By: Asmara Bhattacharya
Mention television shows about sociopaths, and we automatically call up Dexter, Hannibal – twisted, dramatic, even horrifying. But consider this: could a person severely lacking in empathy and a conscience be the protagonist of a humorous show?
According to writer/director Rowan Wheeler (who won the ScreenCraft 2015 Pilot Launch Contest before signing with United Talent Agency), the answer is a surprising “yes”. Her single camera comedy pilot, Socio-Pam, which won Final Draft’s Big Break Contest in the television category, follows a sociopathic news reporter who begins to experience empathy and guilt for the first time in her life, and must reconcile these alien feelings with her darker impulses.
“Sociopaths fascinate me,” says Rowan. “I struggle to understand them because I find empathy so crippling. Emotions are always getting in the way of what I’m trying to do.”
Like many screenwriters, Rowan’s path has been filled with detours and side-streets. She’s built a career around producing and directing unscripted television. While working as a phone-in assistant for a London network’s live daily show, she saw the harried crew running about frantically with their headsets and clipboards and thought, “I need to be doing that.” She laughs. “Very strange.”
Rowan also worked as an associate producer on the London television scene, but she was obsessed with New York. Querying 20 production companies there, she moved across the pond when one company offered her a 5-week gig and stayed when they turned that into an office manager position. From there, she earned her way back up to producer and then director of unscripted television and began freelancing for other companies. As a rule, she only takes fun, light-hearted shows, avoiding mean-spirited reality series because “I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night”.
It was only a few years ago that Rowan realized she wanted to try her hand at writing. In England, writers’ rooms almost don’t exist. “The people that write TV are people who’ve gone to Oxford and been playwrights and are just of a different class than I’m from. I didn’t even go to university.”
“Whether I get paid to do it or not, I’m going to write for the rest of my life.”
But creating stories for a comedy/reality hybrid that she developed made her realize that she wanted to hone in on the scripted side of comedy. So she left the city she adored and moved to Los Angeles. “Whether I get paid to do it or not, I’m going to write for the rest of my life.” o far, so good.
She’s in demand as a freelance director and producer. “I try and do a few months’ work to pay the bills, and then a few months’ writing, and then a few months’ work. And hopefully one day the writing will pay for the bills.” Rowan has now gotten some scripted experience under her belt, including executive producing Funny or Die’s webseries Tales of Titans, starring Jason Ritter, and showrunning a horror pilot presentation for SyFy.
All this on-set experience guides her as she writes. “When I’m writing, I’m always doing it through that filter. What does the audience want to see? How will this be edited? What shots will we be using? How does that influence the words that I’m putting on the page?”
She actually feels fortunate that she forgot to submit Socio-Pam to the Big Break Contest the previous year. Other high contest placements and excellent feedback have given her a confidence going into meetings that Rowan says she didn’t possess before. Once a writer starts to take meetings, she says, “half the battle is believing that you deserve it and that you’re in the right room.”
Winning Final Draft with the same script that other people told her needed a complete rewrite reminds her how subjective the business is. “They can’t keep you out if you keep knocking on the door. Or if you just bang down the door, they can’t keep you out.”
“Half the battle is believing that you deserve it and that you’re in the right room.”
But the best advice she has comes from a mentor who told her to fake it. When Rowan worried as a new director that she didn’t know what she was doing, he instructed her, “Just pretend you know, and then you’ll learn.”
“And I did. It was the best advice I ever got. If you just fake that you’re confident, if you fake that you believe that you deserve to be in there, then people will take you seriously,” she contends. “It’s madness. It’s some strange thing that humans do.”
Going forward, Rowan plans to pursue scripted comedic television, pushing Socio-Pam, rewriting another pilot, and developing yet another. “I would love, love, love to get staffed,” she says. “Ultimately, I see myself developing and running my own shows.”
As for her Final Draft success: “I couldn’t believe I’d made the top ten. And then I just knew that I hadn’t won.” All in all, it’s been a momentous year.
The extended deadline for Final Draft’s Big Break Screenwriting Contest is July 14. Enter now for your chance to share up to $80,000 in prizes!
Asmara Bhattacharya is a produced screenwriter/playwright, script reader, and festival screener, with multiple placements at Final Draft, Nicholl, Austin Film Festival, and other competitions. A trusted sounding board and consultant for industry professionals, dedicated fans also caught her in “Independence Day: Resurgence” and NBC’s “The Night Shift” – for one glorious half-second each. Check out her website at dickflicks.net or tweet her at @hotpinkstreak.