A Year Removed from Vancouver

A year ago, I left Vancouver to move back to my hometown of Madison, WI.

A few months before, when I was still in film school, this had been a viable option. My main options at the time were to:  get a work permit and stay in Vancouver, move to LA, or move back home for a few months to get organized before I moved somewhere else.

As soon as I graduated, though, this changed. I didn’t want to leave Vancouver. This was where I had made my first short films and where I had written my first feature screenplays. Vancouver was a hub for film production and a beautiful, progressive city. Besides, most of my friends were staying. We were a group of young filmmakers eager to help one another succeed.

My study permit allowed me to stay in Canada for three months after my graduation, and I figured I’d have a work permit and a job in no time. Unfortunately, as some of my other non-Canadian classmates and I found out, the process for securing a work permit after graduation from VFS (a private school) was not simple.

As fall set in, my mom urged me to just move home, but I resisted. Moving home meant failure, admitting defeat. I wouldn’t be able to make movies in Wisconsin.

I went to bed with my thoughts whirling one night, but in the morning, I knew my mom was right. My study permit was up at the end of November, only three weeks away.

I looked at one-way plane tickets, but couldn’t bring myself to buy one. I had recently sent a feature script of mine to a producer and was hoping that he would get back to me saying that he wanted to produce it, and that would be my reason to stay in Vancouver.

On Halloween, I told my friend and former roommate, Shelley, that I had decided to move while we were standing on the sky train in ridiculous costumes, heading to a party. Shelley was surprised, but understood. At the party, I talked to TJ, a fellow American, and Cristina, from Mexico; they were still looking into work permits but knew it was a long shot. They would likely move home soon, as well.

The next day I bought my plane ticket.

Two days before I left, I went to dinner with my friends. It wasn’t the expected reminiscing about our year in film school. Instead, we played a film trivia game for most of the night and enjoyed one another’s company.

On November 20, I woke up early, packed up the rest of my things, and got my luggage ready for my 8am cab to the airport. I didn’t have time to so much as write a Facebook post saying goodbye to Vancouver and my friends. Having said most of my goodbyes in person, I quietly left the city behind.

In Minneapolis, I was greeted by my sister and a real Midwest winter. We went to dinner and talked about my plans, which were muddy at best. That night, as I went to bed in her guest room, I felt hollow. I didn’t know when I would go back to Vancouver, or if I would ever live there again. My optimism had momentarily left me.

The next day, my sister and I drove to our aunt’s house in northern Wisconsin for the beginning of deer hunting season. Not having a job, I was able to relax and spend the entire nine-day season there, with my parents and extended family.

Back in Madison, I relaxed into the comforts of home and family. I reconnected with some old friends. I went back to the yoga studio where I had done my teacher training. I began to rediscover the city that I grew up in. I went to a film networking event at the end of December, and began to make connections in the Wisconsin film industry, which is much bigger than I thought it was.

When I first got back, family members and friends would ask if I missed Vancouver. A year later, they still ask from time to time. The answer is: yes, of course.

Of course I miss Vancouver. It’s a beautiful place, where I made amazing friends, created art, and began to discover myself as a writer and filmmaker.

Even though they seem silly when I see others post them, it felt odd that I had never posted a Facebook status saying that I was leaving and that I would miss Vancouver and everything about it. After I got home, though, I realized that not posting anything might have seemed like I didn’t miss it, like I didn’t care about the place and people I was leaving behind. And that wasn’t true.

I think of Vancouver all the time; all types of things will trigger my memory. But I don’t dissolve into a puddle of tears every time. I smile. I still keep in touch with many of the friends I made there. I know I will go back eventually, to visit or to film something. And, as I’ve said before, I know that not being there doesn’t mean I won’t write or make films.

The End, for Now

Term six at VFS was a happy and inspiring one, even though it was simultaneously sad, since my classmates and I were on the brink of leaving school and going our separate ways.

I took the electives Writing for Games 2–a continuation of the writing for video games course that I took last term–and Documentary/Reality TV, in which I pitched and developed a documentary. My doc idea is one I’ve had for a while, about yoga, and the conflict between the practice’s Eastern origins and the popularization of the practice in the West. The idea came a long way, and I look forward to researching the topic more and eventually hope to make it into a feature documentary. In Writing for Games 2, I pitched and developed an idea for a video game. My game was about solving a mystery, and I had a lot of fun working on that as well. But I think that going forward, I want to write it as a feature screenplay.

Another fun class was Script Genre, which focused on Auteurs (writer/directors that, according to the French “Auteur Theory,” are believed to be authors of their films). I loved this class, taught by the enthusiastic Paul Jensen (love that guy) and I learned about a lot of auteurs. My favorite writer/director that we studied was Sofia Coppola, and I have since watched almost all of her films. She’s definitely going to influence my future work. But of course, there are always more films and filmmakers to discover!

