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Writer, Director, and VCFA MFA in Film Faculty Member Annie Howell Discusses Writing Process, Character Development

VCFA MFA in Film Assistant Director Aja Zoecklein interviews Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson about their writing process, character development, and more.

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At the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) MFA in Film, the premiere low-residency program for filmmakers and screenwriters, students are given the chance to improve their storytelling as filmmakers without putting their career on hold. And students learn from some of the best, including faculty member Annie Howell, whose co-directed and co-wrote CLAIRE IN MOTION (now available to stream on Showtime) with filmmaker Lisa Robinson.

Below, VCFA MFA in Film Assistant Director Aja Zoecklein interviews Howell and Robinson about their writing process, character development, and more. Read the full conversation on the Storyboard blog.

 Annie Howell

Annie Howell

Aja Zoecklein: What is your writing process like? How do you structure your writing as collaborators?

Annie Howell: We typically write independently, swapping and sharing ideas. For the two features, for example, we would have this really long-running text/email conversation that never stopped! (Laughs) Which is great because it's what the writer’s brain does anyway, but you are sending it off to another person. We both like having our assignments, agreeing on what that is, and then coming back together with the results.

AZ: Do you write differently knowing that you will be directing the work?

Lisa Robinson: I don't think we write differently...The script has to communicate to not just us, but to our actors and to the rest of the crew. The prep is actually the really important part because you are starting to manifest the stuff, physically: you're picking locations, costumes, actors... It's such a crucial part of the translation; it’s at that moment the writing gets pulled into the directing space.

AH: I agree—writing is writing. We probably have our producer's hat on a bit: Is this possible? Can we write for a location that we already have? But, consistently, the writing has to work first.

AZ: The characters in CLAIRE IN MOTION are so well-fleshed out. I never felt like anyone was behaving inauthentically or outside of their spectrum of responses. How do you go about writing your supporting characters?

 Lisa Robinson

Lisa Robinson

AH: For this film, it was really informed by this particular town, and also our shared knowledge of the world of academia—a lot of that world is the personal and the professional mixed together. Often it’s so challenging and difficult to understand your protagonist and to keep searching for that thread or theme. Supporting characters can often come much quicker, which helps to build that confidence in the writing. In this case the place that she is in and the people around her are just such an important part of the story…

LR: Since Annie was teaching and living [in this town] she had a lot of interesting encounters and specifics to bring to it. I brought a more abstract mental state to it, more along the lines of, what is Claire going through and what kinds of characters would trigger her or bring out parts of her psyche? Those two things combined helped create some of these character.

AZ: CLAIRE IN MOTION tells the story of a woman who is faced with the reality that, in truth, you never can know somebody entirely, and that, perhaps even more importantly, that lack of recognition extends to yourself as well. What prompted you to explore this subject matter in the way you did?

LR: We knew we wanted her to go through a tragedy and have to grapple with that uncertainty. We set out to explore a character in a place in her life where she is comfortable—she’s a little bit older, not in her 20s anymore, has a sense of who she is and what her life is going to be—and we wanted to upset that, let that run out, and see how she shifts and changes.

AH: We also had some time in the writing process to really chew on a number of different scenarios—we played quite a bit with it in terms of plot, running a lot of what-ifs. We have a strong shared value that we want our audience to have their own experience, so we weren’t going to wrap everything up neatly. The persistent interest in theme being: the not knowing of life and how that can surprise you; what you learn from it and how you might be damaged by it; and inevitably, how you have to just keep going.

To read the full interview, visit the MFA in Film blog, Storyboard. And learn more about VCFA’s MFA in Film program here. With opportunities for frequent interaction and collaboration, VCFA cultivates a real community of film practitioners working in a challenging, intense, and powerful medium.

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