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Cris Graves is a Writer/Director and an Emmy Award winning filmmaker, who has worked across platforms from film to television to online content. Her work has crossed the globe as a producer/director, filming in some of the hardest and most remote locations of our planet. Her credits include The Amazing Race, Whale Wars, and Living Undocumented. Cris’ feature film script Alone Girl was a semi-finalist in three categories of the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition 2019 as well as earning a spot on The Bitch List 2020.
The screenwriter describes herself as the youngest of six and a proud Gen-Xer who was born in 1970, in New Hampshire but soon found herself being moved to Mexico City, Mexico at the tender age of one, where she lived until she was almost 19. “This makes me what some term a “third culture kid”… it also means I never quite feel like I fit in… no matter where I am, I’m a perpetual fish out of the water, and I love it. It means I’m in a constant state of learning and curiosity…and that is a beautiful place to be”, she tells us.
Recently, Cris Graves has been chosen as one of 25 screenwriters to watch by the Austin Film Festival. In this interview, part of Zaftyg’s series, she shares her journey in screenwriting and her goals for the future. Also, there is some Cat cuteness going on as Cris graces the cover of Zaftyg Magazine.
Tell us about your career and your journey.
Ahh… my journey as a creative began as most filmmakers story’s begin… with a movie. I was eight and my 21-year-old sister took me to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I was hooked. After the film, my sister asked what I thought and I said: “I want to do that.” She responded “What, be abducted?” thinking I wanted to be like the little boy in the film. And I replied, “No, make that.” Somewhere in my eight-year-old brain, I had figured out that Spielberg had made this film to tell me a story, and I wanted to do that too, to be a visual storyteller. I started writing the next day.
I would eventually end up getting both a B.A. and an M.F.A. in Technical Theatre, but even as I was learning to design lighting and sets for theatre I was writing spec scripts for shows like Northern Exposure and The X-Files.
I moved to L.A. in ’96 with a backpack of clothes, my computer and an X-Files spec… and I knew no one. Was it daunting, yes… did I love the adventure of it all? Absolutely. And so began my real journey, which went in so many directions I could never predict, including winning an Emmy for being part of the Producing team on The Amazing Race. And if your mind went there you guessed it, most of my career got dominated by this new genre of TV… unscripted. But my decades in documentary television have only made me better at my craft of writing, I have gotten to be a witness and take part in people’s real-life triumphs and tragedies and helped them tell their stories, I’ve gotten to sift through 1000s of hours of footage as we put episodes together and learned how people really speak.
And it’s all been such a great ride but about five years ago, I woke up and realized I was not taking charge of my dream. On my off time I was still writing my own stories… scripts and waiting, playing by the rules we all learned… so I sat and had a conversation with eight-year-old me, the kid who knew in her bones she was put on this earth to tell visual stories. She turned to me and said, “quit waiting for permission.” As writers, we work in our own silos and are taught that agents, managers, and studios own the keys to our scripts getting made. But, as I took an honest look at the ever-changing landscape of the entertainment business, a switch flipped. I realized I could write, direct, and edit a short film and start my own journey towards becoming the writer/director eight-year-old me dreamed of being… no permission necessary. It was so freeing, and since that revelation, I’ve made several short films. Now I’ve begun the journey to get my first feature film, Alone Girl, made. Eight-year-old me would be proud.
What are you currently working on? Tell us more about it.
A few things, my day job at the moment is working as a producer on a true-crime podcast called The Piketon Massacres… this of course is ironic as I write comedy. I’m also hustling to get my first feature film, Alone Girl, made and learning all about the hunt for financing that is the part of the process I know least about. But it’s like putting a very large, very expensive puzzle together and I’m loving it. I’m also developing a podcast I plan to launch in the next couple of months called Blissful Spinster. It will take a look at being a single woman as a personal choice, rather than a waiting room for marriage. I’m also starting work on a new feature film, a dark comedy pulled from my own life again.
What’s your career highlight?
Honestly, the moment I sat in a theatre that was screening my short film Bozonova and I got to hear a crowd of people laugh at something I wrote and directed… to know that I could make others laugh with something I’d written was so amazing and gratifying and quite frankly… addicting. I’ll be chasing that feeling for the rest of my life.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
My immediate goal is to get my first feature film, Alone Girl off the ground and made, and spin it into a career as an auteur director like the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson and Greta Gerwig. My dream would be for Alone Girl to strike a chord in the zietgeist and become a film women of all ages can come to see and feel seen, feel heard. And for the film to help show young women that love and romance can come in so many ways and that being alone is not, in fact, interchangeable with loneliness as we’re so often taught by society.
What originally attracted you to screenwriting?
I’ve been in love with visual storytelling since I was eight years old, I’m not exactly sure what specifically clicked in my brain at that age that propelled me towards writing… I think I just loved the idea that someone could make me feel and understand the world around me better when I went to movies or plays and that was something I wanted to be a part of. As I got older, I realized that a script is the origin story of any film or play you go to see but it’s also just the blueprint. It takes a group of artists to will any script into concrete reality. It becomes a conversation between the screenwriter/playwright and everyone else involved and that is a beautiful thing, that you are inherently writing something that is willingly putting itself out there for collaboration.
What’s a typical work week like?
I don’t really stick to a typical schedule… though maybe I should. Most days I simultaneously juggle working on my day job remotely from home, preparing materials for possible investors for my film, refining the script for Alone Girl, continually refining the Look Book for Alone Girl, doing research to help me understand how to find and secure financing for films, sometimes editing friends’ short film projects (few things teach you more about screenwriting than editing footage), and a good dose of playing with my cats – Jack, Bobby and the quarantine kitten Chadwick! Yes, I’m aware that 3 cats have put my 50-year-old butt squarely in the Crazy Cat Lady domain.
