Q & A with screenwriter and former VIWIFF programmer Roslyn Muir

RoslynRoslyn Muir is a Praxis-award winning screenwriter, novelist, story editor and instructor, with a recently produced feature, The Birdwatcher, and two produced MOWs, Anatomy of Deception and Reluctant Witness, and a third in pre-production. She has a MFA in Creative Writing from UBC, and is a member of the WGC and Women in Film + Television Vancouver. In fact, Roslyn was the festival programmer for four years.

We speak with Roslyn about her upcoming feature The Birdwatcher and her work as a writer.

Your storytelling career is remarkable in the sense that you often work with female filmmakers such as Siobhan Devine, Monika Mitchell, Sharon McGowan and Lulu Keating. Why so?

I think it’s about finding your pack. I was heavily involved in WIFTV for a long time and met so many great women it was hard not to work with them. I tend to write female centric stories and they attract a female audience.

You were the programmer/artistic director of the Vancouver Women in Film Festival for four years. What influence did screening numerous films made by women have on your career?

I was always so impressed by the submissions I screened and often thought—why didn’t I think of that? It certainly lit my creative fires, and it was also a part of my ongoing education in film. I never went to film school (my degree is in Theatre) so I’ve pushed myself to understand the medium and I’m attracted to the non-traditional story telling that women often employ in their work. The hundreds of films I’ve watched over the years really built my knowledge base and greatly inspired me.

Gabrielle Rose as Birdy, in The Birdwatcher. Photo by Pamela Saunders

Gabrielle Rose as Birdy, in The Birdwatcher. Photo by Pamela Saunders

What was the inspiration for your upcoming film, The Birdwatcher?

I’ve been a bit obsessed with birds and nature my entire life. I came up with the character of Birdy (played by Gabrielle Rose) first of all and the story developed around her. I was also influenced by my sister’s battle with cancer and the strength and courage that she had. The Birdwatcher is not a disease movie, but the protagonist faces her mortality head on.

How did the collaboration with director Siobhan Devine (who also directed your short OMG) come about?

Siobhan and I initially met on the board of Women in Film! But it was in the line-up for Crazy8s registration one snowy Sunday morning that we finally chatted about our lives and realized we had a lot in common. We made a pact that if we didn’t get in to Crazy8s, we would make a film anyway. Neither of us got through as finalists so we made the short I had written. OMG was such a fun film to make, and I was amazed by the amount of skill and drive that Siobhan had. She’s really inspired me and we push each other onwards and upwards. It’s great to have a collaborator, and we’ve discussed the nature of our partnership quite a bit. We’ve agreed that we want to continue to work together and have already planned the next couple of projects together. I’m thrilled to find a collaborator with equal ambition to me.

You also work as a script editor and offer hands-on workshops for screenwriters. What can you teach them in a one-day workshop?

Most people who write screenplays are self-taught, and it’s such a difficult medium to master that writers need as many tools as they can find. I think we’re always looking for that one thing that will make the job easier—but it’s not one thing, it’s a hundred things—and I try to cover the pivotal aspects of screenwriting. I think most writers are looking for inspiration and connection. After all, writers tend to lock themselves away and hide their work. I’m a little sneaky in that I coerce them to connect with other people in the class and to really open up about their ideas. This may sound like something small, but for many writers it’s a huge step to share their work and feel empowered at the same time.

What prior knowledge would be good to have before booking one of your workshops?

My next screenwriting workshop is A Roadmap for Revision, and it focuses on structuring the next draft. Writers should have either a first draft screenplay or a concept they have started to plot out. The November workshop is Writing the TV Movie, which I taught for WIFTV earlier in the year and am bringing back by popular demand. Familiarity with screenplay format is all that’s needed.

Roslyn with producer Ines Eisses in the "office" during production--shooting in the rainforest!

Roslyn with producer Ines Eisses in the “office” during production–shooting in the rainforest!

You say you like writing in all genres of media. Any preferences – why?

I find my imagination takes me places that I never knew I could go. When I first started writing I labeled myself and realized that I’d painted myself into a corner. It wasn’t until I did the MFA program at UBC in Creative Writing that I really explored so many other types of media. I went in expecting to write a screenplay for my thesis project and ended up writing a YA (young adult) novel! I took classes in graphic novel, did TV writing, and children’s fiction. I’ve since been writing dramas, thrillers (the MOWs), and have a family comedy feature in development. So, I guess I can’t say that I have a preference. I really just let the concept speak to what the genre needs to be.

What are the timeline and the modus operandi for writing a MOW script compared to a feature film script?

Well, that really depends on the writer. For me, it takes a long time to develop a feature film script. I think The Birdwatcher was about two years. I can write a MOW in about four to six weeks. I tend to write the treatment first (3-4 pages) and work from that. They are quicker to write than a feature because they are really more like a TV show than a movie—MOWs have fewer subplots, are not as cinematic with fewer locations, have fewer characters etc. I think the reason I like MOWs so much and can write them so fast, is that they have a very tight and predictable structure. I work well with structure.

These days, funding applications often require a digital media plan for a television series or film production. What are, in your opinion, the main challenges and opportunities for thinking “outside the box” of a traditional production?

Digital media has really opened up the world for writers. It’s a bit scary when you’re bombarded by all the buzzwords and find out that broadcasters and distributors don’t know what they’re looking for anymore. I think that no matter what the platform or media, it’s all about good storytelling. As humans we’re hardwired to want narrative—the popular media of the day is constantly feeding us that narrative and we’re hungry beasts. We need to honor the story and not worry so much about what’s the best platform for delivery. If you try to second-guess the next big trend, you’ll lose yourself. You don’t have to write a web series just because everyone is doing it. Write the stories you want to write, tell the stories you want to tell. The rest will fall into place.

According to stats by the organization Women Make Movies / Celluloid Ceiling report, in 2013, [US] women accounted for only 16 per cent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors. How has this affected your career as a screenwriter or producer?

The stats are so frustrating, but I have to admit that I’ve always been an underdog. Somehow knowing that it’s an uphill battle has given me tenacity and drive. When I hear “no” it only pushes me on more and more. I won’t give up. I’ll be the last writer standing. And they’ll have to pry the laptop from my cold, dead hands.

Do you have any plans of directing a film?

I have directed two shorts, F-Stop (2004) and Everything’s Rosie (2000)—which was financed with $500 I made at a garage sale. I didn’t know a thing about directing and blindly threw myself into it. It was more of an experiment to see if my scripts made any sense—and for the most part they didn’t. But I became hooked on the whole filmmaking experience. I enjoyed directing but I really wanted to just focus on becoming a better writer.

Camille Sullivan as Saffron, in The Birdwatcher. Photo by Pamela Saunders

Camille Sullivan as Saffron, in The Birdwatcher. Photo by Pamela Saunders

The Birdwatcher has now wrapped – when can we expect to see the film?

We will finish post at the end of November and will start submitting it to festivals. You can keep tabs on the film’s progress by joining us on Facebook.

What’s next for you?

Siobhan and I have two more features in development. I’m continuing to write MOWs (on my seventh script right now), and I have a couple of novels that I’d love to get back to at some point. My next big career goal is to write on a one hour TV series. I can’t wait to get into a writer’s room!

Thank you for the conversation!

Q&A edited by Katja De Bock

Roslyn’s short, OMG, starring Gabrielle Rose is playing online at the NSI website (and here):

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