Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell
“For years I had an image in my head of a woman sitting alone at a bar, nursing a drink, wearing a straw Stetson-like hat and jeans. She was middle-aged and still working out the terms of her life. She had lost a son, but I wasn’t sure how. This woman eventually became Darcy Baylor, and her story became Strange Weather.”
A July heat wave in New York City served as a fortuitous backdrop for meeting with writer and director Katherine Dieckmann to talk about her latest feature film Strange Weather.
Dieckmann began her career as a journalist, writing for such publications as Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Film Comment, Vogue and The New York Times Book Review, before going on to direct music videos for bands including R.E.M., Aimee Mann, Wilco, Everything but the Girl and Vic Chesnutt. Dieckmann was the originating director on the groundbreaking live action Nickelodeon serial, The Adventures of Pete & Pete. Dieckmann’s films include Motherhood, Diggers and A Good Baby,which was developed at the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriting and Directing labs. Dieckmann is an Associate Professor at Columbia University’s graduate School of the Arts Film Program, and a Creative Advisor for the Sundance Institute.
ABOUT STRANGE WEATHER
Strange Weather tracks an uncompromising woman (Holly Hunter) as she embarks on a trip through the south with her best friend (Carrie Coon) to uncover the truth about the one event in her life that she can’t get over. As the two women traverse a part of the country afflicted by drought and flood, a climate every bit as uncertain as Darcy’s emotional one, each stop on the road becomes a key step in Darcy’s process of overcoming, giving her a new way to think about her past, and how to transform it into a different kind of future.
We began our talk discussing her influences for this film. Citing female-driven regional indies, which included Winter’s Bone directed by Debra Granik and Frozen River directed by Courtney Hunt, to Wim Wenders’ road movies.
DIECKMANN: Granik and Hunt are women who made singular regional movies with a female character at the center of the film; I loved the tone of the films. My Digger’s cinematographer shot Debra’s film. I know people who were involved in both films. As for Wim Wenders, I was a journalist in my early 20s, and I interviewed him about Paris, Texas when I was 23 or so, and those films had a huge effect on me. I saw Wenders’ films again at a retrospective at MoMA a couple of years back and we had Paris Texas on our minds.
It really was a fusion of my passion for southern literature and southern photography. I was an English major at Vassar, and I received my masters in Literature from NYU. Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and Walker Evans, among others, had an impact on me with this film.
KOUGUELL: You didn’t have a formal education in filmmaking.
DIECKMANN: I took one 16 mm class at Cornell when I was 16.
I became friends with R.E.M’s Michael Stipe when I interviewed him for an article. He gave me a music video to direct; that was the nicest gift a friend could give you. It was an incredible way to enter into the world of making images to have that support from somebody. He could tell I was a frustrated journalist. When I started out as a journalist, Elle magazine sent me to Berlin to interview Wim Wenders, but that type of support was ending for glossy magazines and Michael could tell I was frustrated because pieces were shrinking and becoming more celebrity focused. Michael and I had the same type of taste in film.
KOUGUELL: What was the timeline from writing the script to going into production?
DIECKMANN: I wrote the script about five summers ago. We attached Holly and it took a while to get the money; my producers were tenacious and dedicated. It was probably four years from writing to directing.
KOUGUELL: This film was largely made by women and you mentioned that your producers Jana Edelbaum and Rachel Cohen supported your vision every step of the way.
DIECKMANN: I didn’t set out to make it so female heavy. I ended up hiring a male DP; David Rush Morrison was sensitive and the eye that I wanted, which was more important than his gender. But yes, I love giving women work.
KOUGUELL: Strange Weather is a character-driven story. Holly Hunter’s character is very specific, relatable, empathetic, and often surprising. Was there a particular process in writing that you use to find your characters’ voices?
DIECKMANN: I have a lot of close southern girlfriends and actually this connects to my R.E.M. relationship. When I became friends with that band, I started spending a lot of time in Georgia. There is a certain cultural thing that I was interested in; how these women speak to each other and deal with each other was of enormous interest to me, the humor and the slang, and just that way of being with each other.
The characters were super clear to me from the beginning. I know Darcy would say this and Byrd would say that. The character of Mary Lou was bizarre – it was like I was channeling her.
Callie Khouri, one of my advisors at Sundance Lab, was saying how the characters of Thelma and Louise arrived to her in that way. She woke up one morning and she knew exactly what type of toothpaste these two characters would use. When you’re a writer sometimes that happens, and when that happens it’s the luckiest moment in the universe because it makes your job so much easier; you’re just channeling.
KOUGUELL: What suggestions do you give your Columbia students about writing characters?
DIECKMANN: I give them a 40 character questions worksheet, which stems from Frank Daniel the founder of the Columbia Screenwriting Program, and then different colleagues of mine have modified it over the years. There are also exercises to do to get to know your character inside – the psyche of your character. One thing I often critique in their scripts is ‘You’re not in the scene because that character was last seen standing by the counter and now he’s sitting at a table, so how did they get from A to B.? You’re not with your character’s physical space. So, I say, be an actor in your own scene, and act it. I do that too when I’m writing. I ask: Where am I in this space? Where are the other people in this space? Is it hot in the room? Am I uncomfortable? Am I hungry? Try to be as an actor would be in that situation and I think that really helps to write more authentically in terms of what characters might say or do.
KOUGUELL: What about structure?
DIECKMANN: I’m really into structure because if you really have structure in your bloodstream it’s actually liberating then you don’t have to think about it too much. When I teach I spend an enormous time on structure.
I teach the film ‘IDA’ for the sequences. (Directed by Pawe? Pawlikowski and written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz.) It’s hyper composed. If you break down the film, you’ll find eight masterful sequences.
KOUGUELL: Did you stay close to the script, was there improvisation?
DIECKMANN: Holly loved the script and had the entire script committed to memory. She had such an intent keen interest in the dialogue. There wasn’t much improvisation, not because I’m controlling, but because the actors wanted to stick close to it.
KOUGUELL: Sadly, Glenne Headly passed away last month. She gave a tremendous performance.
DIECKMANN: Glenne was a very deep thinking actor who really wanted to interrogate text on every level. I loved the chemistry between Glenne, Holly and Carrie Coon.
KOUGUELL: What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters who are setting out on this journey?
DIECKMANN: Writing about something you’re passionate about even if it does not seem ‘marketable’ is the best thing to do. I think a lot of writers starting out try to calculate to the market, but you can’t control whether the world is going to pay attention to it. Write something that you really believe in, that’s your strength. I always tell my writers to write to their particular and personal strength, and passion. I teach a year-long class and sometimes students come in with two ideas and I say, pitch them both, and it’s completely clear what someone is invested in. Write to your investment and don’t worry if it’s fashionable. Look at Moonlight – who would have predicted how great that such a singular voice completely uncalculated to the market broke through like that. To me, that’s what every writer should do.
Strange Weather opens in theaters on July 28.
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