, not a crutch. I now turn to those of my friends I admire for their writing for help with stories I am working on.

Nancy Duff

Writer Company Man

Hailing from Atlanta, Nancy is the winner of the 2020 Austin Film Festival Josephson Entertainment Fellowship and Sci-Fi Feature finalist for her script, Company Man. The sci-fi dark comedy landed on the annual Blood List 12: Fresh Blood Edition honoring up-and-coming voices in horror, thriller, sci-fi, and dark comedy genres.

Nancy is a recent participant in the Universal Pictures Feature Writing Program where she has written two feature screenplays under the guidance of producers at Chris Morgan Productions and Mandeville Films. She is a past recipient of the ScreenCraft Fellowship, a participant of The Writers Lab funded by Meryl Streep, and winner of the screenwriting award at the Napa Valley Film Festival, earning her a spot in their Artist-in-Residence Program.

For the past decade, Nancy has worked in visual effects, which has influenced her writing as she often incorporates action and sci-fi genres.

AFF: How did you break in or get your start in screenwriting?

ND: I have loved storytelling since childhood. I would write addendums to my “Choose Your Own Adventure” books and loan them out from my “library” to kids on the cul-de-sac. My short adventure stories grew into longer ones, to eventually screenplays.

For the past 12 years, while working in the film industry, I helped artists create their monsters, all the while looking, searching, and finding my own characters… my own monsters. Every VFX job has been a learning experience that has informed my storytelling knowledge. While doing VFX breakdowns on scripts, my “writer brain” takes note of what script changes push the project closer to a greenlight. I’ve also been lucky to have access to mentors through programs at ScreenCraft, Universal Pictures Writing Program, and now at Austin Film Festival with Josephson Entertainment to guide me through the writing development process.

Paul Kowalski

Writer/director Paper Tiger, Breathe, Shadows, Battersea

Paul Kowalski is an award-winning writer/director whose style tends toward dark psychologies, hypnotic imagery, and themes of exile, obsession, and the supernatural. His feature, Paper Tiger, world-premiered at Austin Film Festival in October 2020, winning the Audience Award and a mention from the Jury. Born in London to Polish immigrants, Kowalski grew up on four continents; while studying literature at Brown University, he published a short story collection and made his first films. He is a BAFTA Newcomer, USC film directing professor, and AFI Conservatory graduate. His thesis film, Breathe, was lauded by the ASC, CINE, and Beijing Film Academy, among others, as well as the Aesthetica and Beverly Hills film festivals. Other films include Shadows and Battersea, which features London's iconic power station and premiered at Raindance Film Festival. Paul is a British and Polish citizen and lives in LA with his wife, actress Sorel Carradine.

AFF: What’s the hardest scene you’ve ever had to write? How did you navigate the challenge?

PK: My recent feature, Paper Tiger, has starkly differing dual protagonists—a widowed immigrant mother, and her teenaged son suffering from schizophrenia. The challenge was how to fully invest the audience in each point of view, without detracting from the other—to tell just one, cohesive story. The solution came, as it often does, by clarifying the film’s “Big Idea,” or thematic through-line. Once I figured that out, the script started to speak to me: I discovered that despite their outward differences, both protagonists were emotionally and psychologically the same. That insight informed every subsequent writing decision—but also extended into working with the actors, the way we photographed them and designed their spaces, through to the editing and music…

But really, every project is the hardest to write. You get through it by avoiding the temptation to steal looks at the mountaintop—just keep climbing, one step at a time. If you hold fast in the face of the abyss, a path will open up! Cultivating that resilience is much more valuable to a writer than talent or luck.

Becca Roth

Writer/director, Margo & Perry

Becca Roth is a queer writer/director who loves to tell stories that explore themes of otherness, human-ness, and identity (among a million other things), usually in the form of dramatic storylines with comedic undertones.

During Sundance 2020, it was announced that Becca’s feature screenplay, Margo & Perry, is one of ten scripts on the GLAAD List, which is a roster of the 10 most promising unmade LGBTQ-inclusive film scripts selected by the Black List and GLAAD. The script also came in second place in the Slamdance Screenwriting Competition, won the Tracking Board Launch Pad Competition, and was a semifinalist for the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition.

Becca directed a short film version of Margo & Perry starring Sofia Black-D’Elia (Your Honor, the upcoming Single Drunk Female) and Annie Parisse (Friends from College, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), which screened at the Austin Film Festival in 2020.

Becca recently directed The Book of Ruth, starring Emmy and Tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh, which is currently screening at top festivals worldwide.

Becca is gearing up to direct Margo & Perry (the feature). She is also developing a TV series about an all-girls summer camp in 2002, as well as a queer romantic comedy, and a TV series about a painfully timid seventh-grader who prepares for her Bat Mitzvah while trying to come to terms with her ex-best friend's new best friend who she may or may not be in love with.

'Margo & Perry'
AFF: What was a major turning point in your career?

