Are you an aspiring, struggling, driven, motivated, ambitious, and creative screenwriter? Do you often wonder how to make a living in this business? How to survive? How to keep inspired and stay true to your art? I recently chatted with online student, 2006 1st Place Screenplay Competition winner, and working screenwriter Jas Lonnquist. Jas has been writing, publishing, and winning awards since her undergrad years, and now is working on a project making short films for a Bay Area museum. Her dedication, success, and wisdom are an inspiration to anyone who wonders how to make a life of writing.

Writers’ Program: Tell us about the project you’re working on now.

Jas Lonnquist: I’m currently writing a series of nineteen short films for the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Subjects range from the top-secret decryption computers of WWII to the story of “Space War!” The first film premiered June 29 in the new “Silicon Engine” exhibit. The films will ultimately be part of the museum’s spectacular expansion which opens October 2010. It’s rich, un-mined material, it’s great fun, and I’m proud to be part of preserving and honoring the history of the fascinating people and mind-blowing inventions that changed our planet.

WP: How has your background in screenwriting and what you learned at UCLA Extension helped you with this job?

JL: My experience writing for and about Silicon Valley helped me earn this opportunity, but my UCLA Extension training was equally important. To succeed, each short film needs to be an emotional journey, not a chronology of facts. Ideally, the viewer will feel wonder, excitement, urgency, awe, pride, failure, ecstasy, loss, and rivalry. I hope visitors will look back and feel a sense of awe about how far computers have brought us in 50 years, and look forward and feel a sense of excitement and responsibility about where computers could take us in the decades to come.

UCLA instructors like Scott Myers and Karl Iglesias never let students forget how important that emotional experience is for the viewer. Scott taught us to weave emotion into every scene and Karl’s advice to “make the viewer feel the theme, not think the theme” is priceless. Martin Copeland warned, “Be ready to answer ‘why would anybody want to see this?'” So true. It’s critical to know the answer if you want to share your stories.

WP: Tell us a little bit about your background. When did you first get into screenwriting?

JL: I sold my first national magazine feature–about maximizing the potential of Hi-8 tape– during my first semester of college. By my second year of college, I’d won a number of awards for investigative journalism, humor columns, and trade features. Those clips and awards opened the door to corporate and special interest videos, a medium I found so satisfying that I changed my major from journalism to film. After college, I wrote scripts for Intel, Microsoft, Dell, and other clients. I also wrote television newsmagazines and educational programs, primarily about technology, health, science, and lifestyles. I wrote fiction, too–comedies, mostly–but I found fiction to be a much harder sell, even though four of my comedies were honored in the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowships. When I learned UCLA Extension Writers Program classes were available online, I eagerly signed up. I was so grateful that I could attend class in a virtual classroom, at home or when I traveled. It was wonderful to share the experience with classmates from all walks of life and all around the world. I had classmates in Japan, Russia, and India. One classmate posted his homework from a submarine. It was a terrific experience. For me, it was also a healing experience. In 2003, I’d dropped everything to nurse my daughter who had a brain tumor. It was a terrible ordeal, but she recovered, thank God. Taking classes and focusing on a new goal helped me start picking up the pieces of my career with hands that were still shaking badly.

WP: Where do you want to go next as a writer?

JL: I’m really enjoying this phase in my writing career and my number one goal is to keep it going. I finished my screenplay ONCE UPON AN ISLAND, a true story about newlyweds that sell all they own to buy a deserted island, and I’d love to find the right home for it. The story of how they survive one life-threatening adventure after another is astonishing. And the heart of the story–you can’t run away from your pain–is poignant and well-worth exploring. I have a new script in progress and lots of ideas lined up on the runway. Yesterday I received a request to bid a film series for another museum. Fingers crossed!

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Katy Flaherty is the Assistant to the Director of the Writers’ Program. Write to her at kflaherty@uclaextension.edu.

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