Frank J. Avella, Feature Screenplay FINALIST by LURED
- Can you please tell us about you and your daily life?
Like so many, my daily life has altered significantly because of COVID. I was on lockdown for 16 months with little exception—a funeral and to make my very first short film, FIG JAM. So, my daily routine was basically checking emails, writing, cooking, writing, zooming, writing, interviewing artists, writing, watching films, writing, spending time with my husband, writing…and sleeping…when I wasn’t writing. I’m still doing all that but now I get out once in a while…masked, of course. And vaccinated.
- When and how did you get into writing?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. Although I always assumed I’d be a journalist (and I guess technically I am because I write for two online film outlets, but I see that as secondary to my creative writing). I am super glad I have some talent as a writer because I certainly cannot do anything else. Seriously, if something breaks down in the house, I usually stare at it and then shout for my husband (who also stares at it but may try and fix it).
-Do you see yourself more as a screenwriter or playwright?
Well, a funny thing happened on lockdown...
First, let me mention that film was always my first love. I was passionate about movies from the cradle. And I’ve grown up a cine-geek. But out of NYU grad school, I wrote my first play (UNHINGING) and had an Equity Showcase produced and almost 20 full-length plays and 2 decades later, I was struggle-working in the NY theatre, even though I often felt I could not get hit by a bus when it came to being noticed—especially as a proud, queer Italian-American playwright.
Then during the lockdown, when the theatre was kaput for a bit, I found myself adapting two of my stage works into screenplays (CONSENT and SCREW THE COW, my crazy Hollywood satire) and I began submitting them to Festivals and contests—and they WON or were finalists or were selected! I was gobsmacked by this! Then I adapted LURED by basically breaking all screenplay rules and that divisive work was also getting attention. I, then, wrote a short, FIG JAM, and a producer wrote a check and we made it and it’s been making the circuit. My screenplays have now won 22 awards and placed in 140 Festivals worldwide in the last 2 years! And FIG JAM has been selected in 4 Festivals so far and has been nominated for 7 Awards! I’m not bragging (okay, maybe a little). But it was just wild that after the American theatre (well, artistic directors anyway) did not give a damn about the stories I wanted to tell—to know that I could potentially tell these stories in the medium that was my first love, that was amazing to me.
- How often do you write? Do you have a writing routine? And what inspires you to write?
I try and write every day, but it isn’t always creative. I have that journalist day job. I tend to thrive at residencies, so I love to gather ideas for projects and then go off to residencies and develop and, usually, finish drafts there. I have three very different projects in the works right now. All screenplays. And I cannot wait to focus on them.
- How does it feel to have your work recognized?
As I mentioned above, I am not used to it. And it feels really fantastic. I always had audience members at, say, a performance of LURED or a staged reading of VATICAN FALLS or CONSENT, come up to me and share their stories (the best compliment you can get) or tell me that I got it right or that they could really relate to a character or a plot development and that meant the world to me. To get the festival love is thrilling.
- What's the best thing and the most challenging thing about writing a Screenplay?
The best thing is the blank page. You can write about anything! That is so exciting! You can explore whatever you want to explore. The most challenging thing is to follow your own voice and not allow any bullshit voices to come in and tell you to do this or not do this or follow some bogus three-act structure or blah-blah-blah. Yes, it’s important to learn the rubrics but then it’s equally important to break those rules and follow your narrative and organically go where your characters take you. And do you.
- How did you come up with the idea for your LISP selected story? Is there a story behind your story? And how long have you been working on it?
So, the LURED journey has been quite a wild one. When I first started reading reports coming out of Russia, mostly published in LGBT outlets lifted from UK media in 2012, I was destroyed. I could not wrap my head around the notion that gay people were being persecuted, tortured, even murdered because of their sexual orientation. The atrocities were being perpetrated to shift the blame on everything wrong with the Russian economy, directly to LGBT people. The more information that I found the more I knew I would need to write about it. Somehow. Sometime. Someday.
