Nikole Beckwith: Oh, gosh. Well, I wrote Stockholm Pennsylvania and my first film was a play. It’s my third play, full length play. And I was writing it in residence at the Public Theater as part of their emerging writers group. While I was working on it there, I thought, first of all, I thought it was a comedy because all my plays have this heightened Nikki Silver [inaudible 00:23:47] vibe. And when I went in and brought Stockholm Pennsylvania, the first 40 pages for everyone to read, everyone’s like, oh, we can’t wait like, this is going to be so hilarious. And then they read out loud, and it was like, the air was sucked out of the room. [inaudible 00:24:04] and I was like, oh my god, it’s a drama. I’m so sorry, everyone, it’s a drama. I didn’t know it was a drama, I’m so sorry.
And I do think that there’s some hilarious moments and the first 40 pages of the play remained the same and are very similar to the first 40 pages of the film. But there was something in that, in suddenly realizing that it was not an absurdist comedy but it was actually this grounded drama, I was like, oh, this will be a movie to like, I could write it as a film as well. And so, that’s kind of what happened. And Sundance Institute had, I got like, answered by your phone, and it was like, oh, hi, it’s us from the Sundance Institute or whatever. And I was like, what on earth am I on. And they had read the play, they had gotten their hands on the play from the public, and they’re just like, were you ever thinking about writing this as a film? And I was like, oh, I was actually. And they were like, great, could you submit it to the labs in three weeks? And I was like, okay.
That’s how I started. My assumption is that the Sundance Institute, they are really dedicated to inclusivity and making sure things are balanced and the voices that they’re lifting up and out into the world are not, you know, and so, if they don’t have the applicants, so many people are like, they just didn’t apply, what are we supposed to do, just only dudes apply for things. I think that Sundance is very connected to this idea of they’re out there, and there are huge swaths of the population who might not be applying to things right off the bat because it does take a little while. When I was making my first film, I was the only female director I’d ever met. And even when Sundance was talking to me about the labs and stuff, they were like, oh, would you want to direct it? And I was like, me, what? No. And then thinking about it, I was like, oh, yeah.
And so I think there are all these blocks. And so, Sundance, they look for those writers. They’d somehow connected with the public and gotten their hands on it, and have the same thought about the play that I had had, which is like, this is a cinematic story. And so, that’s how I came to write my first screenplay, and then I submitted it to the Nicholl. I very honestly googled what do you do with a screenplay? I don’t know. Truth be told, I didn’t study writing and I didn’t study playwriting. Frankly, I didn’t study anything. I didn’t go to college. I have a long storied high school career, which is a song for another day.
So when I was in writing groups, I was in writing group at Ensemble Studio Theater, and the public gets like, I really was very much surrounded by, I remember being in my first writers group, and I was like, everyone’s like, well, at Yale, I dot, dot, dot, and then people would be like, well, when I was doing undergrad at Brown, but then I did my grad at NYU. I ad to lean over, we were assigned, write a 10 minute play about St. Patrick’s Day or whatever it was that was happening. And I had to lean over and be like, how many pages would that be about? And they were like, 10 or under. And I was like-
Geri Cole: That’s what I thought.
Nikole Beckwith: That’s what I thought, I was quizzing you. Guess it all worked out for you. When I had the screenplay I googled like what do you do with a screenplay because I didn’t know. And I had, at that point, been in New York for a bit and in the playwriting world for a bit. So, I kind of understood the landscape and where I fit, and what I had to do, and where my strengths were and where I needed to work. But I had no idea about the film world at all this the Google. And the very first thing that came up was the Nicholl Fellowship through the Academy. And so, I was like, okay, first Google results, I’ll click that, that seems like a thing. And it happened to be the very last day to submit. And it was a $50 application, I was very nervous about spending $50. But I did it.
And what’s great about that is there’s like a million points where it’s like, you made it to this cut, and then like a couple of weeks later, you’re like, you made it into this next round and you made it into this next round. And it’s a lot of rounds. And if you make it past a certain point, you get to read the comments from the readers on your screenplay. So that’s kind of what I was hoping for. I was like, I hope I just make it to comments because I would love to kind of understand. And then these incremental marks were also helpful. It wasn’t this kind of confusing you either get it or you don’t. So that was also kind of part of my whole reasoning of submitting was like, I’ll get to kind of have an idea of the landscape.
