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Female Screenwriters series, Sofi Odelle came out as transfeminine in January of this year, and she describes it as the most liberating experience of her life. Creative, bold, and talented, she is a prolific screenwriter. Sofi also joined us for our latest podcast, listen here!
“I’ve dealt with bipolar disorder and OCD all my life, as well as being on the spectrum with nonverbal learning disability (NVLD – similar to autism but with some marked differences). I don’t have hobbies so much as intense areas of focus – currently screenwriting – which have included drawing, video games, dance, and poker among other activities throughout my life”, she tells us.
Best known for writing character-driven action movies, in this interview, part of a series, Sofi talks about writing, her perspective as a Trans Woman Screenwriter and why representation is so important. Join her too in our Podcast, hosted by Heather Rodriguez-Udy featuring Raquel Figueiredo.
Tell us about your career and your journey.
Like many writers, I wrote my first story when I was very young, 7 years old as a class assignment. I didn’t write regularly until I was 12, though, also as part of English class, but this time it stuck. Between lyrics, poems, short stories, essays, memoirs, and screenplays, I’ve written in excess 500 pieces since then. During that time, I started dance classes, first as a jazz dancer, then later as a ballet dancer. I danced, taught, and choreographed professionally for 6 years before retiring in 2005. That’s when I took my first screenwriting class. I was 31, and after trying to write a novel and learning that I have no patience for description and internal monologue, I figured that screenwriting suited my visual style more than anything. Unfortunately, the mental illness I struggled with caused a 14 year writer’s block that I only came out of in 2018. But once I committed to medication and therapy, the floodgates opened and I’ve been writing nonstop ever since. I finally wrote my first screenplays in 2019, and I’ve pumped out a baker’s dozen since then. Lately I’ve been focused on polishing 3 samples so that I could hit the ground running when I was ready to query.
What are you currently working on? Tell us more about it.
My current screenplay is the third one I wrote titled Godlike, about a group of super soldiers who discover their immortality. Really it’s about an abused woman finding her place in the world and overcoming the patriarchy to discover her true self. It’s a deeply personal story, drawn from my own life of overcoming abuse to become the self-actualized version of myself (always a work in progress).
What’s your career highlight?
Not to be coy, but I can’t really discuss my current career highlight because it’s still in the works, but my old career highlight was choreographing my first story ballet that made the audience literally bawl by the end of the piece. That’s when I knew I had the ability to affect people and connect with them on an emotional level, and I try to bring that same sensibility to my writing. It seems to be working so far!
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I want to write blockbuster movies. I feel like it’s my calling. I started out thinking I would be writing small arthouse pieces, but my forte turned out to be epic, character-driven action. Once I realized I had the ability to do that, it was game over. It’s gone from a dream to a need. Beyond that, I hope to be an inspiration and example to other trans artists, to let them know they don’t have to be locked into their perceived gender roles and that they can do any damn thing they dream of if they’re willing to put in the work to improve their craft. I want them to know that their voices are not only valid, but important for the world to see.
What originally attracted you to screenwriting?
I’ve always had a knack for visual story-telling and a strong disdain for excessive description. After trying to novelize my first big story idea, I realized I needed something that took advantage of what I did best. I had already thought about screenwriting (indeed I wrote my first screenplay when I was 16), so I decided to give it a real go and took my first and only screenwriting class. I was not disappointed, as it felt like the most natural medium for my stories. It all came back to my spectrum disorder (NVLD) and how it guided how I thought of storytelling – straight to the point and highly visual.
What’s a typical work week like?
Ha! I gave up on “real” work in 2016 after it nearly killed me. I was already in shut-in mode when the pandemic hit, so I really haven’t missed a beat. Most of my time is spent building relationships on social media and learning the craft from professional writers. I spend most of my time thinking about writing and how I can improve my work to make it undeniable. It sucks being poor, but I’ve never been happier with a career choice, even dance.
What writers have influenced you and why?
I have quite a few influences from Robert Towne (dramatics) to John Milius (over-the-top action and dialogue) to Steven E. DeSouza (DIE HARD!), but probably my most influential is William Goldman. His ability to tailor his voice to the specific story he tells while still being completely identifiable as THE MASTER is what I strived for as I first learned the craft. I don’t care what kind of story I write, but I want it to be clear that “this is a Sofi Odelle script”. Voice is how we stand out, so it was always my first priority to find out who I am – my authentic self – and translate that to the page. William Goldman did that consistently and brilliantly.
What makes a great story?
The age-old question, right? For me, it’s about emotional connection. You can have all the style, action, drama, and great characters in the world, but it’s all meaningless if none of it connects with your audience. There’s a saying I’ve heard (the filmmaker escapes me), “People go to the movies to feel something,” and I feel that HARD. You connect to John McClane, to Jake Gittes, to Butch and Sundance, to Vincent Vega. How? Why? That’s the magic of screenwriting.
Do you have any writing rituals?
