The Write Way: An Interview with Pamela Cuming and Lee Ross of "Downloading Nancy"
Screenwriters Lee Ross and Pamela Cuming discuss their writing process, recent screenings and how the film has been recieved so far.June 9th, 2009 | Joi R. Wheatley
After a film finds success, the industry usually lauds the miraculous execution of the director and the cast. Yet, often ignored are those who actually crafted the story: the writers. The Independent’s, Joi R. Wheatley, taps into the ingenious minds of Pamela Cuming and Lee Ross who wrote the dark, intense, drama Downloading Nancy, which was recently screened at the Seattle International Film Festival. The film, starring Maria Bellow and Jason Patric, follows a middle-aged wife who orders a man she met on the Internet to kill her so she can escape from her unhappy life (view the trailer here). Cuming and Lee discuss how the idea became a script, why it’s important to produce and direct your own projects, and what’s next for this writing duo.
How did you come up with the premise for Downloading Nancy? Did Lee come up with the idea first?
Pamela Cuming: Well, it’s based on a true story. Lee had the creativity to identify with something that would make a compelling story based on what he had read.
Lee Ross: This was the first real story of someone using the Internet for something dark and horrible. The original story appeared in 1996. It was such an intriguing story... in our version, it unfolds as a thriller and it’s written that way. So, that was the inspiration.
Lee, why did you feel that Pamela needed to come on board to co-write, Downloading Nancy? Did you feel that it needed a woman’s touch?
LR: Well, this has been the whole process of learning how to give up control, ultimately. Pamela and I met as writers and actors in Colorado. In the process of getting to know one another through performance and through reading each other’s work, trust was developing. At the time, it was very clear that I had hit a road block where I knew that I needed to bring a woman’s view point to this story.
Is this your first project writing together?
PC: Well, we’ve worked together previously doing some other things. Lee and I have done other projects together but not in screenplay format.
How was the film received at the Seattle International Film Festival?
LR: Well, I just got off the phone with my aunt and uncle who went to the screening and they told me that it was sold out. I am very pleased that Seattle gets to see the film before it’s released On Demand on the Independent Film Channel (IFC) as well as in theaters only in New York and LA next Friday.
PC: How do I feel about it? Very excited and a little surprised because the film is coming out next week, so I was just surprised. I thought they weren’t screening anything in any festivals so close to the opening. But, I think that the more it can get out there, the better. I know it’s a tough film but as Lee was saying, it’s deeply, psychologically provocative.
How did you manage to develop characters that were so dark, interesting, and twisted?
PC: I think that in the developing of the characters, we didn’t specifically know Nancy’s past. We had to create a past. So the question is what kind of a life would a person like this have? How much self loathing would have to be inside of them that’s pretty much dominating everything? For half of the time that I was writing and working on this project, my marriage was really suffering and I really could identify with her pain to some degree. But Nancy's pain was so much more deep and profound that I wanted to bring compassion to what she may have been going through
LR: I think that it needs to be included that while Johan Renck [the director] was making the film, he was going through dissolution and the collapse on his own marriage. During the production, he basically separated from his wife. He even mentioned that in the Q&A at Sundance.
Did it translate from script to screen with your vision intact?
PC: Mostly, but not 100 percent. I would say that you have to let go of your vision unless you’re directing it. When you’re doing movies, they really just want you to become wallpaper.
LR: Also, Pamela recently wrote a short film called Happy Hour and that was shot by an up incoming, young director in his 20s who is from Denver. She stars in this 15-minute short film. That experience has contributed to why now Pamela is in the process of putting together her own feature which she will direct, so she will not loose the interpretation of her material to someone else.
That was my next question, many writers end up directing and producing their own projects, I guess maintaining your vision would be a great motivation for moving into that realm.
PC: For this particular script, it was a very character driven, gritty little film. It’s so critical who the cast is and how the acting is; the characters and the relationships are so critical that everything needs to be perfect. If it’s misinterpreted, it’s not going to work.
