In this series, we talk to screenwriters about their works in progress and what drew them to screenwriting. This time we sit down with up-and-coming screenwriter Danielle Nicki.
Born in Italy to military parents, Danielle Nicki and her family moved to the States when she was four after living in Naples, Rome, and Scotland. She was raised in San Diego, CA, and went to college in Los Angeles. Danielle has focused on the craft of screenwriting for nearly a decade and enjoys creating flawed women of color protagonists with interesting and diverse life experiences not often seen on screen.
She is also a Nicholl Fellowship quarterfinalist, an Austin Film Festival, and Cannes Film Festival Finalist and was recently named one of the International Screenwriters Association’s Top 25 Writers to Watch in 2021.
Danielle has been married for 18 years and has three teenagers and a Chihuahua named Bruce Wayne who provide her with endless inspiration and material.
What is your favorite genre to write? What genre are you looking forward to writing?
My favorite genre to write is drama, specifically drama which explores relationships after a traumatic or life-changing event. I’m not so much into writing the actual trauma, and I usually don’t, but I love a character piece that explores the wreckage it leaves behind. Wandavision and Nomadland, for example, do deep dives into grief after a loss. The fun part about living in that space is it truly transcends genre.
A genre that I’m looking forward to writing is sci-fi. As a writer, how much fun is it to have the opportunity to build an entire world that doesn’t already exist? You can create languages, new governments and hide whatever social commentary within it that you choose. I’ve always been drawn to the genre as a viewer, and I’m excited to finally write my own!
Speaking of drama, tell me about your script Black Russian. How did you come up with the concept? How long did it take you to get to the polished/final version of the script?
Black Russian was one of the first pilots I ever wrote almost 10 years ago. But in the beginning, like most writers, my ideas far exceeded my abilities, and it was not good. The pilot was called Trigger back then and was about an American woman who didn’t know she was also a Russian sleeper agent. All of the bones were there, but it had a White protagonist and was very “on the nose”. I hadn’t yet found my voice, and I was still writing what I thought people wanted to see. One day, I was cringing my way through reading my old scripts, and I opened Trigger and thought, “What if this Russian sleeper agent was Black?” My brain exploded with ideas, and I started an outline for a page-one rewrite. The script tumbled out of me faster than anything I’d written to that point, and the positive response to it has been overwhelming. What that taught me was to be true to my point of view, and never assume that what people want from me is different from what I want to give them.
That opening scene was a shocker; it definitely sets up the audience that this will be a wild, fun ride. We haven't seen a woman of color really lead an action thriller like your protagonist. Was it intentional, especially with roles like that go to the Charlize Theron’s and Jennifer Gardner’s of the world?
Thank you! I love a teaser that hits you in the face, and I spend a lot of time on my opening pages. I wanted my reader to know that I’m going to shock you all the way through this thing, so buckle up!
Making my protagonist, Black, was 100% intentional. She doesn’t know she’s been brainwashed into being a Russian spy. From a story standpoint, making her a woman of color added an extra layer of protection for her identity in a world that makes assumptions about people based on how they look. Who would guess that a Black American woman is a Russian spy? Also, I live for putting my Black women protagonists in roles that I don’t often get to see, if ever! I write Black witches, zombie hunters, and assassins because I want to see those fabulous actresses kicking ass, being vulnerable, and mirroring the multi-dimensional women I see every day in real life.
Black Russian is a fantastic script! Have you made any headway in the industry with it?
I appreciate you saying that! Last year, after I signed with my rep, I took almost 30 general meetings when he sent Black Russian out. It’s opened more doors than I could’ve imagined, and it’s been amazing to see how receptive people are to this idea that I’ve loved for such a long time.
What story, film or novel has left an indelible impact on you as a writer?
The movie, Unfaithful impacted me in several ways. To start, Diane Lane’s performance was a chef’s kiss, but what I didn’t know at the time was this was my favorite type of genre; the aftermath of a traumatic or life-changing event. The movie came out in 2002, so sorry for any spoilers, but the protagonist, Connie, has an affair in the first act and the rest of the film deals with guilt in ways I hadn’t seen before. I thought about it for weeks afterwards and that’s what I want my work to do for and to people. I want to burrow deep into your mind, so my characters and worlds resurface for weeks or even months after.
If you could give any tips to an upcoming writer on how you handle multiple story ideas, what would you tell them?
I mean, are you even a writer if your new ideas don’t barge in trying to take over while you’re working on something else? It’s inevitable, and I’ve learned not to abandon my current WIP for the flashy and loud new idea that probably isn’t even fully fleshed out and ready to be written. My advice to an emerging writer would be to write the new idea down for later. Sometimes it’ll be a few sentences, and sometimes it’s a whole outline; either way, take a few minutes or a day and get it out of your head. Then you can return to your WIP without it being annoying.
How do you decide which idea to start on first?
I usually go with the idea that I’m burning to write. The one I’m thinking about all the time that won’t leave me alone. The script tends to pour out of me in those instances, so I’ve learned to follow the feeling.
Tell us about a WIP that is in your favorite genre.
I wrote a feature called Imperfect Perfection about a woman dealing with the loss of her husband after 25 years together. It’s written out of sequence and tells the story of how they fell in love and what their life together was like, in tandem with showing how she’s handling life after this huge loss.
What would you say is an interesting writing quirk you have?
I don’t know how interesting or unique it is, but I have to have a warm drink while I’m writing. I usually write in the morning, so that drink tends to be coffee, but if it’s a time of day when I shouldn’t be drinking caffeine, it’s herbal tea. I don’t care if it’s 100 degrees outside - I’m drinking something hot. I have no idea why, but I’m not going to question what works.
Besides writing, what other skills would you think a screenwriter should have?
I think screenwriters should be observant. Stories happen all around us, and I believe it’s our job to pay attention to it. Dialogue, character mannerisms, relationships, plot… sometimes you don’t even have to step outside of your own home to catch gold.
How do you balance your personal life and writing?
I schedule. I’m married and have three kids, so I, unfortunately, don’t have the luxury of waiting for the muse or writing when I really feel like it. I choose to write in the morning while everyone’s asleep (yay, quiet time!) so it doesn’t interfere with my family’s time in the evening after work and school. I haven’t quite figured out the self-care part of things, so I’m open to suggestions there. [laughs]
Who’s your go-to person when you’re ready for fresh eyes on your script? Why are they your go-to person?
I have go-to people, and they are fantastic! We came together to try and form a writer’s group about a year and a half ago, but then COVID happened. We ended up morphing more into a writer support group that gives whatever is needed. Notes? Send it over! Shoulder to cry on? Here’s some tissues. We celebrate wins and promote each other’s projects, and I don’t know what I’d do without them.
Tell us about the moment you realized that you wanted to be a writer.
I think I always knew I was a storyteller, but I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to tell stories. It wasn’t until I took a film appreciation class in college that I knew I wanted to write screenplays. My professor pulled me aside on the last day of class and asked if I’d ever considered being a screenwriter. I was one of those people who never thought about who put the words in an actor's mouth, so this new thing was a revelation to me! I asked how one becomes a screenwriter, and he told me I did not have to go to film school. I just needed to read a bunch of screenplays and go write. I went home and downloaded my first script, Juno by Diablo Cody. I knew instantly that I wanted to be a writer, and this was how I wanted to do it!