Skip to main content

Constructing the Period Piece: A Talk with Writer Suzanne Allain

'Mr. Malcolm’s List' has had quite an evolution from short story to theaters. Suzanne Allain discussed that process with us recently, as well as her love for writing.
[L-R] Freida Pinto stars as “Selina Dalton” and Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù stars as “Mr. Malcolm” in director Emma Holly Jones’ MR. MALCOLM’S LIST, a Bleecker Street release. Photo by Ross Ferguson / Bleecker Street.

[L-R] Freida Pinto stars as “Selina Dalton” and Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù stars as “Mr. Malcolm” in director Emma Holly Jones’ MR. MALCOLM’S LIST, a Bleecker Street release. Photo by Ross Ferguson / Bleecker Street.

Whenever a story takes place during a previous era, it should capture the fashions, music, politics, colloquialisms and relevant expressions of that time. Popular British novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) has been adapted numerous times for the big and small screens. Persuasion (1995), Emma (1996), Mansfield Park (1999), and Pride and Prejudice (2005) are just a few of the notable translations of her material into film. Historical dramas and romances are always in vogue because they evoke days of manners, languid summer days, cozy winters, and witty conversations.

Bridgerton premiered on Netflix on December 25, 2020 and was an immediate hit. Not only did it have all the qualities of a stellar period piece, but it also displayed a diverse cast, which gave it a fresh, modern edge. Mr. Malcolm’s List, directed by Emma Holly Jones, will be released exclusively in theaters on July 1, 2022, and stars Freida Pinto, Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù’, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen. The Bleecker Street release may draw comparisons to Bridgerton, but it has its own original perspective of romance during the Regency Era. The movie is based on Suzanne Allain’s short film. The project has had quite an evolution from short story to theaters. Suzanne discussed that process with us recently, as well as her love for writing.

How did you first get into writing?

I've always been a reader. I feel like when people read a lot it's a natural progression to writing. I was reading before I even started school. I remember in fifth grade, I wanted to read Les Misérables. They didn’t want me to read that at school. I started writing at a really young age as well. When I was in 7th grade, I wrote my first historical romance novel. It was only 80 pages but for a 7th grader that was pretty good. I know it was good because an 8th grader volunteered to be my agent...! Really, it was probably pretty bad but at least I wrote it. I was always writing.

How did you start the novel for Mr. Malcolm's List?

I'd written a historical romantic comedy, a Regency romance, prior to that called Incognito. It was published in 2001. I tried to come up with an idea for a second novel and I'd written a short story that was set in modern times about a man with a list of requirements for a significant other. After I read that short story, I realized it would be a much better fit for the Regency Period where making a match was just the most important thing. Women didn't have many career choices. Divorce was through an act of Congress. Marriage had such a huge effect on people's lives back then, all areas of their lives. I then decided to take that basic idea and turn it into a historical romantic comedy set in 19th Century England.

Suzanne Allain Photo by Jonathan Allain.

Suzanne Allain Photo by Jonathan Allain.

Were the characters diverse in the short story?

I don't give a lot of physical descriptions when I write. I keep it a little vague because I feel like people can then let their imaginations fill that in. I think that worked great for the movie because the characters can be played by any actor.

Walk me through the process of going from the short story to the novel to the short film to the movie.

It was a long process...! I wrote the short story. That was about twenty years ago. My first book was published in 2001. That was about the time I started writing Mr. Malcolm's List. I wrote the short story, then the novel pretty soon after that. It was seven or eight years before I thought of adapting it into a script. I was always writing in some form or another. I even worked as a technical writer for a computer software company, but that was definitely my least favorite type of writing.

Why?

I love creating imaginary worlds. I love dialogue and technical writing doesn't have a lot of dialogue. That's how I segued into screenwriting...because I loved writing dialogue so much.

