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WRITERS ON BREAKING IN: Screenwriter Christie LeBlanc

Before her film O2, starring Anne Hathaway, goes into production this fall, Script interviewed Christie LeBlanc about being a screenwriter and breaking in outside of L.A.

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When Canadian screenwriter Christie LeBlanc heard that Anne Hathaway was attached to her script O2, she says it didn’t feel real.

“I was in total speechless shock,” she says. “It wasn't until about two in the morning that it finally set in... and I started laughing. The laugh 'til you cry type. And I couldn't stop for twenty minutes.”

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LeBlanc, who hails from the city of Gatineau, Quebec describes herself as “a nobody from nowhere” before she broke into the film industry with O2, a contained sci-fi thriller about a woman who wakes up inside a cryogenic chamber with no memory of how she got there. The main protagonist, Charlie, must escape the chamber before her air runs out.

Although LeBlanc’s intention in college was to pursue a law degree, she quickly realized her personality didn’t jive with being a lawyer and switched to English.

“It took me longer to realize my expensive education was just a way for me to avoid taking the leap and doing what I really wanted to do,” she says. Write.

As a single mother struggling to survive, LeBlanc made ends meet as a freelance copywriter while writing screenplays any chance she got. After taking various online screenwriting courses and workshops, she says ultimately the best education came from “reading and dissecting a massive number of scripts, and seeking out a very close peer group of writers whose work I respected and whose notes I trusted. And, of course, lots of writing.”

Last summer, LeBlanc queried Echo Lake Entertainment managers, Adam Riback and James Engle, about O2. A week later, they had their first meeting about the script which went on to place eighth on the Blacklist and Tracking Board’s Hit List last year.

Adam says Christie’s query was “pretty perfect.”

"I think it started off with 'Dear Mr. Riback, a young woman wakes in a cryogenic pod – alone, with no memory and no way out.' Immediately I’m hooked,” he explains. "It was succinct. It ended a line or two later with 'This is O2, a contained sci-fi thriller.’"

"Contained sci-fi is a genre that creatively aligns with what James and I are looking for. Within a week, James and I had both read the script, fallen in love with the project and signed Christie as a client. I think the takeaway from this story for other writers is that a good query letter can get you read, but the script itself needs to be a level far above the rest for it to go the distance."

O2 marks LeBlanc’s feature film debut. IM Global is financing the $10 million project and CAA is representing domestic rights. No director is currently attached.

Before O2 goes into production this fall, Script magazine interviewed fellow Story Broad LeBlanc about being a screenwriter and breaking in.

Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

First off, congrats on your success. Time to kick back and relax, right? (I’ll admit, I’m leading the question. Your manager announced, “Now, the work begins.”)

Thank you very much. I'm chuckling about the kicking back and relaxing bit. It's true, now the work really begins. The way I see it, O2 has gotten me in the race. The trick is to go the distance by doing everything I can to turn my recent success into a long career.

What’s O2’s timeline?

I started playing with the basic concept for O2 in early 2016. When the idea was fully baked, it was a frenzy of writing – two weeks of obsessive outlining, followed by a month of crazy writing. I then re-wrote it in just a few days. It was the fastest thing I’d ever written. Prior to coming up with O2, I had spent a few months brainstorming contained script ideas, and was actively searching for a strong concept, and was bashing my head against the wall in frustration. Add to that, my life situation had me feeling very boxed in with no options... see where I'm going with this? The concept hit me like the universe smacking me in the head. The answer was simple. Put her in a box. Charlie was very much me, trapped, and struggling to survive, and the story just poured out.

Echo Lake read it last summer, and I signed with them that August. I signed with CAA a month later, and Adam and James came on as producers last fall. Then, we got Anne Hathaway.

Writing a compelling, meaningful, and entertaining story confined to a controlled environment isn’t easy. What inspired O2?

As I mentioned, I had been actively searching for a contained concept, and I was feeling pretty boxed in by life. And in late 2015, I contracted something called viral labyrinthitis. One moment I was fine, the next I was completely deaf, and couldn't walk without falling over. I thought I was having a stroke. For six weeks, I was the sickest I had ever been in my life, and it took several months for my hearing to return to normal. During that time, it felt like I was living in a fishbowl. I was cut off from the world. I had no sense of direction without sound, and my anxiety was off the charts. I brought that sense of dread and panic and isolation to drafting O2. It was like the universe made me sick because the experience was exactly what I needed to bring all the elements together. I dove into crafting the script while I was still recovering, and wrote much of it lying clothed in an empty bathtub to maintain the feeling of total isolation in an enclosed space.

