Every year we hold a screenplay competition to help promote women screenwriters and strong, positive roles for women. All entries must be authored or co-authored by a woman and/or feature a woman or women in prominent roles.
This year’s batch of entries was impressive and our judges ultimately awarded the Grand Prize to Phil Ferriere for his original screenplay, titled “SILENT KILLER“, a medical thriller about a female veterinarian who investigates a cover-up of Mad Cow Disease at a highly profitable cattle ranch in Texas.
We asked Phil to weigh in on his win, the writing process, and his formula for success.
WIFVNE: This might be obvious, but why did you enter our contest and how does it feel to have won?
I feel incredibly fortunate to be the grand prize winner of the New England Women in Film & Video 9th Annual Screenwriting Competition. Doing well in a screenwriting competition is always a powerful confidence boost, but what makes winning WIFVNE’s even more gratifying is the contest’s clear focus on promoting stories with a strong female lead. Being of the opinion that story is character, nothing could give me greater satisfaction than hearing the contest judges deeply connected with the protagonist of my screenplay, SILENT KILLER.
WIFVNE: Do you have any personal connection to New England?
We spent four years near Boston where my wife attended the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at TUFTS University. Shortly after moving to the area, I became an active member of the Harvard Square ScriptWriters, one of New England’s oldest screenwriter’s group. While in Massachusetts I wrote a script called PROSE & CONS set in Back Bay and the West End. Frankly, being of European descent, it wasn’t too difficult for me to fall in love with the city of Boston and its surroundings.
WIFVNE: Tell us how the idea for this script came to you? Is the story drawn from any personal experience?
My wife is a veterinarian. Until recently, she used to work on dairy farms in Northern California. During her final year of rotations at TUFTS, she also spent time on farms on the East coast. She was sincerely hoping to make a difference in the welfare of food animals, but some of the things she saw and heard there were simply too heartbreaking. Unable to stand the evil taking place at “factory farms,” she quit in 2009. Since then, we’ve moved to Los Angeles where she now practices as a small animal veterinarian.
Following her experience, I wrote SILENT KILLER, a thriller about a female veterinarian investigating the cover-up of a Mad Cow Disease outbreak. In style, it’s a story in the vein of ERIN BROCKOVICH. At its core, SILENT KILLER is a scathing indictment of “factory farming” practices and the beef industry. As you can probably tell now, even though it isn’t based on a true story, SILENT KILLER is very much inspired by my wife’s personal experience.
WIFVNE: Why make your lead character a woman?
The script was born out of a question from my wife: why aren’t there any movies where the hero is a veterinarian? I took it as a challenge to come up with a story with a veterinarian in the lead and set in a universe that we don’t see too often on screen or on TV. Until the last ten-fifteen years, the large animal veterinarian profession was mostly male. In the past decade, the ratio of female to male veterinarians has completely shifted. Having a female protagonist in SILENT KILLER was a natural choice to make.
WIFVNE: Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up, where do you live now, do you have experience in other professions?
I left France almost twenty years ago to work at a large software company in the Pacific Northwest. After ten years developing software, I felt it was time to go back to one of my earliest passion as a teenager: filmmaking. Back in France, I was part of a group of young cinephiles and theater aficionados who would meet periodically to brainstorm ideas and write stories that we could turn into short films. I only have fond memories of that period of my life.
Eager to use the right side of my brain again, I decided to take classes at UCLA and learn the craft of screenwriting. I enlisted in a great program called the Advanced Professional Program in Screenwriting. The program provides you with great tools and techniques to quickly bring a script to life, starting from an idea, developing it into an outline, and writing a first draft. It brought me so much in terms of technique, planning, and execution that I can only recommend it to anyone who wants to be a screenwriter.
WIFVNE: Why did/do you want to write screenplays?
Several reasons. Mostly, I write screenplays because I like the process, the challenge of wrestling dialogue and narrative descriptions toward something visual and meaningful to an audience. Writing is also a cheap substitute for therapy where I can explore my own emotions, ideas, social elements that affect the world we live in and I feel strongly about. Honestly, I’m not sure what would become of me if I did not write.
WIFVNE: Do you write scripts full time? If not, what else do you do?
I write screenplays and produce short films. As much as I enjoy the process, writing is a very solitary task. Working on short films, on the other hand, is an eminently collaborative experience. Both have their own set of challenges, but I find the support you get from working with other creative people increasingly valuable. There is nothing more exhilarating than converging with like-minded people around a story, a vision for that story, and capturing it on film.
WIFVNE: Describe your story development process and writing strategy (short of giving away any trade secrets, unless you want to).
Rather than try – and fail – to boil down my own development process in a few short lines, please allow me to give you two references that might help you, as they helped me, come up with your own development process, short of attending a screenwriting program like UCLA’s. I highly recommend “Screenplay: Writing the Picture” by Russin & Downs, and “Story Sense” by Paul Lucey. Check out their customer reviews on Amazon and I’m sure you’ll quickly see why those books are important reads for anyone who wants to become proficient at writing screenplays.
WIFVNE: What are the elements of a good story, regardless of genre?
As I said earlier, I’m of the school of thought that story is character. Understand your character’s outer goal, test their motivation, exploit their internal conflicts, and you’ll be fine. Promise!
WIFVNE: Do you have advice for other screenwriters?
Most people put their fingers in their ears when told they should probably move to Los Angeles if they’re serious about having a career writing screenplays. Please forgive the Malcolm Gladwell reference, but I think you’ll be hard pressed to find a place other than L.A. with a higher population density of Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen who can help you reach a tipping point in your career. But, hey, it’s not like I’m making a living writing screenplays in L.A., yet…
Above all, keep in mind that writing is rewriting. Get your first draft on the page as quickly as you can. Then, take all the time you need to turn it into a better draft. Repeat, until you feel this is the best screenplay you’ve ever written.
For more information about Phil, or to contact him, visit his website: http://philferriere.com