Writing business

Film and TV screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis ’87 on the who and what of inspiration

How did you get into screenwriting? Describe this trip.

I got into writing in general because I was encouraged to write creatively here at Davidson College and studied playwrights like Shakespeare. Two teachers, Cynthia Lewis and Elizabeth Mills [professor emerita], were the kind of role models for an active life of the mind that encouraged me to think about what I wanted to say, and less about whether or not someone else might approve or think it might work. Screenwriting is not a high earning profession. You have to get into it because you love it, because the chances of living on it are so low.

Where do you draw inspiration for your work?

I think everyone is inspired by everything they experience or manage at some point. Immigrant identity is a big part of what interests me: the very, very complicated question of what it is to be American, what it is to to belong, what is it to try to create a more perfect union, what do these things mean, what is community.

How do you connect with new projects and what is your process?

The simple answer is that in my business you are always independent. You jump from job to job, especially if you’re writing movies and television. I tend to ask my agent to help me identify existing properties on the market that I would be good at, or find something that I particularly like myself. It’s a process of discovery – constantly asking yourself what, at this point in your life, appeals to you? What do you want to write about at this time in your life? It is never the same from one year to the next, or even from one month to the next.

Is there a particular project that you are proud of or that has brought you joy? Why?

Yes. shutter island and Avatar brings me a lot of joy. I am extremely proud of the first season of Altered carbon. I think it’s a huge privilege to make filmed entertainment of any kind, because it will be seen and experienced by more people than you will ever personally know. The part where you appreciate it is knowing that you had the chance to say something that touched other people.

What are you working on at the moment?

tomorrow [Oct. 18]tv series, The School of Good and Evil, spell. I was one of the authors of this project. There were several writers – about three in total. It was a wonderful experience because I wrote lines for Kerry Washington, Charlize Theron and Michelle Yeoh. These women are my heroes in performance. It was a fun experience. I’m working on a few projects, but I’m not sure anyone would recognize them yet. One is an original series about a multiversal love story.

What was your role in the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike?

My position in the 2007-2008 writers’ strike was that I was one of the founders and writers of the online blog, Hollywood United. I worked closely with the WGA Steering and Bargaining Committee.

Have conditions changed for writers since the strike?

The Writers Guild is currently in a difficult situation due to the way writers are compensated. It changed seismically as the business was disrupted. Many writers can no longer earn a living as before. I would argue that the proliferation of content hasn’t translated into an equal proliferation of middle-class jobs, which is the basis of the existence of the Guild and of Hollywood. Skilled workers did something so specific that you saw why it would support a robust middle class. I don’t think the writers are in such a good position now. I think the employment situation is very volatile. COVID didn’t help, but a lot of things didn’t help. The disruption of our streaming business, the move away from linear delivery, and the move away from the advertising model have all played a role. The disruption was so complete that it’s hard to pick one thing and say that was it. It’s a cascade of events.

How has the #MeToo movement affected the lives and work of female screenwriters?

I am of the opinion that there are no women who have not connected to the fact that our reality is different and that it is imposed on us by sex. In any space, power disparities exist. But, there was behavior that ranged from occasional bad behavior to overtly criminal behavior. I think this has had a positive effect, in that blatant criminal behavior is no longer tolerated or seen as a necessary evil. There’s a lot of conversation (as there should be) about flippant or thoughtless behavior. You can’t separate #MeToo from George Floyd and the reckoning we’ve seen, in terms of shifting consciousness. What this shift in consciousness will mean is harder to say. We don’t all experience life the same – there’s no one-size-fits-all goal, which is a good thing.

What are you reading, writing and listening to right now?

I’m listening to my son’s first album, train-boat, the soundtrack for an indie game he wrote with friends at the University of Utah. He is a composer and attends Berkeley College of Music in Boston. When I’m not listening to it, I like Joy Williams and Ruel. I like female artists. I listen to Nina Simone, because you can’t write without listening to her. The anthems of independence are Aretha, but the anthems of pain are Nina Simone. I also like Irish artists and Hozier (before everyone else). Lately I’ve been listening to soundtracks – I write to them because they don’t have lyrics. Songs with lyrics are very difficult to listen to while writing, because they are poetry.

What are your interests outside of writing?

I like to scuba dive. I love the ocean in general. The whole aspect of biodiversity loss and species collapse makes me very uncomfortable. I especially like reading and gardening, and regenerative agriculture in general. Davidson has quite an interesting garden space.

Is there a class, teacher, mentor or experience at Davidson that inspired you?

It was the combination of Professor Lewis and Professor Mills. As far as Professor Lewis was concerned, it was an uncompromising approach to the job. There is the push, the relentless push towards excellence. She was inspiring as a role model and as a woman scholar who also researched and wrote. Professor Mills was the first professor of women’s literary studies at Davidson College, and [she provided] my initial experience of seeing the literary tradition through a different lens than what women writers and writers of color have brought to the conversation. At the time, they were largely out of canon. It was transformative because there was a representation of someone who didn’t look like you or didn’t have the same background. I’m from Florida and my family wasn’t involved in the entertainment industry. Without these two teachers, I don’t think I would have believed it was possible to do what I do.

Do you have any advice for women who want to do what you do for a living?

It would mostly be deciding whether you’re more interested in TV or film, because even though there’s a lot of back and forth, they’re still very different forms. These are very different skills. Decide which one you prefer and watch a lot. Reading is necessary for a poetry writer, but watching TV and movies is necessary to be aware of the shape of what you want to do. Consider the near-definitive need to move to Los Angeles for a while. Similarly, for most urban areas of America, the cost of living in Los Angeles has become prohibitive, and that is a class issue that concerns me. If people want to break in [to the business], they should not sleep in a car, assuming they even have a car. Be ready for it [success] happens overnight – and if it happens overnight, that also causes problems. Everyone’s experience is so drastically different.