Skip to main content

INTERVIEW: Q&A with Kara Holden Screenwriter of 'Carrie Pilby'

Script talks with screenwriter Kara Holden whose adaptation of the popular novel 'Carrie Pilby' just wrapped production, and 'Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life' opens later this year.

Denny Schnulo began his writing career at age eleven with the release of his first collection of poems to the kids on the school playground. Believing that first hand reports are always best, he spent his early adult years living and working throughout the world. His writing today is informed by people he met and things they did together. Follow Denny on Twitter: @DennySchnulo

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

Kara Holden has written scripts for nearly every studio in Hollywood. Her adaptation of the popular novel Carrie Pilby wrapped production in New York in January (peek behind the scenes on the movie's site). The comedy-drama stars Bel Powley, Vanessa Baer, Jason Ritter, Nathan Lane, William Moseley and Gabriel Byrne.

INTERVIEW: Q&A with Screenwriter of 'Carrie Pilby' Kara Holden by Denny Schnulo | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

She also has Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life opening later this year by CBS Films. The film stars Lauren Graham, Adam Pally and Rob Riggle.

She has completed writing the comedy, Home School for Warner Bros and is currently writing an animated film for producer Brett Ratner and director Chris McKay called The Yeggs and the Yahbuts, and is also currently writing Long Shot: The Kevin Laue Story for WWE Films.

Script caught up with Kara recently to talk about her career and the big year she’s having.

Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Script: You have two films coming out this year, is that common or a lot for you at one time?

Kara: That is a lot for me. It’s a pretty exciting year for me, definitely. I think most people that have been screenwriters for some time equate it to baseball, if you hit three out of ten you’re a hall of famer. It’s a little bit like that that, I think for every ten or so scripts I write there’s a movie that gets made. It’s an interesting world where a lot of what you do never gets seen and your parents are always asking, “What is it you do?” So this is a very exciting time for sure.

Script: The various scripts you’ve done span several genres but the conventional wisdom that’s taught is stick with one if you want to be taken seriously. Obviously you’ve been taken seriously in several genres, are you an exception?

Kara: It’s interesting. I think at the beginning of my career they tried to say you should be the comedy adventure girl. Then the opportunity to Soul Surfer came around, so then I became the go-to inspirational-sports-movie girl, which I still am. I actually just finished a movie called Long Shots which is an inspirational sports movie, so if I had a genre that might be it. Thankfully I have been able to, if I have a lot of passion when I go in there, do other things.

I guess the connecting fiber is that I’ve done a lot of adaptations. I’ve done pretty well at adapting books and novels. Thankfully that skill works in different genres of novels so I’ve been able to get to the different movies. I classify most of them as family friendly. That’s not totally true, Carrie Pilby is more of a young adult and then we have Middle School (The Worst Years of My Life), so I guess I’m sort of all over the place.

Agents and managers might try and say you need to stick with one thing in the very beginning. I will say for a couple years I did fit into this comedy adventure role and then I branched out from there.

Script: Talking about your adaptations, you’ve done quite a few. What’s been the key to your success with them?

Kara: I really take the novels that I wish I’d written. So I feel a real kinship with the material. But I think it’s really important, like in golf, where they talk about holding the club like a baby bird and don’t crush it. You think in terms of "how do we make this visual?" In a novel, the author may not have that at the forefront of their mind and not be thinking as much in the visual world, whereas in cinema, everything is about what’s up on that screen. So quite often that’s how it starts.

Carrie Pilby, is a novel I adapted and was made this year that I’m very proud of. But much of it is in her head, and I thought how do we get this out of her head? Who can she be talking to, what can we see that’s a visual representation of this list she’s working on? So those sort of things will inform, first off, where I go and how we can make it something visual. Also a lot of times there’s such a specific structure with screenplays and most novels have a loose structure so you really have to get to the core of what’s important and put it in a structure that makes sense for the screen.

I do enjoy it, I really like having source material, its great fun trying to imagine the things in the material. Then there’s this feeling quite often when you read a book or maybe it’s just me, but sometimes I think oh, that was perfect but I would have loved to see this moment at the end. It’s kind of fun when you get to bring that in; you get to be the hindsight for the novel a little bit.

Script: Of all the scripts you’ve done, do you have a personal favorite?

Kara: I would have to say…yeah…I think the Carrie Pilby is probably the closest to me and the closest to my heart, I always loved John Hughes growing up. It feels like my attempt to do a grounded but funny, realistic look at being a young adult. I always loved Salinger growing up, so I call this my female Catcher in the Rye.

