Screenwriter Angela Workman on adapting literary works as well as a writer's heart
Angela Workman, the screenwriter of The War Bride, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and most recently The Zookeeper's Wife starring Jessica Chastain, talks to us about her transition from Development Executive to Screenwriter, advice on finding representation, and the importance of writers protecting their hearts while embracing collaboration.
Hello Angela, thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. Your career in the industry began as a Development Executive – can you tell us about some of the work that role entailed, and what prompted you to make the move to screenwriting?
It’s my pleasure! My career actually began as a classical stage actress. I attended the Yale School of Drama with playwrights and directors, and so I had theatrical training first. But in between acting jobs in New York I worked in temp jobs, one of which was at ABC Motion Pictures (may it rest in peace). I worked a clerical job there, on and off for about two years. During that time, I discovered that people were reading books and scripts for the studio and actually getting paid for it. Readers were being paid to read! That was the first time I’d heard of such a thing, it was like a dream come true (albeit for a very meagre wage). I was a fast reader, and I despised working in an office every day, so I asked if I could give it a go.
That began a ten-year long reading period for me, in which I was paid tiny amounts of money to read scripts and books overnight, for many different companies on both coasts, and for which I wrote coverage (plot summaries, a CONSIDER or PASS, and why). I did this both as a reader and later as an executive (a job I held only briefly, because I hated it). Reading that way taught me EVERYTHING about screenwriting.
I always tell anyone who asks to read as many scripts as you can, bad as well as good. You’ll start to understand shape, structure, and character development. If you read a lot, you might begin to see how things work, but maybe more importantly, you’ll start to see what not to do. You’ll lose your patience with problematic writing, which is a good thing. You’ll start to “fix” the writing, in your head. And really great scripts are like a gift from the gods, readers jump and yell about those because the good ones wake you from your 20-mediocre-scripts-a-week stupor. I was very grateful for the good ones.
Your writing credits so far have a focus on adapting literary works. Do you have a specific process when approaching such work, and what about adapting them do you enjoy the most?
Yes, my niche has become literary adaptations, and also personal character-driven narratives, which usually require a lot of research. I love the research part. I used to live in libraries, back in the day when you had to search out things on microfiche. I have to be able to see the setting first. That allows me to drop in, to find a palette and a voice. Characters seem to spring from that; they’re rooted to that place, wherever it is. I read everything I can, of course, and I travel extensively to research the things I write.
In fact, my first studio sale was a pitch about the Bronte sisters. DreamWorks sent me (at my insistence) to Haworth, to the museum that was their home, where I got to prowl around the rooms tourists weren’t permitted to enter. I also spent a lot of time at the British Library. I got to hold a snip of Emily’s death-bed hair! I mean, my God, it was so great! On another project, Warner Bros sent me all over China to research the treasure fleet of the Ming emperor Zhu Di. For another, I was a guest of the New York City Ballet; they invited me to observe an advanced class, which they rarely allow. Last year I was a guest of CBS News in New York.
Research starts the writing process for me, and then I try to find as authentic a voice for the story as I can.
What was your experience of your first film The War Bride going into production and seeing it all come to life? What was the biggest lesson you learned throughout that process?
Oh, that was a little bit tough. It was my first film, as you say, it was my first time going through that rite-of-passage, and the film’s story was personal. It was partly about my mother’s experiences as an orphan and a war bride in London and Canada. I got that movie made through friends – I didn’t even have an agent at the time. I just knew someone whose brother was making films in Canada, and he liked the script. We were able to get a strong cast – Anna Friel and Brenda Fricker agreed to star. It wasn’t expensive to shoot, and I’m not sure how long it took for the producers to put it all together, but it wasn’t long by the usual standards.
I’ll say that it was thrilling to have a movie made, but also painful to see my script so altered by someone else’s vision. I wasn’t prepared emotionally for that. I was on set for some of the shoot, in Edmonton, Alberta. I remember watching scenes play out and biting my tongue, because I was desperate to explain everything I had written, and why, precisely, I had written it the way I did. I learned a hard but necessary lesson on that film. We have to embrace filmmaking as a collaboration, even if it’s only to protect our own hearts. What we see in our imaginations, and then struggle to put down on the page, is probably distant from what we’ll finally see on screen.
It never gets any easier, frankly, but at least now I feel somewhat prepared. As writers, we have to find our satisfaction – and genuine self-acknowledgement - in the writing, in the craft and sense of discovery. Or else become directors of our own material. I think that’s really the bottom line for us.
Your next film, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, was all set in 19th century China. What was your experience of working on this film and how did writing this film compare to The War Bride?
It was very different. I read the book for pleasure first; I absolutely loved it. I remember sobbing on an airplane, reading it. And then I went hunting for the film rights, and was introduced to the neophyte producer who controlled them. She was thrilled that I would want to adapt the book. We agreed that we both wanted as authentic an adaptation as I could write, and that’s what I did, over the course of a year and three drafts. But she changed her mind when the director decided to pull the story apart, to weave into it a parallel, modern story - “like ‘Sex in the City,” was how it was described to me. I quite literally thought they were joking.