A few reviewers had mentioned that they loved the dialogue in Mr. Malcolm’s List, and they could see it as a film. That's when the wheels started spinning for me. I thought screenwriting might be a better fit for me since I enjoy writing dialogue so much, so I adapted Mr. Malcolm's List into a script. In 2011, I uploaded it to a screenwriting contest with Amazon Studios and it placed. That's when I started getting serious and thinking 'Maybe I am good at this. Maybe I should pivot into screenwriting as a career.'

I used to cold query, and I got some responses. I remember a producer asked to have a meeting with me. I was so excited. She called me and said, 'I loved Mr. Malcolm's List. But if you don't stop writing period pieces, you'll never make it in Hollywood.' Not only did I discover that it's difficult to break in, but it's particularly difficult to break in with a period piece. In my quest to get Mr. Malcolm's List the script noticed, I uploaded it to The Black List website. You can pay for reviews by professional readers. If the script gets an eight or above, emails are generated to people in the industry. It got a nine. That's when doors started opening. That was in late 2014.

[The Exquisite Reality of Yesterday: A Chat with Julian Fellowes about 'Downton Abbey: A New Era']

Through that experience, I was able to get representation. They found me on The Black List. Then I started having meetings and going out to L.A. frequently. Also, The Black List made it into a podcast for their Black List table reads. A group of actors recorded it. That's how the director Emma Holly Jones heard of it. She spoke to my reps and became attached as the director.

Refinery 29 had a program to support emerging female filmmakers. They put up the money for a proof-of-concept short film. Emma had the idea of the diverse casting. Bridgerton had not come out yet. This was long before that. None of us had heard of Bridgerton. The short film was made in 2018 and released in 2019. Then the pandemic happened in 2020. That put a little bit of pause on things, but they did get it made during the pandemic, which was just amazing. It was a miracle that it all happened.

Since you adapted your own material, what did you find most challenging about transforming your novel into a screenplay?

A novel has more material than a script. Selecting what to include and what to exclude. Making sure to keep the story moving. To pick the scenes from the book that I felt would translate into film the best or would really showcase the character, especially the development of the romance between the characters.

ws_historyinaction-500_360x

What's your writing process for writing a novel as opposed to a screenplay?

For both, I'm not super organized. I would love to be one of those people that has a very detailed outline. I have very loose outlines for both. Sometimes scenes will just come to me, out of order, for novels or scripts, and I'll just open a Word document and just start typing in dialogue from a scene. I recently got Scrivener. I'm glad I discovered it. It's great, especially with historical writing, because I can keep my research in it.

How do you overcome writer's block or hurdles when you're writing?

Sometimes I use music, particularly during the pandemic. The things that had worked in the past, I couldn't use. I usually find travel very inspirational, going to museums. I couldn't do any of that during the pandemic, so I relied on music quite a bit. Particularly music that thematically fits in with what I'm writing or is from that era. Or is just music that I like because it sparks my imagination.

What are you currently working on?

I'm working on two things. I have another book coming out in 2023 for Berkley. It's the same genre, same era, Regency historical romantic comedy. It's about a man who also has a written document but is not a list. It's actually based on a historical document that I found from 18th century England where a poor younger son made a directory of rich women for younger men like himself so that he could inherit a fortune. That's the starting point for this novel because our heroin finds herself on this list and isn't pleased. I just finished a script in a different genre, a psychological thriller. A young woman, who graduates from an elite boarding school, discovers it wasn't what it seemed. She can't trust anything, not even her own memories.

[Developing the Short Story: An Interview with C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson about 'The Black Phone']

How did you find writing a psychological thriller as opposed to a period piece?

I loved it. It did involve research as well. I tried to base the scientific stuff on real science. It was a lot easier not having to wonder if every word existed. It is set in the early 90s, so it's modern era but not today. I set it in that era because there weren't cellphones or internet. It was fun. I researched music that was really popular at that time, which was my playlist while I was working on that script.

Do you do a lot of research for your novels?

I do a ton of research to get the idioms and expressions correct. Research is an important part of my process. 

Mr. Malcolm's List is in Theaters on July 1, 2022.


Learn more about the craft and business of screenwriting from our Script University courses!

SU script university pro promo 600