Roslyn Muir is a screenwriter, novelist, story editor, and teacher. She is an MFA graduate of the UBC Creative Writing program and has a BFA in Theatre from Simon Fraser University. She grew up enjoying science fiction and is the recipient of the prestigious Praxis screenplay award. She has recently produced a dram film, The Birdwatcher and has written two movies of the week, Anatomy of Deception and Reluctant Witness.
I wanted to interview Muir for three reasons: she has succeeded in writing screenplays in a variety of genres, she is currently developing more, and she manages to do all of this with a family while teaching aspiring screenwriters. That’s what I consider a triple threat. I was fortunate enough to sit down and interview her in person.
How did you become a screenwriter?
My background is really varied. In school I didn’t start out wanting to be a writer. I was really into theatre, and I wanted to be an actor. That’s what I did, I went to SFU and did a BFA in Theatre. I was a performer in both film and theatre. I did a bit of writing, I wrote some plays and performed in them myself. For actors I think writing stuff for yourself is one of the smartest things you can do, right?
Yeah, that was one of the philosophies of the Theatre Program at SFU. You don’t just sit around and wait for people to cast you in plays. You make your own work. That’s been probably a newer philosophy of the last 25 years or so. More people are tending to be writer/producer/directors now.
Back to becoming a screenwriter…
I did some fringe plays, like improv, I used to have an improv troupe. The economics of being a starving actor caught up with me and I decided to go back to school to become a teacher. I taught high school Drama and English. I taught grades 8-12, and directed plays. I actually only got into screenwriting because my friend started to write them. One of my producing/performing partners who I did an improv show together with got all of us writing scripts and then we started hanging out with film people.
Where did you go from there?
It was in 2000 when I wrote, produced, and directed my first short film, Everything’s Rosie. It was financed by $500 I earned from one garage sale. I kept writing and made another short called F-Stop. It was about an obsessed photographer and I wrote, produced, and directed that as well. After that I realized that I didn’t want do everything like that, I thought that’s what you should do but I realized I really wanted to focus just on the writing. Then I started writing features and realized they actually take a lot of time. I worked on the same feature for about five years. To gain experience I began working as a production assistant at a production company and within a few years I was managing it! It was a small company but I learned about film development and worked my way up. So I did that part time while I was writing, and then I began story editing as well. I started to get a little bit of funding for my scripts and in 2009 my sister had cancer and she passed away. That made me suddenly focus more on how easily life can just go anytime. That was when I decided to do the MFA here at UBC and I graduated in 2012.
Since then you’ve been quite busy, is that correct?
Yeah! Since then I’ve been writing full time, I decide I wasn’t going to go back to a day job and I committed to just writing. For the past five years all I’ve been doing is writing and I won a contest in 2011. A local company was looking for movies of the week and I had actually written one as an experiment called Anatomy of Deception, so I submitted it and won the contest. The prize was that they would produce it, paid me for it, and then they asked for more script ideas. I pitched a bunch of ideas and they purchased some more. These are all female driven thrillers, kind of a cookie-cutter genre that goes to Europe and is sold there. Then Lifetime in the US and Showtime in Canada usually pick them up.
What about OMG, your short film that screened at VIFF and several other film festivals? Can you speak to how you got the idea and developed it?
Well I wrote it when I had a 14 year old daughter, who’s 18 now. But I was going through this awful time with her and her cell phone. It was very much true to life, and I felt I had to write about this somehow. I made it with a 14 year old running away to her grandma’s home to shake it up. I wrote that and workshopped it while I was here at UBC and even co-produced it with my director partner Siobhan Devine.
It’s my understanding that two of you have a working relationship where you have collaborated on a lot, right?
Yeah, we met through an event at Women in Film. We made a pact together at another film competition that if neither of us were picked that we would coproduce something together. So we did OMG together and I told her about a feature that I was working on inspired by my sister’s battle with cancer. It turns out she had a friend who was going through a similar situation. It’s about a single mom who’s dying of cancer and doesn’t know what she’ll do with her children once she dies. She goes looking for her birth mother, it’s called The Birdwatcher. We bonded over this subject matter and then Devine applied for an award, the Women in the Director’s Chair Feature Film Award. We won it, and it gave us $100,000 toward film services. That was a pretty big deal, and then we applied to Telefilm and got some more money from their low budget film fund. We shot it last April and are completely finished now. It’s now being sent out to festivals
What was your thesis for your MFA at UBC?
It was actually a young adult fantasy novel called The Chimera’s Apprentice. The novel was my first time I had written fiction, but I loved it, it was great and so exciting. I wrote The Birdwatcher in a feature writing class. I also took some TV writing classes and have written some pilots that Devine and I are developing together. We’ve just been so busy with features that we haven’t really done a lot yet for pilots. So we’re trying to stay focussed despite all that’s happening right now. I have lots of other ideas too that I just haven’t found time yet to pursue.
Can you tell me a little about your writer’s process?
Well with The Birdwatcher I started with a character and a theme. With the movies of the week they tend to all come at once, they’re less complex and come as a whole. Another feature I’m writing right now, a drama, I’m in the process of figuring out. I know the ending I want but it’s a matter of getting there. They’re all different for me.
What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters?
If you want to be a writer, keep writing. Always write and diversify. Try to challenge yourself by writing different forms. Don’t get stuck in one format. As I’ve gotten older I’ve just let go of all those rules I had of “not being that type of writer” and allow myself to experiment. I keep a notebook on me pretty much all the time, and I write down lots of ideas. I allow myself to write crap, because it’s a matter of training yourself to let those ideas come out. The other thing I learned during my MFA is the discipline. You have to give your scripts to people and take critiques openly and apply those without losing your centre. Creating a disciplined schedule for yourself should be your biggest goal. For example I’m a morning writer and and I usually write until lunch.
What do you think makes stories so compelling and popular?
Stories are part of our DNA, if you go back through history we had an oral tradition, then we moved on to books, radio and film. We are hardwired to want stories.
Any last words of advice to aspiring writers?
Keep plowing through it and don’t ever give up because eventually things snowball.
Appropriate advice from someone on a string of success with more to come on the horizon.
Jackson Runkle is in his third year at UBC double majoring in Creative Writing and Film Production. He hopes to one day write something original and funny that hasn’t already been said from the perspective of an insecure white boy. His other interests involve Thunderbirds basketball, Kraft Dinner, and Tom Hanks.