What is your name, age, and location?
Sandra Ann Miller, 42, Venice, California.
What is your profession?
Writer (screenwriter, author, intermittent blogger).
What did you study in school and what degrees do you have?
I have a BFA in Live Action Film and Video from the California Institute of the Arts.
What was your first job?
I’d have to say it was babysitting, starting in junior high. I made a small fortune. It also taught me how to manage challenging personalities.
Who or what inspired you to break into your current line of work?
Ironically, I didn’t have enough money to make a film at CalArts. Tuition was so high. They suggested I make a video instead. I remember saying to a few members of the faculty, “I didn’t come to film school to make a video.” (This was before the days of digital.) So, I wrote two screenplays instead. I went in to be an experimental narrative director and came out a traditional narrative screenwriter. I never saw that coming.
Name/describe what has been your most rewarding project so far?
With three scripts in various stages of development, attachments and funding, I have to say the most rewarding part so far is the collaboration. When you find people who love what you’ve created as much as you do, it makes the uphill battle that is filmmaking so much more enjoyable. And I’ve been really lucky with that.
Name/describe one incident when being a woman has helped your career?
In script notes meetings. As women, we are bombarded with criticism, whether it’s coming from our internal rumblings of what we aren’t satisfied with or someone else, well meaning or otherwise, pointing out perceived flaws or shortcomings. Being a woman, in those situations, allows me to hear what they are saying, as well as what they mean to say, without getting defensive.
Name/describe one incident when being a woman has hindered your career?
Early on, working as a production assistant at a video production company, I was out on a shoot for the first time with a new crew (all male). One of the owners (also a man, both partners were) served as the director (it was a corporate video). We all went to a restaurant for lunch and the crew was very nice to me, asking me questions about what I was studying in film school, making conversation while we had our meal. A few days later, I was called in to the other partner’s office. He, Partner B, wanted to let me know that Partner A said I talked too much and that Partner A didn’t want me to go out on any more shoots. Partner A thought I should just stay in the office. Now, the only time I talked, besides answering a question on set, was at that lunch. The attention wasn’t on Partner A during that time and, clearly, he didn’t like that. Really what he didn’t like was working with women. I had seen proof of that more than once in the office. I explained the situation to Partner B in a professional manner. Partner A never let me go on another shoot of his, but Partner B did.
Who is your role model or mentor (alive or dead)?
Cinematically speaking – and I’m prepared for the groans this will incur – it’s Alfred Hitchcock. I know. That goes beyond cliché, but I grew up on his films and television show. I loved that pull of suspense in the pit of my stomach I got from his films, as well as the playful wit. I also saw in his work a profound admiration for women. His wife was his collaborator; nothing happened without Alma’s input or approval. I find his film heroines to be empowered (something I was booed for saying at a UCLA film symposium many moons ago, but I stand by it). While he was a director, I learn so much about writing by the way he tells the story. There is nothing superfluous in his films. There should be nothing superfluous on my page. He’s a wonderful taskmaster.
If you could give one piece of advice to a woman starting out in your field, what would it be?
Break the stereotype. Screenwriters, unfortunately, come with a preconceived reputation of being flaky, difficult and/or overly sensitive. Writing is a profession as much as it is an art, so there are times when you have to leave your artistic temperament at the door and strictly be a professional. Even when you think the script is perfect, someone will want changes. When the feedback stabs you in the gut, take a breath and don’t take it personally because it’s not. That’s a challenge because the work often is personal. As a writer, there is always more to learn. Even the worst notes can help make you better at your craft. We have to keep in mind our careers will not be sustained on talent alone; reputation can make or break you. Strive to exceed expectations, collaborate wholeheartedly and deliver best work.
Follow Sandra on Twitter: @MsMiller
Follow Sandra’s Project on Twitter: @BlackCoffeeFilm
– Photo by Lawrence Elbert
– Interview by Elena Rossini