Getting your foot in the door in Hollywood is no easy task. Every year hundreds of aspiring actors, directors and writers flock to Los Angeles hoping to make their way into one of the most subjective industries ever known. Screenwriter Karolyn Carnie is one of the few who have been able to network themselves and gain recognition for their creative talents. Working on the set of critically acclaimed TV series Suits, Carnie gained invaluable experience attending production meetings, revising and rewriting scripts in addition to developing her own work that has been reviewed by the likes of legendary Bond producer Michael G. Wilson. Carnie’s unique ability to draw on personal experiences when creating emotionally compelling stories sets her apart from her peers and gives audiences a much needed women’s perspective. We had a chance to ask Carnie about her accomplishments and aspirations as a screenwriter and showrunner, gaining some insight into a life on a film set.
You have worked with Aaron Korsh, showrunner of the highly popular TV series Suits, while the show was filming in Toronto. What type of hands on work did you do while working on the set and assisting Korsh?
Carnie: In Toronto, I was able to actively be on set and watch takes as well as be witness to active rewrites, notes being given and the scenes being shot themselves. I also handled page revision on set, and dealt with clearances for character names, and other matters. I attended all meetings including prep meetings and production meetings where we would fine tune the details of the episodes. I would go on tech surveys, to oversee our locations, and what will we require day of.
How did working for Korsh either change or further develop your understanding of the industry, and what makes a great screenwriter and showrunner?
Carnie: It definitely further developed what I have already learned from being on other shows, as well as doing my masters at UCLA for screenwriting. A screenwriter on a show, is part of a team, and the showrunner is the coach of that team. They have so much more to do than just write. The have to think about every detail, the budget, the look, the voice, what is being portrayed to your audience, is it the vision you want to get across. It is time and hard work and effort, over and over again.
As a writer, how do you find inspiration and motivation to create engaging stories? Do you draw on any personal experiences when developing an idea for a character or show?
Carnie: Absolutely I draw on personal experiences, encounters, friends, and myself to create a character. It’s obviously easier to draw on yourself, because you tend to know yourself best, but I have used friends, and family as well, or even someone I saw one day. I never copy them exactly, I take a trait, or something about them that can help create this character. I like to put little pieces of myself in characters. Whether it’s my love of sports, or what I imagine myself to be like if I had lived in the 1920’s. Something I take that can be my starting point, and then I build from there. When I create a character that is of a marginalized community it is very important to me to reach out to people to get their reactions, to make sure I am not falling into stereotypes I have seen in films and movies past, but instead properly displaying someone’s story.
How have you been able to successfully network yourself in order to capitalize on your talents and get work within such a cutthroat industry?
Carnie: When I moved to Los Angeles I did not know many people. I knew my former bosses Anton Cropper, and Tom Lynch. I moved here to do my masters program, which helped because I was surrounded by talented writers, and professors that either had or were actively working in the industry. It started by talking with them, having meetings with the people I did know, usually that resulted in inviting me to set of what they were working on, which lead to more connections. It was also cold emails to people, sometimes they’d respond, sometimes they wouldn’t. Toronto peers would connect me with friends they had here in LA. A lot of it is also right time at the right place. I started working as a script consultant and that has really been beneficial, being able to help people shape pilots for pitching to companies.
You were recently awarded the opportunity to meet famed James Bond writer and producer Michael G. Wilson. Did you gain any advice on writing or gain anything particularly valuable you could apply going forward from the experience?
Carnie: Of course, you do not leave a meeting with Michael G. Wilson and say you’ve learned nothing. He is the Yoda of what he does. I luckily, or fortunately, had written a spy farce. He seemed very interested in my project, and we went through really key points, how the bomb would work, how the detonator would work. It was having an expert consult on my script and it was invaluable. Michael has this way of giving you confidence you may never knew you had. A calming “you’ve got the talent and you’re very funny” and you get the feeling ‘hey if he thinks I can do this, I can definitely do this.’
In your own experience, when pitching a concept for a show or episode to multiple people, how are you able to confidently convey your ideas to get others to share your creative vision?
