TRUE INDIE: Breaking in Remotely - Interview with Ashley Hall, writer of 'The Cure'
There's never been a better time to break into screenwriting remotely! Rebecca Norris interviews screenwriter Ashley Hall, who's combining both modern technology and wisdom from working on 'Psych' and 'Castle' to help her break into screenwriting from her native Virginia.
As difficult, frustrating, and downright awful as it was, there were a few bright spots over this past pandemic year. (Can you believe it’s been over a year?!) Less traffic. More family time. Seemingly endless bread baking. And of course, the ability for many professions to now work remotely. (Thank you, Zoom!)
Not that writers couldn’t work remotely before, but the general acceptance of screenwriters, particularly feature writers, working remotely, and outside of Los Angeles, seems to have skyrocketed. With the mass exodus out of uber-expensive states like California and New York, many creatives are moving to more reasonably-priced areas, such as Texas, Tennessee, and Georgia. The lure of family ties even has some of them returning home again.
One such writer is Ashley Hall, who after spending seven years in LA working on shows such as Psych and Castle, returned back home to her native Virginia to pursue feature screenwriting full-time. Her latest script, The Cure, placed in the top 20% in the 2020 Nicholl Fellowship, and finished as a finalist for the 2020 New Orleans Horror Film Festival, a semi-finalist for the New York City Horror Film Festival, and was an official selection of the Southern Horror Film Festival and the Atlanta Women’s Film Festival. Ashley and The Cure were also recently featured in Cooperative Living Magazine.
I was delighted to have the chance to speak with Ashley about her writing journey with The Cure, what her years in Hollywood taught her, and what tools she’s using now to break in as a feature writer outside of Los Angeles.
Rebecca: Please tell us a bit about your background and how you got into the industry.
Ashley: I'm from Beaverdam, Virginia, a rural area outside of Richmond, and I went to Virginia Tech, where I majored in Communications and Film. I also did seven months of study abroad in Australia where I studied Australian film, and worked on my first TV pilot. After graduation, a professor of mine at VA Tech, Robin Allnutt, recommended me for a production manager position on an independent film, Sympathetic Details, starring the cast of The Wire, and directed by The Wire actor Benjamin Busch.
Soon after, I moved to Los Angeles and lived there for seven years, working on Red Sky, Psych, Castle, and Complications. I got my first film job pretty quickly via Craigslist as a director's assistant for a straight-to-DVD movie, and had jobs off and on my first year there, like the assistant production coordinator job on Red Sky.
I also joined several networking groups, and the one I attended regularly was called "The Table." I attended once a week every week for a year, and around the year one mark, I met an editor, Dexter Adriano, who took my resume and passed it along to a producer at Psych. I was hired as a post-production PA for Season 5, and I was the Post Coordinator for Seasons 6-8. I was also the Post Coordinator for a season of Castle on ABC and Complications on USA.
After Complications, I was hired to write three horror/fantasy narrative trailers directed by Justin Nizer via the production company EyeWax Films, which was great, because the three things I had written were produced and I could put them online. I then started pursuing screenwriting full-time, and moved back to Virginia soon after. Since moving back to VA, I've moved my screenwriting focus from TV to features, and I also work on political campaigns as a rural Democratic consultant and campaign manager.
Rebecca: What lessons did you learn from working on Castle, Psych, and other shows that carry over into your writing?
Ashley: The thought of screenwriting professionally didn't occur to me until I worked for Psych. I worked in post-production, mainly as the post-production coordinator, but I was right next to the writers' office and interacted frequently with the showrunner—the awesome Steve Franks—and the rest of the Psych writing staff. And while I no longer work in post, I'm sure it helped with the rhythm of my writing, since I feel editing accounts a lot for the rhythm of a film or show.
For all the shows I worked on, my job required that I read every script and watch every episode many, many times, so I got to study the transition from script to screen, sometimes without even knowing it. So now, let's say I wanted to write a political comedy feature. I might read the script for Irresistible with Steve Carrell, then watch the movie, and break down the beats of the produced film and compare it to the script. It just helps me again with the rhythm of the story I'm trying to tell.
I also got to work with professionals in every capacity—editors, actors, directors, producers. And I got to see the dynamics of networks and studios, and learn all the ins and outs of professional film and TV, which is invaluable information.
Rebecca: Tell us about your newest feature, The Cure. What’s the premise? What sparked the idea?