I also say Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life is probably the most fun I’ve ever had writing something. It’s also coming out this year. I had so much fun tapping into the prank part of my personality and really working with the team involved, Steve Carr, the Director, is incredibly collaborative and so encouraging that I had a lot of fun writing that. I think I was able to put some real heart into the story -- which is important to me to always balance humor with heart. I really enjoyed that part of the Middle School script. These two that are coming out are definitely a joy to me.

Then of course there’s that one that hasn’t made its way yet but is still in my heart, and I hold onto in the hope that it will find its way to the screen someday. One of those precious projects that I wrote kind of for myself, and I’m hoping will one day find its audience. I’ve been working on it for a couple of years, it’s an original idea, and it’s meant a lot to me. I’m actually toying with the idea of doing a little bit of a rewrite on my own to change it. The characters as they are now are a male and a female lead, and I was thinking about making them both female leads. With so many wonderful female actresses and comedians coming up right now, I think it could be fun and that might make a difference in getting it made.

I have a bio pic passion project that I love that I haven’t even written yet. I think probably every writer has these ones that you hold onto, that are there under the surface that you hope will maybe bubble up someday.

Script: Let’s go back to your Middle School film. You said you had a lot of fun getting in touch with your inner prankster. I have two boys in Middle School; do I want them to see this film or might they get ideas?

Kara: (Laughs heartily) That’s awesome, you get to see it firsthand. I actually had a lot of fun thinking in visual pranks. Some pranks could be funny but not so fun to see on the screen. So I spent a lot of time working on what might be something that would wow you to just see it.

I have a nephew who is in middle school named Eston who actually got a few lines in the movie. He did an awesome job and he helped me throughout to say ah, that’s a little too cheesy or yeah that’s cool. It’s good to have some real live experience when writing a kids movie.

Script: They do have opinions, don’t they?

Kara: They do, and they don’t hold back. Even my ten-year-old niece certainly does not hold back on her very real opinions (laughs) about ideas. That’s why I like to run things past them. I’ve been working on a children’s novel for a little while, and they’ve been along for the process, which is always fun.

So yeah, the pranks thing, I would have called myself a bit of a goodie-two-shoes in school with hidden aspirations to be brave enough to pull pranks. I guess I got to live a little vicariously through the characters in the Middle School film.

Script: Is there a unique aspect to writing a tween movie? I think you might have just touched on it.

Kara: I do think it’s important to listen, to get around it. I’ve actually gone undercover a few years ago at a high school when I was doing a high school movie. You listen to language and specifics and get real opinions from real kids and also it’s important to just remember. Sometimes I just sit and remember, like what do I wish I would have said? Or what do I wish I would have done? Now I sort of get the chance to do that in my writing.

If you think about it hard enough Middle School is a pretty vivid time in your life. Most people have some real memories or some real things they wish they could have changed or done. It’s cool to tap into that part and kind of live it and put it out there in the hopes you can make things a little easier for the next generation maybe. To realize they’re not alone, everyone has a bit of a rough time in Middle School, but there are fun parts of it to which is important to remember too.

Script: What’s the difference between working on an animated film versus a live action project?

Kara: I’m actually working on my first animated project right now -- The Yeggs and the Yahbuts. It is a different process in that live action I’ve found once you sell the pitch or get the job as a writer, you kind of get to go off alone and write what you want to write and then you bring it back, and we work on from there. With animated I noticed, so far, it’s a lot more hands on and collaborative up front. The producers and everyone are weighing in along the way because it a longer process, and there’s a lot of world building. You have to be very specific about how everything looks so you can inform the animators. It’s definitely a more collaborative process.

It’s been very interesting for me to adapt to because I’m used to being one of those solitary figures, I mean I’m a collaborative person but I usually do my writing on my own, then bring it in, get the notes and do the rewriting. It’s a new challenge for me to open up and involve more people in my process.

Script: Who came up with the title The Yeggs and the Yahbuts?

Kara: Isn’t that fun? It’s actually based on an obscure children’s book from the 1960’s. Maybe obscure is not the right word, but a little-known novel that’s a lot of fun, kind of in the way that most people didn’t know the Shrek novel before it became the movie. The Yeggs and the Yahbuts are sort of cuter, friendlier Minions.

