Karleen McSherry is a passionate screenwriter, who also happened to garner a Finalist placement in our initial (2016) season of the Filmmatic Screenplay Awards for her amazing science fiction screenplay “Land of Light”. Marleen also attended Filmmatic’s annual Sundance networking event, “Monday on Mainstreet”. I asked Karleen as we drank hot toddies slope-side if she would do a quick Q&A for our readers, she thankfully agreed….
Filmmatic: How long have you been writing?
McSherry: I’ve loved to write my whole life and have done so since my youth, creating skits for the neighborhood kids to perform for our parents; being named as one of three winners of a short story writing contest sponsored by my grammar school; and crafting stories and poems for our high school magazine. Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to have had jobs that offered the opportunity to write everything from policies and procedures to newsletters and marketing pieces. In 1997, I started a publishing business, creating relocation guides for real estate for which I wrote the text of 35 magazines as well as a non-fiction book, Letters from the Unborn, which was self-published in 2003. Screenwriting came on the horizon about 12 years ago and I’ve written a couple of feature length as well as a few short film scripts since then.
Filmmatic: What screenwriting training have you received, are you self-taught?
McSherry: With a degree in film from Montana State University in Bozeman, I took courses in the art of screenwriting and read twenty or so books on the subject. The greatest help in improving my craft, however, came in 2012 when I attended Lew Hunter’s screenwriting colony in Superior, Nebraska. During the two weeks there, he taught highlights of his UCLA masters class in screenwriting, held table readings and provided individualized instruction. He read “Land of Light,” provided feedback and encouraged me to perfect it with the goal of getting it produced.
Filmmatic: What writing habits work for you? Do you write in short or long shifts, in the mornings mainly, late at night…?
McSherry: I have a day job, so to speak, and am not able to write full-time. I keep a journal in which I write regularly, although not every day. When I’m in the mode of writing stories, I usually wake up with ideas and prefer to write them down soon after getting up. In the beginning I usually focus on the basic story. Then the details are filled in during the ensuing days or weeks. Each day I write as long as it takes to get the ideas onto the paper.
Filmmatic: What genres do you lean towards?
McSherry: The thread that runs through my work is spirituality. The genre might be historical biography, other-world sci-fi adventure or ensemble drama but the underlying element revolves around the inner essence of who we really are, how the characters discover that part of themselves and what they do with it once they’re aware.
Filmmatic: What is your screenplay, “Land of Light”, about?
McSherry: “Land of Light” is about a brash 30-year-old woman intent on creating a blueprint for world peace who goes on a hike with her sister and finds a center-of-the-earth utopia, where she discovers herself, true love and the real means to peace.
Filmmatic: How did you get the idea for “Land of Light”?
McSherry: There have been a number of prophecies about a coming age of peace and enlightenment. I contemplated the idea of what such a society might look like and what it would take to get there, and thought this would be a great idea to explore in a script.
While doing research the year prior for a screenplay about the Elizabethan statesman Francis Bacon, I read his unfinished utopian work, The New Atlantis, about a ship of people who go off course and find an inhabited yet unknown island in the middle of the ocean. The people there are peaceful and highly learned, and conduct scientific experiments to understand life. Every decade or so they send out scouts to major cities of the established world to find and bring back the greatest written works of the time, which they study and then house in a large library.
Today, there’s hardly a place on the earth that isn’t surveilled by satellites or located by GPS so an unknown island in the middle of the ocean seemed implausible. The idea of a parallel universe come to mind after directing a scene from David Lindsay Abaire’s “The Rabbit Hole,” but I ultimately chose the center of the earth as the setting. I liked the idea of getting there via something as simple as a high-speed elevator that passes through a section of the earth’s crust that has zero gravity and on the other side gravity is in the opposite direction, delivering the characters to this other world on their heads. I liked the symbolism of one place being right side up and the other upside down.
After I had written the basic story, a septuagenarian friend stopped by to visit. When I told her about my script, she asked if I had ever read “Admiral Byrd’s Log?” I hadn’t heard of it so she summarized the story. Apparently, she and Admiral Byrd’s daughter had gone to school together and she knew the family. Byrd had been put under house arrest and was not allowed to talk about the reason. However, at some point someone had posted on the web the admiral’s log, detailing an experience he had had in the center of the earth. It has quite a following of people that call themselves “Hollow Earthers.” I read the log and incorporated some of the concepts to appeal to that group.
Filmmatic: What are you working on now? What do you plan on writing in the near future?
McSherry: I was grateful to be at Sundance this year to attend Filmmatic’s Hollywood meet and greet, “Monday on Main,” and presentations at the Filmmaker’s Lodge. The take away was that if I want to produce “Land of Light,” then I need to write, direct and produce a short film that makes it into film festivals to provide credibility as a producer. While driving home, I had the idea for a short film called “Transition,” about a woman who passes from this world to the next and, in the process of her life review, sees the causes and effects of key moments that gave direction to her existence. The first draft has been written and revised, so the next step is to send it to a coverage service for feedback to make it the best it can be before beginning pre-production.
While attending the colony in 2012, I began a feature length script about five women in Bible study who agree to experiment for six weeks in using love to solve their problems. I hope to finish this screenplay sometime next year.
Filmmatic: Any advice for those about to dive into their first feature-length screenplay?
McSherry: My advice for first-time feature writers is to get the initial ideas down on paper and not worry about the quality. Most first drafts, even those of excellent writers, are not the best. As the saying goes, good writing is rewriting.
Congrats once again to Karleen, and many thanks for the time she spent answering our questions. Filmmatic will forward any and all producer requests for Ms. McSherry’s “Land of Light”, or any for any other Filmatic contestant’s script for which there is interest 😉