Ashley: In The Cure, teenager Bailey Cole develops a chronic brain condition that will lead to insanity and death within a matter of months. Trying to avoid being institutionalized for the rest of her life, Bailey, her mother, brother and dog move into a new house closer to the hospital.
In this house, Bailey discovers a full lab in the basement and becomes subject to a host of inexplicable encounters. She's given a spinal tap in midair by an invisible force, she's almost boiled alive in the bathtub, and her beloved therapy dog, Sid, mysteriously goes missing. With her brother speaking to little ghost girls in the attic and her mother losing her grip on reality due to grief, Bailey, with help from a visiting nurse, must figure out who and what used to live in that house and how to save her family, all while deciding whether or not to save herself.
A reader told me it reads like Get Out meets The Haunting of Hill House, with a dash of Hereditary. Another reader likened it to horror with the relationships of The Goonies, which makes me happy, because I was trying to strike a balance between scary, serious, and fun.
To me, the best movies, and the best horror movies, are about great characters, because if you don't care about the characters, what happens to them is inconsequential. I tried very hard to develop the relationships in this movie—the relationships between mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, parents and their sick children, parents and their ignored healthy children, nurses and patients, grieving spouses and their deceased loves, and girls and their dogs. It's a paranormal horror movie grounded in family.
I'm a member of the Hanover Democratic Committee and a few years ago, we had a coffee social in a very historic pre-Civil War era house in my area called Shrubbery Hill. The homeowner had several amazing stories about the history of the house, but I grabbed on to one about finding the remnants of a lab in her very old basement when they first moved in, and how that upset her young children.
That triggered in me the idea of a family moving into a house, and finding the lab in the basement and the paranormal force behind it. Sid, the dog in the movie, is based on my real dog Sidney, who I moved back to VA to take care of in 2016, and who passed in 2017. Bailey and her illness came from reading about a childhood autoimmune reaction to a bacterial infection and how hard it can be to diagnose, and how it can change a child's behavior, seemingly overnight.
Rebecca: What was your writing process like for The Cure? Are you a ‘planner’ or a ‘pantser’ [fly by the seat of your pants] when it comes to outlining and writing?
Ashley: I’m a "pantser" first, and then I plan. A few years back, the hardest part was getting that first draft out, or even worse, just rewriting for the first ten pages over and over for months on end. But I have a method now that's totally gotten me out of that, and I hope it'll be helpful for other writers as well.
I write something first, the barf draft, usually about 70-90 pages, so I at least have something to work with other than a blank page. And the point of that is that I never, ever go back and edit during this draft. I just write it and keep going. No editing. Even if I change a character name halfway through, even if a character dies and then five pages later they come walking through the door, it doesn't matter. I do that until I come to some kind of natural end.
If I really need to alert myself to something, I'll put an asterisk and write a note, but I never change it. And from there, I go through a multilayered outline process, which turns it into a good, usable script. Finding this process took time, but it really works for me now, and I can speed it up or slow it down, depending on the deadline situation.
Rebecca: What inspires you to work in the horror genre? Do you want to focus on horror or branch out into other genres as well?
Ashley: I've always loved the movie Scream. It was definitely the first movie I remember studying from a filmmaking standpoint and going, "Hey, someone wrote this and directed this, and I want to learn more about them and how they did that." My appreciation of the horror genre has a slightly softer angle, like the Scream franchise, Get Out, Heredity, The Others, and What Lies Beneath.
I like to describe my movie, The Cure, as a horror movie with the family dynamics of Schitt's Creek. And I think the movies listed above also have that element. I would also put Return to Oz and the original The Witches in the horror genre, and I think it's time for children's horror to make a comeback. I could see Guillermo del Toro bringing back children's horror, and I would be more than happy to assist him in that endeavor.
As for exploring other genres, I'm currently writing an action movie right now that's a little Marathon Man, a little High Noon, and a dab of Little Miss Sunshine. So it's more action than horror for sure, but if you look at Marathon Man, for instance, the lead character gets tortured by a Nazi dentist, which sounds horrible to me. So I think a little bit of horror can pop up in different genres. But if, for instance, I decide to write a holiday movie, I will, more than likely, tone down those elements. But you never know. The Netflix Christmas movies could take a very dark turn this year!
Rebecca: How have you been getting The Cure out? What are some ways you’ve found screenwriters can break in remotely and/or outside of LA?
Ashley: Well, first of all, I am not throwing away my shot. I appreciate and take advantage of all opportunities, including the one I have now! The Cure is doing great, and I’m currently using its success to help secure a production company and representation.
