I first heard the name Barbara Marshall when Trey reviewed the movie Viral which she wrote. You may have even heard of a little movie called Wish Upon which is in theaters now. Oh, Babs (as she shall henceforth be known) wrote that one, too. I got a chance to speak with Babs through the power of the internet and ask her some Hollywood questions I’d always wanted to know.
Tell me about your upbringing. Where are you from? What were you like when you were a kid?
I’m born and raised in Austin, Texas. Oldest of two. My dad was in the military and my mom was a reading teacher, so naturally I was a big reader growing up. I read early and I read a lot. I was always that kid who’d leave the library staggering under tote bags filled with books; I never could understand the kids who’d come out with one or two. Looking back, I guess I was a giant nerd. I wasn’t particularly athletic or popular so books were everything. Reading was awesome. And I think because I read a lot, it was okay that I also watched a ton of movies. I’m a child of the 80s so the sci-fi/fantasy boom (Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Flash Gordon, Bladerunner, Aliens, Star Wars) weren’t just entertainment, they’re influential to this day.
What age were you when you knew you had to create for a living?
My mother swears she has me on tape babbling about being a movie director when I was three. But I think I made the conscious decision at around seven. In the second grade there was a program started by this lovely lady, Diane Schallert, called PencilBusters. It couldn’t have been more than an hour a week, but it was an hour of writing stories! It was hella bomb! I wrote a lot of fiction in middle school. Switched to plays in high school. Screenplays in undergrad and graduate school. While I make a living writing screenplays, I’m trying to make a push back into the novel space, to reclaim my youth, so to speak.
Do you remember any of your early scripts?
I do remember them, although I try to forget. I wrote one when I was in high school called Performer’s Best about a bunch of kids at a College Arts Conservatory. It was pretty terrible, but it did end up as a finalist in the Texas Young Playwrights Festival which means it was staged with actors and a director and such. Looking back, it was cringeworthy but I thought I was pretty darn awesome. Mark Duplass won the Festival that year. His play was amazeballs. Naturally.
Who inspired you when you were younger, and who inspires you now?
Great storytellers inspire me. Stephen King, Toni Morrison. JK Rowling. Steven Spielberg. Octavia Butler. Poe. Just tell me a great a story and I’ll be a fan for life. Nowadays, having spent some time in the industry, I have an endless amount of admiration for the auteurs working in our business – Steve McQueen, Sofia Coppola, Cary Fukunaga, Del Toro. Cuaron. It’s a brutal industry and they tell their stories with such confidence and such a unique voice, they make it look easy.
Tell me about your writing process. Do you write every day? Specific time of day? Specific place? Writing exercises? Etc.
I write every day. If I don’t, I get horrible anxiety. It’s like my brain backs up; too much creative pressure. I need to open the valves. Usually, I write in the morning between 6am and 2pm. 10 script pages a day. I have an office in my apartment and usually write there. Lately, though, I can’t be away from the news so I tend to write in my living room with CNN or MSNBC on mute. I don’t do writing exercises. I just sit, crank some music up, and grind.
What do you like to listen to when you write?
Self-professed soundtrack junkie. The Dark Knight Rises and Last of the Mohicans are faves. Baby Driver is the best soundtrack of the last few years.
When we first spoke, you said it was TV season. Do you prefer writing for television over writing a movie? What are something things you like/dislike for either one?
The great thing about television is that the writer is considered a very valuable (if not the most valuable) part of the process. If you write a show/episode, you’re there when it shoots, there when it edits, no one is allowed to tweak the script without your permission. There’s a consistency of vision from script to screen that gives the story authenticity. Truth.
But it’s REALLY hard to get your own show on the air. I’m still plugging away at it. I’ve had a bit more luck on the feature side, but that’s a process where the writer is vulnerable to the whims of a studio and director. We could be let go and replaced immediately. We’re not really wanted on set, much less in the editing room. We just have to accept that we have to let go of the story we wrote and hope for the best. Also, development can last years. People underestimate just how hard it is to put a movie together. It’s unbelievably difficult and occasionally, soul crushing.
When your scripts are bought, what’s your relationship to the filmmakers after that point? And tell me about the process of selling a script.
Selling a script is the fun part. After I’ve done a few drafts and my agent/manager thinks it’s ready to go out, they start sending the script out around town. People read the script. Typically, meetings follow. Then, in a best case scenario, an offer comes in. Maybe two. Maybe more. Terms are negotiated. Contracts signed.
At that point, I’m working for the studio. I might do a studio pass before it goes out to directors. But that’s when I’m effectively out of the process until further notice. I have ZERO say in who directs the film I wrote. Directors have total control over whether or not they want to keep me on, hire someone new, or do a new pass of the script themselves.
On my latest film, Wish Upon, the director (John Leonetti) was absolutely lovely and I was involved for a significant portion of the process – I got to see auditions, was allowed to see dailies, etc… But I’ve been on the opposite end of the spectrum where the directors have had zero contact with me. NONE. I ended up reading updates about casting and production in the trades. I was completely out of the loop. Kind of a bummer.
What is it about genre films that you love? Do you have aspirations of writing straight dramas or comedies?
I do love a good scare. The emotional response of a well done horror movie is so primal and satisfying. I also like stories that feature empowered women, which is more common in the horror/sci-fi realm. I’d love to write a straight drama (I’ve written a few), but without a fancy package they’re very difficult to get made these days. Horror/Thrillers, however, are in demand and have the potential to get made relatively quickly.
What are you working on right now, and what are you plans for the future?
I have a few projects in development at the moment. I currently polishing up a remake of The Bad Seed for Lifetime. It’s such a great story, but desperately in need of updating. I have Cluster which is based on a graphic novel by Ed Brisson and Damian Cuciero at BOOM! Studios and Fox 21. It’s a big, futuristic sci-fi project with a female lead. And I’m adapting a novel called Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, about a high school girl who kills her sister’s murderer, with Sherryl Clark at Busted Shark.
And, of course, I have several original screenplay specs in development. The next big step in my career is to direct. It’s time. Every single movie I’ve had made has been very different from the movie in my head. I want to see what’s in my head on screen. The only way to do that is to direct.
What advice could you give to other creators, especially female creators?
DIRECT! There was a study done (I can’t remember exactly where I read this so bear with me) that said women typically apply for jobs only if they meet ALL of the requirements whereas men will apply for the same job only meeting half of the requirements. I wonder if this isn’t true in filmmaking. If you have a story, don’t give it to someone else to tell, have faith in your vision. Have faith in yourself. Authenticity matters. Who can tell your story better than you?