Alexis Krasilovsky is the author of Great Adaptations: Screenwriting and Global Storytelling (Routledge: NY/London) and the #MeToo novel Sex and the Cyborg Goddess (under the name Alexis Rafael), winner of the Irwin Award for “Best #MeToo Novel of the Year.” She also co-wrote Shooting Women: Behind the Camera, Around the World (Intellect/U.Chicago Press, 2015), wrote Women Behind the Camera: Conversations with Camerawomen (Praeger/Greenwood 1997) and contributed to Women on Poetry, Reclamation: A Survivors Anthology and Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence. As writer/director, Alexis’ films include End of the Art World, Exile, Beale Street, Let Them Eat Cake, and Women Behind the Camera – winner of five Best Documentary awards and available through Amazon Video Prime. Her narrative film, Blood, was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times as “in its stream-of-consciousness way, more powerful than Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.” She is a member of the Writers Guild of America West and lives in Los Angeles.
ALC: Are there certain elements of fiction novels that make some stories more adaptable to film or TV than others? What about nonfiction?
AK: Several factors determine the adaptability of a novel. Some of them are business-oriented: Is the novel popular with readers, so that a producer can approach its adaptation with a feeling of assurance that an audience awaits him or her, whether or not the novelist demands a hefty fee for the right to adapt it? Or is it public domain, so that a filmmaker working on a shoestring doesn’t have to negotiate pricey options from the novel’s author? (I go into these issues in detail in Chapter 2 of my book, Great Adaptations: Screenwriting and Global Storytelling.)
Other factors concern craft, rather than the business behind the adaptation. Filmmakers are looking for things to happen, more than internal reflections on something that happened before the “now” of the story. The more visual the original source material is, the better: we are relying on sights and sounds to make the story come to life on screen. Novels with clearly depicted protagonists and antagonists, where the conflicts take tangible form as action events rather than stream-of-consciousness passages, no matter how elegant the prose, make it easy for producers and screenwriters to develop these characters’ stories for the screen. Some novels have many characters – too many to remember in a ninety-minute feature. But a story with a large cast of characters can be a godsend when developing a television series, as networks want projects that can be sustained for hundreds of episodes; a minor character introduced in the TV pilot may become a character whose arc unfolds in Season Two. Can characters be combined in order to intensify the dramatic conflicts of a story without detracting from the basic biographical veracity of a feature-length film? In the case of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, both of his friends are composite characters, but the story is already an epic, and would be too confusing to show the many friends, siblings and accomplices who helped shape Malcolm Little’s character arc into Malcolm X. Chapter 19 of Great Adaptations delineates several additional considerations when adapting nonfiction material.
ALC: What are some contractual things an author should be aware of when pursuing having their book optioned for film for TV? How can they ensure a win-win situation?
AK: The most important thing an author needs is trust. A clearly drafted agreement between the author and the entity responsible for the adaptation is crucial. Many factors go into a successful contract from an author’s perspective, not just the money for permission to try to get the adaptation made. Does the author want to insist on script approval? Absolute discretion may be hard to obtain, but at least the author should ask for reasonable approval. Credits should not be taken for granted either—these should be spelled out. The author should also think ahead to sequel rights and territories rights, with options for further territories. How long should the option last before the rights revert back to the author? Several of these and other factors are discussed in Chapter 2, “Career Issues,” of the book Great Adaptations, including examples -- such as what finally made Alice Walker trust Steven Spielberg and Quincy Jones enough to allow them to adapt her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple.
"Many factors go into a successful contract from an author’s perspective, not just the money for permission to try to get the adaptation made."
ALC: How can new writers get connected in Hollywood and establish relationships with key industry professionals?
AK: It’s important for new writers to spend time in Los Angeles, networking with producers, directors, agents, managers and other writers. But before investing six months to this process (a ballpark estimate, as some writers take years to get into Hollywood, while others seem to be discovered overnight), do your homework. The first thing you need is at least one script as a sample of your work. Try to get it into screenplay contests: some newcomers get the attention of agents and managers through the better contests such as the Nicholls Fellowship. Have you utilized IMDbPRO to get the contact information to people whose names appear on the credits of the films and television shows most similar to those you aspire to write? Have you looked into joining writers’ groups such as the International Screenwriters’ Association? Do you qualify to become an Adjunct Member of one or more of the many groups in the Writers Guild of America West’s Inclusion and Equity Department: Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American & Indigenous, African-American, Latino, women, over 40, LGBTQ+, or disabled? Do you have a particular hobby or special interest that might put you in touch informally with writers or producers whom you admire, who can evaluate your personality and work ethic outside of the business? Are you prepared to spend many, many hours improving your writing, as well as investing the time you need to network with the people who will move your writing forward?
ALC: Your novel Sex and the Cyborg Goddess won IRWIN’s "Best #MeToo Novel of the Year”. How did your own experiences influence this story, what do you hope readers take away from it, and what made you decide to write a novel versus a memoir?
