In this series, we talk to screenwriters about their works in progress and what drew them to screenwriting. This time around, we got a chance to sit down with up-and-coming screenwriter Alexis Adkins.
Alexis Adkins was born in Georgia, but also lived in TN, LA, FL, Mexico, CA, and TX. She kept her spirits up through her family’s many moves by reading, writing stories, and performing – whether by herself in the living room or on a stage.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise when she relocated to Los Angeles to pursue acting. While she had steady work, she grew increasingly frustrated by the overall quantity and quality of roles for women. Needing another outlet for her creative expression, she went back to her childhood passion of writing. First, it was scenes for her acting class. Next, her first short. Then, a feature and a pilot – with the advent of YouTube, she took an hour-and-a-half project, broke it into 10 minutes bites, and gave people the option of how to view it. Buoyed by enthusiasm, she shot a teaser to help raise funds. She also shot a short Hate Me, to build her name and reputation, and to entice funding and/or name talent. Hate Me wound up winning awards for her acting, directing, and producing.
Shortly thereafter, family tragedies led to a period of grief and re-centering for Alexis, which included relocating to the Bay Area. When she was ready to resume the pursuit of her dream, she reworked her first pilot Be Nice, and began submitting to festivals again. This time, Be Nice won a contest that netted her a 6-month option at A&E. In addition to her pilot, Alexis is constantly working on new ideas and revising previous scripts.
On a personal note, she’s active in animal rescue and welfare, and is currently owned by two cats and a dog, and has fed a wolf with her mouth.
What is your favorite genre to write? What genre are you looking forward to writing?
Tends to be more in the thriller realm; I like to write real, complex female characters and relationships – the kind of character/role that has traditionally been reserved for male actors/creators. I don’t tend to actively think “I’m going to write a ___ now.” It’s more the story, what feels right, really sorting out an ending (with the flexibility to adjust it, as needed), then somewhere between the middle and end of the first draft have a “well, this is a drama/thriller/dark comedy” moment. I’m mostly looking forward to getting the next group of voices out of my head. But I’m highly dubious that I’ll have anything that’s light and fluffy.
Tell us about a WIP that is in your favorite genre.
I’m currently trying to work out the format on tentatively titled Beth. It looks at women in law enforcement, the power imbalance that’s still there; as well as some of the unrealistic expectations put on women in relationships, and the reclaiming of sexuality.
What usually inspires your creativity?
People – I’m in awe of writers who were able to go to coffee shops and write. It would never fail that if this was my intention there would be a conversation or something that demanded my attention. Then the challenge becomes how do I pay attention without looking like I’m watching every detail of what is happening.
When it comes to people I know well, I find it best to zero into a particular part and blow it up. Or concentrate them, depending on the story and needs. Sometimes it’s better to come from “the side” rather than head-on.
What keeps you motivated as a writer?
Knowing there are still so many stories to tell from perspectives that still need more attention.
Who or what inspired you to become a writer?
Disgust? [laughs] Even though I was a voracious reader, growing up, out-reading “age-appropriate” options, and moving into science fiction/fantasy and horror pretty early, my primary desire has been acting. I had plateaued in LA, and needed an outlet for the “voices in my head”. Around the same time, there was a lot of talk about “strong female leads” which led to a lot of male fantasy and interpretation; as well as the bad advice of, “Just make one of your male leads females, presto bang-go! See it’s easy!” Mix in my irritation that my female actor friends of color were mostly getting called in/cast for stereotypes, I wanted to start making projects that had better representation across the board.
Tell us about the first story you ever wrote and what it was about?
The first creative writing I remember was in 4th grade. It was to create an imaginary creature – describe what it looked like, where it lived, what it ate, likes/dislikes, and had to draw a picture of it - as far as I know, there is no surviving evidence of this tragedy against the art community. Wordplay was big, growing up, so I used Snakelrat. Even though it was half venomous snake and half-rat, its favorite food was mac & cheese. It developed the snake front half, as a protection for the rat back half.
What story, film, or novel that has left an indelible impact on you as a writer?
Most recently, I will probably be preaching the gospel of Promising Young Woman for a bit. Historically, I’m probably an unholy amalgam of Steven King, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Piers Anthony, and a few dozen others. Like many, who grew up in unstable households, I read voraciously as an escape.
Who is a favorite character you have written and why?