Beyond that, I've been doing a little bit of column A [networking] and a little bit of column B [self-submitting] for The Cure. I send it to friends and connections in LA, but I always try to ask myself why I'm sending it to that person. Do I want notes? Do I want them to read it with the hopes they'll pass it on to a producer? A director? An agent? I think just sending your script to someone with no specific intention can be tough on both of you.
And in regards to column B, I also use services like Inktip, ISA [International Screenwriter’s Association], and Virtual PitchFest, which let you pay money to pitch to certain producers and managers. I think those are good services, and I discussed them with friends before I used them to make sure they were legit. My tip would be to work hard on your logline, synopsis, and pitch paragraph because for nearly all of these services, people are responding to those three things first.
Of course, also have your script as tight as you can before you start, because you want it ready if someone responds positively to your pitch. Be specific and watch yourself financially. A lot of these services are $10 a month, or $10 a pitch, which I find reasonable, but as soon as you get into the multi-hundred dollar range, you need to be really careful. If a service is charging 200, 350 dollars for a pitch, you should do a ton of research before you agree to something like that.
And the same goes for contests. I think script contests can be great because if you win or place in them, you can attach those accolades to your name and your script, which is super helpful if you're new. However, applying to every script contest that will take you year after year is not a great idea. A contest win from an unknown script competition is most likely not going to get you a lot of attention, and these contests aren't free. Be discerning.
For last year, I decided I was going to apply to ten competitions, which included the Academy Nicholl Fellowship, the New Orleans Horror Film Festival, and the New York Horror Film Festival. I tried to be genre specific, and went for competitions with big locations in their names, because it's more likely to catch people's eye than a contest they haven't heard of. And, of course, always focus on the contests that award money for first or second place.
Script contests are like mustard. They can add a lot, but they shouldn't be the whole meal.
Rebecca: What advice would you give to screenwriters trying to break in, especially from outside of LA, and especially during these trying times as we wait eagerly for things to get back to normal?
Ashley: It's helpful to spend at least a little time in LA. So when the world has calmed, and traveling/moving is safe, I say start saving and get a little LA time in, since it's essentially the epicenter of your chosen industry. And this applies to other industries as well, not just entertainment. If you wanted to work on Wall Street, you would have to move to New York, there's just no way around it. And the same goes for TV writing. TV writing is done 99% of the time in LA. So if that's what you want to do, there's a location commitment. A film writer has a lot more freedom in regards to location.
For people that simply can't (or don’t want to) move to LA, I would say to get involved in as many Facebook and social media screenwriters and entertainment industry groups as you can. Develop relationships with people in LA, and plan a trip to LA for a week, to at least dip your toe in the water.
Make a website. It will make your life better in the long run to have all of your work compiled together, and it's much easier to ask people to look at a website than it is to ask them to read a script. Have a visual representation of your script on the website as well as a description, and if they're interested in reading the script, they can contact you. 75% of this industry is selling yourself, and a website is a cheap, easy way to do that. I resisted doing a website for a long time, but I'm so glad I have one now.
In terms of screenwriting pandemic tips: get some exercise every day, ideally outside, but if not, walking back and forth in your living room. Eat as healthy as you can and drink water, because I know my attention span and ability to write anything goes way down when I neglect my physical and mental health. Try to put writing time, and exactly what you want to accomplish that day, on the calendar, because it makes it an actionable task.
I really enjoy the virtual work partner website Focusmate. Try to put aside 30 min a day at least for writing. More is ideal, but start where you're able. Putting aside a little bit of time on your calendar is helpful, because just getting up and declaring "today is the day I'm gonna write" has never worked for me.
Do what's best for you and your process. If you can't bring yourself to write today, try reading a script from a movie you love. I do that when I've gotten to the end of my writing time, and I'm starting to tap out.
Maybe not right now, but if you can, find a day job that doesn't take up too much time, and that you enjoy. When I first moved back to the East Coast, I was a substitute teacher, and while it didn't pay a lot, the hours were great, I enjoyed the kids, and I could write during my lunch break.
And most of all, be patient. When your script is ready, reach out to people, but don't put heavy expectations on every response. You're gonna get a lot of "no's" and "maybes," and truly a lot of people aren't going to respond at all. Pestering them is not going to change the outcome. Any response to your work is not a reflection on you as an individual. Being a fully-funded professional screenwriter or a professional creative is a long process, so please don't stress if you haven't hit it big in 6 months or even 6 years. Take your time and keep going!
Learn more about Ashley, and read more about The Cure and her other work at: AshleyRHall.com.