Danielle Nicki is a film and TV screenwriter who tells meaningful stories about Black women leads with diverse life backgrounds not often showcased on the big screen. The screenwriter was born in Naples, Italy to military parents and they moved to the United States when she was just a kid. Danielle introduces herself as a mother of three teenagers and she and her husband have been married for 18 years. “I’ve been writing screenplays and pilots for about 10 years now and I’ve had a lot of uninteresting jobs ranging from retail to corporate”, she tells us.
Her first completed screenplay, Mo’ Black, a coming-of-age dramedy about a 15-year old girl in 1995, was a Nicholl Fellowship quarterfinalist and a finalist in the Cannes screenplay competition. In this interview, part of a series, the screenwriter opens up to Zaftyg about writing, her career, and her goals.
Your first completed screenplay was Mo’ Black. Tell us more about it.
I spent the first several years learning to write pilots. Looking back, I can admit I was afraid of features for their length and finality. There’s nothing more fun to me than figuring out a cliffhanger on which to end a script and without that I was lost. After going through some tumultuous times, I decided to listen to people who say to write through your pain and use it as therapy. That script became Mo’ Black, a story about a 15-year old girl in 1995 who moves from a rich area to a not-so rich area and how she reconciled how she was raised with who she now had to become. It was extremely cathartic for me.
What originally attracted you to screenwriting?
I’d tried to write a novel in my 20s and failed miserably. Even though I always felt I was a storyteller, that experience led me to believe I wasn’t meant to write. Several years later, it was suggested to me that I might be good at screenwriting. I wasn’t quite sure exactly what that entailed and this person told me to download some screenplays, read them, then just go write. The first script I downloaded was Juno by Diablo Cody and I was hooked by page 3. This was the format that made sense to me! I haven’t looked back.
What’s a typical work week like?
I have a full-time job that currently allows me to work from home. I wake up between 5 and 5:30 am to get in a couple hours of writing before I have to switch laptops and start my day job. Nights are reserved for my family.
What writers have influenced you and why?
I am drawn to writers that engage the reader as part of the story. Their action lines speak directly to you, use curse words, or tell you things that won’t necessarily be filmed, but inform the story and characters. Basically, writers who break the “rules”.
What makes a great story?
The best stories, to me, are ones that don’t shy away from relationships. From huge superhero tent poles to tiny indies, the relationships are what bind us to the story.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in screenwriting?
Practice a whole fucking lot. Can I curse on this? I hope so, because this is important. I thought my early scripts were good only to look at them now and cringe. We get better with every script so keep practicing and learning.
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?
If I had to classify myself as a writer, I’d probably call myself an individual. I hope that doesn’t sound douchy. When I was first starting out, I wrote what I thought would get me noticed and what I thought was wanted from me. We spoke about Mo’ Black – that was the first script I wrote where the subject matter and protagonist were totally mine. I didn’t care about anything outside of myself and it ended up as a QF in the Nicholl Fellowship. That was all the validation I needed to keep on that path.
“A survey conducted from October to December 2019 among 333 writers from underrepresented groups in Hollywood found that 55% of writers of color repeated as staff writer at least once, compared with 35% of white male writers, according to a study by the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity, a consortium of active Hollywood writers”. Comment.
Sigh. I am annoyed by this, but not really surprised. I find it hard to believe there isn’t a safeguard against this for more vulnerable writers. Someone in that position shouldn’t have to risk their livelihood to speak out or fight against it. I don’t blame the writer for taking the job, I blame the system that makes it so this happens over and over again.
Why aren’t Black female screenwriters getting their due?
I don’t know why. I can’t understand this from the decision maker’s perspective because from what I see, Black women screenwriters are telling phenomenal stories that are both specific AND relatable to a wide audience. They’re missing out on a broader viewership, that’s for sure.
Screenwriting has traditionally been a boy’s club. Do you agree? Or are things changing?
Both. On one hand you’ve got powerhouse women writing and producing properties which, up until about a year ago, were reserved only for men. On the other hand, there’s still writers rooms with only one woman or POC in them. We’ve still got a while to go, I think.
Of all the things that you’ve done, is there one that you’re really proud of the most?
I didn’t quit. 10 years is a long time to go without reaching a goal, but I stuck with it because I love it. I’m the weirdo who actually loves the process of writing so I’d do it until I died whether I was paid for it or not.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I dream of producing and I might think about directing in the future. I’m working on my first book, which is an adaptation of one of my feature screenplays. Another dream I’ve had since I was just starting was to provide screenwriting resources to traditionally underrepresented young people. Screenwriting is a fantastic outlet for creativity and, like most things, it isn’t fair that it could be kept away from someone because of economics.
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