2019 / Alex Sutton

      

From an original field of over 1,700 writers, Alex Sutton (pictured left) took home first place in the Screenwriting Challenge 2019 after three rounds of increasingly difficult challenges.  Check out the screenplays he wrote for the competition below in addition to an interview about his experience!

 

 

 

   

        1st Round
Caledonia Lost
Genre: Thriller
Subject: Trespassing
Character: A prankster
2nd Round
Dick Rogers Versus The Weed
Genre: Action/Adventure
Subject: Reputation
Character: A groundskeeper
3rd Round
Nula
Genre: Open
Subject: Accident-prone
Character: A zookeeper
   
  12 pages
Logline: A Roman legionary, scouting for missing soldiers in the vast forests of Caledonia, finds himself becoming seduced by the alluring call of the wild.
8 pages
Logline: Special Agent Dick Rogers, disguised as a groundsperson in a luxurious chateau, finds his mission compromised when thought-to-be-dead assassin, Pavla “The Weed” Zima, shows up to thwart his plans.
5 pages
Logline: A lifelong bond is formed between a deaf girl and the gorilla who saved her life.
       

 

   

Congratulations on winning the 16th annual Screenwriting Challenge! What was the most challenging aspect of the competition? What did you find the most enjoyable?

 

Thank you! Winning was a genuine surprise – one of the biggest “WHAT!?“ moments I’ve had in recent memory. I had zero aspirations of even getting into the top-10, let alone placing first. So yeah, an amazing flash of shock and happiness when I awoke to see the results.

For me, the most challenging section was by far the 24-hour final. A decent story, in 5 pages, in a single day... Not as simple as it may appear on the surface, especially when I spent the first 80% of that time working on a completely different idea, and didn’t start on Nula until late into the evening. When that deadline is looming, things can get stressful, fast.

 

On the flip side, when the “aha!” moment strikes – that moment of clarity – it’s an incredible, addictive feeling. I was always a fan of puzzles growing up, and creative writing is a great way to feed that love of problem-solving, especially when it comes to these prompt-based challenges.

The eerie atmosphere and escalating tension in your first-round screenplay, “Caledonia Lost,” were executed well. The plot contained intriguing turns that culminated in a great climax. How much planning went into the ending, and did anything happen during the writing process to alter that ending?

 

For sure, Caledonia Lost’s ending was paramount to the overall cohesion of the story. Everything built towards that final revelation, and that final act of violence. Originally, I toyed with a “Looper” type set-up, but couldn’t quite get it to pop, so the story mutated into what I eventually submitted. I love working backwards from a twist, and I get a lot of enjoyment from foreshadowing and planting seeds along the way. As you might guess, I had a lot of fun writing this one, and it’s my personal favourite of the three I submitted for the competition.

 

Caledonia Lost raises a few unanswered questions, and this is reminiscent of a lot of my work. I love exploring themes I’m passionate about, but I also love the power of ambiguity. Interpretation is very important to me, and I tend to gravitate towards open-endedness wherever I can, to stoke the flames of discussion. Of course, there’s always the chance this frustrates some people – even judges... 

 

The imagery in “Caledonia Lost” was also quite vivid. While writing scenes do you visualize them playing out on the big screen?

 

Definitely. I cannot tell you just how much restraint it takes to suppress my urge to “direct from the page”. There’s absolutely a vivid visual image in my head for all the beats in my action text; a clear picture of how I imagine it would look on the screen. Working out how to get those images across without stepping on the theoretical director’s toes, while keeping everything exciting, pacey, and economical… now, that’s the challenge.

 

Your screenplay for the second round, “Dick Rogers Versus The Weed,” was wonderfully engaging and humorous, reminiscent of contemporary action and comedy films. Where do you usually find inspiration when writing comedy or satire? Are there any films or novels that have influenced your style?

 

I find writing absurd comedies a great form of stress release – the more ludicrous the better. Whenever I get Action/Adventure in these challenges, I can’t help go down that wacky comedy route, because I find the process so much fun. I don’t have to worry about building an atmosphere, about being clever, about intrinsic reveals or complex themes. I can just write silly, crazy stuff that make me – and hopefully others – laugh and mutter “what the hell…?”

In terms of influences, I’ve absorbed so much content over the years that I don’t actively look for inspiration when I write. I know it’s all there, subconsciously, in the back of my mind. Once I’m settled on a genre/tone, I write what I think works in the moment, trusting my brain to extract tropes and genre beats from the storytelling conventions I’ve assimilated from films, plays, shows, novels, games, and so on. It’s usually only when someone points out a similarity in my work where I realise, “oh, yeah, that was totally an influence!” For Dick Rogers… I’d say it’s a haphazard mishmash of Johnny English, Archer, Austin Powers, and a myriad of other spy spoofs, blended with a few homages to 80s action flicks.