Carnie: I think a show can be quite different from an episode idea. I have pitched both and I think it’s also the audience that is quite different. Typically when you’re pitching a show it is to a network or studio. And in my personal experience it’s more of a performance. I always start off with a personal connection. A personal story that helps links this show to a personal level. It tends to make the listeners more at ease, and they find it more relatable. Now, not everything is going to connect personally. I am currently writing a supernatural drama, and I just wrote a prohibition piece. I wasn’t raised in the 1920’s, and I’m not a vampire or werewolf, at least last time I checked, but I have connections to both. I was raised on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed, and I was trying to move things just like Matilda when I got mad. It never worked. However, that want within me to know that world inspired this new project I’m working on. For the 1920’s piece, I would start with beer, it’s about a family brewery and I have worked at a company called ‘THE BEER STORE’ in Canada for over six years, where I had to learn about breweries and their history. I could tell an anecdote from my time there that will bring a larger concept down to something simple. This also shows why I can write this project, and someone else won’t have the same vision as I will. When you’re pitching an episode idea, in my experience, it is in a room with writers you work with every day, and you’re all on the same show. So you are all pitching different ideas. As a team you are thinking of ideas that work for the show, for the season arc and for the characters. I tend to pitch with a bit of a setup, why I think this may work, whether it’s leaning to a former story from a former season, or how I think it will connect to the overall arc of what we’re looking to do. Since everyone is familiar with the characters it’s typically pretty easy for them to get your pitch, so it really depends if it’s the right fit. For Suits in particular, an idea might be great but might not work for this season, so we have a board of those ideas that we may come back to. We actually just did, an idea I had pitched last season is being considered for this season.
What scripts have you written that you are most proud of, or you have put the most time into? What was special about these stories?
Carnie: I have put a lot of time into “Sleeman,” which is my family brewery prohibition piece. I just completed a one page rewrite on the pilot, and I really think it has something special. It started off as a more personal story to me, it was a Canadian-American story, a different way into prohibition, and with a strong woman. Somewhat imagining if I was alive in prohibition. From there it morphed into I believe something so much more. I have made the woman the main protagonist, and gave her a beautiful in-depth back story that has her mother being a runaway slave. This was a pitch from a producer friend of mine, and when I heard it I thought well this is a different story than I was originally telling, but it’s a great story. From there I realized it was the answer to a lot of things I set up. Why does this woman in the 1920’s have so much power in her family? I thought it answered a lot of questions. I had a lot of fun with “Gold Medal Domination.” I don’t tend to write many films, but I wrote this one, and it got the attention of Michael G. Wilson. It recently placed in the semifinals of the WeScreenplay Diverse Feature competition, and it’s just really fun. It’s a Miss Congeniality meets Spy meets Blades of Glory with my own twist. I picked an actor for each character and I wrote in that voice, and what that did was help give a really unique voice to each.
What advice would you give to aspiring young female script/screenwriters?
Carnie: Be true to your voice. I have heard recently we are not looking for any female protagonist. That made me write a show with a male protagonist, but I definitely had a bunch of strong women in the pilot that you could see their arc potential. I have been told many times I write stereotypical male worlds, this is from growing up and being immersed in said worlds, but I am telling it from a female perspective. My experience working as a beer consultant is much different than a males. My experience being a baseball fan is night and day different then a males. As a female writer never feel limited to stories. Never let anyone tell you you can’t write a story about army brothers for example. I grew up watching Top Gun and Lethal Weapon, and if I want to write a story like that I will, and I have. If you like rom-coms, write one, but be true to what you want to write. I think women are in a great position to tell honest stories, and I have written the gambit of rom-coms. I’m working on a few ideas that tend to lean towards Hallmark right now, but I’ve also written an army base show, and a show about a quarterback prodigy with savant syndrome.
Given that the creation of Hollywood TV shows and movies attracts some of the most creative minds in the world, how have you been able to collaborate with other writers and bounce ideas back and forth when so much of the job can be subjective?
Carnie: That is a great point, someone might hate your script, and someone may love it. It very well is subjective. I attended UCLA MFA Screenwriting program, so I was fortunate enough to be in workshops with the next generation of writers, we are all on that climb together and bouncing ideas off of them was invaluable for me growing as a writer. Hearing your script read out loud is crucial. I really think that just hearing it out loud can create great changes. And yes people have different opinions, but what is important is your vision. A lot of notes can help create something even stronger, and yes, some are off the mark, but you’re the judge of what makes it and what doesn’t. However, if two people have a note in the same spot, then maybe their fix isn’t right but definitely take a look at that section.
Do you have any upcoming work in 2018 you are especially excited about?
Carnie: I do, I am working on two new drama pilots; one that is a procedural, Blacklist meets Bones, and the antagonist is as if Barbara Gordon went bad. I love a good procedural and I think this one will have great legs to make it five-plus seasons. I am working on a supernatural drama that is based off a short I wrote a few years ago, and expanding this idea. And it looks at the underworld as a chess board, which I think is a cool way into it. You have your pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, queen and king. There is also a look into past lives, part of that will have my lead characters as Adam and Eve in a past life. I have also been working on a few feature ideas that I believe to be acceptable for a TV movie, for Lifetime or Hallmark, or along those lines. A fun Christmas themed movie, and a Valentines themed one as well. These two are very fun for me as I am an avid watcher of those types of movies, and thought ‘hey maybe I could write one of those.’