The Writers’ Program officially congratulates student Barbara Stepansky, who last month was not only crowned 1st Place Winner of our own Feature Film Writing Competition, but her same script, Sugar In My Veins, also beat over 7,200 submissions for the coveted Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Barbara did a page-1 rewrite of her winning concept in our annual Master Class in Feature Film Writing. Read on to hear about her experiences with the program and the competitions thus far!

Writers’ Program: What made you want to be a screenwriter?

Barbara Stepansky: I’ve always been writing, as a kid and as a teenager – poetry, short stories and novels. But when I started working as a projectionist for our local cinema, I became besotted with the movie language and wanted to learn how to write screenplays in particular. My prose was always a little elliptical and I didn’t really have the attention span for novels. I was much more interested in what characters did and what the consequence of their actions was than what they were thinking about. That ultimately seemed like a perfect fit for screenwriting.

Wp’: How did you find out about the Writers’ Program?

BS: I had been working in the industry for a while as a director but had become rather lazy about my own writing. I was missing the academic structure to make me produce pages every week. The Writers’ Program had a great reputation and I had taken a class with Billy Mernit before, so when I learned that the Program was offering a Master Class [with him as the instructor], I didn’t hesitate to apply.

Wp’: What type of courses have you taken at the Writers’ Program and how has that impacted your writing from then until now?

BS: I had taken a few beginning screenwriting classes at first, such as Writing the Romantic Comedy, Writing for Episodic Television and the Advanced Feature Film Writing Workshop. It culminated for me in the Master Class in Feature Film Writing, which was a year-long class. Every two weeks I was required to present new material and had a group of smart individuals comment on those pages. I had enough time to rewrite while at the same time producing new pages. Danny Rubin was a very memorable guest in our class, who enriched our experience with many wonderful anecdotes from the business and the creative process.

Wp’: What inspired you to write Sugar In My Veins?

BS: The story had been with me for a while after reading Nabokov’s Lolita, but I wanted to approach the relationship between a young girl and a much older man from a star-crossed lovers perspective rather than from a place of perversion. This propelled me to really try and figure out the characters and what made them interesting to each other in spite of the obvious age gap. Their attraction is the heart and soul of that story.

Wp’: Could you tell us about the journey from entering Nicholl to being named a fellow?

BS: Once you submit your script to the Nicholl Fellowship Competition in May, it’s really out of your hands for quite some time. They receive over 7,000 submissions and every single one needs to be read and evaluated. I learned I had moved into Quarterfinals at the end of July, then Semifinals at the end of August. From there, the drop-off is quite steep to only ten Finalists. To receive the phone call to be amongst those ten scripts was quite the shock. I was completely speechless. To progress to a Fellow is a great honor and I’m very excited about things to come.

Wp’: What do you hope to do now with the exposure from these two competitions?

BS: I hope to secure representation from someone who can help me open some doors and move on from the micro-budget, independent world that I’ve been working in so far. Don’t get me wrong, I loved working on the films I did and meeting some really awesome, generous collaborators, but it would be nice to limit the amount of compromising you have to do on a daily basis. I also hope to be able to get Sugar In My Veins made into a feature film.

Wp’: What sort of advice would you give to other aspiring writers who are in the Writers’ Program or thinking of taking courses with us?

BS: It’s a great program and if you’re like me and you like structure, support and deadlines, it’s a wonderful way to learn and to get your screenplay done. You get many notes and thoughts that you can choose to take or to ignore, but I’m a big believer that every note or comment teaches you something. I’ve met excellent teachers, made some life-long friends and wrote an award-winning screenplay. I really don’t think you can go wrong.

Wp’: Any closing thoughts?

BS: I learned in the Writers’ Program to approach story from a place of passion, not necessarily commerce. I stopped writing what I thought I should to become successful but what would make me happy. I never in a million years thought that Sugar In My Veins would speak to other people as much as it does to me – but I’m really relieved it does.

For more information about our annual screenwriting competitions and winners, please click here.

For more information about our Master Classes, please click here.

Jeff Bonnett is the Program Assistant for Screenwriting (Onsite & Online). Contact him at or (310) 206-1542.

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