Variety highlights cinema scribes breaking out in a year wherein the industry is bouncing back from the pandemic. They will be celebrated on Oct. 17 at the Mill Valley Film Festival and participate in a live, in-person panel.
Zach Baylin ('King Richard')
Tennis biopic “King Richard” earned rave reviews at its Telluride Film Festival premiere this year, with critics singling out Will Smith as a frontrunner to score what would be his third Oscar nomination for lead actor.
Smith plays the titular Richard Williams, father to world-beating tennis stars Venus and Serena, in a film that explores the trials he faced positioning his daughters for a shot at glory.
“I had a 4-year-old daughter at the time and I wanted to write something about parenting, and huge ambition,” says scribe Baylin, making his debut feature. “As I dug into what Richard really had to go through, I really felt it was one of those moments where suddenly there was a story that was so big and so urgent.”
The biopic is an authorized one, exec produced by the Williams sisters alongside their sister Isha Price; a bind that usually serves as both a blessing and a curse.
For Baylin, it was definitely more the former. The “little moments of detail” on offer from the sisters “provided a level of intimacy and detail, and was absolutely necessary and hugely beneficial to bring authenticity to the script,” he says. As for any sanding-off of their father’s rougher edges, he adds that “to the Williams’ family credit, that was never anything they tried to do. They wanted their father, particularly, to be a fully realized character and to show it all.”
Next up, Baylin pens the script for Michael B. Jordan-led boxing sequel “Creed 3.” Beyond that, “I’m drawn to darker, complicated character stories,” he says. “When I was a kid, we used to go to the movies at Christmas and see really big Hollywood movies like ‘JFK’ and ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley.’ I would love to work on movies like that.” — Adam Benzine
Reps: CAA; Management: Grandview Legal: Gregory Slewett
Camilla Blackett ('Queen')
Inspiration for “Queen” struck when Blackett was looking after her niece. They were trying to watch a princess film, but none of the available options hit the right chord with Blackett. “It got the cogs in my head turning,” she says. “And I asked myself: What was the princess film that I needed to see when I was 11 years old?”
With “Queen,” Blackett looked to shake up the conventional royal movie formula by making it less Eurocentric and showing that being a good citizen doesn’t hinge on your birthright. Young girls have incredible voices, but we do a lot to stamp it out of them, she says. “I just want to be very cognizant to create the environment where we tell them the opposite. That their voices are massively important, and that they should use them to their fullest.”
Blackett’s film is channeling that message through its star, Marsai Martin, who impressed Blackett with her comedic sensibility and impulses when they worked together on “Little.” “It’s not only that, but she just has this incredible poise. And to have both of those things at, I think at any age, as a performer in this industry is an enormous feat, but to have it when you are her age, it’s just so remarkable,” Blackett says. “And I think that anyone who has worked with her jumps to work with her again.”
Working on the script at the beginning of the pandemic proved to be its own feat. “It was probably one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to force my brain to do. Making jokes when your brain is quite literally out of serotonin,” she says. Soon, though, her script provided an escape: “In some ways, it was quite a saving grace.” — Lia Picard
Reps: Agent: UTA, Independent Talent Group; Management: Black Box Management; Legal: Morris Yorn
Akela Cooper ('Malignant')
The “Malignant” writer’s love of horror films is palpable, her enthusiasm for writing genre fare deeply rooted in childhood.
“I guess it just stems from my parents,” Cooper says. “My dad was a huge sci-fi fan, my mom enjoyed sci- fi as well. And I have older siblings and so I literally grew up around it and watching it whether or not I was supposed to be watching.” She even subjected her mother to jump scares around the house.
“I would hide around corners and wait for my mom to come out of the bathroom or come out of the kitchen, and she was like ‘You’re gonna give me a heart attack!’ But it was fun. It’s like, ‘All right, now I want to do that’ except I want to do it in people’s minds, exploring horror.”
Cooper says, “I want to write stuff that will have people in theaters feeling something.”
Cooper’s happy that the two words that seem to describe “Malignant” are “bonkers and batshit.” And that she was able to hook up with the team at Atomic Monster and find her tribe to “geek out” on genre films. Cooper notes that mostly the pushback she’s gotten isn’t because she’s a woman, or Black, it was from “execs who just don’t like genre.”
Next up is “M3gan,” which stars Allison Williams; “The Nun 2”; and Netflix limited series “Pym.” But the Trekkie is very excited about being a co-exec producer on “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.”
“‘Deep Space Nine’ had a huge, huge impact on me. Captain Sisko looked like my dad. Black people living and succeeding in space. It was pivotal for me ,” says the Missouri native.Will there be a “Malignant 2?” She doesn’t know but “it would be awesome.” — Carole Horst
Reps: Agent: ICM Partners; Management: Rise Management
Julia Cox ('Nyad,' 'Do No Harm')
In a prime example of the feast-or-famine nature of screenwriting, Cox is set to see two films she scripted get up and running early next year. One, an infidelity drama titled “Do No Harm,” is from a screenplay she wrote on spec nearly a decade ago, which was subsequently featured on the Blacklist, bought by Paramount, placed in turnaround, then set up by Netflix. The other is a rewrite she was given less than a year ago, “Nyad,” which tells the story of Diana Nyad’s historic swim from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64.
