I’m no stranger to the screenplay competition circuit. From Urbanworld Film Festival to AT&T/Tribeca Untold Stories, and even the lesser-knowns such as NexTV — there aren’t too many that I haven’t shot my shot with. If nothing else, a contest like WeScreenplay’s Diverse Voices can let a writer know how well their script is received — at least, among a single group of readers with a pointed goal of seeking the undersung.
Now, five years after placing as a Finalist in Diverse Voices 2017, my “cerebro-scandalous” dramatic thriller PRODIGAL has come under an option agreement with Felicity Wren and Max Timm’s brainchild Creative Screenwriter Productions, the development and production arm of the International Screenwriters Association. CSP, which is repped by Culture Creative, has shopped projects to several A-list production companies since its birth in 2020.
Truth be told, there is a combination of factors that allowed me to get on the company’s radar. Being on their Development Slate and named one of their Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2019 definitely helped.
But it was this Finalist placement in Diverse Voices which let me know that my “magnum opus” script was ready to make the rounds for real consideration — at least, among people who sought and championed the “diverse” perspectives at its core.
Below, I’ll expound upon the arc that took this Little-Script-That-Could from being simply enjoyable to industrially viable.
Read More: 6 Things You Should Do After Placing in a Screenwriting Competition
LOGLINE: A repressed grad student’s life implodes when her troubled stepbrother’s return from rehab disrupts the stability of their political family.
SYNOPSIS: PRODIGAL is written along the lines of films like Gone Girl and Cruel Intentions. The story follows career-academic ZORA, whose unhealthy filial piety and people-pleasing tendencies have already left her mirthless and burned out at 29. With the post-rehab return of her black sheep stepbrother, ALEX, Zora’s family teeters on edge– especially her father (RICHARD) who is preparing for a gubernatorial run. Alex is a breath of fresh air in Zora’s humdrum routine, but Richard warns Zora not to allow Alex to get too close or interfere with her rigid plans for success. When their parents’ hypocrisy comes to a head and the abusive nature of the family’s values is on full display, Zora finally learns the source of Alex’s anger– a heinous secret that threatens their very lives as they know them. Now, with the tension in the house approaching powder-keg status, Zora must reckon with the true nature of her family’s dysfunction, or she will be caught in a crossfire she never saw coming.
The Journey of Prodigal
A lot has gone down between 2017 and 2022 which allowed PRODIGAL to reach the production-feasible stage, much of which has nothing to do with this project in particular. But the story of its inception begins long before then and has a lot to do with the serendipity of perfect timing.
A Story Twice Lost
Back when I was a darling of the Philadelphia Young Playwrights program (fellow alums include Quiara Alegría Hudes and Adam F. Goldberg) the seed of the idea came about as a one-act play, my offering for my sophomore year competition entry. Due to its uber-mature IFC/Sundance-inspired sensibilities, I think it may have been a little too adult for the contest, which yielded the only year I did not place.
After losing track of my copy of the stage play, I attempted to revive it in short story form for a Creative Writing course. This was during my undergrad at Drexel University. And by the time I thought to convert that iteration into a screenplay — the year after graduation — that file was long lost, too.
First, Possessed Automatic Writing. Then, Polished Rewriting
Then upon arrival in West Covina, during my first attempt to permanently relocate to Southern California, I spent three days blasting Hozier’s “Take Me Church” on repeat and banging out a stream-of-consciousness draft. My only breaks were for sleeping, eating, and bathroom use. Whenever I retold this story, I’d remark on feeling “possessed” in the process. But my research into psychic phenomena (~Woo~Woo~) such as automatic writing put me at ease knowing that this type of creative channeling is fairly common and usually beneficial.
Read More: 5 Tips for Getting Your Script from First Draft to Done
Of course, my polishing process involved rounding up as many notes as I could garner — including from ScreenCraft’s esteemed coverage service.
The More Irons in the Fire, The Better
In the five-or-so years between PRODIGAL’s Diverse Voices success and the shopping agreement, I tended several other irons in my fire — which is imperative for gaining traction and trust as a rising writer. The announcements of my projects PALE HORSE and CHARCUTERIE bolstered my resume enough to secure attachment interest from an actor who’s starred in some of the most beloved shows on AMC and Netflix.
But without that stamp of confidence from Diverse Voices, I might have felt that this weird little script — with its weird little origin story — wouldn’t be important to anyone but me.
“The Validation From Diverse Voices Did Something Incredibly Important”
PRODIGAL is a story that has been with me, in one form or another, for half of my life. The path it has taken — including my starting over from scratch multiple times — has only led to it manifesting at a time when I know exactly why it is my magnum opus.
The social themes that drive the story (such as internalized racism, latent queer identity, and the mammification of the main character) are issues that I am actively grappling with after being forced to grow by uncomfortable-but-necessary points on my personal path. Seeing these issues interrogated on screen before they were healed in my personal life just might not have been fair to me as the writer or the legacy of the work itself.
The validation from Diverse Voices did something incredibly important for this story. It recognized that these themes are bigger than the characters in the story. It assured me that there was something liberating at the bottom of these pages that was bigger than the simplicity of representation. I believe that this story resonates because even though an audience may not have all the discourse or language to unpack the themes to academic standards, they will always recognize someone’s plea to have their humanity acknowledged.
If you’re a writer who is unsure that the cultural nuances of your particular work will be appreciated, please take it from my experience — choosing a venue where cultural nuance is the point will always be your best bet.
Read More: 4 Things to Look for in Screenwriting Competitions