Joyce Sherrí and Tyler Tice — the 2020 and 2017 winners of the Slamdance Screenplay Competition — came together virtually to discuss their journeys as writers and preparing their scripts for production. Tyler Tice's Day Shift is now in production at Netflix, while Joyce Sherrí plans to direct Sweet Sixteen as her first feature film. You can find more information about this year's Screenplay Competition here.
Watch the full panel or check out some highlights below.
Joyce Sherri on her 2020 Slamdance-winning feature screenplay SWEET SIXTEEN.
JS: [Sweet Sixteen] is a coming-of-age story but it has some magical realism elements thrown into it. It's about a 15-year-old girl who discovers that right before her 16th birthday the electricity in her home is cut off. So she sort of goes on a small adventure to try to get the money together, to get the lights on so that she could just have a perfect sweet sixteen. I wanted to tell a story that was about somebody who wanted something very simple, especially coming from the black perspective, because I feel that a lot of times our stories are usually rooted in racism and all these other things. I'm like, yes. That happens. But we also want very simple things like your first kiss, or to go to the prom, or to have a sweet 16 birthday party.
We're not a monolith. I wanted to make sure that I could make something that really spoke to my experience. What it's like to live in a hotel and also have to go to school, but also to have two very loving parents. What's that like to have parents who have been married for almost 40 years and that love you dearly, but your economic status makes it difficult to survive in the world around you.
"To work through the emotion, because it's such a close story, you have to sort of cry over your keyboard and all these other things as you try and get this story out."
JS: My mentor — Kasi Lemmons — I worked for her for about two years as her personal assistant, and she started off being my professor at NYU and her advice to me was that your first feature that you direct should be something that's very personal. Sweet Sixteen, some of it is based off of a personal experience that I had. It took me so long to write it – I guess I've been writing it probably since 2014. To work through the emotion, because it's such a close story, you have to sort of cry over your keyboard and all these other things as you try and get this story out. My mentor was a big, big influence on me and is the person that inspired me to write from my own experiences.
On writing from personal experience
JS: Because this particular story is personal it was different for me to figure where to start. There was one version of the script that I wrote where she was an older woman – I say older woman, I mean she was my age — but she was looking back on her life and all these things that had happened and everything that was going on. And so trying to figure out and really stripped down into what part of this is important, like what's the thing that actually changes the character, that is me.
What experiences can I mine from my life to really start myself one way and end the movie in a different way? And when I really started to think of it that way the story started to come together a little bit more for me because before that it was like, where do I begin? Do I begin on why I don't like birthdays? Or do I begin as to why, you know, when that first guy that dumped me or whatever, that job I got fired from because I was sneaking my friends into the movie theater, like where's that story start? And how do we get to know this particular character? And because I’m so close to the character that was the easy part for me. The hardest part of being so close to her was that I had to think the way I used to think when I was that age. I had to make sure that my character wasn't too self-aware, that she wasn't too much of knowing exactly what was going to happen because I could fantasize about rewriting history but I don't think that that's very entertaining.
Tyler Tice on his 2017 Slamdance-winning screenplay DAY SHIFT, now in production at Netflix.
TT: Day Shift is a character-driven portrait of blue-collar vampire hunting in the San Fernando Valley. And over the rewrites has become very action-packed. It's supposed to begin filming April 19th in Atlanta. They have Jamie Foxx in the main role.
"If this doesn't make it, I'm just going to fucking be a history teacher and that's it."
TT: I was living in the San Fernando Valley, I just had my first son. I had been in L.A. for seven years trying to be a screenwriter and it wasn't going well. I was planning to move back to my home state of New Jersey. We were kind of packing to go. After I put my son to bed, I would smoke weed on my balcony and I started conceiving it then. I always liked the trope of the hunter and I was always kind of like well, what would drive a vampire hunter? Because it was always corny things like it's his duty or it's his family, it's something that gets passed down in his bloodline. But I was like, what if it's money? What if this is a job? I moved back to New Jersey. I was staying at my dad's house. My wife was working daytime, I was going to school at night to be a history teacher, and my son was just sleeping a lot. So I was like, you know what? I had that vampire idea when I lived in the valley, I'm just going to write it and enter it in every competition and this is my one last shot. If this doesn't make it, I'm just going to fucking be a history teacher and that's it. So I wrote it and turned it into every competition and ended up winning Slamdance, so they kind of created new life into me. I dropped out of school the day I won Slamdance.
On pitching a script.