 

Your winning screenplay for the final round, “Nula,” implemented the assigned subject (accident-prone) and character (a zookeeper) in a beautiful, touching way. The video montage was especially powerful and helped to establish the lifelong bond between Sara and Nula. Do you prefer visual storytelling to dialogue when depicting emotions or relationships? Do you find one more challenging to execute than the other?

 

Yes, I love visual storytelling. More times than not, visual information is so much more evocative than the spoken, especially when it comes to packing an emotional wallop. If I can get something across in visuals, then that’s exactly what I will do. I’m terrified of heavy-handed exposition, and tend to tip-toe around it all the time, which sometimes compromises the clarity of my stories. I’m forever trying to strike a balance between exposition and ambiguity.

 

Nula was actually almost a completely visual script, void of any dialogue. But alas, it was late, had been a very long day, and I just didn’t have the mental capacity to make it work. However, I might try to rework Nula in this manner at some point, or try my hand at a new “silent” script in an upcoming NYC Midnight Challenge…

 

In "Nula", you also took a character’s personal tragedy and turned it around into something positive. Is it important to you that your screenplays say something meaningful to audiences as well as entertain?

 

I’m a huge advocate of the importance of story – naturally! There’s no denying its universal ability to shape thinking, drive meaningful change, and make the world a more considerate and insightful place. I think it’s important to explore human nature this way, as it helps us to form some semblance of understanding the chaos around us. Without story, we merely exist. With story, we give ourselves meaning.

 

Normally, I have a theme I want to explore going in, but sometimes something meaningful just organically emerges from the writing. Regardless, if a story is good, it will have something to say about the human condition – whether intentional or not – if you look hard enough. Even a story created with the sole purpose of entertainment will have something important to say, probably… Unless it's Dick Rogers Versus The Weed.

 

According to your website, you’ve had extensive experience in theatre, film, radio, and video games, with degrees in Drama and Theatre Studies and Scriptwriting. How do you feel these different experiences have shaped your screenwriting? Do you have a favorite storytelling medium?

 

Screenwriting is by far my favourite medium. Back when I had only ever written prose or stage plays, constant feedback would revolve around the message, “too filmic!” This was probably down to my obsession with TV and Film growing up. It’s the medium I relate to the most, and all those years of watching the screen has obviously influenced how I process storytelling beats.

 

Working with radio format during my MA was a unique opportunity, and an unexpected eye-opener for me. I’d never really put much emphasis on sound design before that, but it’s now a tool I try to include as much as I can when telling a story. Admittedly, it’s still something I think I can explore more often, and I need to remind myself to do so. I guess it’s time to pop up a “SOUND!” post-it note somewhere close by.

 

The COVID-19 crisis has impacted the world in such an unprecedented, detrimental way. How has it affected your work and perspective? Do you find that having a creative outlet is beneficial during this time?

 

Having a creative outlet during times like this can surely be beneficial, absolutely. I’m sure many people are taking the time to work on personal projects they’ve been too busy to finish, or even start. And despite the pandemic being a horrific phenomenon, there’s no denying there are some silver linings to be found amid the devastation. 

 

That being said, I don’t think people should feel forced to capitalise on the extra personal time a lot of us have at the moment. It’s a stressful situation for many, and just getting through to the other side, keeping physically and mentally healthy, is more than enough.

 

You’ve worked on multiple short films and received a number of awards for your creations. Do you have plans for the screenplays you created for this competition?  Do you have any other upcoming projects?

 

I would love to see Caledonia Lost made. Unfortunately, period pieces like this are expensive, and realistically I can only imagine it working as a full-length film. Which is why, among other projects, I’m expanding the story in hopes of fleshing it out into a feature script. So far, the expansion is coming along nicely! 

 

I try to keep myself busy outside of my day job (where I’m also a writer) with various projects. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredible storytellers over the years, and I very much hope this trend continues. Regarding upcoming projects, I will be starting a new job soon, working with a long-established franchise, so a lot of my time is focused on preparing for that venture.

 

Finally, what advice would you give to someone that may be participating in the Screenwriting Challenge for the first time?

 

Have fun and don’t worry! 

 

Don’t be afraid to use the forums. They are an incredible part of the NYC Midnight package, and worth the entry fee alone. There are so many talented, considerate, and insightful people on the forums, and many will provide you with feedback on your submissions. Receiving this diverse range of feedback – and, of course, giving your own on scripts you read – is an amazingly efficient way to improve your scriptwriting, and I strongly recommend participating, if you have the time.

 

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Alex is a writer, editor, and storyteller. He has worked in theatre, film, radio, and video game format, and helped craft traditional, interactive, and immersive narratives. Learn more about Alex and his work at alexdsutton.com.

 

 

 


 

 

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