Dante Russo took the top prize of the 2015 ScreenCraft Short Screenplay Contest with Grief, his imaginative, cinematic and heartbreaking story about a tube sock separated from his matching counterpart after being accidentally left behind at a laundromat by a father and his little girl, and his quest to be reunited with his family. Currently working as a showrunner’s assistant and with several other scripts in development, Dante took the time to talk with us about his approach to the craft of screenwriting.
1) What is your writing process and how long have you been writing?
I tend to let ideas gestate for a while, sometimes up to a few years, before outlining like a mad man. I use the Evernote app to keep all my thoughts and inspirations organized (and synced across all my devices). I’m a super visual person, so I then use a tremendous amount of note cards to physically beat out the entire screenplay, move things around, add and cut, all by hand.
I get distracted pretty easily, so I actually took myself out of town for a weekend to outline my previous two scripts. Then I’d write a scene or two every morning before work. I find it easier to write when I do it every day, making it part of my daily routine.
I’ve been writing since middle school, one-acts and plays, to short films in high school and college. I’ve never been one to keep a daily journal or diary, but I’ve been coming up with stories on a daily basis for as long as I can remember.
2) How have you honed your craft since you began and what resource or activity has been the most helpful in that regard?
I read as many different types of scripts as possible. It’s amazing to see how some of our favorite films are built, literally word by word. I scour scripts online, buy them from websites, visit the library, borrow copies from fellow writers and friends…
I also read books, articles and essays that have nothing to do with writing. I visit museums, listen to podcasts and try to absorb as much information about the world as possible.
3) What was the genesis of GRIEF? How many drafts have you done and how much has the story evolved? Have you entered it into other competitions?
Having experienced loss at a young age, grief has definitely been something that has shaped my life and how I see and experience it.
I wanted to explore the stages of grief through a non-traditional lens. I also wanted to write something that challenged me as a writer. By practically writing a silent film, it forced me to take a deeper look at my storytelling.
The project evolved immensely, especially from the generous feedback from fellow writers, friends, and family. I’ve cut characters, rearranged scenes and rewrote the ending, all within roughly 10 drafts. I wasn’t afraid to let the process surprise me.
I’ve also entered GRIEF into both the Austin Film Festival and Slamdance.
4) What kind of stories are you drawn to tell? Favorite genre? What other projects do you have besides GRIEF?
I tend to like outcasts, socially awkward protagonists, underdogs… I love broken people. I also love when things are a tad over the top, I grew up on films like Death Becomes Her and Beetlejuice, so I love a good heightened reality.
I just finished writing a single cam pilot that I’m extremely proud of. As with GRIEF, I finally feel as though I’m finding my voice as a writer.
5) What’s the best operating principle or piece of advice on screenwriting you’ve ever gotten?
Listen to your audience and take their notes. They’re the ones that you’re trying to entertain, so at least listen to what they have to say. I hear so many people fighting a rewrite or hesitant to take constructive feedback, it confuses me.
Also, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. If you haven’t read it yet, run. It’s the best book on writing I’ve ever read. I recently reread it before tackling my pilot and I swear it’s the only thing that got me through. Highly recommended by my therapist, which I feel every writer should have, but that’s a different blog post…
6) Who are your writing influences?
Alan Ball. Tim Burton. Paul Rudnick. Woody Allen. Jonathan Safran Foer. Miranda July. David Sedaris. Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola. Not all solely screenwriters, but definitely very distinct, colorful artists in their own right.
7) What are your short-term and long-term goals in the industry?
Short term I guess would be to see GRIEF get made into a live-action short film. Long term, I’d love to write and direct my own work. But regardless, as a writer, short or long term, it would simply be to get paid to write.