I won Slamdance in 2017. Shortly after, Peter Baxter, who runs Slamdance, called me and he's like, “I want to help do something with your script.” Initially, he tried to find an agent or manager for me but there were no takers. He then optioned the script. He always envisioned could be at least made as a micro-budget script within the Slamdance community and maybe something more. It had moments of action in it but it was generally just a small horror movie and so he brought it to Slamdance alum Shaun Redick, who produced Get Out and BlacKkKlansman. He and his wife, who's his producing partner, saw it as something much bigger. Then pitched it to a guy named J.J. Perry, who is a world-renowned stuntman. He was looking to get into directing and they saw him at a kid's birthday party so they pitched it to him. He loved it, wanted it to be his first feature but it wasn't action enough for what his sensibilities are.
I guess it was two summers ago he was filming the new "Fast and the Furious" in England and he would call me up at five in the morning and be like, “we need a car chase” and he would send me some YouTube videos of a car chase. And I threw a car chase in there. There is one scene in the original script where they killed three vampires and I think at the end, it was like thirty. [J.J. Perry is] good friends with Chad Stahelski, from all the John Wick movies, who was brought on. And then he would call me and add more action, more action. So it was like two years of adding action. I had fun doing all that because it's like, let's see how far this can go.
On the writing process.
JS: I try to be careful about what I watch and what I consume because I always say I love everything. I'm like somewhere between "Clueless" and "The Godfather" with what I like. But since I'm on such a broad spectrum, if I'm writing something in particular I try not to watch too much supernatural or too much action movies because my mind will shift to wanting to do that. I have notebooks full of just sentences or songs or, you know, scenarios or scenes that play out in my head that I write down that'll get recycled into something else. But I try to be careful about things that go against what I'm writing at the moment, or I'll just watch something mindless like some, you know, something that you put on and you just really don't have to pay attention to it. Everything I'm doing is an idea for something. To me, it's just every experience that I have I can get off of it to create a story. But when it comes to trying to really zero in on what that idea is going to be like, I'm in the mood right now for a romance so I'll try not to watch too many horror movies because I’ll want to write a horror movie.
"Whenever I get frustrated with what I'm currently working on, I try to go back into my creative arsenal. I try to think of different ways to scratch my creative itch."
JS: Usually the things that I'm having a tough time creatively with are things again, we've said this before, are things that I just didn't come up with. And so I might take a break for like a day and be like, I just want let me map out this new idea I'm thinking like something that really has my attention right now. Let me just write a few things about that, and I might take some time off to write that and then go back to the things that I'm supposed to be which is what I'm getting paid to do. That creatively keeps me motivated, whenever I get frustrated with what I'm currently working on, I try to go back into my creative arsenal. I try to think of different ways to scratch my creative itch.
TT: So early on, I know I mentioned I smoke a lot of weed in my process and I kind of sit back and I close the blinds. I watch movies that are kind of the same tone and I just outline and I'll kind of start sketching ideas. And I always have notebooks everywhere, I go to Wal-Mart and buy them for 50 cents each. I'll just go from that notebook and I'll go to a different one and kind of refine it. It's like sculpting almost like you start with a rock and you're chipping away at it with each... with each outlining and going through it and going through it until it's like, you know what it is. And I probably outline twice as long as I'm actually on the page and I get that thing refined and then stop smoking weed and that's when I go into the computer and I bust it out and I try to do a first draft as fast as possible. I know exactly what everything is in that first draft, it's not just a vomit draft, it's actually probably closer to like a third draft. And then I just keep going through that, and I probably rewrite that less than most people do because I do so much outlining.
On the influence of music on writing.
JS: I'm very influenced by music and lyrics and sound because I think of me directing, I think about songs that will be playing or not just regular songs, just like, you know, instrumentals. So like a very dramatic scene, if I wanted to play some Chopin or whatever. But sometimes scenes come to me through music like, you know, I'm thinking about a scene of a girl driving up to her ex-boyfriend's house and she's sitting in the car listening to Mariah Carey's "I Miss You Most at Christmas Time." And that happened to me over the holiday, I was in my car crying, not going to the boyfriend's house, but I was imagining that I was a character going to her boyfriend's house and that song was on the radio. And so I was like, I want to start off a Christmas movie like this. So that will go in my ideas column.
TT: As far as music goes, when I actually get onto the page and start typing, I like to have music on. I don't watch movies at that point, but I can't have music with lyrics because I'm writing and it bothers me. So I listen to a lot of jazz when I'm writing or just something like hip hop beats or something like that. I grew up listening to hip hop in the 90s. I write genre movies but I kind of mix it with crime movies. And so I always have a crime element and like a lot of old hip hop from the 90s. I'll steal lyrics and put them into my script like Wu Tang or Mobb Deep lyrics, you can find it in there and no one’s ever called me out.
"Chew the meat and spit out the bones."
