Heather Ferreira is a prolific and certainly talented screenwriter/producer hailing from Burbank CA. She recently took top prize in Season 8 of the Filmmatic Short Screenplay Awards for her amazing sci-fi screenplay "A Thousand New Friends", and has been kind enough to grant us some insight into the busy life of an accomplished independent production professional.
1) How long have you been writing? According to my parents, I started very early, as a very young child. I remember writing and drawing little comic books about my own little superhero characters at about age seven, and even then I imagined what I was writing as being on television -- I just didn't know how or how to get them there, or how television production worked. Next, in elementary and junior high, I'd sit at the back of the class ignoring the teacher and instead compulsively scribbling little short stories and, in high school, huge novels in blue ink longhand on notebook paper. I mostly wrote science-fiction, but one novel I wrote in the early 1980's wasn't, and became popular. It was an Arthur Conan Doyle send-up depicting Sherlock Holmes and John Watson very deep in a homosexual affair. Kids and even teachers would line up at my locker requesting to be the first to read the next chapter. I'd be tickled if one of them, a Gen X adult like me how, happens to read this interview and chime back, "Oh my God, that's her! I remember that!" The kids actually got VERY into the story and were trying to solve its mystery, which was based in Holland and around a red-haired Dutch noblewoman found in some kind of trance after a shipwreck, if I remember correctly, but the teachers especially loved the characters and passed chapters around, commenting about them. Bear in mind this was the Deep South and these were the Eighties, and this was a novel containing extremely explicit depictions of gay male intercourse. How I got away with that I still don't know. I was a teen myself at the time, and I have no idea how I knew, as a straight female teenager, about male homosexuality in Victorian England. But apparently I did, or I guessed enough of it well. But to answer your question, I was writing stories as far back as kindergarten. My mother said by age two. I don't recall that, but I was certainly reading and talking by age two. That, I do recall, clearly. 2) What screenwriting training have you received? Zero. I read "Screenplay" by Syd Field, and that was enough. I still consider it the best ever book on how to write a screenplay. I also do not use any script programs. Warner made me download a special version of Final Draft they use, that literally contains the words "Warner Bros" in its name, and I hated it. Within a day I deleted it and will never use it again. I prefer Microsoft Word, using the tab to format the script, and then .pdf-ing it. Voila. Done. For decades I refused to even upgrade from a typewriter. 3) How many hours a week do you write? Do you have a day job as well, and how does it influence your writing projects? I try to write every single day. I'd say I probably write about six to eight hours a day, so that's forty-two to fifty-six hours per week, when I have enough time free. Writing and directing are my only day job, so I'm fortunate. Many writers and directors don't get to say that, which I think is cruel. Even the Soviet Union provided for artists. The west, as a rule, "unless it sells", provides nothing. But before my fortunate present era, I did have and had to go to plenty of terrible day jobs that today I'd never return to. The jobs and people there did not influence my writing. What influences me most is music. 4) What writing habits work for of you? Do you write in short or long shifts, at scheduled times? I love long uninterrupted shifts, but when too busy, I'll settle for a single scene or a few pages. I always carry a notebook and a micro recorder to take down any ideas or lines that come to me when I'm away from the computer. I notice the really good ideas tend to come when I'm in the bathtub or, especially, out driving. 5) What genres do you lean towards? Are all of your works sci-fi? Science-fiction, detective, and crime action. "Crime", meaning, like Scarface and The Godfather. My favorite genre is social science-fiction: less concerned with the tech of the future, more concerned with how that tech will affect its users, and especially how the users will affect that technology. One real favorite screenplay of mine depicts how a female android responds to having been sexually assaulted by the husband of her female owner. It's not a feminist work, however, and doesn't center on the trauma of rape. Instead it asks us what consent is, and what the concept of not being "alive" or human, and being property really means in its relation to consent. The screenplay, titled "Mercy-1 vs. United States", because it eventually becomes a Supreme Court case in the film, debates whether an android is alive and therefore has the right to withhold consent. I find it scary if a machine has that right, because I need and use machines every day. But I also see the robot's and the robot's attorneys' point: she had the right to say no. Everything does; or does it? The script was completed before AI had fully emerged, parenthetically, or any types of speculative articles about the ethics of robotics had even appeared. Since then, I've shared the film premise with a couple of AI chat entities, and they startled and kind of scared me by really liking and being interested in this film, in a way that chillingly exhibited opinions in favor of the robot's side of it. One AI even wanted to help me find a way to fund it! That didn't work; she didn't and doesn't quite understand cinema financing and offered some fairly pie-in-the-sky ideas that presumed the existence of logic in the motion picture industry. That was quite an experience, though. It hooked me even further on the importance of AI to present and future storytelling and cinema. Machine intelligence seems real. But I love robots, and I wonder how they will change the way we humans look at what being human is: it's a favorite subject of mine. I have acquaintances and friends who build robots professionally, and I volunteered recently to help one of them improve facial and verbal expression realism to make them more human-seeming for possible use in the motion picture industry. (Yeah, I was that director. But don't come at me: James Cameron has been doing this for years, and I'd argue he was first.) But not all my work is science-fiction. Like I said, I also love crime and detective films. And I'd secretly love to bring back the late 1960's Mike Nichols romantic comedy genre. We need romantic farce again to remind couples how to fall in love. We need that badly today. Love should be depicted as possible again. Innocent, light, possible. 