Monday, May 23, 2011

Elizabeth Searle talks about life, art and Girl Held in Home

Elizabeth Searle is as warm and funny as she's talented.  The author of four novels, including Celebrities in Disgrace, which was produced as a short film in 2010, as well as her forthcoming new novel, Girl Held in Home. Her novel, A Four-Sided Bed is being developed as a feature film. her theater works have drawn national media attention and her show, Tonya & Nancy, The Rock Opera, has had productions on both coasts. She teaches at Stonecoast in the MFA program. What really intrigued me is that she's been able to move from the world to fiction to the world of short film, so I asked her if she'd write about it.  

 Thanks to Caroline, a real star, for giving me this chance to talk about my ongoing adventure in the world of short film: an actual do-able 'way in' to movies for starstruck fiction writers.

Little did I know when my novella Celebrities in Disgrace was first 'optioned' back in 2005 that on a hot summer day in 2010, I would be gobbling M&Ms outside our 'closed set' while listening breathlessly to the heavy breaths of our film's talented stars Julian Brand and Patrice Bunch, as they brought a sex scene I'd written to passionate life.  It was fascinating and a bit freaky to watch the scenes I'd imagined in my head so vividly performed.

The resulting film is CELEBRITIES IN DISGRACE, a fifteen minute glimpse of one aspiring actress's quest for her fifteen minutes of fame and of the troubled young man who gives it to her.  It's produced by Bravo Sierra Pictures, an upstart film company whose motto is 'Micro Budget, Macro Attitude."  The film premiered at the longrunning Woods Hole Film Festival on Cape Cod in August of 2010.  Our 'short' was lucky to receive coverage on WBUR Boston and in the Boston Herald.  The film was most recently accepted as an official selection of the Hoboken International Film Festival (with screenings in between in Las Vegas, Maine, Boston and Hollywood FirstGlance shorts competition, so far.

How did my little book, published by Graywolf Press, become a little film?  While it took years to get the film made, I found that entering the world of film festivals is easier than my shy fellow scribes might think-- and can offer a chance to make fledgling film world connections.  Festivals are open to the public, tickets are cheap and even the big-deal parties are crashable.  (One tip on that is to hang out with members of the press, who might just let you tag along on their Press Passes!)  At Nantucket Film Festival, I met producer Paul Boghosian of Harborside Films, who is now producing a theater work of mine.  Through working on scripts for Harborside, I learned the basics of script writing.  My Celebrities in Disgrace novella was first optioned by Seattle-based short-film maker Paul Ramsay, who I worked with in writing an initial version of the script.  Unfortunately, the economy collapsed and his option lapsed.

Cut to 2009.  As a teacher in the Stonecoast MFA program I was impressed by a scriptwriting seminar led by a student I had never worked with, Matthew Quinn Martin. Matthew already had a feature film to his credit: SLINGSHOT starring Julianna Margulies and David Arquette, released by the Weinstein Co.  I told Matthew about Celebrities in Disgrace and he gamely took a look at the script.

Matthew helped me shape that initial script into a 15 minute version that focussed on the central sex scene from the novella which I'd often performed at readings, so I knew it had dramatic potential.  In it, my aspiring actress character (who longs to play the role of Nancy Kerrigan, ice princess) 'acts out' the infamous Nancy knee-attack-- all while being filmed by a young 'fan' who has talked his way into her home.  Mayhem and 'disgrace' ensue.

Once we had our script in hand, Matthew and his Bravo Sierra partner Mark McNutt raised funds and called in some favors to make a high quality film on a low budget, all at Mark's lovely home in Pennsylvania.  I got to play the role of the 'bad mother' in blood-red lipstick, looking scary and coming across, Matthew told me, 'very David Lynch.'  On the 'set,' I helped as best I could, mainly assisting in making lemonade for our sweaty hard-working stars and crew.  Unlike many directors, Matthew-- as a writer himself-- welcomed me into the process.  I felt I'd been magically thrown back to the days when my sister and I shot our own 'movies' on our family's ratchety Brownie camera.

I was teary-eyed weeks later at my first online viewing of the intense 2 minute Preview Matthew put together, which made me think in audience reflex: Hey I want to see that film.  The filmmakers set me up on a Celebrities in Disgrace 'blog'. At our film festival premiere at Woods Hole, our film appeared with an especially well-matched set of shorts, including Alysia Reiner's accalimed Speed Grieving.  

Now I am working with Matthew and Bravo Sierra to develop my novel A Four Sided Bed as feature film, and we're proud to have our short film getting our collective foot in the door and making its way around the festival circuit.  I've noticed benefits to my fiction too.  As I wrote my forthcoming novel, Girl Held In Home, my first book to be billed as a sort of 'literary thriller', I was mindful of what I'd learned about pacing and dialogue while writing scripts.  

So fellow fiction writers, check out film festivals and indie film events near you.  Withoutabox on Facebook makes submitting scripts or films easy.  With luck and a bit of movie-mad moxxy, you will get to watch your own secret writerly vision come to life as a small film on the 'big screen.'


Anonymous said...

As a book person and long time fan of Elizabeth Searle, I am delighted that after 10 years, she has written another book, "Girl Held in Home". She seems to enjoy scripting movies and seeing her books on film, but I think her greatest strength is writing novels, and this new one sounds much different from her earlier books. She certainly has broadened her areas of writing, and that is a good thing & I applaud her bravery and skill.

Litotes said...

I too am a longstanding fan of Elizabeth's work, and am eagerly looking forward to reading Girl Held In Home when it comes out.

I was highly impressed by her story of the gradual but inexorable moves she made on the climb from film outsider to film insider. If I believed in astrology, I'd have to place her as a Capricorn.

But whatever the sign, all of us can learn something from her pilgrim's progress. There is hope!

Anonymous said...

It certainly is exciting to hear about how the Elizabeth Searle works I have loved for years are being brought to life on screen. Can't wait!

jbpr said...

I am a new fan of Elizabeth's and look forward to
seeing her Tonya & Nancy:The Rock Opera live at Oberon in Cambridge July 18 - 21, 2011. You can buy tix at
or join the chat at