October 5, 2021 – Throughout the month of October, we’ll be interviewing previous winners of our Short Screenplay Competition to discuss screenwriting, the film industry and more! This week, we’re highlighting Jeffrey Field – winner of the 2015 and 2020 competitions. Stay tuned for Q&As with screenwriters Caitlin Stow and Todd Bird.
Jeffrey Field is a six-time Nicholl Fellowship semifinalist, a Screencraft Fellowship winner, and the only two-time winner of a Missouri Stories fellowship. His screenplay DON’T GO THERE was named the overall winner of the 2018 Tracking Board Launch Pad Feature Competition. He has written or co-written scripts that have won first place at the Nashville, Omaha and Destiny City film festivals and the Screencraft Science Fiction competition. After a long career in television and digital journalism, he now works as a communications coordinator at one of the Midwest’s top medical schools.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You won DCFF’s screenplay competition in both 2015 and 2020. What inspired those stories? How did you approach writing them?
A: My 2015 screenplay “Bad Heir Day” originated from an online challenge to write a story in the most unique location I could think of. I brainstormed a long list and once “a womb” popped into my head, coming up with a story – three fetal triplets fighting to be the first one born – was the easy part.
In 2020, I had written a contained thriller feature that won a regional screenwriting fellowship and also got optioned. As part of the fellowship, we were asked to turn our feature into a short set in that same world – in my case, a rural community on the coldest night in eight decades. Because the feature was under option, I didn’t want to use any of those characters. The feature starts with the antagonist sitting in a stolen car so “Icebox” became about the owner of that car – who winds up stuck in the trunk.
Interestingly enough, while the feature stalled during its option period, in part because of the pandemic, “Icebox” may get shot this winter.
Q: What do you feel is the most challenging part about getting a screenplay where you want it to be?
A: Lately, it’s been getting that first draft on the page. I love the revision process and I’m full of promising story ideas, but getting those ideas outlined and written down for the first time has been a struggle. I know first drafts are usually terrible, but after finishing a few scripts that turned out really well, I think I’m putting too much pressure on myself to make the first drafts of the next one good right away. It’s something I need to get past.
Q: Have you found it difficult to get your work out there and read?
A: That’s always been a challenge, but it’s a little easier than it used to be. Online screenwriting communities are a great way to develop a network of peers who will exchange feedback on each other’s work. There are services – The Black List and Coverfly to name a couple – that will let you list your script for anyone looking for this material.
While I want to stress that it won’t work for everyone, most of the important connections I’ve made have been through people who read my work in screenwriting competitions. Contest reads – not even necessarily wins – led to me getting an agent, manager, several options and a personal mentor who wrote one of my favorite movies of the past 20 years. But again, this route takes a lot of luck, entry fee money (early bird submissions always!) and most importantly, a script good enough to get attention.
Q: Do you feel that the film industry embraces new writing talent?
A: The industry could do better about this. The safe route is always to work with people who have been successful before, which is one of the reasons it’s so tough to break in. However, the industry loves to embrace new voices that are wildly original – Tarantino, Diablo Cody, Jeremy O. Harris are a few examples – so write something so unique and interesting that the industry can’t ignore you.
Q: What’s one value or philosophy related to screenwriting that you hold dear?
A: Subvert expectations as much as you can. It makes your characters more interesting and three-dimensional, your stories less trope-filled and more predictable and keeps your readers engaged.
Q: In one sentence, what’s one tip you would give to any screenwriter?
A: Feel free to experiment with your stories while you write and revise – it costs nothing, can take you in directions you never imagined and, if it doesn’t work out, your old drafts still exist.
Q: What are some recent pieces of creative work that have inspired you?
A: This may sound weird, but movie trailers always inspire ideas and the motivation to work on them, even more than the movies themselves. I think because they’re encapsulations of a movie, they act a little like the ideas in my head for the ones I want to write. That said, great films and TV shows always inspire me too and some that I’ve seen and been inspired by this year alone are The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Coda, Plan B and TV’s For All Mankind, Hacks, The Underground Railroad and Ted Lasso.
And there’s a scene in Mike Flanagan’s new Netflix series Midnight Mass that is so shocking yet beautiful and perfectly set up – no spoilers, but you’ll know which one I mean if you’ve seen it – that I will draw inspiration from it for years.
Q: What future goals have you set for yourself related to writing or filmmaking?
A: I am an ambitious goal-setter and my white board currently has three ideas I hope to finish in the next 12 months. My long-term goal remains what it’s been all along – to get that first original feature script produced. I also have a novel that I still plan to finish someday.
Q: What new creative projects of yours can we look forward to?
A: Two shorts that I wrote as part of the Missouri Stories Fellowship program (one of which was my DCFF-winning script “Icebox”) were selected for funding and are on track for production this fall and winter. I look forward to seeing how those come together.
Q: Is there anything we didn’t ask that you’d like to share with our audience? Feel free!
A: Rejection isn’t fun but it’s a huge part of screenwriting, so don’t let the fear of it keep you from getting your work out there. Have your peers read your work, get their notes and then decide for yourself whether that person has good advice or not. Sometimes even thinking about how much you disagree with someone’s suggestion can inspire a great idea!
Favorite Movie(s): Cinema Paradiso, The Right Stuff, Silver Linings Playbook and Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Favorite Screenplay(s): I love reading Brian Duffield’s scripts because they’re so efficient and fun. If you can get your hands the script for his 2020 film Spontaneous, do it.
Favorite Book(s): Fiction: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Nonfiction: The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett Graf and A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaiken
Favorite Music to Write to: It depends on what I’m writing, but the playlist for my current work in progress has a ton of songs that were all plausibly on the radio during the month I graduated from high school, some of which remain very well known today and some that have been forgotten. I also recommend the scores for Her, Inception, Oblivion and Beasts of the Southern Wild.