Interview with Imaginative & Badass Screenwriter Cara E. Anderson

Cara has worked in the film industry for over 20 years in a variety of areas. She loves to travel and has visited and lived in many wonderful places and currently calls Vancouver, British Columbia home. She loves to write, think about parallel dimensions and the existence of black holes, and watch squirrels (not in any particular order).

Cara E. Anderson
Cara E. Anderson

When did you know that you wanted to be a screenwriter? How did you start?

While I have been writing stories and skits since I was 7 or 8, I think I really began to play around with the idea of making movies when I was about 14. I pretty much always had a video camera in my hand for the first three years of high school and then I worked in the theatre through the last two years of high school and well into my 20’s.

On my first day of film school back in 1993, everyone in class was asked to stand, introduce themselves and talk a little bit about what they were hoping to achieve. After listening to the 31 other students declare that they were going to be directors, I stood and, without thinking, said, “I’m going to be a screenwriter”.

I guess you could say that I started by writing a lot of crap and taking a lot of classes. Though I am still writing a lot of crap and taking classes, I have more moments of “hey… this is pretty good”.

What genre(s) do you write in? What is it that you love about them?

My real love is science fiction but I also recently discovered a new passion for animation. I am inspired by the idea that there is more here to the world than we can see, grasp or even conceive of as a human being. I guess that really applies to both genres; though one is a more serious exploration for adults and the other appeals to my more whimsical nature.

Can you tell us a little bit about a few of your screenplays?

I am obsessed with time and quantum physics. Many of my projects have this is an underlying theme. But I’ve also written a couple of dramas. About 10 years ago, a woman paid me a little money to write the screenplay based on her horrific childhood. That ended up being one of the worst writing experiences of my life. When you sit down to write something you have to live with the story until it’s done… and for a year I had to shoulder this heinous tragedy. Let’s just say that I’m done with writing real life tragedy now.

On the flip side, Squirrel U, my animated feature, is about the secret world of genius squirrels attending their own university on and around the human university, Cornell.

THIS SOUNDS AMAZING! I NEED TO SEE THIS MADE NOW!

What inspires your ideas? How do you come up with them?

Many of my projects are inspired by dreams and meditations. Squirrel U is the one exception. That idea came to me when I was visiting Cornell University and saw a squirrel that appeared to be studying the world around him, much like the human students on the campus. I began to imagine what this little squirrel would be like if he were actually attending university… how he would look wearing a scarf and backpack. That idea stuck with me for 12 years before I started writing the story.  I don’t even know that I would have started writing the story if it weren’t for the two squirrels that got stuck in my chimney for two years in a row during the Academy Awards. I like to think the Universe was trying to tell me something.

Hahaha this is magical.

What do you find most challenging when writing?

Writing characters. I am really, really good with structure and because of that I write for plot. I often have to go back after the first few drafts and just do passes for each of the characters.

What is the process of trying to get your screenplay made into a film?

There are many different ways to get your work made into a film… and, after 21 years of working in the film industry, I haven’t yet succeeded at any of them. Yet. I really believe that there is no “one way” or process to make something happen. Everyone’s story of success is unique and often seems lucky to others. We all manifest things in our own time. For now, I am continuing to take classes and enter contests and write and write and write. When I feel my screenplays are good enough, I will send out query letters and try to get an agent. For now, the process is really just about being a better writer. There is no rush.

All writers are readers so who are some of your favorite authors and why?

I was blown away by Ernest Cline’s novel (and soon to be movie) “Ready Player One”. Though I almost never do this, I’ve already read his novel twice and listened to the audio book a few times. Genius. It likely won’t come as any surprise to you, but I also love to read screenplays – my favorite so far is probably, “Groundhog Day” by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis. “Source Code” by Ben Ripley was a fantastic read.   I’m also a fan of the Scaredy Squirrel books by Melanie Watt. Go figure.

What about your favorite films?

My first love was, and always will be, “Somewhere in Time” by the late Richard Matheson. I watched the film for the first time when I was 9, sick and stuck at home. Though I wouldn’t consider the book, screenplay (both written by Matheson) or film brilliant pieces of literary fiction or cinema, the philosophy that he explored in his story shaped me and my perception of life in many ways.

“Contact” is another favorite film (the book is also amazing). Christopher Nolan’s films, “Inception” and “Interstellar” are both brilliant and each of them has inspired me to be a better writer and to think more deeply about the types of stories that I want to tell. And I’m a huge fan of the muppets.

What are you working on now? Do you outline or write by the seat of your pants?

In addition to rewriting Squirrel U, I am working on a feature about a demon that is possessed by light and kicked out of hell. I’m also co-writing my second animation feature with another fabulously talented writer, Kristel Taylor. Kristel and I met taking an online class from Screenwriting U (an absolutely AMAZING program, by the way).

I almost always outline like crazy before I ever start writing the script. I’m trying something new this time with my demon project – I’ve got a pretty detailed outline of the first act and a very rough outline of the second and third acts. Because this project is more about character than I usually write, I’m trying to let my main character figure out what to do next. It hasn’t been an easy journey so far. I miss my outlines.

What does a typical writing day look like for you/what is your process?

My typical writing day is often squeezed into fifteen minute increments or moments during my regular work day in the special effects department. I also try to write for a few solid hours at least once every weekend and then almost every day while I am not at work in FX. My process starts off by asking myself a series of questions. If I have a vague idea of what I want to write about, I start by asking, who is the best person to tell this story? And then I ask, when does this tory take place, where….etc. And then I write the logline (a one or two sentence synopsis of your entire idea). I test out the logline on other people until I know for certain that the story has potential. And then I go back to asking myself more questions. Eventually those questions turn into minute details and before you know it, I have a basic summary. I don’t like to write in order because I am not sure how I will feel or where my head will be on any given day.

What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned on your writing journey so far?

Perhaps the single most important lesson for me is that it is better to write crap and keep moving forward until a draft is finished than it is to keep rewriting the same scene over and over and never move forward. Drafts are inevitable. So I push myself to keep going. In an ideal situation I do not look back until I get to the end. And then I do a number of passes – starting with the structure and then for each character, etc.

What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters? 

Screenwriting requires a different way of utilizing language. You have to be efficient and clever about how you express your idea, tone or concept. My first piece of advice is to read a lot of screenplays. Get comfortable with the notion of using few words and a great deal of subtext.

Join a writing group. Share your work.  Learn how to take feedback. And then just keep writing. No matter what. It doesn’t matter if your writing is terrible when you start because, like everything, practice makes us better.

This was an insightful and interesting look at a storytelling and writing! Thank you so much!

Where can people find you online?

Twitter:          https://twitter.com/20owlsinatree  

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