Colin Costello claimed the top prize of the 2015 ScreenCraft Comedy Screenplay Contest for his postmodern, madcap wedding comedy Deerly Beloved. A decorated screenplay contest veteran, Colin took the time to answer our questions and talk about his approach to the craft.
1) What is your writing process and how long have you been writing?
I recently found proof that I have been writing since I was five years old. My favorite film was The Wizard of Oz and my mom, being a Philadelphia School System’s reading teacher, was big on furthering anything literary in my house. So when I declared that I wanted to put on a stage version of Oz, in my grandmother’s basement, she gave me a spiral notebook to write my script in. The play was a rousing success in the neighborhood and led to my obsession of recreating my favorite films – first as a play then as a movie. I guess I was one of the first kids to “Swede!”
When she passed a few years ago, my brother discovered it hidden away in her things and mailed it to me in LA.
My process has remained the same for the last few years. I like to work out or go for a hike since Runyon Canyon is in my backyard. Then I come home, smelling like I was left to die in a pond and jump in the shower. I pour coffee into my XL Superman mug (which I only manage to drink half of) then I sit down to write. Writing quickly turns to reading as I zip through the news on my laptop. Writing then becomes a few Facebook conversations with friends.
Here’s the rub though, while I am doing all of this, I am writing. In my head. A long time ago, I heard the actual act of writing is dictation. I believe that. I am always writing in my head, then I put it down on paper. Sometimes it’s as good or better than what was in my head. Most of the time it sucks. But that is where rewriting comes in.
2) How have you honed your craft since you began and what resource or activity has been the most helpful in that regard?
There is no doubt I have evolved in the way I approach writing over the years. I believe we all start out the same – we want to write a script that sells and makes us lots of money. The problem is most beginning writers don't realize that for most it’s a fairly normal to low paycheck. So if you are writing, you had better love what you are doing.
Lucky for me, I do.
Moving to LA, going to the WGA, and networking with other writers, producers, actors and script gurus has all helped me approach a script differently. I now think about what I want to say first. Robert McKee once said, “A screenplay had better not be about the story that is on the page.” I believe that.
When I read or consult on a script, I ask the writer what is it they actually want to say? After I have answered that question for myself, I think about the kind of characters I would like to send this message. I figure out their flaws, dreams and history. I really get to know the group of people I’m going to be hanging out for the next year with.
I outline like I should be put away somewhere. Sometimes my outlines are thirty pages. What an outline does is give me a decent GPS before I sit down and write the first page. All of the scenes won’t make it into the actual draft, but at least I know what is supposed to be happing by a certain point. Then I write the script, slowly at first. Each day I will go back to page one and read to my previous finish point. It can work fairly quickly in the beginning but can become draining by the time you finished at page 79. But it’s a process that works for me. By doing that, it allows to become fully submersed in the world I’m writing.
3) What was the genesis of DEERLY BELOVED? 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?
Deerly Beloved started out years ago as a skit called Jane Doe. My ex-wife and I got married at a quaint inn in Connecticut called The Spinning Wheel Inn. During our rehearsal, she looked out at the surrounding woods and fields and thought wouldn’t it be funny if a deer crashed this and her ring landed on its antler.
The inn has long since closed, but the idea for that skit never died. So about 12 years ago we sat down and wrote the sketch. I was just getting into screenwriting at the time and had just placed as a finalist in a new contest called Scriptapalooza. I was looking for a new project and I thought hey maybe there is something here. So we sat down to write Jane Doe. I can still see us sitting at our round wooden kitchen table kicking around ideas.
As the years passed, I wrote more, she wrote less, but for me the idea of Jane Doe never died. After I would finish a script, I would always return to Jane and her deer adventures.
I would enter Jane Doe into contests and nothing would happen. I’d write another script, learn more and return to Jane. I’d enter again. Suddenly, it was a quarterfinalist. I was so proud. I’d repeat over the years. Jane Doe became Deerly Beloved. I would enter some more contests and it was suddenly a semifinalist and then a finalist. I changed the title again to Bridezilla v Deer as the notion of bridezillas came out. Wrote more. Entered more. Suddenly, Bridezilla won. Then it won again. I put it away for a few years working on different projects. And then reality TV came into play with the Real Housewives. The mature writer in me wanted to use Deerly Beloved as a statement against reality TV and their portrayal of women. I wanted it to not only be a story about love, but I really wanted to explore what drives these women to do their actions on TV. Was it just the idea of being filmed or was there something more?
And whoa! I won ScreenCraft, the highest profile contest I have ever won. I would tell writers, use contests as a litmus test for your writing. If you believe in your idea, keep rewriting it. Rewrite the idea you love until you hate it. And keep entering it in contests. They really are a great way to judge how far your writing and voice has come.
I finally feel like I have found my voice.
4) What kind of stories are you drawn to tell? Favorite genre? What other projects do you have besides DEERLY BELOVED?
Funnily enough, I am drawn to horror and raunchy comedy. That is what people tend to think of me for. And that is what you will see in some of the short films I have had on the festival circuit. However, my very first indie feature was a 2013 family film called The Stream. And I wrote a couple of episodes for a children’s show called Moochie Kalala Detective’s Club. I have a short family time-traveling film opening at the Chicago History Museum this July 4th called The Great Chicago Adventure. And I just did a rewrite on another indie family film called, Traveling Without Moving.
So weirdly enough I am coming to terms with the idea that the family genre may be my world. Sometimes you don’t find the genre; if you write enough, the genre finds you.
That said, I am shopping a horror spec with Big Brother contestant James Rhine called Tagged. It’s about an emoji-mask wearing serial killer who uses Facebook to stalk a group of teens. And I have a family (Hello?) coming-of-age film called Street Riders. It’s kind of Stomp the Yard meets Sea Biscuit. And an old-fashioned monster movie about bed bugs (which has been around longer than Deerly Beloved) called Don’t Let Them Bite. I’m also working on two short films and a web sitcom. There’s more, but too many to talk about here.
5) What's the best operating principle or piece of advice on screenwriting you've ever gotten?
I have been lucky enough to get advice from so many sources I wouldn’t even know where to begin. But whether it’s Spike Lee or some new writer at the Chicago Screenwriters Network, the advice is the same – you have to truly respect the craft of screenwriting. Bow before it. Read about it. Understand the rules. Remember, everyone thinks they can write. They can’t.
6) Who are your writing influences?
I am realizing now many of the stories that touch me come from Pixar – Brad Bird (The Incredibles) Pete Doctor (Inside Out, Up). Also love Harold Ramis, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Chris Terrio, JJ Abrams, Chris Nolan, Judd Apatow and first and foremost, Joss Whedon.
7) 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?
I sacrificed a ton to move here to LA and write. My marriage is over. My daughters are in Chicago. And because of my economic situation, I don't get to see them nearly enough. I just want to be a working writer. I think features more than TV. I would love to write a superhero film. I just need the opportunity. My kids believe in me. My friends believe in me. And more and more execs are as well. I need a manager, a real manager, to help me get to the next level.
I know I have the ideas and my writing is constantly evolving and getting me noticed. The short films I wrote or cowrote have done well on the circuit. But I would really like to be a working writer -- not juggling advertising (day job) and writing. Just getting up and writing. It’s what makes me happy and feel at peace.