Then there was my feature film workshop with John Meadows, where my classmates and I read and workshopped each other’s final feature projects. It’s always eye-opening to read each other’s work and learn from our successes and failures as a group.

Career Launch was a fun class as well. We learned about different ways to network, meet producers, send out our work, get work in the industry, and most importantly, gain validation for our writing. Deb and Kat, both of the instructors, gave lots of good advice, and had a realistic approach to the industry (it’s hard out there for a screenwriter, folks) while keeping a positive, encouraging outlook. I always felt good after these lectures. Our instructors believed in us. Sometimes that’s all you need.

On August 22, Vancouver Film School’s 44th Writing Class gathered in the school’s Main Theatre for our graduation ceremony. Our instructors shared memories from the year, and handed out merit awards and the more casual Golden Bagel awards. I was one of two recipients of the “Baser Cup,” named after the head of the writing department, Michael Baser. I was honored to win this (even though I’m still not sure what exactly it means) and I will have my name engraved on the trophy alongside several other notable writing graduates and instructors. For years–no, decades–to come, students will sit in Baser’s office, look upon the Baser cup, read my name, and think “Ah, Lauren Barker. She must be important.”

To my fellow 44s, thank you for coming to VFS. Thank you for bringing your ideas and your talent. Thank you for inspiring me on a daily basis. I will always look upon this year fondly, and that is in large part because of you. Don’t be strangers, now.

VFS WR44 Class pic

Serial Killers and Writer’s Block

I am currently enjoying a short break from school because I have just finished Term 5. Woooo! It’s exciting, of course, but also scary, since it means that I have two months to figure out what I’m doing next with my life. More on that later.

Term 5 was quite busy. My two main projects were writing the first draft of my second feature, which is a serial killer thriller, and developing a rewrite plan for my first feature, which unfortunately had me hitting the wall of writer’s block a number of times. Fortunately, there was a lot of good with the bad, as I found my thriller to be very exciting, which helped the pages flow smoothly. I love the story and the characters, and although I recognize the script still has some major flaws, I think it’s a strong first draft. Is it because I’ve improved as a writer? I like to think so, seeing as I’ve spent the last ten months writing page after page after page. But another big part of it was that I LOVED the story. I’ve often said that my main genre is drama–because it is–but recently I’m really getting into thrillers. They naturally have a fair amount of drama in them, and there’s something about the danger of it all that I find very exciting to write. Anyway, just thinking about this screenplay is getting me all hot and inspired.

As for the writer’s block: it’s the reality of a writer’s life from time to time. There are ways of working through writer’s block, of course–mainly, keep writing. The reason I’ve been so blocked with trying to re-structure the story of my first feature is because I wrote it as a romantic comedy, which we’ve already established isn’t really my thing, and so it ended up being light on the romance and light on the comedy. Another big problem from the first draft was that the second act meandered and not a lot happened. I had a couple of weak subplots, but it needs more. So, after a number of beat sheets and discussions in workshop, I have finally figured out what to do with the story, and I feel good about it. Part of my block was due to the fact that I had too many people, instructors and classmates, giving me notes and advice. They were all helpful in some ways, but a lot of them contradicted one another, and so I got lost in trying to figure out how to work in everyone’s suggestions. I finally realized that instead of doing that, I have to decide what I want to do with the story, because that’s most important. So I’m going to make the story dramatic, drop the romance, and give the protagonist an emotional trauma that she’s trying to run away from. I’m finally excited about the story again, and I think that will help the rewrite go smoothly once I get into pages next term.

Producing and The Great Divide

So, Term 4 at VFS just whizzed by. Let me first address the two biggest parts of the term: Producing and The Great Divide.

First, the Great Divide. Term 4 is the beginning of our second half of the year at VFS, and as such, it is when the writing students decide their fate and divide into two groups: Film Writing and TV Writing. I chose Film Writing, sealing my fate forever as a writer of feature films only. OK, I’m being melodramatic here. Choosing either film or TV writing does not limit your ability to write in other forms, nor does it limit your future screenwriting opportunities. In the film stream, we do, of course, focus on feature films, and so we write a second feature. Therefore, I spent a good amount of Term 4 developing the idea for my second feature, which is a psychological thriller. The story is dangerous and exciting. I love it already.

Another big thing that happened this term was the Producing class, where everyone wrote and workshopped a short script of roughly five pages in length to submit for production. Everyone submitted their third draft, we read all of them, and then we voted on them. The top six projects went into pre-production, and everyone was split into producing teams to bring these projects to life. My script did not get chosen, but I’ll keep working on it and save it for another day. I was one of five producers on a film called “Infect Me Not” which was written by my talented classmate Sarah-Jane. It’s a sci-fi romantic drama set in the future. We all divided the work, and my main job during pre-production was putting out a casting call for actors and fitting them into a schedule in our casting session when they emailed me. After casting, we met with our director, cast our actors, and organized a crew, locations, and set decorations in preparation for production.

