An award-winning screenwriter at international film festivals and labs, Caitlin McCarthy writes screenplays, one-hour teleplays, essays, and even novels. Her stories tackle political and social issues with a twist, combining humor with heartbreak while always staying focused on action. In this interview, part of a series, the screenwriter speaks about her work as a screenwriter, her process and her goals for the future.

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Tell us a bit about you.

I hail from Worcester, Massachusetts, the second largest city in New England (after Boston). While I have a very Irish name, I’m also of Métis descent through my Huron/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.

I write feature screenplays, one-hour teleplays, essays, and even novels. My stories tackle political and social issues with a wink, blending humor with heartbreak while always staying focused on action. My 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.

For my “survival job,” I serve as an Acting MCAS/Assessment Specialist at a high-poverty urban public high school with universal free breakfast and lunch. Before advancing to this position within my school, I taught English Language Arts for 16 years. Before education, I worked in high tech public relations.

What are you currently working on? Tell us more about it.

I’m partnering on writing/creating the TV series GAELS with Lynsey Murdoch (BBC Scottish Voices 2020). It’s a one-hour drama set in 1800s Scotland and Massachusetts, with an inclusive cast and complex female leads. We’re very excited about it.

What originally attracted you to screenwriting?

There’s an old saying: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. That literally happened to me!

I always thought I’d be a novelist, not a screenwriter. That was my focus in the MFA Creative Writing program at Emerson College. But during my teacher preparation program at Brockton High School, I met a veteran teacher named Diane Ayache who asked me over lunch one day, “What interests do you have outside of school?” I shared that I had just finished writing a novel. She said, “Oh! I should introduce you to my cousin.” Little did I know that her cousin is Oscar-nominated director Matia Karrell!

Diane connected me with Matia, who became my screenwriting mentor. We’re still very close to this day.

What’s a typical work week like?

My “survival job” at a public high school starts at 7:10 am, so I wake up at 3:00 am to work on my writing. I participate in daily Pomodoro sessions with Lynsey Murdoch and Raisah Ahmed (Scottish Film Talent Network and Film4), who are both in Scotland. Because it’s so early in my time zone, Lynsey and Raisah get to see me in a Steve Jobs black turtleneck and wet hair, or in a comfy bathrobe and PJs. If they wanted to take a photo and blackmail me with it, they’d make so much money (hahaha!). But seriously, having that daily appointment with Lynsey and Raisah keeps me focused and “accountable” for getting my pages done.

Once the school day ends, I typically polish what I wrote before sunrise, respond to emails, read industry articles, and poke around Twitter to see if I missed anything in the writing world. I love the screenwriting community on Twitter and feel as if I know many people there, even though we’ve never met in real life. Before the pandemic hit, I crossed paths with several “Twitter friends” at film festivals. It’s fun when you recognize someone in person from their Twitter profile pictures or posts.

What writers have influenced you and why?

Ernest Hemingway’s style has always appealed to me. His sentences are simple and direct, but so much is going on underneath them. I’m a big subscriber to Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” and employ that in my own work. 

What makes a great story?

One of my favorite films is THE GODFATHER. It’s more than a mafia movie. It’s about the American Dream turning into the American Nightmare. Its emotional storyline is as powerful as its action storyline. All of the characters are believable, and the film’s dialogue is endlessly quotable.

That’s what makes a great story for me. A theme that resonates. Equally impressive emotional and action storylines. Believable characters. Memorable lines.

Do you have any writing rituals?

I enjoy writing in silence. When I need to block out sound, I put in my earphones and listen to “celestial white noise” on YouTube.

I’m also a fan of writing sprints.

And whenever I get stuck in a scene, I assign my brain “homework” before taking a quick power nap; I always have the answer when I wake up. Some people refer to this as “dream work.”

Do you have any tips on how to overcome writer’s block?

I spice up my routine when stuck. Instead of typing out scenes, I’ll write in longhand. I’ll write in a different space: instead of my home office, I’ll work in the dining room or kitchen. And sometimes I just need to “refill the well” of creativity. I’ll remove the pressure by not writing at all; I’ll do something mindless or relaxing to recharge.

When I have a deadline, I don’t overwhelm myself with thoughts of everything that needs to be done. I break the project down into “bite-sized pieces” and focus on hitting a certain page count each day. Once I hit that page count, I stop writing. That keeps me from burning out.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in screenwriting?

Do it because you love it. Screenwriting is a tough business to break into. You will experience a number of disappointments and heartbreaks along the way. Just keep moving forward – and develop a support group with other writers. Your writer friendships will sustain you during the tough times, and there’s nothing better than celebrating each other’s successes.

Who are you as a writer and how did your career experiences help shape you and make you the kind of writer you are and will be?

Prior to education, I worked in high tech public relations. Both career fields require high energy, involve various personalities, and boast pressing deadlines and demands. I’ve developed a thick skin from my career experiences and can handle most anything tossed my way.

Because of my work in education, I marinate in the prized demographic of teenagers. It’s fascinating to hear them discuss their favorite shows or films. Working with students from diverse backgrounds has made me very aware of the need for inclusion in storytelling. People want to see themselves represented on the screen. There’s no need to keep that from happening.

What are the struggles in the industry for a female screenwriter? Is it still a “boy’s club”?

A woman hasn’t won an Academy Award for screenwriting in over a decade: JUNO by Diabo Cody won Best Original Screenplay in 2007; and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana won Best Adapted Screenplay in 2006.

Of the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2020, women accounted for only 17% of writers (down from 19% in 2019). That means 83% of those films were written by men.

Clearly, gender bias and discrimination are very real – and they start way before the Oscars.

I believe that work conquers all. It is very hard to be a woman who writes screenplays – and as hard as it is for me, it’s even harder for women of color. Women and male allies need to band together and be the change. Things will only change when we push back on the dinosaurs and support each other through meaningful opportunities. Mentorships and labs are nice, but HIRE WOMEN and PAY US for our work. We need more than performative allyship.

Of all the things that you’ve done, is there one that you’re really proud of the most?

I’m proud that I never gave on the dream of seeing WONDER DRUG produced. It took Craig Borten two decades to see DALLAS BUYERS CLUB on the big screen. His journey has inspired my own 16 year-plus journey with WONDER DRUG. Nothing is impossible.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

I would love to devote myself full time to writing. It’s extremely difficult juggling two jobs – and I do treat my screenwriting as a job. It’s not a hobby.

I also want to move into producing and directing someday. Running my own production company would be awesome, too, but let’s start with writing full-time first!

How do you want to help move humanity forward?

By writing stories with inclusive casts, I am “being the change.” We don’t live in a purely white world. It’s a wonderfully diverse world, and I want my scripts to reflect it. Movies and TV can help break down walls and stop “othering.”

Follow Caitlin on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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