Q&A with Clay McLeod Chapman, Member of the Honorary Selection Committee

AITAF StaffBridge Award

The Bridge Award for Screenwriting is accepting submissions for two more weeks!

For some inspiration, check out this conversation between Anna O'Donoghue, our Bridge Awards Chair, and Clay McLeod Chapman, one of the members of our Honorary Selection Committee. Clay is a multimedia, genre-hopping author with a passion for storytelling and collaboration with valuable insights about the screenwriting process and the life of a creator. The winner will be determined by the trailblazing filmmaker Nancy Meyers, but a dedicated panel of theater industry professionals thoroughly examines and evaluates each submission to the Award. A group of writers, directors, and designers, each member of the judging panel brings different professional expertises and a unique viewpoint to the judging process.
Click here to submit your screenplay!

Anna O'Donoghue: Hi Clay! Thanks for talking with us. So, let's start with the basics: Where are you from, and what do you do?

Clay McLeod Chapman: Born in Roanoke, Virginia and raised in Richmond. I've been living in Brooklyn for the last twenty years, but I still feel like a Virginia boy. I've been extremely blessed to tell all kinds of stories through a boatload of different mediums: books, children's books, comic books, podcasts, film and television.
So how did you get started in the entertainment industry? What has been the arc of your career?
CMC: Truth told, it started in 6th grade. I was failing English, and my teacher convinced me to enter a writing competition for some extra credit. Lo and behold, I won! That's all it took. Instant writer. There have been plenty of ups and downs since then. My Cinderella story is that I got my first book deal while I was still in college, which paved the way to a professional career in writing. I've failed for years, throwing ideas against the wall to see if they'll stick, only for them to splat on the floor. The highlights have always been because I failed better, which led to another opportunity that I would've never seen coming, and I've said yes to just about any invite thrown my way, even if I have no idea what I'm doing: writing musicals, writing for Spider-Man, writing for the movies. You name it. 
You've done so many different types of writing. What excites you about cinematic storytelling in particular? 
CMCSo much. I've imbibed movies since I was a kid--horror movies in particular. I'm not ashamed to admit that I fell in love with the horror genre as early as six years old. To now be able to work within the medium is absolute gravy. I love how a film can be responsible for catharsis, that it can draw out an emotion from the audience -- whether its dread or laughter or something in between. To be the architect of that experience, to draft up the blueprint that will eventually become the film -- that's an immensely rewarding (and exhausting) experience. Plus, it's gotta be said... Having a chance to see characters you created say your words on the big screen never -- never -- gets old. 
So how do you approach different forms differently? What makes something a novel as opposed to a movie? 
CMC: I let the story dictate what medium it wants to be told in. Some stories are better served as film, others are better as short stories. It's usually the characters and the situation they find themselves in that helps lead the way. I'm always a sucker for first person narratives because I like to get stuck in the point-of-view of my main characters. This is tougher with film--not impossible, just tougher--because the camera becomes the point-of-view, it becomes the narrator, the third-person omnipotent narrator of our film, which I think is somewhat similar to the third person narrative found within a novel. But it's not always my call--sometimes other people are making the decisions about form. 
You've worked really closely with fellow creators. How do you see the role of collaboration in your work?
CMC: It's absolutely fundamental. Look, I'll be honest...I need help. Lots of help. My writing is like Tang without the water. It's too much. If I'm left to my own devices, I lose perspective. Collaborating with others, whether it's a director or an illustrator or even just an editor, creates a dynamic where we collectively bring out the best in each other. We have a common goal: Tell this story to the best of our abilities. The best collaborations have a transcendent quality to them, where the artists working on this particular project lift each other up to a higher level. 
How do you deal with challenges in the creative process? What happens when you get stuck?
CMC: Sometimes you just need to let go of a story. If something's just not gelling, I press the pause button and take a break from it. When I return, however long it's been, I find that I've gained a better perspective on the story I'm trying to tell. Instead of banging my head against the brick wall, it's better to step back and take it in. Then you realize there may be a better way to the other sidet's as individual as the artists.
What do you wish people understood about what it's like to be a writer?  
CMC: Wow! What a good question... I don't know, we stare at the walls for hours on end? That we make for antisocial people? That it's fun? It's funny, because I think every writer I've ever met is so different. There's overlap, sure... I guess for me, I'd say I wish people understood that nobody's writing is for everybody. As a writer, you're always hopeful that your work will find its audience. Sometimes that audience is small, sometimes it's huge. I'm still finding my audience. I'll probably always be searching for them, but for the readers or viewers I've found thus far, however many it actually is, I feel immensely supported and honored by their readership. It's not about being a bestseller or a millionaire--it's about creating something that matters to someone else. That's a great feeling.  
Any advice for aspiring screenwriters or creatives? People who are hungry for that feeling? 
CMC: The question I always throw out there is: Do you want to be a director? If the answer is no, then I say: Find your collaborators. Film is a director's medium, but writers get to draft up the blueprints. We're vital to the process, but directors are the captain of this ship. So...do you want to direct? You can be an auteur! But if you don't want to direct, that's okay. I don't. Heck--I can't! But I've been fortunate enough to find my filmmakers who feel like I can help articulate their vision, while they help me tell my stories. That's a win-win!
What's your perspective on the military, and on bridging the gap between servicemembers and civilian artists?   
CMC: We're just looking for storytellers. Whether it's about their personal experiences in the military or something completely fantastical, an imagined world or something in between, I am a firm believer that we are at our most connected as human beings when we're sharing our stories. Think back to the cavemen around the campfire. Think about telling ghost stories around the campfire! Now -- think of your story. There's someone out there itching to hear it. I know I am. 
And finally, what's the best piece of advice you've gotten in your career? Or, what's the most important lesson you've learned along your way?
CMC: It may sound silly, but I truly believe this: You gotta just write. You got to find your time and sit down and exercise your imagination. Wake up early or go to bed late, but find an hour where you're not doing anything else but writing. The more you do it, the better you'll get. And share it. Share your work. Don't be afraid to look like an absolute idiot. Some of my best stuff was forged from falling flat on my face -- at first -- then picking myself up, dusting myself off, and revising. 
Suzan-Lori Parks

Clay McLeod Chapman writes books, comic books, children's books and for film/TV. His most recent novel The Remaking is now out in paperback, with his next book Whisper Down the Lane hitting shelves in 2021. Please visit him at claymcleodchapman.com.

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