ARTIST SPOTLIGHT - WOMEN IN HORROR
Interview by Nate Ludwig
NL: What's your story so far? How did you get into screenwriting?
KWD: My childhood was riddled with short, fantastical stories and unfinished novels. Some of them were pretty wild. I remember one story in particular about the child of a Devil/Loki fusion who had to save the universe from monsters patrolling the "corridors" between multiple universes. I entered the first few chapters into the Young Authors competition in middle school, and my English teacher who judged it legit asked me, somewhat jokingly, if I was "stable." I laughed it off, and then I won runner-up.
Little did my teacher know, she wasn't wrong to ask. Outwardly, my childhood looked like the typical suburban white picket fence life, but behind closed doors it was pretty messed up. Like with many kids, writing for me was an outlet. I took the escapism of the fantasy genre quite literally and dreamed up for myself thousands of worlds in which I was a powerful heroine capable of besting world-eaters and taunting serial killing fairies and what-not.
Despite my wild imagination, I never imagined that you could write narratives in any other form than prose. I grew up in the practical Midwest, and Hollywood is very impractical, at least in my childhood community's eyes. It seemed like a vague, distant world of actors and directors who magically made movies appear with the power of lots of money. Even when I was working in my high school's theater tech department and gleefully reading the plays we helped produce, it never occurred to me that someone had to actually write scripts for film and TV, too.
And then, the summer after I graduated high school, I marathoned Supernatural with my mother. At first, it was just a fun show to watch, and I would predict the characters' actions and try to come up with their lines before they actually said them. And then Supernatural grew and this whole five season arc played out, and it wasn't as easy for me to predict what would happen next, or what the character's next line would be. The plot became something of a puzzle for me to piece together, and I've always liked puzzles. And like that, a light bulb went off -- someone had written this all. I could write something like this, too.
I wrote and researched like a madwoman after that. I'd already decided to attend Illinois Wesleyan University, where I'd only have the option to minor in film if I created the minor myself, and while I liked the school, I knew I needed more than that. So I wrote my first feature in a month to prove to myself that I could, and then I applied to the University of Southern California's screenwriting BFA. I never thought I'd actually get in, but then I did, and I really had no choice but to go. Now, four years later, I've got a shiny degree, an award-winning script, and a dog. I'm a work in progress, and I'm pretty proud of how far I've come.
So that's how I got into screenwriting.
NL: Everhart is a fascinating potential TV pilot. Tell us a little bit about the details of the show and how much of the series do you have fleshed out so far?
KWD: So for those of you reading this who don't know, long story short, Everhart is a pilot about a college freshman who discovers magic/gets magic thrown at her, and accidentally lands herself and her overprotective brother in a magical mob war in today's Chicago.
I'd say my strongest strengths in writing are world-building and character, and in this script I really got to exercise those strengths. While my lead character is Silvia, the college freshman mentioned above, it's very much an ensemble story, and while writing it I was most excited about the character arcs and relationships that would play out throughout the series. I've got those fleshed out the most, but I know that if this show ever were to get made, with a whole writers room to brainstorm, that those arcs might change and develop more, so I wrote with that potential in mind. Some of my favorite characters are Silvia, of course, who could like, kick my ass and I'd be happy about it, and Zoe, who's a detective in Chicago's secret magical society and only has one eye due to past trauma, which becomes really relevant when you realize at the end of the pilot that she injured her good eye in a chase sequence. Another favorite character of mine is Silvia's brother Toby, who looks like he could kill you but is really a giant sweetheart.
I adore Toby's brother/sister relationship with Silvia, but the relationship I'm really most excited for in this series is Toby and mobster mastermind Orville. I hint in the pilot that they're both somewhere in the LGBT arena, but there wasn't time for me to explore that more in this single episode. They'll have a pretty conflicted but loving relationship in the series, and as an LGBT person myself who's sick of seeing the "Bury Your Gays" trope in the media, if I manage to get this show made, I'm going to do all I can to make sure that neither one of them dies (or at least not permanently).
Anyway, I don't think you want this entire page to become an outline of my characters' development, so I'll try to wrap this up. I mentioned world-building -- that was a huge part of this script. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, so while I've always thought of it as my city (don't tell the people who actually live in Chicago I said that), I did need to do a fair amount of research on the city so that I could accurately meld my idea of a magical world with it. I found out some pretty fascinating things, like the existence of the Pedway, which is an maze-like system of underground tunnels that that lots of business folk use to avoid the cold during the winter. I thought that was perfect for a magical mob to use, so there's a decent chunk of the story that goes on down there. I also really like the idea of magic being intertwined with nature, so I spent a lot of time figuring out how to mesh that with city-life, and I have to say, I think it paints quite a pretty picture.
Anyway, plot-wise, the engine of the show is a magical mob war. I doubt it shows at all in the pilot, but I definitely took some inspiration for it from Peaky Blinders. Buffy also definitely influenced Silvia's character and her storyline of being gifted/cursed with a great magical power, and I've heard people who've read this script compare it to Lost Girl, Grimm, and Stardust, so that's pretty nice.
NL: What are some other projects you've written? Care to share any with us?