In early 2016, I got married (to my wonderful husband, Henry). Ten days later my mamma died. I was her chief caregiver and devoted a decade of my life to looking after her. I was devastated. Prior to mamma passing, I had been awarded a residency in Taos, New Mexico at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. I declined because I could not leave mamma. Two days after the memorial, my husband packed me into my Jeep Wrangler and sent me off. I live in NJ and literally travelled through two Tornadoes and over the snow-covered treacherous mountains of New Mexico.
I arrived and holed up in my casita. I was a walking zombie filled with confusion and rage—also, I had developed a major case of altitude sickness. About 3 weeks in, I began to immerse myself into the horrific world of online videos that one could still find back then on VK.com and other sites. I also had long chats with Tanya Cooper, the HRC journalist who broke the stories and she sent me a dossier report that was over 200 pages which contained personal accounts and testimony. I went over every news article I could get my hands on and spoke to a few survivors (all of whom wanted to shield their identities.) I did not shower for that week. All I did was live in the world of this human-created terror. I found my “in” with a fictional revenge twist and a timeshift from Act One to Act Two. I also realized the play needed to be brutal and unrelenting--I had to write way out of my comfort zone. I needed this to be real. And harrowing.
At the end of the week, I had a draft. In looking it over I came to the conclusion that if it EVER got staged, half my audience would leave in the first 10 minutes. A week later my fellow fellows (none, actors) gathered in my casita and read the piece out loud for me. There was resoundingly silence at the end. I remember thinking, dear God, it’s a travesty. I looked up sheepishly to see most of them with tears in their eyes. They were moved beyond words.
About a week later I was asked to submit a play to the Dream Up Festival at Theater for the New City by the Artistic Director. Not even thinking, I submitted LURED. It was immediately accepted. Upon arriving home, I had to put together a cast, production team and raise the funds. We did and it played 6 sold-out performances. And NO ONE LEFT. Quite the contrary, audiences were eager to dialogue afterwards. They were willing to put themselves through the torturous piece to better understand what was going on in the world. We had actual refugees attend and tell me I had written their stories.
Two years later, I decided to partner with the brilliant Carlotta Brentan and we opened at Theater for New City and had a sold-out 3-week run. We had talkbacks, received some amazing notices. In January of 2019, we took the play to the Onstage! American Theater Festival in Rome, Italy where it was incredibly well-received.
I had originally seen LURED in my head like a film when the idea first came to me, but I knew it would have to be a different kind of film. A theatrical one in the sense that it needs to all take place in almost one space and be captured claustrophobically so the audience watching would feel like they were in the room with the characters, struggling with them—in every sense. The pacing and dialogue would have to be rather relentless. And I also knew I wanted one flashback love scene that was sexy and sweet and loving and graphic. One that would make all homophobes want to leave. I wanted to test why staying for the harsh violence was okay, but not for the expression of love. I hoped people would look inward about that as well as about how quick we are to want to seek revenge and slow we are to empathize and forgive.
So, during the lockdown, I sat down, and, in a few days, I wrote it.
- Can you please give us a few tips about writing a Screenplay?
Know the protocol. Know the rules. Get the proper software. Learn how to use it. Take the Master Classes. Read many of your favorite movies in script form. But then go your own way.
- What's the best thing and the most challenging thing about competitions?
The best thing about competitions…when they actually help you grow and connect with the industry. When they actually give cash awards and help you get your film made or help you to some next level. Some promise but rarely do any deliver on that promise.
The most challenging thing about competitions and festivals are the fees as well as the fact that there are so many of them and they seem to be growing every day. I urge everyone to do their homework before submitting it. Way too many Festivals and comps now have a ridiculous number of categories where they charge fees for each and every category (most of these are brand new fests that don’t offer much for the writer). Lower your fees, Festivals. We are writers, not producers.
- Lastly, do you recommend the writers give a go on LISP?
Absolutely. LISP rocks! And I want to thank you all again for appreciating LURED.