We sat down with Cat Dale, ScreenCraft’s Pilot Launch TV Script (Drama) Winner, and talked about her winning script, Mount Pleasant, and the overall craft of screenwriting. In Mount Pleasant, when a 16-year-old Comanche girl’s older brother doesn’t return home to the reservation from the Christian boarding school for Native American children where he’s been for the last ten years, she sets out to find him — only to be placed into the school herself, forced to forsake her culture alongside her classmates. It’s a vital and unflinching pilot that looks to the past to tell a story packed with timely sociopolitical relevance.
What is your writing process and how long have you been writing?
First, I write down tiny details of the story that I’ve been hoarding. I have lists of details and images that I use as inspiration to find the characters and their hidden secrets. Before I start drafting the script, I visualize the entire story in my head. I keep the story there until I know exactly how the script is structured and know who the characters become. When I finally sit down to the blank page, it feels more like I am re-watching the story, rather than writing it for the first time. It also creates an urgency to “get it all out” before I lose it.
I have been writing and creating stories for most of my life, but being a screenwriter always seemed like an impossible leap. I finally decided to give myself permission to take that leap.
How have you honed your craft since you began and what resource or activity has been the most helpful in that regard?
Facing your writing weaknesses is the only way to get better. For me, I love to daydream in the worlds I create. This builds out the setting, the visual details, and the “feel” of the world; I get to be a part of it. However, it leaves out the central character, which for me, is always one of the hardest pieces to craft. I’ve become much more disciplined in developing my protagonist as I play around in the world, so they not only complement each other, but feel vital for both to exist.
What was the genesis of Mount Pleasant? How many drafts have you done and how much has the story evolved? Having multiple contest finalist placements and wins under your belt now, any advice you would offer screenwriters about potentially entering screenplay competitions?
Before I was a screenwriter, I worked as an archaeologist in many parts of the world. However, on my summers, I would come home to Northern Idaho and work for the local Native American tribe. On the reservation stood one of these “Indian Schools.” Everyone said it was haunted (and if you saw it, you would too). However, one day it burned to the ground, with all the school’s artifacts and historical documents. As someone in the business of preserving history, I was heartbroken by the loss. However, as I started researching the school and discovered how cruel and evil many of these places were, I started to understand what the school stood for. I decided to write a narrative piece to recapture the history and connect it to the many modern issues that our country faces.
Mount Pleasant is in its fourth draft, but the structure and plot have remained the same. Each draft added new storylines, more details, and never-ending proofreading (the struggle is real). It’s been a little under a year since I started writing this script, and I can’t believe the amazing response I’ve had from the many contests I have entered. The script would not have gotten this far without my generous writing friends who read and gave me notes all year.
My advice on sending your script to contests: do not send your script into the contest void without someone else reading it first. There is nothing more disheartening then to get a rejection early on in your writing process. Get notes from friends or from a coverage service before you spend the money. Once your script is in stellar shape then send it off to multiple contests and start working on your next project. For undiscovered writers and writers not in LA, contests are a great way to start networking, making connections, and building your own writing community.
What kind of stories are you drawn to tell? Favorite genre? What other projects do you have besides Mount Pleasant?
Super dark historical dramas might not be at the top of the spec market most desirable, but it’s my writing cup-of-tea. I like to write stories with a lot of historical or industry-specific research, because it is a great way to find inspirational stories and amazing details to include in the script. Most of my stories focus on female characters who find themselves out of their element.
I have several projects in the pipeline, including a project I co-wrote and am currently producing called Beasts Undiscovered. It is a father-daughter story set in the beautiful Colorado wilderness. Also, in the queue are several feature film scripts, including a modern-day thriller about two friends who find themselves on the opposite side of the law and a historical drama about a female doctor doing medical experiments during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
What’s the best operating principle or piece of advice on screenwriting you’ve ever gotten?
I took a workshop with David Mamet when I was in college and we broke down stories into three questions, 1) What is the main character’s goal?, 2) Why can’t they get it?, and 3) What will happen if they don’t get it? These questions always help me focus my protagonist’s journey throughout the writing process.
What are your short-term and long-term goals in the industry? What have you been able to do in your career so far and what would you like to do next?
Short-term I hope to find representation in LA, so that long-term, I can keep writing. Like most writers, I want to see my work go from the page to the screen. I feel like I am just at the beginning of this screenwriting journey and I can’t wait to see what comes next.