Interview with screenwriter Kate Balsley

SHORT BIO OF THE WRITER: Kate Balsley was born into a family of artists and had an interest in cinema from a young age. After graduating with a BFA in film production and studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she lived briefly in New York City before earning an MFA in mass communication and media arts from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Her narrative, documentary, experimental and animated films have been exhibited throughout the world in venues such as the Museum of the Moving Image, the Anthology Film Archives, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Among her awards include Best Experimental from the Athens International Film and Video Festival and a Jury Award from the Black Maria Film and Video Festival. She has only recently begun to write screenplays, and is currently an assistant professor of film at Georgia Gwinnett College near Atlanta.

  • What is the first story you ever wrote?

I wrote a lot of stories as a kid. I had an amazing English teacher in fifth grade who sparked my love of creative writing.  In high school, my American Literature teacher had us write a “sequel” to J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” It was one of the most fun, challenging and rewarding assignments I’ve ever done. In college I took a creative writing class, but most of my student films were improvised by my highly talented actors (who were also my best friends.) I didn’t start to write seriously until a few years ago when I wrote my first screenplay The Cucaranchula. In this film, a young writer has to learn how to believe in her creativity and talent. Young writers and young women especially often doubt their own intelligence and imagination.  I was essentially teaching myself how to write and direct narrative films, but I also wanted to relay a positive and inspiring message.

  • Growing up, what movies or stories inspired your creative passion?

I’ve always loved underdog stories. I also enjoy stories about people who are marginalized in some way, because we’re being given the perspective of someone who exists outside of the status quo. I also enjoy stories about  people who struggle with extremely difficult situations, despite the outcome.  What cemented my love of film was Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997) which was adapted from the novel by Russell Banks. It’s a truly wrenching story about loss and the effects it has on a small community. It was a beautiful meditation on grief and human behavior, and Egoyan directed it with empathy and grace. Hopefully I’ll be able to write and direct something as profound one day!

  • For an unknown writer, what is the best way to get their screenplay seen?

Screenplay competitions are an excellent way of getting your screenplay read! Many competitions will provide useful feedback,which you can use to revise further drafts of your script. I also like to have friends, family, peers and colleagues read my scripts and provide feedback

  • What experiences from your life influence your characters?

All of my characters are influenced by my life in some way. With Laika, I took creative liberties and based the Yazdovsky family on my own family. Both of my parents were artists, and they would explain things in fabulous and fantastic ways. In my short screenplay, Vladimir illustrates Laika’s adventures through drawings and animation so that his children could understand. I imbued these characters with the love we all had for each other when I was growing up.

  • Can you explain your character development process?

A few years ago I audited a screenwriting class. The professor had us begin with a premise: Wisdom gains happiness, foolishness leads to death, and so on. The goal was to get your character from one point to another through their decisions and actions. Although this was meant to be an exercise for beginning screenwriters, I still find it extremely valuable in giving my characters believable arcs.

  • Do you write bios before you start writing?

Absolutely! Bios help you understand who the character is. Our lives and experiences shape us, and this holds true for fictional characters as well. I also write character bios for the actors before we begin shooting. This helps the actor understand the character in greater depth.

  • How emotionally involved are you with the characters you create?

The characters are based on people I’ve known at some point in my life, so I am always emotionally involved to some extent. While I’m writing, I think of them as people that I know. That way I genuinely care about what happens to them, and I think more seriously about their dialogue and actions. I also base characters on my own experiences as well.

  • What are your thoughts on structure?

To put it succinctly, it all depends on what kind of story you are writing. Some stories are loose and abstract, while others call for a rigid structure.

  • Do you outline before you start writing?

I’ve been pretty organic with my last short screenplays. I’ll start with character bios, a premise, and a rough outline. Sometimes my own characters will surprise me and the story will go in places I haven’t even thought of! However, outlines are valuable because     they help you keep track of important story beats and character development.

  • What is the most important aspect of building a great character?

You need to know who your character is, and you have to have a connection with him or her. You need to understand what kinds of decisions this person will make and how they will behave in certain situations.