What advice do have to aspiring screenwriters writing the contained thriller?

I'm not sure I'm an expert, but I can tell you what worked for me. A contained environment runs the risk of being static, so to avoid this, I focused on raising all of the other elements: the tension, the character, the twists. I had to elevate these as high as they could go to keep the audience glued to their seats. I also approached the environment itself as a character, in this case, the antagonist, and gave it its own arc, and I'd like to think, personality.

Script EXTRA: Writing the Contained Script (and Not Just Thrillers!)

What themes does O2 explore?

It asks how far one would go to survive the impossible, and explores what makes us truly us. I think it will resonate, especially with women, because we often fall into defining ourselves by environment and circumstances. We do what needs to be done and are defined by that, but we are so much more, and the struggle to own and integrate that part of ourselves is very real.

What kind of person is your main character, Charlie?

She's brilliant with a strong sense of self, even though she has no idea who she is. And she's painfully vulnerable. She's been stripped of everything; her identity, her experience, her life. And without these, must find her core, or her situation will not only define her, but kill her.

Screenwriters often struggle with using flashbacks. Does O2 use flashbacks to reveal backstory? If it does, how did you find a careful balance between past and present?

The danger with flashbacks, especially in a contained thriller, is that they're tension killers, and I needed to keep the audience trapped in that tank right along with Charlie. If the tension lets up, the audience loses the thrill of the experience. For now, that’s probably all I should say about it, but I guess we’ll let the audience decide!

It takes a lot of nerve to send an unsolicited script to Echo Lake, especially when screenwriters have it drilled into their heads not to. How did you do it? 

I'm not sure I'd say it takes nerve. Managers are always looking for good talent, and writers send mountains of queries to them everyday. The best way in is through the front door. And with no connections, and no L.A. address, the front door was the only way in for me, but I needed good material. With O2, I was pretty confidant I had a shot. I knew my craft was at a high enough level, and I believed in the concept, enough that I was going to beg, borrow, and steal to make it myself on a shoestring if I couldn't set it up. So, I planned a query campaign.

First and foremost, I did my research. I scoured script sales over the past five years and made a list of which reps set up scripts in my genre. I then researched the hell out of them, and found out everything I could. I sought out word-of-mouth in my writing circles, and narrowed the list down to a handful that I wanted to work with. It was a very targeted query campaign. Adam, at Echo Lake, responded with a read request, and I sent him my script. The rest is, as they say, history.

Did your team of reps include you in the development and attachment process?

My reps have been amazing at keeping me in the loop from day one. I talk to them so much, I'm starting to think I need to invite them to holiday family dinners. I've never felt excluded, but honestly, for the most part, I could see I was in very good hands, so I just sat back and watched in awe as this well-oiled team put this project together.

Could your success have happened if you lived on the East Coast or abroad?

Absolutely. I still live out of the country. I think it boiled down to a wild combination of having good material, connecting with people who believed in it, and good old-fashioned luck.

According to research by Scott Myers (Go Into the Story), the percentage of female writers involved in spec script deals from 2014-2016 is 15% (compared to 13% in previous years). Not only are the odds against new writers but chances of a female writer getting noticed is even slimmer. 

The numbers are discouraging. I knew my chances were slim. I did it anyway.

I think the saying 'fortune favors the bold' is absolutely true. And unfortunately, we live in a society that does not encourage women to be bold in any way, shape, or form. From birth, we're told that bold women are bitches; bold women are unladylike; bold women are unwanted. So, our default setting is to avoid boldness at all costs. I struggled with this for years. So, how did I break in? I was bold.

When and how did you get interested in screenwriting?

It was a long and winding road. I've been writing since I was a kid. Writing was my happy place. It was my escape, and my way of figuring out the big questions in life, but I didn't have the guts to even consider a life in the arts. I chose the safe route, and spent a long time denying my calling. I even gave it up entirely for a while, but I always came back to it. And it saved my life. I wrote my way out of an abusive marriage. I found my voice. Alone, with two kids, and no longer willing to compromise my need to write, I started freelance copywriting to survive. It kept me writing, and allowed me to stay home with my kids. And the fuzzy fantasy daydreams of how cool it would be to one day try to write movies morphed into, "I'm going to write movies."

Script EXTRA: The 'Magic Trick' to Selling Your Screenplay

How many screenplays did you write before getting to this point? Are you a genre-dabbler or a specific genre writer?

I have a few what I call 'learner scripts' tucked away in my desk drawer, scripts I cut my teeth on while learning the craft. I definitely fall into the genre realm – thriller, sci-fi, action, these are things I lean towards because they're the films I love. And the best of these bring in elements of other genres – the depth of emotion from dramas, the comedic lines delivered at the height of tension right when the audience needs it most.