BR: Being selected for the GLAAD List at Sundance was perhaps the most meaningful recognition after a year of receiving several accolades for Margo & Perry, the first feature screenplay that I put out in the world. When I was 16, I struggled with coming out to myself, and didn’t have anyone in my life who I felt comfortable sharing this huge secret with. The way that I coped was by writing a movie about it in my journal. A coming-out movie, where a fictional version of myself got to be open and free and in love. I never knew if I would be brave enough to actually tell these stories for real, or if anyone would listen or care.

Being recognized by GLAAD was so validating for teenage Becca, who tried her best at the time to believe in herself, but was often so consumed with doubt and fear. It is a life-affirming message to my younger self and to my current and future selves: “You deserve to be here. Your stories deserve to be shared. You matter.”

Emil Gallardo

Co-writer/director 1, 2, 3, All Eyes On Me

Emil Gallardo is a Mexican American writer/director, a 2020 HBO Directing Fellow, and the recipient of Panavision’s Future Filmmaker award. Years before any accolades though, Emil’s first dues were paid as a PA on softcore porn sets. From there, he remained in the AD department but moved to working on a variety of fully-clothed independent and studio productions.

It wasn’t until several years later that he began writing and directing. His most recent film, 1, 2, 3, All Eyes On Me, about a crisis that engulfs an elementary school, deeply resonated with audiences and juries alike. It qualified for the 2021 Oscars, won a Jury Award at AFF, HollyShorts’ Grand Prix award, and was nominated for a John Singleton Impact Award.

Emil strives to tell unforgettable stories that stand out for their authenticity and willingness to confront uncomfortable truths. Asylum, the debut feature he’s currently developing, is no exception.

'1, 2, 3, All Eyes on Me'
AFF: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

EG: One thing I’ve learned that keeps coming up is the realization that I don’t really know what I’m writing about until several drafts in. I’ll start with a topic and/or character I’m passionate about, but the heart of the story and the deeper themes it’s going to explore usually aren’t unearthed until I’ve spent a lot of time working with the material. I’ve learned to trust that process and accept that the story will unveil itself as I do the work. In the end, the story will inevitably be deeply personal, oftentimes more than I’m comfortable with. But that’s the life we choose as writers, I guess.

Aldo Miyashiro, Érika Villalobos, Abril Cárdenas

Miyashiro: Writer/director, Bleed. Scream. Beat! and Wake Show
Villalobos: Writer/actress Bleed. Scream. Beat! and writer Wake Show
Cárdenas: Writer Bleed. Scream. Beat! and Wake Show

Aldo Miyashiro: Film, theater, and TV director, writer, actor, teacher, and TV anchor. His first plays, Wake Show and You will not love got him the first prize and honorable mention, respectively, in the contest Towards a Young Dramaturgy 2000. Later on, he wrote Un Misterio, Una Pasión, the first Peruvian play to be adapted to television in 2003. He continued his career on screen by creating the series Lobos de Mar (2005) and La Gran Sangre (2006). In 2008, he became a late show TV anchor and continues until this day. He has written and directed the feature films Attacked: the theory of grief (2015), Eleven Machos, (2017), Bleed. Scream. Beat! (2017)—which was part of the official selection at the Austin Film Festival that year and a winner of the Audience Award at the Houston Latino Film Festival 2018—and Eleven Machos 2 (2019).

Érika Villalobos: Peruvian actress, singer and writer. She participated in many theater and TV productions like Torbellino (1997), Pobre diabla (2000), Qué buena raza (2002), Luciana y Nicolás (2003), Misterio (2005), La Gran Sangre (2006), Mi Esperanza (2018) and En la piel de Alicia (2019). She was part of the band Torbellino and in 2012 she released her first solo rock album Potente. On film, she starred in Attacked: the theory of grief (2015), La gran sangre – La película (2007), Eleven Machos (2017), Locos de Amor 2 (2018), and Eleven Machos 2 (2019). She was part of the writers' team in TV series like La gran sangre (2006) and Golpe a golpe (2007) and the film Bleed. Scream. Beat! (2017).

'Wake Show'
Abril Cárdenas: Peruvian actress, director, playwright and writer. She starred in plays like Promoción (2006), Sexo Pudor y Lágrimas (2014), Fausto (2015), and Los Cachorros (2019) and was the director of the play Las niñas. She wrote the play La Raza y Reyezuelos, runner-up for the playwright’s contest Sala de Parto, by Teatro La Plaza. She starred on the TV series Misterio (2003) and Promoción (2013) and the films Eleven Machos (2017) and Eleven Machos 2 (2019). She was a writer for the TV series Promoción (2014) and the film Bleed. Scream. Beat! (2017).

AFF: What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned?

AM & EV & AC: The lesson that remains clear to us is that the script is always alive. It never stops writing itself, it keeps reinventing itself during the creation process, while filming, because of the cast’s insights, in the editing room, when the movie is seen by the audience, and you regret not having written one more line, or you feel like there should have been an extra pause.

