by Susan Sandler
Writer Susan Sandler will be filing reports from the Nantucket Film Festival, June 26–30. In her first dispatch, Susan talks to Patrick Tobin, this year’s winner of Nantucket’s Showtime Tony Cox Award for Feature Screenplay.
The Nantucket Film Festival is first and foremost a writer’s festival. You understand this immediately when you browse through the festival’s brochure: All the narrative films screened during the four-day festival list the screenwriter first, followed by director, then producer. This is the order of creative importance in the film world on this enchanted island 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod—writers matter here.
From June 26 to June 30, this culturally rich and artfully-managed festival will support, celebrate and launch the careers of screenwriters and filmmakers. A thrilling new element in this year’s festival, the 18th edition, is the TV Pilot Competition. It adds television writers to the mix of the Festival’s writing talent. With writers occupying the spotlight, it’s clear why WGAE has been a constant sponsor of the Nantucket Film Festival for the last decade.
Along with this year’s screenings of 47 features and 31 shorts, Nantucket will present awards to writers under the banner of Showtime’s Tony Cox Awards (Showtime has been another steadfast supporter of Nantucket). The writing awards for Feature Screenplay, TV Pilot (half-hour and hour) and Short Screenplay are the presentational highlights of the Festival.
Prizes include cash, as well as meaningful professional connections. The winner of the Feature Screenplay Competition receives an all-expenses-paid trip to the festival, as well as a residency at Nantucket’s famed Screenwriter’s Colony, a month-long retreat that offers screenwriters a place to work under the guidance of established film professionals.
I had a chance to speak with this year’s Showtime Tony Cox Award-winners, and in this first edition of Nantucket Festival coverage, I’ll talk with L.A.-based writer Patrick Tobin, winner of Best Feature Screenplay for his dark and fresh human comedy, CAKE. (The logline: Claire, addicted to pain pills, becomes obsessed with the suicide of an acquaintance and forges an unorthodox relationship with the dead woman’s husband. As her life spirals increasingly out of control, Claire must confront her many demons—which may now include the ghost of the dead woman.)
After USC’s Grad Screenwriting program and an early experience with a first feature, No Easy Way–which he describes as very well-produced but, ultimately, not distributed–Tobin went through a frustrating process of finding his way as a screenwriter. Deciding he needed a fresh experience, he moved to Stockholm, where he lived for 10 years, finding a writing life and success as a writer of short fiction. Now, by mining his own short fiction, he is finding promising sources for screenplays. His winning script for Nantucket’s Tony Cox Screenwriting Award is based on his own short story, “Cake.”
Patrick Tobin: When you’re adapting short stories into film, you find out you’ve got a lot of third act, but not a much first and second act. So I had to add a lot of new material. The screenplay starts out with the pain support group, and you meet Claire—she’s divorced, and she becomes obsessed with the woman in her support group who killed herself. Claire tracks down the husband of the suicide and pretends that she grew up in his house. He figures out that she’s lying, but they begin a very odd relationship–not sexual or romantic. They are two lost souls linked together and, ultimately, she has to confront her demons.
Susan Sandler: Claire is such a deliciously outrageous character. Is there someone you’d like to see bite into the role?
PT: I’ve literally thought of every actress who was in the forefront. Viola Davis was an early Claire; Vera Farmiga would be a dream; and Winona Ryder would be really interesting, a more fragile Claire. It’s a fun game.
SS: Do you have any interest in directing?
PT: I do, but I’m aware of the challenge a writer faces, especially without a feature film behind me.
SS: How did you get to Nantucket Film Festival’s competition?
PT: I started entering CAKE in writing competitions about a year and a half ago, and I didn’t have much success. I would rewrite it and give it to a friend, and have them take a look at it. When I gave an early draft of CAKE to one of my best friends, she said that Claire was unlikeable. I think I was so tapped into her rage and that was all that came out. So I went back to work and I’ve been slowly adjusting it.
SS: It’s interesting how audiences have less tolerance for unlikeable female characters. It really pisses me off…. Think about great male characters—complex and thoroughly unlikeable characters like Jake LaMotta – he’s indelible. There is not a likeable guy at the heart of that story, but we’re held, we’re fascinated.
PT: That pisses me off too! It’s true. It’s like the minute the female lead is not “The Mommy” or “The Nice Girlfriend,” people get uncomfortable. But what’s interesting about CAKE, is that there are almost no men. Except for the husband of the woman who kills herself, it’s almost the inverse of the Hollywood movie where you have one or two small roles for women.
SS: So, back to Nantucket—
PT: As I made those adjustments draft-by-draft, I started becoming a finalist in a few contests, and then I read a blog posting about the best screenplay competitions in the country and saw Nantucket at the top and researched it. Obviously, Nantucket Film Festival’s screenwriting competition is hot because of how generous they are, offering the month at the Screenwriter’s Colony, so I thought I’d give it a shot.
SS: NFF also has a really cool history of projects taking off– Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone; Sophie Barthes’ Cold Souls, Jenny Deller’s Future Weather all went from winning Nantucket’s screenplay competition into production.
PT: Yes, exactly!
SS: What will you be bringing to work on for your month at the Nantucket Screenwriter’s Colony?
PT: I’ll be adapting another one of my short stories.
SS: Ever been to Nantucket before?
PT: Never. I’m really excited! And the festival film lineup looks great. I’ve had a hard time picking which films I want to go to—I want to see every one of them! And this year’s honoree, David O.Russell, is one of my fave writer-directors. He’s genius. I’m anxious to hear him speak.
SS: Enormous congratulations to you, Patrick! I can’t wait to read CAKE as a screenplay.
Links to explore:
Photo by Joseph Mueller.