They tried to convince me to do it, and I did consider it; I embrace that idea of collaboration, and I did try to wrap my head around it, but it was a silly idea and impossible to make work. It trivialized Lisa See’s beautiful story, and betrayed the many, many fans of the book as well. I was really mindful of those readers. I knew they wouldn’t see the film if they knew what we had done; what I had done. So I told them I wouldn’t do it, and that it was a mistake. And since my work was contractually done by then, I walked away.
It was hard to leave, because I loved the project so much. But I realized there was nothing I could do to protect it. It was the absolute right decision. No regrets. (Having the strength to say ‘no’ is one of the great super powers in this work. And in life, too, probably.)
Most recently you adapted The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman, which starred Jessica Chastain and was the biggest budget production you’ve written so far. Does having a bigger production resource change anything for you as a writer, and what was your experience of this film?
I’ve written much bigger-budgeted films, but they haven’t been made yet! But yes, it was the biggest budget of my three produced films.
I had a wonderful time on that project. I’m proud of it. I don’t think having a bigger budget changed anything for me; I write what I want to write, I write the story I see in my head. I did have to do some cutting once we got into pre-production, and then Niki Caro, our director, had to cut more in post because she was contracted to deliver a two hour film, and I think her first cut was over three hours. I would have liked a longer film, with a much broader scope. The subject deserved it.
Having said that, I was on set in Prague, I was able to hang out with the animals. I met wonderful people. I was on the press tour for the film, I was given the opportunity to speak at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, and in New York, alongside a lawyer for the International Rescue Committee. It was my honor to be able to tell that story, and then to speak about the film once it was made.
Have you ever spoken or worked with the authors of the works you adapt, or is it preferable to keep a separation?
Generally, I stay separate from authors. I can kind of feel them reading over my shoulder, I feel self-conscious, and that destroys any spark of inspiration. A screenwriter has to feel free to make changes, without fear or guilt.
I did get to know Diane Ackerman, who wrote The Zookeeper’s Wife, which is a book of nonfiction. She sent me all the photographs she took at the Warsaw Zoo when she was doing her research there, she sent me her massive photo albums. We spoke early in the process. She’s lovely, and she was really proud of the script and the film. She has an enormously generous heart.
I did meet Lisa See at the first Snow Flower and the Secret Fan screening
too. We bonded. She’s also really lovely.
At what point in your journey as a screenwriter did you obtain representation? Can you tell us a bit about that process and how it works for writers in the US/UK?
I’m US born - although I’ve worked for UK companies - so I can’t speak to the process in the UK. And I probably had my own very personal experience here.
I’d been working in the industry for a little while, and I had friends who were willing to read my scripts. I had written three, including The War Bride, which was going to be made (that helped a lot). Two of my scripts were read by my present agent, Sandra Lucchesi. She asked to represent me immediately, and we’ve never looked back. I think that was 24 years ago. (Honestly, we’ve lost track.)
Finding representation is the most necessary thing, but also the hardest thing. My advice would be to reach out to literary agent assistants – often, they’re trying to become agents themselves and are looking for their own writers. Established agents might not read your work if they don’t need to, but new agents, young and hungry agents, might. You can reach out to them via email, usually. In the States, some won’t read because of legal issues, but some will. You just have to keep reaching out, keep trying.
And now there are sites where you can post your work – like The Black List, for example – where new scripts can be read by producers. Also, look for writing contests, like the Nicholl Fellowship, or studio-based writing fellowships for new writers. There are so many more ways into a career now than there were when I was starting. The internet is an amazing thing!
What advice would you give to new writers tackling their first feature?
Read everything you can. Read all the scripts!
Read the ones you can buy, read your friends’, take a class, read read read. Compare. Think about why some scripts work and some don’t. Study the shape, think about rhythm. Good storytelling should feel like music, so think about that. I like a firm 3-act structure (I like rules like that, it gives me a map), but some writers happily break that rule. And don’t assume, just because you watch movies, that you know how they work or how they’re put together. What goes down on the page is different than what might wind up on screen, but it has to go down on the page first.
Screenwriting is a craft. So, read, and learn the craft. And write more than one script. Maybe it will happen for you on your first go, but believe me, you’ll learn so much from each one that they’ll just keep getting better. Be realistic. Keep writing.
That’s an older project that I wrote seven or eight years ago - everything takes forever in this business! I have producer credit on that film, as well as writing credit, as I do on everything now. David Fincher is executive producing for his mentor, the director Leslie Dektor.
Leslie was a well-known and much beloved commercials director in his day. And he actually built the hand-held camera (no kidding – when you see a shot or scene filmed with a slightly wavering lens that gives you a bit of a headache – that’s the “Dektor Camera”). Leslie’s a brilliant photographer and documentary filmmaker, and he’s been obsessed with Dorothea Lange all his life. Everything he shoots is in that style, her Depression-era style.
I wrote the script for him, with Fincher’s copious notes. (Yes, David Fincher gives many, many notes!) I hear they’re in talks with a studio. Fingers crossed!
You can follow Angela on Twitter: @AWorkmanWriter