JS: I think giving notes and giving criticism is an art itself. When I try to give notes, I don't tell people I didn't like this character and then have nothing else to offer. You have to be able to say, well, why didn't you like them or do you understand what my intention was? If my intention is not clear, I need to find ways or if you can help pinpoint a place like where is it that I could have made this intention very clear so that you could understand what I was going for.
Also, chew the meat and spit out the bones. Sometimes, yeah, notes are just dumb. Like, it's just like I don't like this line. Okay, well we'll see if it makes it into the movie by the time it gets edited together.
Sometimes I even send my script with a specific direction. It's like this is actually what I'm trying to work on at this very moment. I'm not interested in all the other stuff. Please help me with this character arc, this is what I need specific notes on.
On writing professionally.
TT: When you’re in the world of Hollywood, they want high content, like one sentence ideas. I've had scripts before where I can't explain it in like less than like 20 minutes, I guess I was more of a low concept guy. So that's something that I've definitely switched up because when I first started, I got my agent before my manager so they would send me on these general meetings and I pitched these ideas and I'd just be like spurting out these paragraphs and I can see their eyes glazing over. But that's the one thing I think I've changed is like the elevator pitch, the one sentence pitch, how can you describe this real quick.
"I'm driving the twenty-four foot truck and ordering dinner for everybody on set. We have to do everything and if you don't do everything it doesn't get done."
JS: I have a manager and I have an agent and I have a lawyer and it really took me a while to trust them. I first came onto the team being the do-it-yourself type of person. I went to NYU, it was like an indie film school. You do everything: I'm driving the 24-foot truck and ordering dinner for everybody on set. We have to do everything and if you don't do everything it doesn't get done. So the idea of having a team or people who are interested in trying to help me progress my career and get me work out there was a very foreign concept to me. I just didn't understand and trust that they had my best interests at heart. It took me a while to actually feel like okay, you guys don't get paid unless I get paid? Even then, I was still very apprehensive because I wanted to make sure that they understood me and the things that I wanted to make, even though at the time I'm still trying to figure out what I want to make.
I'm still learning how to say what I want and how to articulate to them the things that they should be looking for me. I realized you're doing a lot of adapting books or trying to find IP that these producers and other people bring to you. And I was like, well, where is my stuff? Like, where's the original stuff I want to do? Why do I have to adapt everything for everybody? And so now I'm trying to formulate a plan on how I can bank some money and then take time off to really develop my own stuff.
"At this point I'm sort leaning towards quality as opposed to quantity because I know the right job can come along."
JS: It started to have some weight on me emotionally and creatively to commit to things that I really was not committed to. I just sort of weighed my options as far as like, do I really want to try to burn myself out just because I'm trying to stay relevant? Or do I really want to find the right project or right projects and really put myself one hundred and ten percent into it and then be able to land the next job? So I — at this point I'm sort of leaning towards quality as opposed to quantity because I know the right job can come along — but I want to be, of course, the right person to bring it together. But also I don't want to be struggling to try to do it. I don't want the people that I'm working with to regret hiring me to do it because "this girl is trying to do this thing and she is not getting it" and I'm like, I don't get it because I don't like it. I would rather not be a...Jacqueline of all trades and a master of none.
On appreciating your own perspective.
TT: I was working on my own project plus I was doing two others at the same time and I was just burnt out. The whole time I'm doing it, I had much more fun working on my own stuff and I'm like, this is better than these other things. I just have faith in my own writing more than I do in their projects. So I figured if it could be just for me, if I had to watch any of these three movies, it would be the one I'm writing. So I just want to trust myself more and just go with my gut. I just know which one's the best and have faith in my writing and just know that I can make something better than the stuff that they're pitching.
"So it took me a while to sort of realize I have a more specific and a different experience than what I have been exposed to over the course of my life. I can write from that experience."
JS: I think it took me years to appreciate my own perspective, I often tried to write from experiences that I was not familiar with and this is more specific to Sweet Sixteen, I wrote that because the things that I wrote before we're outside of my own personal experience. I didn't think that people that look like me were interesting because I grew up on New Jack City and Boyz n the Hood which are great movies but there wasn't a broad spectrum of what our cinema could be. So it took me a while to sort of realize I have a more specific and a different experience than what I have been exposed to over the course of my life. I can write from that experience. I don't have to write according to what I'm seeing on TV, what people tell me my experience should be. And that was something that I really wish I had. I didn't actually start writing about black people until I was 25 years old, until I got to Tisch and that's because I didn't think that we were interesting. That's something that I wish I would have realized sooner. It took me being around a bunch of different filmmakers, different types of storytellers to really realize that. And now you can't stop me from writing about black folks, I love it.