I really don’t. When a story won’t leave my head, when it keeps me up at night, no matter what time of day it is, my brain sits my butt in the chair and I start typing. I don’t stop until I’m either exhausted or finished. If it’s exhaustion, I get a good night’s sleep and continue about two hours after I wake up. Repeat until I type FADE OUT.
Do you have any tips on how to overcome writer’s block?
Writer’s block, to me, is your brain telling you “not write now” (pun intended). The best way to overcome it is to stop writing. Stop thinking about writing. Get as far away from writing as you can and discover why your brain isn’t giving you those precious words. A lot of times it’s stress, anxiety, or some other distraction that has nothing to do with writing. I believe that you can’t force your way through it (your mileage may vary). You can’t force a flower to grow. All you can do is plant it in good soil, give it enough water, and then leave it in the sunshine. The growth comes at its own pace. Same with writing. Read/watch TV or movies, relax, and let your subconscious do its job. Do it enough, condition yourself to have a clear head, and the writing will come on its own.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in screenwriting?
Do it only if you’re passionate about writing. If it isn’t something that calls to you when you’re trying to think of or do anything else, then it’s not the career for you. It’s a commitment, both in time and in work. You have to be willing to suck, and you WILL suck. But if you have the drive to work on your craft and improve in small increments over several years, this may be your calling. Once you figure that out, learn everything you can about screenwriting. Find out if you truly love it. After that, you can learn about the other side no writer wants to think about, the business side. But it must come in that order.
Who you are 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 have a saying: I am a goddamn supernova. I’m the kind of writer who lays it all out there, no restraints, no conscience. I want to explode onto the page. It all stems from my training as a dancer. I was always a performer, someone who drew attention on stage. I approach screenwriting the same way: my writing is a performance. It’s a hyper-focused, hyper-real version of myself. It’s explosive, balls to the wall, and unapologetic. It is my purest, most authentic self.
What are the struggles in the industry for a female screenwriter? Is it still a “boy’s club”?
I think the biggest challenge is expectations. Women supposedly write soft, sentimental pieces about relationships or whatnot (we’re either Nora Ephron or an aberration). It’s true to an extent, but it’s such a small part of it. I’ve found women’s writing (the good stuff) to be more well-rounded and global, more in touch with that emotional connection I mentioned earlier. In my experience, men don’t like that. So we’re often dismissed and not taken seriously. Is it a boy’s club? Absolutely! But women like Ava, Shonda, and Misha Green are proving that women’s voices are powerful and that there’s a huge audience for them. And I know plenty of other strong, talented, and skilled women who are ready to take up the mantle and continue the strong work we’ve seen over the last several years.
As a Trans Woman, what do you think that needs to change on the big screen?
Now this is the question. I am sick to death of binary gender roles as well as stereotypical orientations. As a trans woman, I have never seen myself on the big screen, and it’s a shame. I might have been able to come out decades sooner if I had. AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) women have made great strides over the past few years, but trans women don’t seem to exist as anything other than punchlines or abominations (don’t get me started on Buffalo Bill). We need to see our humanity displayed. We are not just our gender. It’s not a personality trait, for cryin’ out loud! We need to be validated over and over until people realize that we’re not jokes or freaks. We’re women, dammit! And we come in innumerable varieties!
Why is representation so important?
Like I mentioned, I might have been able to come out in my twenties or even teens if we had representation. I spent all my life thinking something was wrong with me, living as a man while being told “you’re not a REAL man” by other men. I struggled with mental illness which uncoincidentally hasn’t been as much of a problem since I discovered who I am. You think maybe if movies had normalized my existence, I could have comfortably discovered myself earlier? Maybe even avoid all the hell I’ve gone through since I was a teenager? I’d bet my life on it, since toxic masculinity seems to be all fine and dandy for the assholes of the world, and I don’t even need to talk about that representation. And I believe this is true for all marginalized groups. If we don’t see ourselves on screen, how can we feel that we’re anything but an object of cishet white curiosity?
How do you want to help move humanity forward?
This is my main thing. Regardless of where my career goes, I want humanity to progress beyond these manufactured roles everyone plays. I describe myself as a staunchly anti-capitalist, hard-core progressive. I want to be a voice of reason, to show the world that being our authentic selves and displaying the love we should all have as kinfolk on this blue dot is the path to everyone’s happiness. We all have the potential to be content with our lives, and if I can convince one person at a time that they are worthy of love and respect, that they are CAPABLE of love and respect, I know I’ll have done something to benefit all of us. I’m still new at this after hating myself for so long, but I hope to be a powerful advocate for the disenfranchised and disillusioned people of the world. No one should have to go through life the way I did – poor, abused, closeted, food- and shelter-insecure – and I’ll die fighting for those who do. We’re at a point in history that has come up so many times before, where we must decide on maintaining the status quo where people suffer, or destroy the paradigms that cause the suffering, and I want to be at the forefront of the latter. FEMALE SCREENWRITERS SERIES: SOFI ODELLE
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