AK: Often in fiction one can delve deeper into the emotions of a character, with less constraint about taboo material than in a memoir, especially if the people behind some of the characters are still living. Although most of my novel is fiction, the sexual assault that takes place while Ana is hitchhiking is based on my real life experience: I didn’t have the money to take the train from New Haven, so I hitchhiked to New York with the footage of Andy Warhol in my backpack, which became my first documentary film, End of the Art World. The driver pulled out a gun and proceeded to molest me while speeding down the highway. As he pulled onto the off-ramp, I jumped out of the moving car, though I almost didn’t get the footage back. The novel describes accurately those circumstances—how it feels to be violated and to risk one’s life, as well as exploring the long-term consequences to a victim of sexual assault. I hope that this #MeToo story will help others who have experienced sexual assault—whether at college or in the film industry (as the novel explores both, in Parts I and IV)—to heal.
ALC: If an author is new to screenwriting, should they attempt adapting a manuscript to a screenplay? What are the best ways to learn the craft of screenwriting?
AK: If an author can remember the thrill of starting out on his or her first novel or short story, then by all means he or she should rise to the challenge of embarking on their first screenplay. It can be an exhilarating challenge. On the other hand, without some basic tools of screenwriting, the process can quickly become a major headache, especially if you have to pay the original author a fee for optioning his or her work: Will you complete your screenplay and sell it before the option period runs out? I recommend reading a few basic texts in screenwriting and in adaptation. Once you have a draft that you feel represents the best that you can do, it can be very helpful to workshop it in a writers’ group where you give and get feedback, well before the sometimes brutal process of getting notes from a producer. You really want to put your best foot (--er, screenplay or pilot!) forward.
Some people benefit by taking screenwriting workshops or classes, whether Gotham’s on-line classes at writingclasses.com, or UCLA’s Extension Program’s screenwriting classes. Others embark on one of several full-fledged MFA programs offered around the country, such as those offered by NYU, USC, or the one where I teach—California State University Northridge’s MFA Screenwriting Program. There are also several high quality screenwriting programs offered abroad.
"If an author can remember the thrill of starting out on his or her first novel or short story, then by all means he or she should rise to the challenge of embarking on their first screenplay."
ALC: Explain your decision to use a pen name for your fiction work.
AK: I chose a pen name for my novel, Sex and the Cyborg Goddess, because of its erotic passages. (The novel begins on a college campus during the late 60s and early 70s, which was the heyday of the sexual liberation era.) My father was still alive, and I didn’t want to upset him with my storytelling, however fictional or fictionalized they may be. I hope that the novel will be republished under my real name, perhaps with a different title, someday. In the meantime, I’m happy to report that Sex and the Cyborg Goddess won the 2018 Irwin Award for “Best #MeToo Novel of the Year,” and is available in paperback, eBook and audiobook through Amazon, Barnesandnoble.com, audible.com, and is also listed on Goodreads.
ALC: What are the downfalls of formulaic writing, and when can it be used effectively?
AK: Many people in Hollywood still swear by Chris Vogler’s Hero’s Journey, as described in his book, The Writers Journey (Michael Wiese Productions, 2007). It’s still of great value, especially when developing action-adventure films. But his one-size-fits-all approach is perhaps inadequate when it comes to heroines’ journeys—particularly stories that address the relationship between two female protagonists, or the transformation of a young female protagonist as she achieves a more holistic outlook on life—and also fails to take into account other cultures. I explore these issues in greater detail in Chapter 8, “Structure: Heroes and Heroines—Where Are We Going?” in my book, Great Adaptations: Screenwriting and Global Storytelling.
ALC: You’ve directed and produced several documentaries, including the award-winning Women Behind the Camera. What is your preparation, research, and writing process for these films, and how do you determine which real-life stories will capture an audience?
AK: Some of my films simply entailed following the maxim, “Just do it,” as described by the female cinematographers of Shooting Women and the feature-length version, Women Behind the Camera who just picked up a camera and began to explore their craft, whether in Russia or the US. My two global documentary features, however, took many years of intensive research and collaboration with filmmakers in other countries. As writer/director of Women Behind the Camera and Let Them Eat Cake, I felt it was important to consult with filmmakers in Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Guinea, India, Iran, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Senegal, Turkey, the UK and other countries to tell the stories of those films from a variety of cultural perspectives. Let Them Eat Cake, a documentary which contrasts the most exclusive pastries of Paris, Lima and Tokyo to the world hunger crisis, took six years in twelve countries to complete. The courage of pioneer camerawomen to face the challenge of a male-dominated field and seek beauty and excitement from behind the camera inspired me to tell their stories in Women Behind the Camera. In the case of Let Them Eat Cake, I was seduced by my love of pastries. But I was also fueled by the world hunger crisis to tell the stories of workers on sugar cane plantations in India and cocoa plantations in West Africa. I chose the subject of pastry knowing that what goes on in making of a mocha cake in the Patisserie des Reves in Paris, and other stellar, mouth-watering pastries around the world could provide an entryway into the thinking of the Zen Buddhist Abbot of Sogenji Monastery. Shodo Harada Roshi, whom I filmed in Okayama, Japan, states that without a balance between those who have too much to eat and those who don’t have enough to eat, there cannot be world peace.
For more on Alexis Krasilovsky visit www.alexiskrasilovsky.com
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