What about you Lee, do you think that you would move over to the directing side?
LR: Well, I live in Hollywood while Pamela still lives and maintains her life in Colorado. I’m on the frontlines, in terms of producing. We have been through this process with Downloading Nancy during the writers’ strike as well as the economic recession.
PC: To answer your question, Lee is an amazing producer. He’s helping to put together one of our scripts right now called, 10.31. He’s a phenomenal producer and he’s just in the process of becoming that. We both love the writing process and we love working together but we don’t just want to be the screenwriters. We want to create more and have a little more control over our projects.
So, do you see yourself as a duo, emerging out of the independent film industry into a more commercial side?
PC: Oh yeah, we’re not in this just to twiddle our thumbs. We want to make money. Our goal is to definitely have scripts that we feel are more universal. Maybe start off with smaller projects for ourselves that we can learn and grow as producers and directors.
If you had to measure the level of importance for a screenwriter to have their work shown in the festivals, do you think it’s important at all?
PC: It’s really like winning the lottery. It’s so difficult to be a filmmaker, young or old, where you don’t really know how to break in. But if your work is validated by getting into some of these festivals, where you have the opportunity to possibly get distribution, get an award, or get some reviews, than this is the key. When we heard that we had gotten into Sundance, people were saying to us that “you have no idea what this means.” Everyone kept saying that “you can’t get into to Sundance, it’s impossible, it’s political” and what I learned that it’s actually not like that at all. They really do select films based on the original intentions and the original vision. If it’s a film that they all can’t get away from, than they feel like it deserves to be seen and heard. This is how they spoke about Downloading Nancy.
LR: Well, I can only really go with my experience at Sundance and I’ll say that defiantly whatever was being said about how amazing it is to get into a festival, those myths and stories aren’t always true. You always hear about the successes and it’s rare that you really hear about the failures. Not that Downloading Nancy was a failure at Sundance. Our final screening had some really powerful questions. It was interesting to be there and not be in control or acknowledged because it’s a director driven festival.
What’s the final goal for this film after it’s done with the festivals?
PC: We really needed to have a produced credit as writers. For Lee and I, we knew that it was not about making tons of money for Downloading Nancy, but what was really important to us is that we have the validation of being produced writers.
LR: You realize that your end goal is to finally get your film made. People keep saying to you, “you do not understand how big this is that you are a produced writer.” People spend their life time trying to become a produced writer. It’s a bit of luck, mystery, timing and talent.
What are you working on next as a team?
LR: We have our Halloween thriller, 10.31, which is the date of Halloween. Concrete Jungle, which is a father and son fantasy thriller. It’s very compelling. We have several projects and pitches that are of various genres from romantic comedies to more dark thrillers that we are ready and able to pitch at the right meeting.
PC: But the immediate one right now is called Making Monsters and it is very dark. But we’ve got two other scripts, 10.31 and Concrete Jungle done and those are out and currently in the hands of producers and managers. We’re developing one more dark script that I guess would be along the lines of Downloading Nancy.
What’s the best advice you can give to screenwriters who are working to get on your level in the film business?
LR: Our level? The best advice that I would give to anyone is to forget about being a produced writer. It’s about writing the most complete vision of the story that you want to tell for yourself, and if you’re not doing it for yourself than you shouldn’t be motivated by the industry.
PC: One of the problems that we as writers have is that we don’t know how to accept and work with comments, responses, changes and re-writes. I think that what you have to do is get to the point where you lose your attachment to that part of you that take things personally. You really have to let that go and open your door. I think that you have to not be insecure about feedback. Don’t be afraid to hang yourself out to dry. We let ourselves get hung out to dry at Sundance, but I was happy to do it. I think it’s the process of growing as a human being and as an artist.
If you had to describe your writing style in four words or less, what comes to mind?
PC: Uh, oh…Lee you answer that one.
LR: We keep It real.
PC: I also like the words, truthful and organic. That’s very important to me, so it’s definitely at the top of my list.
Downloading Nancy website: www.downloadingnancythemovie.com