You’re a Story Broad. What other writing communities do you belong to? How has that helped you, if at all?

I belong to several online writing communities, some big and fairly easy to access, and some very small and private. Honestly, finding my peer group was the best thing I ever did. Learning from each other and pushing each other, it was a safe place where you could trust opinions, celebrate successes, and learn from each other's setbacks. I learned far more getting brutal notes from trusted readers, and reading and giving notes on their scripts in return, than I did anywhere else.

When did you start your blog, The Single Screenwriter?

I started it back when I was first learning the craft. It was an outlet to connect with other writers, keep me focused and writing, and at the same time share my thoughts and observations as I tried to figure out the best way in.

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Your blog posts have a really strong point of view and voice. How important is it for screenwriters to share and/or practice their voice and/or POV, especially publicly?

As a writer, voice is all you’ve got. You don’t need to be shouting it from the mountaintops, but you need to use it. It's like a muscle. It gets stronger and more impressive the more you use it, so use it as much as you can, as often as you can, where and whenever you can.

What stories excite you?

I admit it, I'm a blockbuster girl. Give me a body count and big FX, and I'm in my happy place. But the stories that light my soul on fire, they go way beyond that. They grip you by the heart and resonate on a much deeper level, staying with you long after the popcorn is gone. Those are the type of stories I love, and those are the type I want to create.

How do you juggle working, being a single mother, and writing?

Sometimes balls get dropped. It's not pretty. My house is a disaster, we eat way too much take-out, and it's a good day if I remember to comb my hair. I gave up trying to "do it all" a long time ago. It came down to priorities. I had to make writing a priority, which meant some stuff had to go. I haven't dated in ages, I freelanced so I could control my schedule, and my car is a clunker. These were all conscious choices, with the goal of building a writing career. And my kids clearly had to be a priority, which meant that I got very good at writing in my car at soccer practices, or in the bathtub, or while making dinner, as well as writing late into the night. It's amazing how much you can get done in ten or fifteen minute spurts when you have to.

Script EXTRA: Why You Don't Need Big Blocks of Time to Write

What’s one surprising fact about you?

I'm a terrible speller. As a Canadian writing for a US market, I'm influenced by the British spelling and tend to stick extra 'u's in all over the place, but I'm also influenced by the French and mix up 'er' and 're'. I have to triple and quadruple check everything I write, to the point that I sometimes find myself staring at a word, having absolutely no idea how to spell it correctly for any language or market.

What might be the biggest surprise on how the industry actually works as compared to how you thought it worked?

The biggest surprise for me was that Hollywood isn't a fortress designed to keep people out, as every screenwriting message-board leads writers to believe. Visit any one of them and you'll find people discussing tricks to get around gatekeepers, genre trends you need to follow, wild suggestions on how to get your script noticed, etc. There are no tricks, and there is no great conspiracy to keep good writers out. From my limited experience, Hollywood is full of people like us, who are passionate about movies and just want to make some amazing stuff. There's no secret handshake to get to the front of the line. Breaking in is not the hard part. Creating work that excites and inspires people is the real challenge. The rest will come.

What are some things you wish you knew earlier in your career that you know now?

It's a funny question, because even though I spent a long time busting my ass to get to this point, my career is really just starting. The one thing I wish I had known earlier is that there is no one right way to do anything. All the books, all the gurus, they all claim to have the answers, but I'm living proof that the rules are nothing more than guidelines, and you have to find what works for your story and your career – and to hell with the rules. O2 has two sluglines in the entire script. If I had listened to the rules, I wouldn't have dared to write it. I don't live in L.A. I've never even been there. If I had listened to the gurus saying you have to move to L.A. to break in, I would have given up because my circumstances didn't allow for a move. The problem is, when I was starting out, I did listen, and didn't take risks. I let those voices overpower my own.

Script EXTRA: Which Screenwriting Experts Should You Believe?

What writing project are you working on now?

I'm working on a dystopian sci-fi spec, and I'm neck deep into a first draft of an original idea I just sold to a studio.

Where do you see yourself in five years? Directing?

Out on a date, I hope.

I'd love to direct! But in the short term, my goal is to write a few really strong scripts and get them into production, then maybe get onto one of my future projects as a producer.

Final question: does Charlie make it out alive?

You'll have to pony up the price of admission to find out! Support women writers!

LeBlanc is repped by Adam Riback and James Engle at Echo Lake Entertainment and Creative Artists Agency. Follow her on Twitter: @thatScriptChick

More articles and interviews by Natalia Megas