Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 16 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 200 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through WRITER ON LINE. Her latest book, a humorous essay collection called "HOW TO TELL IF YOUR CO-WORKERS ARE FROM MARS & Other Tales of the Workplace," is available at www.zeus-publications.com
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
LISTEN TO THE MOCKINGBIRD: An Interview with Director/Producer Laurie Durrett, Mockingbird ProductionsFrom the first time she trod the boards at age 10, Ms. Laurie Durrett knew that acting and directing were in her blood. Today, she is literally running the entire show as the driving force behind the cameras at Mockingbird Productions in her native Texas. She took time from her busy schedule to share what it took to put her imagination and talent into full gear and where she'd like the next road to take her. If you're thinking of applying for an internship at your local news or cable station, you may find yourself in a similar happy ending!
Q: We share something in common in that the first "stage" of our respective careers actually was on a stage. Did your early experiences in theater influence how you run your own film production company now?
A: My early experiences had everything to do with how I conduct my business! Besides acting in school and professional productions, I was always the one given the responsibility of organizing the tournaments and awards ceremonies every year, as well as the one in charge of getting the groups together for our monthly theater outings. I was extremely shy throughout school, but theater made me learn how to relate to people and improved my communications and organizational skills tremendously. It also helped me in getting a theater scholarship to a small college in East Texas, Lon Morris, plus a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in LA and a scholarship in theater to White University in Europe.
Q: So what was it that moved you from being in front of an audience as an actress to behind a camera as a producer?
A: The inciting incident that sparked my interest came while I was working at a small television station in Beaumont, Texas where I hosted a morning talk show. One day our production coordinator quit and they couldn't find a replacement before my next show, so I told them I would book the talent and arrange the schedule. It was like old home week in high school! The job came very easily. They didn't hire anyone and let me do the position, which I really liked because I could book who I wanted for talent and crew. It also gave me a job to go to after I graduated, it was much easier than acting...and it paid more. Starting my own company was a no-brainer. I was so tired of working on productions that were about as inspiring as watching paint dry, so a friend of mine came to me with a script that she had written. The project involved creating a commercial informing the public how to yield to emergency vehicles. (Believe it or not, a lot of people don't have a clue.) The scripts were great so I went to a couple of investors and convinced them to go for it. It was so-o-o exciting to be working on something that was all mine and to be proud of it at that! A double whammy!
Q: Speaking of scripts, do you write all your own now?
A: Sadly, I don't. I was teased as a child about my poor writing skills, so that's one hurdle I haven't jumped yet. I do, however, work very closely with all of my writers. That's one thing that totally amazes me: how a director can take a script, never meet with the writer, and create his own vision. I love to get the writer's vision. After all, two heads are much better than one. Whether I'm shooting a corporate gig or film, I always take their vision and just elaborate on it in order to bring it to life. Obviously if the writer is not available (or has died), then that's a different story.
Q: A number of your credits have been industrial and corporate films. Is this a viable route for young people who want to get their feet wet on a local level?
A: If you would like to get into the corporate world of writing, I would advise getting hired as a PA with a production company and telling them that it is one of your goals to write scripts. Learn all you can about the business and start writing short scripts as examples for the boss. One day after work, stop in and have a short chat with them and show them your portfolio. Let them see what you can do. I can't name how many projects have come my way because I just happened to be in the office when a project came across the decision maker's desk and they said, "Who could we get for this one?' I would always speak up and say, "Let me have a stab at it!" (I beg a little also!) That was how I got my first directing gig. You have to speak up. Also, if you take on a corporate project, find out everything you can about that company...and I do mean everything. Nothing is more embarrassing than having your first creative pow-wow and not realizing that the CEO is sitting in the room with you. Corporate projects are a wonderful source of income, especially if you don't live in LA or New York. Plus there's nothing more exciting than showing your video at a sales convention with thousands of people cheering it along.
Q: How has the Internet impacted the number of doors that are open to new screenwriters and filmmakers?
A: Well, I can't say enough about how wonderful the Internet has been for Mockingbird Productions. The technology is a success in every aspect, from advertising to millions who would have otherwise never have had the opportunity to view your work to making the deal right there in your e-mail.
Q: So tell us about "The Fast Lane" and how it came about.
A: "The Fast Lane" will be the first full-length feature for Mockingbird. I was in a masters directing workshop in LA when I met a doctor who was participating in the same class. During a break we started a conversation and found out we were both from Houston. He was taking the workshop because he had written over 25 screenplays and wanted to learn more about the industry and to possibly produce one of his scripts. I was taking the workshop because I make a point of taking one workshop a year just to improve my skills. We both hit it off and had a meeting when we returned to Texas. He let me read the script, which was wonderful and created a trailer as a calling card for other investors. I won't go into details about the script but we're expecting to go into full production this fall. It's a wonderful family film with a great message on just learning how to be yourself. It's my "Fried Green Tomatoes" film.
Q: "Fried Green Tomatoes"?
A: Yes, I'm a total "Fried Green Tomatoes" kind of girl. Ten years from now I would love to be a SMALL production house that turns out quality, class "A" films. The two scripts I have right now are in that category. I'm very excited about them, and it takes a lot to get me excited about any script. I'm currently in negotiations with a writer from Oklahoma who has written a beautiful novel that he wants to transpose into a screenplay and I would produce and direct.
Q: How did he find you?
A: In a nutshell, he opened the Texas production manual, turned to the directing section, closed his eyes and put his finger on a page. My name was the page he picked. (Go figure.) The working title is "Potato Charlie." It deals with the dust bowl era and spans 60 years. It's a beautiful novel with wonderful characters that I would be honored to direct. He also has the money for the feature.
Q: So you're receptive to hearing from newcomers?
A: I am always, always looking for great scripts. I love humanistic stories. Stories of great compassion and human spirit. I really love true stories. "October Sky"..."Apollo 13"..."To Kill A Mockingbird" (where do you think I got the name of my company). These kinds of story lines are the ones you remember for the rest of your life.
Q: Having been there and done that, what would you tell someone who wanted to write for the big (or small) screen?
A: Write from the heart! It's sappy but true. If you're passionate about something, grab all of the information you can...eat, sleep and drink the subject. How can you write a script on what it's like to live in Mississippi in 1960 being black if you haven't lived it, experienced it, or know someone who can tell you every intimate detail of what their life was like? The public is not stupid. And at times they can be very unforgiving. Don't insult their intelligence. Write the truth. Last but not least, this is a very ego driven business. Remember, though, that everyone puts their pants on the same way, one leg at a time. It's the best business in the world!
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For more information on Laurie's past work and future projects of Mockingbird Productions, pay a visit to www.directorsnet.com