Those are the main highlights of Term 4. Other cool classes were the Sci-Fi Script Genre course, where I fell in love with the movie “Alien” and Story Editing, where I read a classmate’s screenplay and wrote a reader’s report with constructive criticism. It was good practice for something I can get hired to do down the road. All in all, it was a great term. Not that I can think of a bad term so far.

Write Write Write

I am deep into Term 3 at VFS, and the reason I haven’t written a post until now is because I’ve been busy writing a number of other projects for school. The first of these projects is my feature screenplay, which I just finished. In two weeks, I will take it to workshop where I will get feedback from an instructor and three classmates. The next big project is a TV Spec, which is an episode of a TV Show that is currently on the air. I am writing a spec for “Elementary.” I enjoy the show, and I like my spec story, but keeping up with the detective/crime part of it is proving more difficult than I imagined. Fortunately, I still have about two weeks until the full draft of my spec is due. In addition to these two projects, I have also been writing sketch comedies, which are basically short skits (the most famous example being Saturday Night Live). Next term, there will be a live production showcasing my class’s sketches. I’m looking forward to seeing it!

As if all of that writing wasn’t enough, I also have a comedy genre class, where we read and analyze well-known comedy screenplays, and a film theory class, which is all about looking at classic and modern films and film movements. Both classes are fun in their own ways.

Last term I was a part of a film collaboration class, and this term the scripts I co-wrote went into pre-production, so my co-writer Dan and I have been attending production meetings, re-writing, and meeting with the directors and producers to make sure everyone is happy with where the scripts are as they head into production. This was a fulfilling process, though it was not always easy for Dan and I, since we sometimes had to stand our ground when the directors wanted to make drastic changes to the story that we thought were unnecessary. But once we talked to the directors, they clarified what they wanted visually, and we somehow managed to make compromises. I feel good about the final shooting scripts, which is good, because production on the pilot episode starts tomorrow!

As if all of that schoolwork wasn’t enough, I have also been developing the script for a short film that I am getting produced in the coming months. Some of my classmates are also working on short films of their own, and I am helping out in small ways. Gotta build that resume somehow!

After writing all of this out, I find it hard to believe that I have found time to eat and sleep in the last five weeks. But somehow I managed, and I’m not complaining about all of the work. It feels good to be spending so much time doing something that I love so much, and I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.

Film Collaboration

This term, I am excited to be a part of a Film Collaboration class. The only way to get into this class is to be invited by the instructors (based on your work and class contribution first term), and I feel lucky to be one of the few students who was invited.

In this class, six writers and about 30 Film Production students get together to create the beginnings of three different Web Series. The first week, we broke up into eight groups and each group thought of an idea for a web series. Then each group pitched their idea, and everyone voted on the ideas. Once the top three were decided, the three instructors split us all up into smaller groups for development.

My development team includes about ten film productions students, my classmate Dan, and writing instructor Brian. Last week, we talked about world building, i.e. what rules the episodes will follow, what parts of the world are constant, and defining traits of the characters.

This week, the film production students will bring treatments (episode ideas) and discuss them and then hand them over to Dan and I. The two of us will then have to decide which treatments we want to write, and then write the first draft of the first episode for next week.

The rest of the term will consist of rewrites, and we will continue to meet with our group and discuss ideas for the episodes, much like a TV writing team. By the end of the term, we will have polished drafts of two eight minute episodes. Next term, the film production students will shoot and produce the episodes, and even though most of our work will be done, we as writers will be able to attend at least one day of shooting to observe the process.

I am really excited about this opportunity, and I’m looking forward to collaborating with Dan, seeing the production process, and gaining produced writing credits.

The Development Term

I am now one week into Term 2 at VFS. The majority of my classes this term focus on developing stories so that I can write a strong first draft. In one of my classes I am developing a feature film that I pitched last term. It is a romantic comedy about two quirky English majors in their final year of university. Feature development class involves discussing a one-sheet synopsis and then writing and workshopping two drafts of a beat sheet, which is a break down of every major story beat. (A beat is one character trying to get something from another character. Different than a scene, because a scene can have more than one beat and a beat can stretch over more than one scene).

I also have a TV Spec course, which involves developing a script for a TV Spec. Basically, this means writing an episode of an existing TV series. Development for this script will include watching episodes of the show and reading teleplays of previous episodes to learn the format that the show follows. TV Specs are helpful for screenwriting portfolios because they show your writing ability and can come in handy when applying for TV writing jobs.

In terms of development, I am also collaborating with some writing classmates and some students from the Film Production program to write two episodes for a web series. They will be filmed next term.

My other classes include Dialogue, which focuses on–you guessed it–dialogue, and Crime Genre, which consists of reading and analyzing well-known screenplays in the genre of–you guessed it again–crime.

But as I said, the main focus of Term 2 is developing our ideas in preparation for Term 3, when the real writing begins.

And never ends.