Where Genre Has No Limits: Spotlight on Screenwriter Caitlin McCarthy

In this new column, Script contributor Nanea Taylor shines the spotlight on screenwriter Caitlin McCarthy.
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Caitlin McCarthy writes feature screenplays, one-hour teleplays, essays, and even novels. Her stories tackle political and social issues with a wink, blending humor with heartbreak while always staying focused on action. Caitlin’s screenplay WONDER DRUG is heading towards production with Rhino Films and producer Stephen Nemeth. Awards include Academy Nicholl Top 10 female writer/Top 50 script; “Featured Script” on The Black List website; and honoree on The Bitch List. She is represented by Barry Krost of Barry Krost Management.

Caitlin McCarthy

Caitlin McCarthy

What is your favorite genre to write? What genre are you looking forward to writing?

I love the challenge of writing a thriller. The majority of work is in the outline, creating a clear threat, high stakes, twists, action, and memorable characters. When it comes to red herrings, I don’t just want to misdirect my audience, I want to expose another layer of my protagonist. Why is she distracted by the red herring? Does it trigger one of her fears or flaws? How does it force her to change?

I look forward to writing an action screenplay. I’ve already written a World War II action thriller, so pure action is the next logical step for me.

Tell us about a WIP that is in your favorite genre.

A NATIVE LAND (www.anativelandmovie.com) is a crime thriller that follows a Black Native American police officer as she tries to find a local serial killer on the loose. An early draft has already received attention including: promotion as a “highly-rated script” by The Black List website; winner of Best Feature Screenplay at the George Lindsey UNA Film Festival; and selection for the annual Women in Screen Workshop, a six-week lab run by the Australian International Screen Forum in New York.

I was inspired to write A NATIVE LAND because I’m of Métis descent through my Huron (Wendat)/Abenaki/French Canadian ancestry. As an American, I’m a member of the Métis Federation of Canada; and I hold a Certificate of Aboriginal Status card through the Ontario Métis Family Records Center (OMFRC). While very proud of my Métis heritage, I identify as Caucasian out of respect for those accepted by the modern Métis community with continuity to the historic Métis community.

Actor Adam Beach’s words about the exclusion of indigenous actors in casting resonated with me. Since every film starts with the script, I’m in a position to be the change by creating BIPOC characters – and I’m hoping the inclusion extends to roles behind the scenes.

My dream cast for A NATIVE LAND includes Julia Jones (WESTWORLD and GOLIATH) and Jason Momoa (AQUAMAN). Sending that wish out into the universe!

If you could give any tips to an upcoming writer on how you handle multiple story ideas, what would you tell them?

It never fails: whenever you’re in the weeds with a work in progress, new story ideas pop into your head. While it’s tempting to pursue them, don’t just yet! Write them down, but finish the script you’re working on. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself with numerous half-finished scripts.

[In the Writer's Corner: Social Media Etiquette]

Tell us about the moment you realized that you wanted to be a writer.

When I was in the sixth grade, Sister Ellen Marie at Venerini Academy asked me to stand up in class and read a short story that I had written. Once I had finished, she asked everyone, “Who thinks Caitlin is going to be a writer when she grows up?” All hands went up. That moment changed everything for me. I started thinking of myself as a writer.

What story, film or novel has left an indelible impact on you as a writer?

Starting at a young age, I’ve been in love with one of the most feminist lines in English literature: “Reader, I married him.” It appears toward the end of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.

As a writer, I want all of my characters to have their own agency, but I’m particularly mindful of this when writing women and people of color. They’re not subservient. They make their own choices. They’re active, not passive. That one simple sentence in Jane Eyre demonstrates the importance – and impact – of word choice in writing.

Who was the person who you would say influenced your foray into writing?

Matia Karrell, the Oscar-nominated, Lebanese-American director, is responsible for my screenwriting journey. We even have a “meet cute” story.

When I was moving from public relations into public education, part of my “teaching training” required me to observe a master teacher at work. I reported to Brockton High School, an urban public high school in Massachusetts, on my first day of training. I took a seat in the back of a classroom, and watched teens file in before the bell.