In your head, the script never dies. It requires a humbleness that you don’t have inside of you, the patience that you will gain over the years, a resistance against pain and frustration that you never imagined was needed for being able to write.

Aurora Florence and Jeff Dickamore

Co-writers The Anxious Taxidermist, Curated

Aurora Florence and Jeff Dickamore are a creative duo based in LA where they produce original content through their production company, Saint Norma Jean Productions. Together they wrote, produced, and directed The Anxious Taxidermist, a musical pilot which played at the Austin Film Festival 2020, Slamdance 2021, and has won multiple awards, including Best in Fest (Women In Comedy Festival) and Best International Pilot (Pilot Light TV Fest).

Aurora’s creative career began in music (founding member of Imagine Dragons) and theater (Eliza Doolittle, My Fair Lady—National Tour). Her background in musical theater gives her a strong sense of story and tone as a songwriter.

'The Anxious Taxidermist'
Jeff is an accomplished actor (MFA University of Tennessee) and writer and made his directorial debut with The Anxious Taxidermist.

Their short-form series, Curated, will be coming out later this year.

The benefit of living with your creative partner is being able to work on projects all the time. The downside is being able to work on projects all the time.

AFF: What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned?

AF: Find creatives you trust to give you honest feedback and whose personal craft you value. We’ve been part of a writers’ group the last year that has been invaluable to us not only for their feedback on our work, but getting to regularly read and discuss others’ writing, too. Also, write a good story and then take care of it. Always be asking, how is what I’m writing serving the story?

Troian Bellisario

Actor/writer/producer

Troian Bellisario is a burgeoning actress, writer, director, and producer best known for her starring role on the acclaimed FREEFORM television show Pretty Little Liars.

Troian also wrote, produced, and starred in the independent feature Feed.

Troian also wrote, produced, and starred in the short film Exiles and has directed episodes of Pretty Little Liars, Famous in Love, as well as Good Trouble.

She most recently wrote, directed, and acted in the short film Life on Mars, which was featured in the 2020 Austin Film Festival.

'Life on Mars'
On stage, she appeared in Equivocation at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. With The Casitas Group, a theatre company of which she is a founding member, Troian appeared in an exclusive engagement of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, as well as a Sam Shepard double feature: Fool for Love and True West. As well as the San Diego Globe's production of The Last Match.

Troian recently wrapped production on the CBS pilot Ways and Means, with Patrick Dempsey.

AFF: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

TB: You have to stick to your guns. Everyone will offer you their opinion if you ask for it, which is wonderful, but it can take you further away from your own intention and voice if you are not careful.

Also, not everything you write is meant to be realized. Some things are just for you.

Kelly Pike

Writer/director Undercut

Kelly Pike grew up on military bases around the world before her family settled in a Virginia shipyard town. She went on to establish a career in the fine arts as a sculptor and museum professional in Texas, and her work is steeped in the lived experience provided by this multi-faceted background.

She first expanded her art practice into film by working with documentarian Albert Maysles and, more recently, earned an M.F.A. in Film & Television from UCLA. She now lives in Los Angeles, where she writes and directs narrative films with an affinity for outsiders in coming-of-age moments, at any age.

'Undercut'
Her short films have screened around the world, winning awards from the DGA, the American Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival, the Austin Film Festival, the Bahamas International Film Festival, Vimeo, and PBS. She is currently a fellow in the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. You can find more information on her website.

AFF: What’s the hardest scene or project you’ve ever had to write? How did you navigate that challenge?

KP: I wanted the audience to bear witness to a sexual assault in my last film, without ever putting it on screen. Ultimately, I decided to remain steeped in the character’s point of view as she stared at a flickering neon light nearby. This was specifically written so that the moment was in the film, but the assailant never was. It was only her experience, however dissociative it became for her.

Khaled Ridgeway

Writer/director

Khaled Ridgeway is an award-winning writer/director from Chicago, with a blood type of "H" for Hustle. A Syracuse University alum, he briefly taught at the grade school level before tackling improv at Second City. Khaled later received his MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, where he was named a Ryan Murphy HALF Fellow. His 2019 thesis film, Night Diner, earned him the DGA Student Jury Award and the AT&T Film Awards' Grand Prize, before premiering on Revolt TV.

Khaled is also a Hollywood Screenplay Contest Grand Prize Winner and has written and produced content for Brian Grazer and Ron Howard's New Form. His 2020 feature directorial debut, Death of a Telemarketer, screened at the 2020 Austin Film Festival and the 2020 American Black Film Festival, winning the Fan Favorite Award.

'Death of a Telemarketer'
AFF: What’s the hardest scene or project you’ve ever had to write?

KR: In the climactic scene of my feature debut, Death of a Telemarketer, the main character Kasey has to make one final life-or-death call to his dad. My own father had passed unexpectedly shortly before I wrote this scene, and so I infused a lot of what I wanted to still say to him but couldn't into the dialogue. It was painful but therapeutic.     

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I'm a big fan of NFS and really appreciate you featuring me and the other writers! Thank you!

April 29, 2021 at 2:24PM

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