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This is the inaugural post in a series of interviews with writers who have had their first films, web series, television assignment, etc. make it to the big or small or computer screen. It is an effort to find out what their journey was to their initial success.
Let me know what you think. Any feedback or suggestions for the sort of information you might like to know will be appreciated.
MICHELLE EHLEN is a graduate of The Los Angeles Film School where she studied writing and directing. With a focus on comedy, much of her work satirizes gender, sexuality, stereotypes, and identity.
She produced, wrote, directed, and acted in three award-winning feature films — Butch Jamie, POP-U-larity!, and Heterosexual Jill. Festival awards include Best Actress from the Outfest Film Festival and Best Feature from the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
She has also worked as a Producer on several indie films including three features for the Eating Out series on LOGO, and the dramedy Eat With Me which premiered at the L.A. Film Festival in June.
She is currently in development on the feature comedy S&M Sally, scheduled to be released in 2015.
You can check out more about her work at www.balletdiesel.com
What is the name of your first screenplay that was produced?
My first feature that was produced is called Butch Jamie, and it’s basically a lesbian twist on Tootsie where a butch lesbian gets cast as a man in a film. It’s a comedy, but like with most of my films, I like to layer in more dramatic themes such as characters grappling with issues of authenticity and identity.
- Can you tell us a bit about the journey as to how it came about?
After I went to film school and completed a few short films, I set out to write a feature. The first feature I wrote was a high budget period piece set in the 1920s. I sent out query letters to agents and fantasized about my dream cast, but it was a tall order for someone with no industry connections. When the project didn’t move forward, I decided to write a micro-budget comedy that I knew I could produce myself.
- Tell me a little bit about the experience of having the project come to completion.
The project was a lot of fun to work on – we shot it on weekends with a tiny cast and crew. Since my main goal was to complete the project, I was willing to make substantial sacrifices to do so and as such the film turned out better than I had expected. It toured film festivals and received some good press, awards, and distribution, but that was several years ago and it’s hard for me to watch it now with all its imperfections, since I feel I’ve come a long way since.
- What was the hardest obstacle to overcome in achieving that first project?
Honestly for me the hardest obstacle was writing the script. In the beginning I think there’s quite a gap between how great of a writer you think you are, and how great you really are. It takes a lot of work bridging that gap by being honest with yourself, getting feedback, listening to the right feedback, and keeping the faith that by continuing to work on something, it is in fact slowly getting better.
- What have you learned about the industry when it comes to being a writer?
It’s easier to break in as a writer than through other avenues like directing, but that comes with the cost of being subject to the whims of people who may or may not have the ability to do your script justice. I’ve been lucky to have been able to do both consistently, but have known many writers who have been disappointed with the lack of input they have on a project after their script is sold.
- What are you working on now?
I’m in post-production on a film I wrote called S&M Sally, which is a comedy with returning characters from Butch Jamie (it’s the third in a series, with my film Heterosexual Jill being the second installment). As for my next project, I have a few ideas that I’m tossing around. I never learned how to write for TV and since most of the jobs are in television, I’ve been considering learning that while I write my next feature.
- What is your favorite movie or TV series?
I usually say my favorite movie is American Beauty, but I haven’t seen it in so long that it’s hard to say if it would hit me the same way today. The movie that had the most effect on me and my career is Best in Show. As an actor/writer/director, I had shied away from doing comedy, feeling that being able to do it well was somewhat elusive. But the style of comedy in Best Show – realistic, grounded, deadpan – really clicked for me, and it lead me to exploring comedy and the films I have done since.
- Where do you think the movie and television industry is heading? What do you think its future is?
I think episodic binge watching is how more and more people will consume content. TV shows premiering their whole season online at once, being produced on platforms like Netflix and Amazon, with less interference from studio execs and less cowtowing to advertisers. I think jobs and opportunities for writers will expand as more content is being created. However, with more options for content I think will come less viewership and less money, but in the end I’d rather have more opportunities for lower pay than a few for higher.
- What parting advice do you have for writers?
My advice would be to connect with your own voice and point of view with a story that you personally connect with and are passionate about telling. Scripts that people write because they think it’s a good idea or that it’s marketable and will sell, in my opinion, often feel flat and generic. If it’s a story that means something to you, it will mean something to other people. My other piece of advice is to not have too much faith in the idea of opportunity knocking. 90% of the opportunities that I’ve had, I’ve either created or have actively sought out; the other 10% have resulted from the 90%. Don’t wait for permission or validation from other people, and on the flip side don’t let a sense of entitlement talk you out of the need for pounding the pavement.
- What do you do when you’re not writing? What do you do to get away from the industry?
I work in so many different facets of the industry that when I’m not writing, I’m usually directing, producing, acting, or editing. I’ve done a little stand-up comedy as well. To get away from my work, I have a regular spiritual practice that keeps me grounded, and I love traveling to get outside of my own life for awhile and see things from a different perspective.
- Tell us something about yourself that many people may not know.
I almost didn’t become a filmmaker. I almost became a lawyer or a professor because I was afraid of pursuing something that might never materialize into what the world defines as success. But once I realized that devoting myself to making films was more important to me than what came from them, I was able to get out of my way and actually start to make things happen. So I guess that’s one last piece of advice I have – get clear about your priorities, because oftentimes they will compete with each other and keep you stuck. As soon as I got clear on my priorities, the path forward suddenly became very clear to me.