“It’s tough, because there’s no guarantee with any of these things,” Cox says. “I just try to derive as much pleasure and joy as I can from the writing process, because that is the one part that I can control.”
“Nyad” is to star Annette Bening, with “Free Solo” duo Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi on tap to direct. Cox’s treatment certainly gives its subject’s determination and achievements their due, while also examining the toll that this sort of drive takes on both Nyad and those around her, particularly the swimmer’s trainer and lifelong best friend, Bonnie Stoll.
Meeting the two women, Cox says, “I was immediately struck by their partnership, and I wanted it to be a portrait of female friendship that we usually don’t get to see. I was also really attracted to this question of loving someone who has to do the most difficult things to their own body, and their own mind; Diana putting her own life at risk because she couldn’t not. That’s a complicated aspect of love, watching someone risk themselves like that.” Next up, Cox is adapting the memoirs of Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps. She describes it as “an incredible story.” — Andrew Barker
Reps: Agency: APA; Management: Project D Media;
Legal: Ziffren Brittenham
Mikey Day and Streeter Seidell ('Home Sweet Home Alone'”)
Day and Seidell first met when they were assigned to an office together at “Saturday Night Live,” which Day describes as “very much a college roommate situation. ‘You guys are going to share this space, hopefully you’ll get along!’”
They did, and have been working together now for seven years, having written several standout sketches including “Haunted Elevator” (Tom Hanks as David S. Pumpkins) and “Close Encounter” (Kate McKinnon as an alien abductee).
The secret to their success, Day says, is they share a similar sense of humor and a tendency to stay up late working. Adds Seidell: “I think we’ve learned how to disagree in a constructive and respectful way. We can argue for hours about a joke or plot point, but nobody’s feelings get hurt.”
The pair was approached to pen “Home Sweet Home Alone,” a reimagining of the famous “Home Alone” franchise, and Seidell says they “jumped at the chance,” both being fans of the original. Day adds the new film was “written from a place of profound love and respect for the original.”
Up next, the pair is working on reboots of “Inspector Gadget” and “Space Camp” for Disney, and will, of course, bring their specific voices to the new season of “SNL.” — Jenelle Riley
Reps: Day: Agency: ICM; Management: Michael Goldman Management; Legal: Stone, Genow, Smelkinson, Binder & Christopher
Seidell: Agency: WME; Management: Artists First
Jeremy O. Harris ('Zola')
Where does one begin taking a wild Twitter thread and turning it into a cutting-edge feature script? That was the challenge facing playwright Harris and director Janicza Bravo in turning Aziah “Zola” Wells King’s 148-tweet thread into feature film.
“We started from the ground up,” says Harris, “taking every tweet and asking, ‘What is the cinema version of this?’ Our structure became using her tweets as our outline, and filling in the world in the words that might be happening in the space between the tweets.”
Having scored a hit with the resulting film, “Zola,” Harris now has a raft of projects in the works. His two-year overall deal with HBO has him co-producing the second season of “Euphoria,” while also writing and exec producing “The Vanishing Half,” based on Brit Bennett’s bestselling novel.
Also on the cards is an adaptation of Ales Kot’s graphic novel “The New World” for Warner Bros. and Populace; an original script tentatively titled and inspired by “Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening”; and an as-yet-announced movie with Universal “reimagining the Rashomon form and thinking about the terrors of the psyche.”
He’ll also almost certainly re-team with best friend Bravo for a future project. “I want to be the Paul Schrader to her Martin Scorsese,” Harris says. “Someone who has a distinct voice and distinct fingerprints on everything he does. I want to be a part of a new vanguard of queer theater artists, queer filmmakers, Black cinema artists, Black theater artists, who’re saying, ‘these boxes and structures that white supremacy and the hetero patriarchy have put us under, are so boring.”— Adam Benzine
Reps: Agency: APA; ICM Partners; Management: 2AM;
Legal: Granderson Des Rochers
Jessica Knoll ('Luckiest Girl Alive')
When Knoll was tapped to adapt her 2015 New York Times best-selling mystery “Luckiest Girl Alive” for the big screen, she had already “made peace” with the fact that the script, her first produced credit, would necessitate changes from the original novel, which pivots on a young woman harboring a shocking secret.
“Right away it became very obvious that I was going to have to condense certain parts of the story,” says Knoll of the film version, directed by Mike Barker and starring Mila Kunis.
But writing the script herself was a non-negotiable for Knoll, who also exec produces the film. Kunis and Bruna Papandrea are producers as well.
“At the moment that it became a possibility that this was going to be adapted for the screen, I knew that I had to be the one to do it,” says Knoll. “That’s how I felt internally.”
Knoll, who lives in Los Angeles, spent four months on location for the shoot, both in Toronto and New York, an experience she calls “surreal.”
“I was never cut out of the process, ” says Knoll. “Everybody —Mike, Bruna, Mila — they were all very, very supportive of me.”
