'Land' Screenwriter on His Magical Hollywood Journey at Age 47

by Shanee Edwards on February 16, 2021

Land, a dramatic film directed by and starring Robin Wright that premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, follows the story of a woman so devastated by the loss of her husband and young son, she retreats to a rudimentary cabin in the hostile wilds of the Rockies. Completely incapable of surviving in the harsh wilderness, the kindness of a stranger, played by Demián Bichir (Grand Hotel, Weeds), brings her back from the brink of death and teaches her how to survive on her own – both physically and emotionally. 

The film, from a screenplay by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam, is a beautiful story of loss, forgiveness, and survival. The dialogue and exposition are powerfully sparce -- an excellent lesson in how less is often more.

On behalf of ScreenCraft, I was able to chat with Chatham about the movie and find out more about his screenwriting adventure that didn’t start until he was 40. 

Chatham has tried his hand at all different kinds of writing. From writing song lyrics when he was the frontman in a band to working on novels, the 47-year-old had been supporting his wife and two kids doing web design and SEO consulting. In 2000, he attempted to write a screenplay in an MS Word doc. “I probably got 30 pages into it and then abandoned it,” says Chatham. We’ve all been there. 

But actually completing a screenplay became more urgent for Chatham when he turned 40. “I had this sense or mortality, that time is slipping,” he says. We’ve all been there, too. He began to ask himself existential questions like, “Have I really done the things I want to pursue in life? When I’m 65, will I be really proud of what I did, or will I look back and think I was kind of cowardly?”

He cites the quote, “I’d rather die a failure than a coward.” Chatham says it really resonated with him. “I wanted to not be a coward, I wanted to go for it so that’s what I did.”

He purchased Final Draft and read books on screenwriting, like the ones by Syd Field. He tried to read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder but didn’t connect with the book. “It was too formulaic,” he says. He even traveled with his family from Denver to Los Angeles to attend a Robert McKee seminar only to bail half-way through. “I was overwhelmed by his approach to teaching screenwriting. It was too theory-centric for me. I like to jump in and make my own mistakes. I’m a very intuitive writer.” 

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Chatham says he was inspired to write Land after he learned about a real-life mass shooting. Though he’s never experienced such devastating loss in his own life, he couldn’t help but start wondering about the survivors of such a tragic event and how they were coping. Like any true writer, his imagination ran wild. 

“You don’t have to experience things to write about them. You don’t have to live in space to write about aliens. You need to research things, for sure, and I researched a lot about living out in the wild, but I don’t have any personal experience with it,” he says. 

Chatham eschewed dialogue to explain what his protagonist Edee (Wright) is thinking and feeling. Instead, he focused on the drudgery and danger of living without the luxuries like indoor plumbing to which we’re all accustomed. 

“I wanted to immerse the viewer in what it’s like to live in such a challenging way, where most of every day is spent gathering food, cutting wood, hunting, checking traps, and skinning things. It’s just this labor-intensive life that our ancestors experienced, but that’s the choice she made,” says Chatham. 

The choice to live off the land, away from society, could be interpreted in different ways. With so much work to be done, Edee won’t have time to focus on her tragedy. Or, perhaps it’s about self-punishment, or maybe she’s even hoping to die out there. There’s an element of mystery in the story, which feels fresh in a world of movies that want to spoon-feed the audience backstory.   

“It was a lean script in terms of, well, we’re not showing a lot of stuff. We’re concealing things or just not addressing them at all,” he says. The emotion, the pain, the redemption all play out on Wright’s face.  

After completing Land, he did what many screenwriters without representation do, he entered it in a screenplay competition. Land ended up placing in the top 50 scripts in the 2016 Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship. Fortunately for Chatham, Lora Kennedy, then the V.P. of casting at Warner Bros., was a reader that year. She was really moved by the script and wanted to produce. She contacted Chatham and they started to work together. 

Eventually, Robin Wright was brought in to just direct at first. Writer Erin Dignam came on board and things started to take shape.      

Chatham has this advice for screenwriters. “If you want to write, nothing can stop you. We’re all kind of out in the desert as writers. There’s a lot of silence when you write. Agents and managers don’t care, no one is calling you back. My wife has been amazing, she’s always been on board with this path and has always believed in me, even when I haven’t. I’m very fortunate to have someone like her on this journey.” 

He also says he’s feeling better about his mortality now. “I’m 47 and I’ve already accomplished something I’m really proud of. I hope more success will follow, but you never know, right? This is a game, and you don’t control most of the variables. But I feel good, I feel like I did what I was supposed to do – pursue the art, pursue the dream – and I got some success here.”

Land is now in theaters

Shanee is a screenwriter, journalist and author. After receiving her MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA, she was hired to adapt various stories for the screen including Apes or Angels, the true story of naturalist Charles Darwin, and Three Wishes, based on the New York Times best selfing novel by Kristen Ashley. You can listen to her interview Oscar-winning screenwriters on The Script Lab Podcast, or read her book Ada Lovelace: the Countess who Dreamed in Numbers. Follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

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