The Ballroom for this event was predictably packed with those eager to hear words of inspiration and career insights from this iconic screenwriter known mostly for her work with director Tim Burton. As she sat on the stage and shared her early childhood stories, I was immediately reminded of the character Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird, and was a bit surprised when she eluded to feeling sympatico with that character herself. She was present at AFF 2011 to receive the AFF “Distinguised Screenwriter” award, presented to her by Johnny Depp, and to promote her new company, Small and Creepy Films. (www.smallandcreepy.com).
Caroline said that, since the age of four, she knew she wanted to “cast spells” with images and stories, adding that she has found that life is not about self-discovery, but about self-creation. She also said that every story she writes is essentially about dogs. “I think I was a dog in another life. All I want to write about is dogs,” Thompson said, citing her family dog as a remarkable animal who profoundly influenced her point of view from an early age.
Her first novel, First Born (1993) was inspired by a remark made to her by her mother, a woman not known for her tact or sensitivity of expression to others. As Caroline put it, the book was about an abortion that comes back to life to haunt its mother. Given Caroline’s proclivity to craft strange tales about strange characters, it seemed quite apropos that she would begin her writer’s journey with such a quirky fable. Yet, as she shared her writer’s journey, we got that her work is truly an honest extension of how she experiences life.
Of course, she had her share of Hollywood horror stories, saying that she has been fired five times from various projects over the course of her screenwriting career, and outright betrayed on a few occasions, saying, “I’ve learned not to put my soul in Hollywood’s way.”
She kept us laughing and amazed at her resilience, tossing off the hurt and disappointment, always focusing on what she wanted to do as a storyteller. On genre writing, she said, “Whatever it is that feeds you, let it feed you. Your only job is to find your voice.”
She also offered tips on dealing with various rights of passage to those who aspire to be screenwriters. On dealing with nerves before pitching, she said, “I just pretend it’s my cocktail party, and it’s my job to make them (studio execs) comfortable.”
For novelists and writers of fiction, she offered the tip that, when you sell a book, if you ask for the rights back after ten years, they have to give them back to you.
On getting through a complete screenplay, she outlined her own process. “I race through the first draft,” she said, “writing five pages a day before I let myself stop.” She said she doesn’t force herself to write more, even if she is inclined because she has learned that five pages a day is the right pace for her, adding that all writers have to find what works best for them. “My first draft is done in a month,” she said, then shared that she revises it about five times before she ever shows it to anyone else.
On creativity and finding that in oneself, she said, “Everything we do all day long is a creative act.” A remarkable, independent artist, when she said this, I’m pretty certain that everyone in the audience believed her.