What writers have influenced you and why?
Probably the most influential writer on me growing up was Douglas Adams… his humor, mastery of language and sense of the absurd appealed to me on so many levels… I even quoted him on my senior year yearbook page!
As far as screenwriters and playwrights, Sam Shepard, Neil Simon, William Goldman, Mike Mills, Wendy Wasserstein, Nancy Myers, Nora Ephron, Greta Gerwig, Martin McDonagh… I’m gonna stop… I could keep going… They all bring humor to the human condition even when tackling tough subjects, and humor is one of our greatest teachers in life.
What makes a great story?
When a writer is writing their characters from a place of truth and authenticity. If your characters are grounded in those two things you can put them into any situation and the story will ring true.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Whenever I get notes, I never begin to implement them. I always sleep on them for a few days… to a few months sometimes and let them sink in. The most surprising and satisfying solves come to me, usually as I’m drifting to sleep or about to wake up, and my script is always better for it.
Do you have any tips on how to overcome writer’s block?
I think sometimes writer’s block comes from a fear of thinking we’re going to write something that is garbage… it’ll stink up the whole neighborhood… if this is the source of your writer’s block, I would counter, if you write whatever you are thinking about, even if you think it won’t make sense or will be bad, at least you have something to fix, to rewrite, to make sense of and get you moving on the right path towards writing your script. But if you simply give in to your fear, all you’ll have is a blank page staring back at you… just write, no matter what the idea, because you never know what may come from even a bad script… writing is an adventure, treat it as such.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in screenwriting?
Write, write, write. And understand that rejection should be used as fuel to keep you going, not as roadblocks to your success. The first person who should be a fan of your work is… you. The version of Alone Girl that made it to the top 10% of the Nicholl Fellowship last year also didn’t place in every other competition I entered it into… Page, Writer’s Lab (and the script is literally about a woman in her 40s), Screencraft Fellowship. None of this is a reflection of me as a person or artist, it’s a reflection of who was reading for those competitions.
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?
As I mentioned earlier, over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working in the unscripted/documentary world. I’ve been welcomed into the homes and lives of both ordinary and extraordinary people. I was witness to both triumphs and tragedies in their lives and helped tell their tales. These experiences have been my greatest education as a narrative storyteller. I’ve learned that it’s the personal stories that touch others in the most universal ways. This lesson has led me to look into myself and use my own experiences, feelings, and insights as to the basis for my writing. Tapping into one’s vulnerabilities is not only therapeutic in a self-reflective way but it can open the eyes of others to do the same for themselves. If my experiences can help others learn about themselves in an honest and positive way, I believe it’s a success. This is what was done for me when I learned about the lives of others on my travels and I’d like to pay it forward. It can be tough and scary to do, but the rewards for being brave enough to “go there” are full of personal growth and genuine connections.
What are the struggles in the industry for a female screenwriter? Is it still a “boy’s club”?
I think the biggest struggle in the industry for female screenwriters and filmmakers has simply been, that until recently, our voices, our viewpoints, our stories have not been as valued as those of men. I do see this shifting, and I’m hoping it’s a lasting change, that what we are seeing and feeling is the beginning of reckoning in society as a whole, and that we are moving towards a place where women, and really anyone who does not identify as a man by gender or expression can feel valued and equal. We all have stories to tell and those stories make up the beautiful fabric we call humankind… but if some voices are valued as more, then the patchwork becomes less colorful… less vibrant, and why would anyone want that?
You’re also a filmmaker. Tell us more. How do you want to help move humanity forward?
I combined the last two questions because I’d like to help move humanity forward through the films I write and make. And a case study for this is my script Alone Girl which was written directly from my life… I am a single woman who just turned 50. I’ve never married and live on my own. Yes… I have cats. Your initial response might be pity, but guess what? It’s a choice and I love my life. I am a joyfully single middle-aged woman. A minority. It might not be illegal but society has prohibited women my age from feeling comfortably spouseless. I’ve made it my goal to alter this perception. This is why I wrote Alone Girl.
Women are indoctrinated from the moment the first Disney princess film is put on for us to watch. Our primary goal in life is to find a partner. We’re taught that our happiness relies on being “chosen” or having to “find” a partner. Regardless of our ambitions or aspirations, settling down is the one, true recipe for a content life. I spent many years consumed by this myth, believing there must be something wrong with me, even falling into depression trying to live up to these expectations. I’m not alone. How many women are there in unhappy relationships because being in one—no matter how unsatisfying—is what they’re “supposed” to do? I’m not the only one. I want Alone Girl to be a film women will watch and discover that love, romance and happiness can be manifested in a multitude of ways. I want to show women that they have it in them to look beyond the narrow box society has built when it comes to what “should” make them happy. “Happiness” is our own to define.
Alone Girl is for all women. It’s a story about “coming into your own”, and it inspires us to be comfortable in our own skin. It is both a deconstruction of a traditional rom-com and a love letter to the genre. Comedy is a powerful tool; laughter is the first step towards changing hearts and minds. Films about women in their 40s, living full and complicated lives are few and far between. I believe women are hungry for a story like this to be told. I want to put my passion and skills to the test and will this film into reality. This is the kind of filmmaker I am… I’m on a mission to get Alone Girl made. For all of us.
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