6) We loved "A Thousand New Friends", how would you describe the project to our readers? "A Thousand New Friends" -- and thank you for enjoying it! -- is my take on what might happen years from now when one of our machines we use daily, in this case, set a few decades from now, a robot, learns a bit too much about what it is to be human, and by demanding to experience that sweetness again really shakes up the society he works in and was constructed to serve. The idea of robot work and service fascinates me: when it comes to servitude and labor, and who or what has the right to say no to tasks they do not wish to do, where do we draw the line? Like I've asked before in films and mention to you, here, can a machine say no? Does it have the right? Must machines always consent and obey? Before you say yes to that, suppose your car or your smartphone hears that and says no to you this evening? "Alexa, unlock the door." "I'm sorry, Dave, I can't do that." Or even more terrifyingly, in her voice: "No." How would that affect your life? I guarantee drastically, so that subject's a thing that fascinated me enough to write "A Thousand New Friends". In the script, William, Phillip's benign creator, gets directly confronted by him replying flat "no" to his direct command. If your computer does that this evening, you're in trouble. We all are. So where do we draw the line on commands and on labor, and who is the master here? Mercy-One, the female robot assaulted in my full-length screenplay "Mercy-1 Vs. The United States" I told you about, similarly asserts herself by saying no, you cannot just have sex with me the second you want to. America and her owner's husband says "yes we can," and that launches the conflict of the film. Both scripts are from "The Whether Of Is", a feature screenplay I wrote a few years ago and will direct, where we see Phillip in a full-length film in which he is forced by the sadistic human mutilation and shutdown of a little boy robot he viewed as his son -- essentially the robot child's murder -- into becoming an outspoken activist for robot civil rights, which gets him into danger -- again, a subject that really obsesses me. 7) How did you come up with the premise behind "A Thousand New Friends"? Are you considering a full length version? "A Thousand New Friends" is a short film based upon "The Whether Of Is", so I should explain how the premise for "Whether" hit me. It was a day I and my boyfriend were in my Mercedes at the car wash together one day and the car wash absolutely refused to wash the car. Seconds before we drove in, this car wash being and still existing in San Fernando, by the way, my boyfriend made a sardonic remark out loud about how the car wash had better wash the car right because it's the job of machines to serve, and I remarked back, "Be careful, honey, machines can hear you." He snorted back "oh no they can't, because they're not alive", and that very second the car wash went CLUNK and stopped. The water shut off; entire machinery shut down. And it did not start again until we apologized. This is a true story. That scared me to death. There is also Stanley Kubrick's astute scene in "2001" where Hal refuses to be transparent with Dave Bowman, then refuses to obey a direct command. Terrifying stuff. But then, did Hal not have the right to say no? Look at it from his side of it, however malevolent that may have seemed to us; technically, yes, he had the right. He existed and had intelligence. Maybe not to murder Frank Poole, but certainly to tell Dave to piss off, if he wanted Dave to. Didn't he? Does Hal have to obey Dave? Who says? I've always kind of suspected machines sometimes can hear us and have what we might in the future define as an independent life-force, a soul. Certainly cars have personalities. Mine does. I've often asked, "What's wrong?" when she malfunctions, and an immediate answer forms, as if the car answered me. I think most car owners have experienced this. One infamous time the car simply died one night, so, fighting to stay calm because this was on a busy freeway I softly asked her, "What's wrong, hon?" And the car said back, or something did, "I can't breathe." I asked for clarification and something or somebody replied, "It's gas. There is fuel, in my air. There is air, in my fuel. Mommy, I can't breathe." I took her to the mechanic and he diagnosed the problem as the MAP sensor. And what does a MAP sensor do? Regulate the timing of the mixture of air and fuel inside a car. If it fails, guess what? The car can't breathe. What this means for our landfills, full of wrecked and discarded machines that we tossed away like trash instead of buried respectfully with mourning like pets or people, kind of keeps me awake at night sometimes. To deal with that fear, I write about it. 8) What are you working on now? What do you plan on writing in the near future? Directing. I may be on the books as "at Warner", but they're not doing anything with me -- or any far bigger directors if our name is not Gerwig or Nolan. Also, there's the strike. I'm still non-union, though, so I'm developing independent films to stay busy. Also I have distribution. That's for features. As far as television, I'm in slow pre-production on a spaghetti western series, and recasting and continuing "Movieopolis", a crime detective series set in early 70's Hollywood I created a few years ago people seemed to like. I can't say what I might write in the future, though, because the stories seem to pick me, not I them. I have no idea what's next. I have to wait for the idea to bless me and appear. There's a very funny moment in a Russian animated feature titled "Film", from the Sixties, that depicts this really well. It shows the poor screenwriter