Papandrea is also producing Knoll’s sophomore novel “The Favorite Sister” for TV and Knoll is currently penning her third book, whose title is under wraps. Margot Robbie’s production company Lucky Chap is producing a “feminist slasher film” that Knoll sold to Amazon.
As to what her true creative passion is — books or film: “I like juggling both worlds.” — Malina Saval
Reps: Agency: CAA; LEGAL: Kleinberg, Lange,
Cuddy, & Carlo
Steven Levenson ('Tick, Tick...Boom!')
Levenson is convinced that his adaptation of “Tick, Tick … Boom!” will resonate today. The ’90s-era musical is the autobiographical tale of Jonathan Larson, an aspiring composer who couldn’t catch a break. Eventually, Larson wrote “Rent,” but tragically passed away the night before its Off Broadway premiere.
“We all have those cross-road moments,” says Levenson. “Should I keep following my dream, even though everybody is telling me that I shouldn’t?”
No stranger to musicals, Levenson won a Tony for the book of “Dear Evan Hansen” (and adapted it for the screen). When he heard that Lin-Manuel Miranda was directing an adaptation of “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” Levenson knew that he had to be part of it. “I shared my passion for the story, and he told me about his vision for it. And we really just connected and clicked.”
The duo wanted the film to reflect Larson’s original concept of the story. There were meetings with Larson’s friends and a trip to the Library of Congress to find his earliest drafts. “In our movie, we have Jonathan on stage telling his story in 1991, as he did in real life at the New York Theatre Workshop,” says Levenson. As Larson tells the story, the audience sees it play out with the people in his life.
Working on this film was a dream come true for Levenson, who was struck by Larson’s tenacity.
“The heartbreaking and incredible thing about Jonathan Larson is he never doubted himself. He just wasn’t sure if the world would listen,” says Levenson. “That was his constant frustration and the world didn’t really listen in his lifetime. So it’s eerie and heartbreaking to see this story of a guy who feels like he’s running out of time, and has something incredible to create, and nobody is paying attention.” — Lia Picard
reps: Agency: WME; Legal: David Berlin
Randy McKinnon ('Notes From a Young Black Chef')
On track to play professional football, McKinnon called his sports agent from the airport and told him he was going to quit and become a writer. He had never written a script before.
“Something was inside of my gut, and I tried to ignore it,” says McKinnon. “I felt like I was in a Greek tragedy, like I was at the mountaintop. I was like, ‘If I go through this airport, it might be the worst decision I’ve ever made.’”
A top NFL prospect out of Florida, McKinnon had his epiphany right before his flight to Dallas, where he was set to workout with the Cowboys. While nobody expected his sudden pivot from sports to writing, McKinnon says he’s always loved storytelling. After a football injury, he started having dreams filled with ideas that would later become Hulu’s sports drama “Wild Rabbit,” Annapurna’s upcoming sci-fi pic “Extra” and Warner Bros.’ “Lost Boys” remake.
One of McKinnon’s most personal projects is “Notes From a Young Black Chef,” the story of culinary phenom Kwame Onwuachi. McKinnon says he relates to Onwuachi not only in that they both sold candy as a hustle, but also that they both faced obstacles and racial discrimination on their paths to success.
McKinnon is also harnessing the pen for DC’s upcoming superhero movie “Static Shock,” produced by Michael B. Jordan, based on Milestone Media and DC’s comic character. “I have an 8-year-old son who only knows Black superheroes,” McKinnon says. “He’s seen ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,’ and now he gets to see ‘Static Shock’ from his own father. So for me, it’s an even more personal thing.” — Ethan Shanfeld
Reps: agency: CAA; Management: Grandview; Legal: Jackoway Tyreman
Ron Mael and Russell Mael ('Annette')
Though it wasn’t intended, 2021 ended up being the year of the Maels: first with Edgar Wright’s documentary “The Sparks Brothers,” detailing the rise and influence of their band Sparks, and then with Leos Carax’s “Annette,” the bold musical with a script and music written by the pair.
“We’ve tried to have a musical film project for pretty much our entire career,” says Ron Mael with a laugh. “And all of a sudden, to have this all happening at once is pretty outrageous.”
Though the two had come close on film projects before, most notably an adaptation of “Mai the Psychic Girl” with Tim Burton, it wasn’t until they met Carax that “Annette” finally took hold. “Leos told us he used to steal Sparks albums as a teen growing up in Paris,” says Russell. “We thought, ‘This guy’s OK!’” They had actually penned the script, about an opera star and a stand-up comedian whose daughter is gifted with her mother’s voice, nine years earlier, thinking it would be a narrative album. But Carax said he wanted to direct it as his next movie.
While the film’s twists have divided some audiences, the authors wouldn’t have it any other way. Says Russell: “I sometimes think the things that are the strongest are the most polarizing.”
They have started work on another movie musical, which Ron says will have “the sensibility of ‘Annette’ without being ‘Annette, Part Two.’” And of course, they aren’t slowing down on their day jobs with Sparks. An added bonus: now fans of the films are tracking down their music. Says Ron: “They have an opportunity to go back over 25 albums and study up.” — Jenelle Riley
Reps: Management: Republic Media