That’s a little challenging – going to have to call a tie between Kat and Erika, from my series Be Nice. When we first meet them, Kat’s questioning some of her life choices – would things be better if she made different choices; while Erika is fighting for her choices to be respected. As we get to know them better, the layers and complexities of their relationships - friends, husband, boyfriend, children, job, parents – unfold. There’s a lot of nuance that is still uncommon for female characters. And I’m looking forward to a writer’s room to ensure that their stories are as authentic and respectful as possible.
What current show or movie do you wish you were in the writer's room?
Show. Dead to Me – it’s the closest I’ve seen to layered, complicated female friendships out there. Also love dark humor, so it’s definitely a favorite. If it were more diverse, it would be perfect.
What would you consider as your "brand" as a writer?
Not really big on branding, it feels too much like boxing oneself in… if I have to choose though, would have to go with female-led and inclusive. I can still be better there and am educating myself on how best to represent marginalized groups I am less familiar with to further that.
What would you like your legacy as a writer to be?
That I helped move the needle some. And the standard ego-kick of writing characters that resonate with a wide range of people.
How do you handle writer’s block?
For me, writer’s block is simply that I didn’t work enough out before I sat down. Just like a watched pot will never boil, a watched keyboard isn’t going to type itself. Do something mindless – wash the dishes, take a walk, take a shower, watch a movie or tv show. There’s a difference between procrastination and getting out of your own way. Also, I think a lot of us conflate the two a fair amount. Everyone gets backed up sometimes – you just have to work with your brain, instead of trying to force it.
When you hit Fade Out on a new screenplay, how do you celebrate?
I have only recently become aware of this as a celebration device and am currently rethinking life choices.
Besides writing what other skills would you think a screenwriter should have?
Empathy, logic, the ability to take constructive criticism, the ability to differentiate a note that will help the story versus a subjective opinion. Also, personally feel like many of your better writers have an insatiable curiosity – whether it be about life in general, other worldviews, “what ifs” … writing is a slightly less sadistic way of seeing something and poking it with a stick.
If you could give any tips to an upcoming writer on how you handle multiple story ideas, what would you tell them?
For anyone new, I would start off by saying you’re going to hear dozens of “dos” and “don’ts”, on any topic really. You have to find what works for you. I like to take a lot of notes – between research, character development, scene ideas, etcetera. I like the feel of writing, so I tend to fall into that stereotype of a writer who has a million journals and notebooks, but still needs more. At the same time, I also use OneNote – it’s especially good for series. Can have a section for one series, then break it down by season and then episodes within the series. But, ultimately, it’s whatever method(s) work best for you, use it. Just like finding your voice may take some time, finding the process that works best for you might take a little trial and error.
For multiple projects, I try to not actively work on more than two at a time. I find that as I hit a stuck point, my brain has been doing background work on the other and a solution to that stuck point will reveal itself. It’s kind of like a giant cycle – Project A gets stuck, look at Project B. Oh, that’s what it needs, keep writing, get stuck. Project A waves and says, “Oh yeah, we figured this out too”. The biggest piece of advice I will give is to not get hung up on page counts or how fast or slow you may be writing. Every project will come at a different pace, so be OK with that too.
How do you balance your personal life and writing?
I think this is a never-ending struggle. As much as we get it into our heads that we must get out pages or some other, frequently arbitrary, deadline, we have to learn to listen to our bodies more. Get the rest, go on walks, do yoga, lift weights – whatever it is that is right for you, to get some movement and away from the screen. And there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for that. Some days, I can crank out pages like a machine. Other days, I can barely form a word. I’m still getting better about not beating myself up for the days that words don’t get on the page, or for days when I’m not a machine. Part of me feels the need to catch up for lost time, but also coming to terms that I needed that time to heal, and hopefully make my creative endeavors more well-rounded – or I’m navel-gazing with my head in my butt… which I guess is an option, too. Seriously though, if we saw someone working an office job 60-70 hours a week, not relaxing on the weekends, never taking time off, we would tell them they are going to burn out hard, make themselves sick, etcetera. This is no different. If anything, we must live and push our own comfort zones to enhance our writing. Some days are better than others, but I’m being better about not kicking myself overall.
What is next for you?
I’m currently breaking down a couple of scripts, creating budgets for production. I’m probably going to run a crowdfunding campaign to shoot a proof of concept for my feature BlackTop. I have a couple of rewrites I need to finish, most pressingly.
Where do you hope to see yourself in this industry in the next 5 to 10 years?