After the bell rang, the students and I looked around for the teacher… who never appeared. The students then turned to me, the only adult in the room. I wasn’t allowed to teach just yet, but I had to take control of the situation fast. I hurried across the hall to a teacher for assistance – and that’s when I met Diane Ayache. She called the Main Office and learned that the sub for my class was running late.

[Janese Taylor & Thuc Nguyen #BlackPowerYellowPeril Writing Team]

Diane and I subsequently ran into each other at lunch. While chatting about outside interests, I shared that I had just finished writing a novel. “Oh!” Diane exclaimed. “I should introduce you to my cousin.” Her cousin turned out to be Matia Karrell.

Matia emailed me, asking to read my unpublished novel. She later asked if I could turn that novel into a screenplay. I said “yes” even though I had never written a script before, but I soon learned the ins and outs, thanks to Matia. She remains a mentor and friend to this day.

Matia is a great example of women helping women, and of successful people sending the elevator back down for others so they can rise, too.

What is your favorite script you have written thus far and why is it your favorite?

WONDER DRUG, without question. It tells the story of DES, the “hidden Thalidomide” prescribed to millions of pregnant women for decades, becoming one of the most devastating drug disasters in history.

I was exposed to DES in utero, so this screenplay has great personal meaning for me. My biggest goal with WONDER DRUG is to parallel how uninformed choices made a century ago could be as dangerous as the perhaps misinformed and “empowered” choices made today with everything from hormone replacement therapy to fertility drugs.

WONDER DRUG was an Academy Nicholl Top 10 female writer/Top 50 script, “Featured Script” on The Black List website, Bitch List honoree, and Sloan script at the HamptonsFilm Screenwriters Lab. It’s currently in development with Rhino Films and producer Stephen Nemeth.

When you hit Fade Out on a new screenplay, how do you celebrate?

During the work week, I typically wake up at 3:00 am so I can write for a few hours before my job begins at 7:10 am. (My “survival job” is at an urban public high school.) When I hit Fade Out on a new screenplay, I’ll sleep in for a few days. That means waking up at 5:00 am instead of 3:00 am for work – still an ungodly hour, but a little less hideous.

[Script Talk with WOCUnite #StartWith8Hollywood Mentorship Program]

If you had the power to make changes in the screenwriting industry, what changes would you make?

Mentoring programs are well-intentioned and helpful, but women and people of color also need to get hired. To get paid. To get represented by proactive managers and/or agents. To get a list of produced credits so we can take our careers to the next level.

There is nothing sadder than watching an incredibly talented writer win awards and acceptances into prestigious labs and fellowships, only to remain unproduced year after year after year.

Discrimination is very real in the screenwriting industry. The numbers don’t lie about the lack of women and people of color being produced vs. white male writers. We need more than performative support from the powers-that-be in the industry. We need opportunities that lead to a paid writing career.

If you could work as a showrunner for your favorite show, how would you choose the best writers to fill the writers room?

My writers room would be inclusive. Race, gender, age, even location – I wouldn’t discriminate against anyone. My focus would be on talent, and I’d cast a wide net to find and hire the best writers. I’d also strive to retain that talent through positivity and opportunities for advancement.

Everyone would be treated with dignity. There’s no need to demean a writer’s assistant or not pay a living wage. And yelling? Not happening in my writers room. Take the anger management issues someplace else.

There has been much discussion about Zoom Rooms. I personally think they’re great. They’ve opened doors for talented writers who can’t afford to – or don’t want to – relocate to Los Angeles, one of the most cost-prohibitive cities in the world. Zoom Rooms also accommodate people with disabilities. The pandemic has shown us that it’s possible to work and collaborate successfully online. That shouldn’t end after the pandemic.

Official website: www.caitlinmccarthy.com

Twitter: @CaitlinMcWriter

Instagram: @Caitlin_McCarthy_Writer

Facebook: @CaitlinMcCarthyWriter


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