FEMALE SCREENWRITERS SERIES: MEET CHELSEA ISABELLA CLARK-JAMES

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Chelsea Clark-James introduces herself as the child of a blended LBGTQ+ family yet she is also a cis hetero white woman, “so from an early age I was keenly aware of identity, acceptance, and social rules”, she tells us. The screenwriter had an an early love of science but STEM programs weren’t around when she was growing up, so she was deterred from that pursuit. Later on, she did find fulfillment in helping others and had her first career in non-profit services, primarily addressed homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse.

“After close to a decade of that work I pivoted into film & TV production. For thirteen years I worked on set in various roles but found my niche in the Grip Department. The whole time though I knew that I had this creative drive in me, and I wrote consistently on the side, but I never believed being a screenwriter was something I could do. What I did do was learn all I could though and one thing my production work taught me is that a script is a blueprint; it lets other creatives build something beautiful with their talents. After an injury took me out of production work, I decided to fully dive into writing full time. Outside of this never-ending pursuit, I am a practicing Nichiren Buddhist (SGI), I am the volunteer lead for a local political candidate, and I have to constantly keep myself in check from acquiring more plants!”, she reveals.

In this interview, part of a series, the screenwriter opens up to Zaftyg about her writing career and how the act of writing, for her, is a never-ending pursuit.

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Tell us about your journey.

The act of writing, for me, is a never-ending pursuit. Though it took me a long time to have the courage to admit that this was what I wanted to do, from a young age I’ve been engaged in creating stories. Once I made the commitment to own my craft, I found small successes – being optioned, hired for rewrites and other write to hire work. I am still chasing that produced credit, though.

I used to judge myself for that, but I’ve found that professionals in this industry understand that most work never makes it to the screen. That has been a bolster to my confidence, which seems to be the biggest trial of my whole journey: having confidence that I am a writer. That’s why I write stories about characters that struggle to believe. At the end of the day though, writing is where the magic is and magic changes everything. However, the road may look, I will never stop writing.

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

I market myself as a drama writer. My current WIP are a drama feature, You Too, Bye, that centers around death and family. It’s written in a tender tone with comedic notes to keep the story accessible and I’m currently approaching a director with it.

I’m also editing a guide book for women who want to work in film and TV production in below the line positions, appropriately titled “Below the Line.” This is a very fulfilling gig for me, allowing me to synthesis my various life paths into a value added endeavor. We need more women in every department on film &TV sets!!!

Another WIP is an original series, Lotus Energy Recycling, about a Buddhist trash disposal service, where they get rid of our emotional attachments by getting rid of our physical attachments. I have several drafts of the pilot, but was struggling to solidify the story. My writer’s group suggested I write it as a short story, and this has been tremendously helpful. In the short story I can world build, have backstory, do things that I won’t use in the pilot but that I need to know to write the pilot.

Finally, I have a short thriller series, Victoria & Spencer, that I’m developing. It’s about a research librarian, whose husband shows up dead in a foreign country. As she pieces together why, she finds out she was married to a stranger but that his final mission needs to be carried on. This story excites me because it’s the first time I’m venturing into action scenes, and I’m also enjoying writing about a woman transforming into a badass when she never saw that in herself previously.

What is your career highlight?

I feel my highlights are up ahead of me! Of what I’ve done so far, I’m proud that I’ve paid my rent from my writing, even if not consistently. I did produce a short film of mine, and I’m proud that I was able to pay people!

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What are your goals/dreams for the future?

Short answer is writing films that are produced and being a Post Production Producer. I love the edit process and see it as an extension of writing. Long answer is I really want to find my tribe, that’s a big goal for me. I have a note on my desk, a vision statement of sorts. It says: “I make my living writing and producing films & TV. I love the feeling of fruitful creative relationships. It’s more play than work and it’s safe, relaxed and sometimes electric. I am at ease in my artistic talent and my human connections. I am purposeful and present.” That’s literally the future I want and smile as I write it out!

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What originally attracted you to screenwriting?

What attracts me to screenwriting is that it is only one part of the production process. I love that other building with their talents on top of what I lay as the foundation. I also love the poetry of good dialogue. As a kid, I wrote a lot of poetry and in my late teens even self-published a poetry book (this was before the internet!) Also, screenwriting is a platform that requires constant learning, and I love that. A couple years ago I was hired to write a short film for VR and that was such an amazing experience because of the way that sound plays into the script. I also had to think about transition between scenes, cuts in VR are super jarring, so how do I lay out on the page what they’ll need to do on set. 

What’s a typical work week like?

Thursday is my Monday. I work three days a week at a florist, so those are days I have to schedule meetings and my writing differently. I try to do more design/pitch deck/networking those days. Sunday’s are busy with my spiritual practice and the campaign work. I don’t usually write those days but my creative waters get a lot of nutrients on Sundays. Mondays and Tuesdays are my heaviest writing days, and Wednesday is usually catching up on life duties and occasionally it’s a day of rest. I try to schedule each day with reading time, writing time, networking time, exercise, and my spiritual practice.

What writers have influenced you and why?

Taika Waititi has a fabulous sense of relationships in his stories, and I am so excited about his upcoming Reservation Dogs. Janet Mock and Steven Canals created the best characters and most authentic entry into a marginalized community with Pose. They are #goals! Adam Resnick’s world in Death to Smoochy is still one of my favorites. To take children’s programming and create a poignant story of greed, trust, and caring about our impact in the world is something I want to replicate in my stories.There’s so many more to list but those are ones that I come back to and really value.

What makes a great story?

A great story is simple and specific, tender yet funny, with characters that are accessible to the audience. 

Do you have any writing rituals?

I have a note taped to my mirror. It’s a bastardization of a Steven King quote. It says: Habit has written more scripts than talent ever has. that’s the truth. Write, write, write. But also, I leave my phone in the other room and sometimes I go to a local park and sit under my favorite tree.

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

If it’s blockage on a story, I try to writs one or two throw away scenes from another character’s perspective. If it’s the terror of the blank page, I type text from something boring…eventually I want to see my own words up there and it’s not a blank page anymore. I also try to remember that research IS also writing. I may be blocked because there’s not enough information for me to write authentically.

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

A career in screenwriting is about so much more than the writing. You have to be able to handle rejection, false starts, having outside income at the beginning, networking, branding… it’s a complicated endeavor and there’s not one path to getting something optioned/sold/made. Be resilient and adaptable.

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?

I’m in it to win it as a writer. My life’s lessons are what make my characters full, my stories accessible, and my scripts viable. Growing up in the family I have showed me that how we identify ourselves isn’t always how we are identified, with is something I find my characters experience a lot. My work on set has given me a tactical advantage, I understand how words on the page translate to budget. I am budget minded when I write because if the story is too expensive to get made than the value of the story never gets out to the public.

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What are the struggles in the industry for a female screenwriter? Is it still a Boy’s Club?

There has been a lot of change in the industry in the last few years that makes it easier to find representation and work as a woman. The only place I’m still hearing about problems are that as more women pitch female driven story lines, they are still being met by male execs who can’t imagine who would want to watch the story being pitched. This is why having women in all levels of production is so important. It’s the female producers, executives, managers, and department heads who will be sheepherding a story through to completion. We need their support and voices every step of the way.

How do you want to help move humanity forward?

As part of my spiritual practice, we have this thing called Kosen-Rufu, which roughly translates to world peace. For me, the goal of Kosen-Rufu is creating content that inspires people to be truthful, to heal, and to be compassionate.

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