This is the next 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.
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Next up: an interview with writer/producer Ken Lemm of the award winning short film These Foolish Things
Growing up in an Air Force family, Ken Lemm travelled extensively in his youth and developed a love for reading and architecture, prompting him to pursue a career in landscape architecture. After creating a successful design business, Ken was able to pursue his first love, writing. Early in his writing career, placing in a prestigious screenwriting competition afforded confidence and encouragement. In just three years, Ken has completed twelve feature screenplays and had two feature films, three theatrical trailers, and two award-winning short films produced, as well as completing four writer-for-hire assignments. Most recently, Ken was named 2014-2015 Writer of the Year at the Action on Film International Film Festival and is included in the upcoming book “The Top 50 Indy Screenwriters in the World.” Ken’s focus in screenwriting is predominantly in the faith-based, family friendly genre.
What is the name of your first screenplay that was produced?
My first produced screenplay was a dramatic short titled “These Foolish Things.”
- Can you tell us a bit about the journey as to how it came about?
Starting out, and not being in LA, I considered many avenues to present my work to producers I otherwise would not have access to. In addition to participating in many screenplay competitions and film festivals, I posted several feature length scripts on the inktip listing service. One of the added benefits of posting features on the site is the ability to post, without charge, short screenplays. ‘These Foolish Things” caught the attention of a producer from Alabama.
- Tell me a little bit about the experience of having the project come to completion.
During the negotiation with the producer for the sale of the short, I factored several things into my decision of an acceptable price. First, this producer had a grant from the State of Alabama to produce a short film, so the project- which would be my first produced work- would definitely get made, and in a quick time frame. Secondly, the film would be shot in Birmingham, Alabama, just two hours from my home, and the producer not only welcomed, but encouraged me to be on set for filming. Finally, the producer offered me an Associate Producer credit. All of these were very important to me and lead me to be flexible in the sales price through the negotiations.
- What was the hardest obstacle to overcome in achieving that first project?
Rather than an obstacle, I’d like to share the unexpected benefit of achieving the first project. Of all the movies I’ve watched, the books and scripts I’ve read, and the online courses and competition feedback, nothing compared to the experience of being on set for the filming. In addition to learning the technical aspects of filming, being on set illuminated the impact of each decision I made while writing on the physical world of filming, especially in terms of budget confines. I saw the scenes filmed which were later cut from the final film and could appreciate the director’s decisions. I heard the subtle changes the actors made in the dialogue that made it seem more natural coming from them, and the adlib movements, gestures, beats, and facial expressions which filmed more believable than the ones I’d so painstakingly planned in the writing process. An unexpected benefit was a relationship built with one of the actors in the film who I have since been able to recommend to two other producers, enhancing my value as a writer to them. All told, the many benefits of this on-set experience far outweighed the monetary reward of selling my first script.
- What have you learned about the industry when it comes to being a writer?
While talent, originality, and timing are obvious necessities to a successful writing career, so, too, are relationships. This includes the interaction with peers of all experience levels via social media, writers’ groups, or film festivals, and I’ve been impressed with the willingness of fellow writers to share experiences, notes, and even leads. In most cases, we are not in competition with other writers except in actual screenplay contests and film festivals. In real life, shared experiences, leads and opportunities, seem to strengthen all writers involved.
Even more so, forging real relationships with decision makers is crucial. By way of example, several years ago, I reached out on Facebook to a producer whose small independent film I’d seen and enjoyed immensely. A simple fan message (with no other agenda) in time resulted in a relationship which turned into a producing partnership and my first feature-length film. Since then, this producer and I have completed a second feature, have a third and fourth in pre-production, and just recently had an hour-long television drama greenlit. Another relationship which began with interaction on social media lead to a writing assignment and a feature length film which just completed filming in Mississippi. Interaction through a LinkedIn screenwriting group lead to a writing assignment from a top Hollywood producer.
- What are you working on now?
The hour long television drama “The Sparrows” which was just greenlit, and a pitch for a second television series “Fishes ‘n Loaves,” a sitcom based on a feature I currently have in pre-production. Also, my producing partner and our funding source are eager to film a holiday-themed feature, so I am currently writing a Christmas film. This is one of my soft spots in screenwriting as I currently have two holiday projects optioned and under consideration by a major network.
- What is your favorite movie or TV series?
My favorite television series in recent years was “Parenthood.” The writing was outstanding, and the ability of the show to engage viewers to care for each of the characters so deeply was impressive. As for films, I’m usually attracted to small character-based films, such as those by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win, The Visitor).
- Where do you think the movie and television industry is heading? What do you think its future is?
There’s a huge audience for family and faith-based product. This seems to be constantly overlooked by the film making community. The recent success of several unexpected blockbusters like “God is Not Dead” and “Heaven is for Real” may be changing that. Definitely in the independent film market, these type stories seem to be more and more in demand.
Foreign distribution appeal seems to be an increasing factor in the success of obtaining funding, and tis often affects casting (stars who are bankable in foreign markets are often different than the ones you might otherwise select for your film), and genres of stories selected.
Social media and crowd-funding opportunities are an important ingredient, at least in independent film. My first feature film “A Horse for Summer” was funded primarily through crowd-funding. Nurturing a successful crowd-funding campaign is a full-time job. This first film appealed to fans of faith-based films, fans of equestrian stories, and perhaps most importantly fans of one of the attached actors. This same fan base translated to a strong presence on social media. The trailer for our small, independent film has already had over 60,000 views on YouTube.
- What parting advice do you have for writers?
Placing in the top finals of a screenwriting competition early in my writing career earned me a meeting with a top boutique management company. Although the experience was invaluable, I was unprepared and most likely didn’t take full advantage of the opportunity. But, the experience made me believe I needed representation to be successful as a writer. Taking nothing away from the benefits of having a manager, agent, or entertainment attorney, my advice is this; nothing compares to taking your career into your own hands. No one will work as hard for you as you will for yourself, or look beyond the immediate to the long range goals you have for yourself.
Also, never trust your memory or waste an idea. When an idea comes or inspiration is sparked at an inopportune moment, send yourself a voice mail, jot it on the back of a sales receipt, keep a bad by the bed. The next great screenplay might result from what seems like a fleeting thought or tiniest idea.
Lastly, as tough as it may be financially, make every attempt you can to take advantage of any opportunity that comes your way. Almost every industry one might pursue requires investment, either in the form of a college degree, trade school training, or un-paid internships. Whenever possible, attend a film premiere, a film festival, or an industry mixer; anything which might lead to industry connections.
- What do you do when you’re not writing? What do you do to get away from the industry?
I am fortunate that my “day job” is also creative. Prior to venturing into screenwriting, I built a landscape architecture design firm. Although this might seem like a good distraction from screenwriting, as it turns out, dealing with my clients, mostly high end homeowners, is an unending source of ideas for writing! I’m also a dog-rescue fan and have two incredible dogs who demand much of my attention.
- Tell us something about yourself that many people may not know.
I grew up in a military family. As the son of an Air Force pilot, I had the opportunity to live many places, both internationally and in the US. In fifth grade alone, I attended five different schools in France, Germany, New Jersey and Florida. I think this made me a quick and able student of character and cultural differences. Also, I watch a different film almost every day, usually on the treadmill. Finally, I am blessed with unwavering support from my family.
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