Every once in a while we receive an email from a student that not only makes us happy, blush with pride, and give each other air high fives from our desks, but also exclaim “holy cow!” Several weeks ago Cinthea Stahl, who won second place in the 2008 UCLA Extension Screenplay Competition, contacted us to let us know that she won a 2010 Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship. This is, as Screenwriting Program Representative Chae Ko puts it, “the mother of all screenwriting competitions.” Each year, the Academy awards several aspiring writers a $30,000, year-long fellowship to write a new script. Cinthea wrote her entry script, Identifying Marks–which tells the story of a tattoo artist commissioned to work on a dying woman–in her Writers’ Program classes, and subsequently won second place in our competition. I thought it only fitting to have a cyber-chat with her to find out the secret to her success.

Writers’ Program: You wrote your Nicholl Fellowship-winning script, Identifying Marks, in your Writers’ Program classes. How did this experience help take you and your script to the next level? What resources were you exposed to that you otherwise might not have found nor had access to?

Cinthea Stahl: As a widowed mom working two and three jobs, it was hard to even think about spending money for screenwriting classes. UCLA Extension gave me three grants that enabled me to learn my craft. Paula Cizmar was a phenomenal teacher who pushed me hard to make the story as rich as possible.

WP: Tell us a bit about writing the script. Was the process anything like what you expected when you began writing? What drew you to the Writers’ Program?

CS: The first page of the script is a retelling of a scene that simply snapped into my head. A man parks a beat up car on Pico Blvd. He gets a bag out of the car, crosses the street without caring if oncoming traffic will stop, and enters a hospice. He enters a room, sees a woman lying on a bed and asks, “What do you want?” She replies, “I want a tattoo of my daughter.” I had to find out who those people were. Once the writing started, it actually proceeded very quickly. I wrote it during the Advanced Screenwriting Class in the fall and polished it during Advanced Rewrite in the spring.

What drew me to the Writers’ Program? The quality of the instructors combined with my work schedule’s limitations made the Writers’ Program the only logical choice.

WP: Now that you have won the Nicholl Fellowship (congratulations!) what are your plans? Will you continue working on this script, or begin a new project? What is your ultimate goal as a screenwriter?

CS: My goal is to be a working screenwriter. The only condition of the Nicholl Fellowship is that you must write another original script during the Fellowship Year. I have already begun this new script. I’m also considering a writing assignment—a book adaptation. Identifying Marks has gotten a very good response in the market so far, so we’ll see what happens there.

WP: Do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters? What industry “tips” have you picked up along the way?

CS: Write, write, write, and then write some more. Really, you’ve got to put in the chair time. And, when you’re learning how to write a scene, create a character, or what the nature of dramatic conflict is–don’t worry about the market. It’s enough to learn how to be a good writer. The market is always changing and there will be time enough once you’ve learned the craft.

WP: Lastly, what scripts inspire you? Is there any film you turn to when you’re feeling blocked?

CS: So far, I don’t really struggle with blockages (knock on wood!). And I don’t sit and read a bunch of screenplays—that’s like trying to learn carpentry from studying blueprints. But I will go and see a movie 2 or 3 times if there’s something I want to understand. Last year, I saw The Hurt Locker three times because I wanted to focus on the way it was structured. And if I want to spend time with genius, I’ll watch Some Like It Hot or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

For more information about the UCLA Extension Screenplay Competition, click here.

Katy Flaherty is the Program Representative for Creative Writing (Online) and Events. 

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