The producer brought it to me because it was one of her favorite books growing up. So this has been her passion project. They had been looking for someone, and I love the title, like you, and there’s a really great message in it. I think that’s fun about animation; that there’s always a theme and a message that you get to wrap up in all the fun stuff. This is no exception. It’s going to be really funny, but there is a core message about the importance of getting along; it’s not always us versus them. Especially now in our current climate, I think that’s kind of important.

Script: Let’s change direction a bit from all the wonderful stuff you have going on currently and look back a little. Is there a script you’d like a do-over on?

Kara: Oh yeah, definitely. I’d say my first script that was produced called Meant to Be. It actually was never released in America. I had to get a friend who lives in Sweden to go and buy a DVD for me and ship it to me. It was produced by a company in Brussels, and they filmed it Puerto Rico. It’s very beautifully filmed, but I was pretty young and green. I didn’t realize some of the ways to make it as tight as I would like. It could have taken a couple more passes, I think. There were few times I'd watch and say oh, so close.

As you grow and change you see things you might have done a little differently. But that’s just part of life and growing.

Script: Is there an interesting story behind how that script ended up being produced out of Brussels and filmed in Puerto Rico?

Kara: I guess sort of interesting. I had written the script and a lot of people really loved it. It was about a Guardian Angel that fell in love with the girl he was supposed to be guarding. So he’s trying to decide if he wants to give it all up for her. It’s a little bit of a comedic version of Wings.

I wrote the script, and it got a lot of great attention and got me a ton of meetings, I wrote it on spec, and a lot of people really loved it, which was exciting. It was my very first spec, but it didn’t sell. Part of the reason is that at the time there was a Will Ferrell angel movie of some sort, and that was enough for some executives to give it a pass.

It sat on the shelf for a while, I got other jobs, and I was working on other things. Then I got a call from my agent, and she said, “There’s a production company that has money and wants to make a movie that’s ready to go. I thought about your script, they were looking for a romantic comedy.” So she sent the script to them, I had a meeting with the Producer, and he wanted to do it. He wanted me to come to Puerto Rico and work on it, but I was working on a different script so I wasn’t really able to. So he shot it as is. Like I said, I think it’s a good movie, I think it’s a sweet movie, but having the time to make another pass might have been nice to do.

Script: How often do you work off someone else’s concept versus your own?

Kara: Mostly, really. I do a lot of adaptations. Most of my jobs are adaptations or me making a story around a general idea that an executive has come up with. I’ve written some spec scripts of my own, but I do find it’s a little difficult to get them out there, so my bread and butter is assignment work.

A great spec can get doors open, but it leads to an assignment to do someone else’s idea. I do think it’s hard to get your own original idea produced, made, and get paid for it. It is important to write what you love and that’s how you can get noticed or recognized, so I wouldn't say don’t do it, but in the business, the biggest part of my paid job is assignment work.

(Laughs) That doesn’t stop me from trying. I’m still working on my originals.

Script: Of all the scripts you’ve done, which one inspires you the most? Which let you know you’re in the right career; that you can do this and you can be good at it?

Kara: That's a good question, hmm, I’m going to go with Carrie Pilby on that. It is what I hoped I’d be able to do all those years ago when I first branched out. I remember writing in my journal that I wanted to write characters that feel real, and movies that mattered, that made an impact. I do feel like with Carrie Pilby there’s something. I just felt “Yes, this is what I hoped for all those years ago."

INTERVIEW: Q&A with Screenwriter of 'Carrie Pilby' Kara Holden by Denny Schnulo | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

At the same time I guess it’s like children, you have, well not favorites, but there are different aspects of each one that you are really grateful for. So I would say with Middle School I felt like I was a real writer doing my job because I love being part of it with the Director, and being collaborative, going down for the table read, and becoming such a part of the whole process. The writing of it was absolutely fun, and it feels like this big cool movie that I always hoped I would do.

There’s a couple of them out there I get inspired by. Thankfully, in writing, you get inspired quite often in your work, and that gets you though the times that are not as inspiring.

Kara’s projects include the adaptation of the novel The Opposite of Love for Anne Hathaway at Fox, Zapped for The Disney Channel, starring Zendaya and Soul Surfer, starring Helen Hunt, Dennis Quaid and Anna-Sophia Robb, for Sony Pictures. Follow Kara on Twitter: @joydelightsnjoy

Get tips in novelist, TV and feature writer Christopher J. Moore's webinar
Writing TV from Inside Hollywood and Out