KWD: In my second year at USC I wrote the script for a short film based off a treatment my friend/director wanted to make, and we finally got it finished this 2017! It's called Engage and you can watch it here. I've definitely changed as a writer since writing it back in, what, 2014? 2015? But even though I've changed since writing it, it's still important to me because I think it facilitated some of that change. Engage was a great experience of collaboration, and I absolutely adore the set design and cinematography of it. I can be somewhat hesitant to talk about this film, though, not because I think it's bad or anything like that, but because over the past few years, I've become really uncomfortable with depictions of men's violence against women in the media. It has to do with the power dynamics and the real life aspects of it -- like, I love seeing Wonder Woman fight Ares, but I hate movies that explicitly show things like a husband beating and/or raping his wife. I find just watching that sort of violence to be exhausting, so given Engage's content, I really don't think I could write anything like it again. That said, I did write it while I was coming to terms with my own sexuality, so it was good for me to dip my toes into writing about women loving women.
NL: Have you made any short films or do you plan on making any? What do you feel is the biggest challenge for you as a writer in getting their work noticed?
I took part in making Engage as the writer and an investor, but I don't think I want to direct or anything like that. It's just not for me right now.
I've had no trouble getting my work as a writer noticed by festivals (thank you!), but I still haven't heard anything from any sort of representation. In school I was told not to actively seek out representation, but I'm beginning to think that perhaps I misunderstood that lesson, and maybe I should look into management companies that accept unsolicited material. I don't know. I'll figure it out lol.
NL: A lot of women writers have used pen names or they use initials to hide their gender. Do you feel this is still necessary and have you ever done that yourself? How do you feel about that personally considering everything that's happened lately in the entertainment industry?
KWD: I was initially going to go by K.W.D. when submitting my pilot to festivals, but when speaking to other women in the industry, they said that's it better to include my full name because the industry is trying to be more inclusive and actively seek out women. That said, I'm white and have a very "white" first name. I don't know if a woman of color with a non-Anglicized name would be as advantaged as I am, unfortunately.
Also with that said, despite the anecdotal evidence I've heard about (white) women's names being an advantage in the industry, actual studies have shown otherwise in more generic hiring processes. So really, I don't know how "necessary" it is to hide my gender when trying to get my work published. But I think I'm going to stick with Kate for now, because even if it is a disadvantage, I don't want to be part of maintaining the status quo as it is now. The more exposure to women's talent, hopefully the less of an anomaly it'll be.
NL: What are some of your influences when it comes to your writing?
KWD: Tamora Pierce's Tortall books, for sure. Mercedes Lackey as well. Harry Potter of course. Buffy, also of course. And my childhood favorite movie, Jurassic Park.
NL: Seen any good movies or TV shows lately?
KWD: BLACK PANTHER!!! It was amazing! If you haven't seen it yet, you absolutely must. I was lucky enough to be able to see it twice, and I gotta say it's so nuanced and multi-layered and the characters are so wonderful, and I just. Wow. What a gift.
NL: What are you working on right now? Anything you can share with us?
KWD: I'm in the middle of a short story that I'll probably be submitting to some contests. I can share the first 400 or so words of it. It's the "prologue" so to speak, and it's from the perspective of some wrathful trees. I really enjoyed writing it.
The trees slept, their roots tangling together, a centuries-deep ache drowning out the itch of insects boring into their bark. Quiet flickers of life, of deer and pike and eagles and all the small things, danced through the trees’ awareness, and power trickled soft through their limbs, a pale echo of the past.
Thunder called down to them from above, too distant, but strong and awake all the same, and they yearned.
Oh, how the Grove yearned.
Centuries ago it was terrifying. Godly in its grace. And then the world turned on it. It severed limbs from hearts and cleaved the trees from their past, their present, their future. Spirits and sprites sought refuge between the Grove’s leaves and within its hollows. Its worshippers forsook it for a new god, and its oracles burned on pyres of its withered flesh. And so the Grove used the last of its strength to forestall Death and bind all those it could salvage in sleep.
When it was in its prime, no one could find it unless it wanted them to. But now, centuries later, the Grove was dormant and weak, and the witch had fresh life flowing through his veins.
The surrounding forest, a new, burgeoning life with only a whisper of awareness, watched curiously as the man painted prayers and promises on the Grove’s trees. His offering, a young human, squirmed on the ground. Its muffled shouts disturbed the stale night air, but the dreaming trees of the Grove remained numb to its pleas. This offering wasn’t one of theirs.
At last the witch circled back to his offering and, with a single slice, silenced its cries and splashed its hot blood across the roots.
Droplets of life soaked into the earth, into the parched bark, and the Grove woke.
Ravenous, it dipped into the man’s mind and found his promise of loyalty and servitude. Tentative tendrils of hope twined through the Grove’s heartwood, but as it dug deeper into the witch, it found hunger and deception like rot and mildew beneath dead leaves. It found him wanting, and it refused to be used again.
When the witch reared back in fury, power welling at his fingertips, the Grove pulled at him. It tore its ragged roots out of the ground and pinned him down with the desperation of a starving bear, and it drank.
Tainted by greed and spoiled by unwillingness, the witch provided meager sustenance for the Grove, but sustenance nonetheless. The man’s voice grew weak; the flow of his blood slowed, and still the Grove drank, till he was nothing more than a husk of bones and grit. Yet the Grove remained unsatisfied. Like a snake eating its own tail, it drew from its unsuspecting charges, from the sleeping birds and creeping spiders and watchful deer, drawing them down into itself, into death, till there was not a spark of life left for miles.
Still it hungered. Still the Grove called for more.
NL: What's one thing we might not know about you that would fascinate or surprise us?
KWD: I figure skated for ten years and my coach wanted me to go to Denver to do altitude training. I panicked and quit when he brought up the Olympics. I've always wondered how far I could've gone if I'd gotten my anxiety taken care of and stuck with it. I still occasionally take to the ice just so I can whizz around and feel like I'm flying again.