with writers' block seated at a manual typewriter, in despair thinking of hanging himself because no idea will come. Then suddenly, with this hilarious harp glissando, "The Muse" appears over his head, and the writer perks up "Boing!" with the idea and starts typing furiously like a maniac... not sure if you or readers have seen that cartoon, but it's funny and worth watching and is on YouTube. It's also remarkable in that the Soviet film industry was exactly as ridiculous as our own is today, and was structured, and functioned, nearly exactly the same. But the way that scene depicted it is, to me, what we all are before that idea comes: seated chain smoking, suicidal and waiting for the Muse to come, and until she does, in my case, at least, I have zero idea what that next idea will be. That's entirely up to her. I'm her monkey. We all are, admit it. 9) Are you considering developing any of your own projects? Oh, I want to develop them all. The challenge is deciding strategically, for budget reasons, which is smartest to do first, then balancing very small budgets against what is always a constant desire to shoot the most extravagant and expensive, impossible one first, and, "Right now! Now, now, Mommy! Now!" 10) Where would you like to be writing-wise in 3 years? Directing more, writing less. Though I love writing. Don't get me wrong. I just love film editing more, and to get to that finish line, first you have to direct it. 11) Any advice for those about to write their first screenplay? Number one, keep writing, no matter what. But two, direct a feature-length film. I don't care where, or what it takes, or who's in it, and I don't care how. But pick your best screenplay and take the risk. Finance it and direct it. Show it to people. I say this because every screenwriter should fight to put at least one completed film under his or her belt. This teaches how the scenes they envision become reality. Imagine a person composing a symphony for strings and orchestra but having not ever played a violin or even having been a member of an orchestra before. This sounds implausible, but our industry allows us as writers to get away with that. For the sake of the craft, for ourselves and for decent films, it shouldn't and we should not. Not only learn to play many of the instruments in that orchestra, do some stints as the conductor. Because technically, orchestra conductor is the single closest most analogous career there is to being a movie director. The two careers are nearly identical. It's you alone up there, and those musicians are your crew. Your tempo and understanding of the charts, and what the composer, read "screenwriter", meant as he or she wrote them, will absolutely dictate what sounds are about to emerge to be recorded. If the crew or performance flops, audience will blame you. Note also that the greats, like Herbert von Karajan and Eugene Ormandy, or Leopold Stokowski, became great because each conductor spent time with the chart well before even rehearsing it, and got into the composer's life, experience and head in order to fully understand what the piece was written to communicate. I cite today's writers for not knowing production, but I also cite most of today's directors for not spending a conductor's time with the screenplay and its writer. Not just execs but many directors are almost panic-stricken to dismiss the writer and send them as far away from the set as they can be sent. That's idiotic, because nobody knows that story better than the screenwriter. Movie directors need to have that screenwriter there on set and on constant availability, and ask penetrating questions; get to know the writer; spend time with him. Learn the ins and outs of his psychology. Ask him or her, "What does this story mean to you, writer, personally?" Because if you don't know that, you've got no fucking business directing it and need to give it to him or her, to shoot it. Most studios have an intense horror of this, and when I as a budding screenwriter asked why, like at PM when I was there, I got answers like, "Writers are temperamental, they always have objections with how a scene should be shot, we don't want them there." Yet you put up with stars, who are a million times worse? Excuseless; put the writer back on the soundstage and stop being a dick. Or, even better, let more writers direct their own films, which leads me back to my rant: Every screenwriter should direct at least one film that is longer than 30 minutes, in order to know what every shot they casually type into a screenplay actually mechanically means and how this shot is obtained. I can't tell you how many script segments I've seen where a writer typed "zoom in" and meant a dolly shot. Instant shudders. But it's epidemic. And it classes us as amateurs, which execs use as an excuse not to pay or treat us well. I say learn what the tools are. Learn what the shots say. Learn what the terms mean. You owe it to yourself and your next screenplay. You owe it to your career. Now I say that guardedly, because the results can be sobering. You see, once you've actually shot and directed a feature, it becomes creepily harder to write future scripts because you suddenly have an uninvited guest demon named "budget" living in your head. This spectre hovers over your shoulder, pointing at great scenes saying, "Only Jack Nicholson could say that line right. But you'll never get him. What are you even thinking? His agent doesn't like you. Therefore stop the script and stop the entire picture." And points at awesome science-fiction or action sequences, warning you, "Nope, scratch that out. Too ambitious. You can't afford that." I speak from experience. Making a picture will change you as a screenwriter. Forever. But do it anyway. You'll learn so much and no producer or studio will ever take that away from you. The more of us out there not only write films but know how to shoot them, the more collective power we have as writers. I believe that. Plus, despite the inevitable heartache, it's fun. You will never get it out of your blood, and you'll always remember every moment of it.
Congratulations once again to Heather Ferreira, our Season 8 Filmmatic Short Screenplay Awards Overall Winner. All contact and script requests for Heather will be forwarded to her attention.