– Morgan von Ancken, writer of Cutting Numbers (2013 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest winner). After being announced as the Grand Prize winner, Morgan later signed with agency powerhouse UTA.
Cutting Numbers is a unique premise in a genre (essentially an indie dramedy) usually devoid of true originality. How’d the concept come about?
My first job out of college was a temping gig where I transcribed thousands and thousands of handwritten names into a spreadsheet. One of the ways I coped with the monotony was by inventing a super sad series of little games. In my favorite one, I pretended that each name I invoiced was someone whose life—in some anonymous, inexplicable way—I was saving. The responsibility was empowering, and I remember extrapolating each person’s personality and appearance from their name and handwriting. It kept me sharp, too. If I screwed up and skipped a name, that person’s blood was on my hands.
A few years later, I realized that the inverse of this game might be an interesting premise for an off beat thriller–what if I was unwittingly killing all those random people, instead of saving them? How could I come to this realization? What are the implications of that kind of power? And what would happen when my boss found out?
When you start with a new script, what’s the process? Are you thinking, “I’m going to write whatever I want,” or “I’m going to write with the audience in mind”? Perhaps a mixture of both?
I don’t have a process. What I do have is a running list of ideas on my laptop, random thoughts and fragments that at one point or another I’ve thought would make cool movies. Most of them are terrible.
I just checked, and my latest entry, idea number 202, reads: “Different tribes of unicorns. Afternoonicorns. Spoonicorns. Balloonicorns.” Out of that morass of weirdness, maybe four or so ideas have some tiny kernel of potential. Then, for me, it’s just a matter of picking which idea I’m most enthusiastic about.
I’m so lazy, and writing a screenplay is so labor-intensive, I’ve found that I can’t grind away on something if I’m not totally enamored with it.
A remarkably vivid setting—besides well-above-average writing throughout—was one of the reasons the script was selected as the Grand Prize Winner. And yet, the backdrop, New York City, is quite common in film. At this point, too much so. How important was it to make this a different type of NYC story? Do you think location itself is important, in terms of getting the story’s theme across? Was NYC chosen for a specific reason?
I like the idea of bringing as much specificity as possible to my writing. I know there’s a school of thought that cautions against that, but if I’m reading something, and I come across a few well-placed details that resonate with me, I’m instantly there, inside the story. So I guess setting this script in New York was just a way for me to cheat, since I’ve lived here for a few years, and I’m familiar with the parts of the city I wanted to write about.
There’s also a lot of crowd imagery in the script, as Ben wanders around, wondering who he has consigned to die, and I thought the bustling streets of Manhattan fit that motif nicely. And then I suppose the whole notion of a young artist taking a temp job to subsidize their weirdo existence has a very particular kind of New York City naivety to me.
Although I’m sure that’s just because I live here–there’s probably weirdo subsidization going on everywhere.
How did you get into screenwriting?
I don’t know. I’ve always considered myself a writer—mostly because I thought that was better than considering myself a nerd—and I’ve always loved movies, but I definitely lack the obsessive zeal for film that some of the other screenwriters I’ve met have. I guess screenwriting is attractive to me because it’s so visual, which is the way that I think. It also has a wonderful pragmatism to it: most people won’t read a five hundred-page novel, but hopefully a few of them will sit through a two-hour movie.
As far as what type of screenwriter someone becomes, is it a conscious decision, or do they kind of naturally gravitate toward a particular style or genre? Which was it for you?
I think you have your strong suits. But I also don’t think they have to define you. This script was an elegiac fairytale, but the one I wrote before it was a rigorously researched period drama about the synthesis of aspirin and heroin. Right now, I’m writing for an awesome preschool cartoon show about talking monster trucks. I think if you’re a writer, then you can bring your ability to tell a story to bear on whatever medium you’re writing in.
What other successes have you had thus far with the script? Do you think there’s a bias against dramedies in the industry, regardless of how superb the writing? If so, why?
It’s funny, out of all the scripts I’ve written, this one is by far the strangest and least commercial. . . and it’s also the one that has opened the most doors for me. So there’s probably something in there about telling the stories you want to tell, regardless of what you think other people want to see.
As far as a bias against dramedies in the industry goes, I’m not sure I have enough perspective to have any sense of that. I suppose dramedies are generally easier to write and film, so yeah, I’m sure it’s hard to stand out unless you graft your story onto some kind of imaginative, high-concept hook. You know, like if two balloonicorns fell in love, but they could never be together for fear of popping each other’s rubbery, tensile bodies with their horns.
Actually, I kind of like that.