And then I got the Nicholl, and I was like, well, that’s weird. That’s strange. And so, from that moment on, I really did a 180 and was like all in in that world because then it’s like, of course, the phone’s ringing and the water bottle tour begins and I was like I guess I am doing okay in the landscape of writing, I mean, knock on wood, it’s such a fickle ever-changing business. So that’s how I came to it.
Geri Cole: That’s amazing. This whole kismet where it was like, well, I guess this is it. Which is amazing, and I feel encouraging, where it is like, just take the step forward, even though you’re not sure, just do that, one step forward because it can make the difference.
Nikole Beckwith: Really, yeah. And that was one of the things when Sundance had reached out to me. I do remember I was at a playwriting fellowship luncheon or something for some thing that I didn’t get, and I was listening to the dude give a speech who did get it. And he was saying, I don’t know if he mentioned Sundance specifically or maybe he had a short in some lab or something, but I heard Sundance and I was like, wow, that’s cool. And he had a script that was on the blacklist, and I was like, I want to script that’s on the blacklist, that sounds nice. But then still wasn’t sure, it all felt so abstract to me. It felt abstract to me to be in that luncheon, being in a luncheon feels weird to me, anyway. So I was like, wow, I don’t understand my life.
And when Sundance reached out, I was like, if I’m thinking to myself that sounds cool, I should just be trying to do it. But like I said, I do think I was, I had met another female director before going into the labs and doing that. And so, it was massively helpful for that to shift in my brain. And then Stockholm after [inaudible 00:31:40] on the blacklist, I was like, yes.
Geri Cole: That was what I meant to do.
Nikole Beckwith: Take that everyone at the luncheon who didn’t give me whatever that fellowship was. Yeah, it was like, yeah, just try. That’s where I’m at where it’s like, just try. But I get very married, I don’t have a favorite child. But also the way that I work with screenplays is like, I worked on Stockholm as a play, I immediately went into writing it as a film. Once I finished the script and all these things are happening, it was like, that was what I worked on until after it was a movie. It was like we got into Sundance and it premiered and then I got home from Sundance and I was like, okay, now what.
And then wrote Together Together, saw through the script, found the financing, shot the film, made the thing, then Sundance and it being released. And it’s only now that I’m like, okay, now what. It was like, I’m not someone with a drawer full of scripts. If my mind opens itself up enough to whatever the story is, I really commit to it. I’m sure my film agent is like, that’s terrible, my manager now had been my film agent, and now we’re so excited because we get to talk all the time because we talk about everything. And it’s like, isn’t this so much better than you’re calling me and I’m still just obsessed with Together Together and I haven’t written anything else, just knocking on those doors. And she’s like, great.
I move really intentionally in that space, if it’s the thing I know that I’m going to direct, if I make the decision, if it clicks in my heart where it’s like, yes, this is the next thing I’m going to direct, that’s such a huge commitment. And then that commitment just starts there and I can’t let go of it or sideline it until it’s complete.
Geri Cole: That’s also really encouraging to hear because I feel like, I mean, so much of that is super encouraging, inspiring to hear, especially the like, even when, it sounds like there was a minute where you’re even struggling yourself to continue to believe in, should I keep doing this, and you had a great partner that was like, yes, we should. But that just one step forward, one step forward, and focused intention on trying to see what this thing that you’re in love with is going to grow into.
Do you feel like you have a type of story that you like to tell? Now that things are starting to tumble again, do you feel like there are types of stories that you’re attracted to?
Nikole Beckwith: I’m just really attracted to character. It’s funny, I was talking to someone and they were saying something about heightened circumstance or I always write in these super specific circumstances, and it’s like, oh, I guess that’s true. But I don’t even think about that, I just am thinking about character and the circumstance is only meant as a way, a tunnel into characters. And for better or worse, I love tiny tectonic movements and change. And yeah, so I’m just drawn to that. My two films are wildly different tonally and genre wise. And so I don’t know.
I feel like I’ll probably hang out closer to this tone and zone, that’s kind of what I’m sensing. But yeah, I’m not sure. Honest stories I guess and real stories, of course, like everybody else, I’ve watched like a ton of movies that aren’t very romantic comedies, or whatever it is and you’re like … And sometimes it’s just exactly what you need in the moment, and sometimes I’m throwing something at the wall being like, well, hi. My God, I’m so mad. I like to stay and close to the chest.
Geri Cole: So, we do have 10 to 15 minutes left so if anyone has any questions, I urge you to put them in the Q&A I think it’s where they’re supposed to go. But I do want to ask about the idea of success, especially in creative professions, I feel like it’s an ever changing thing. Especially having had success with your first feature and now with this one, I wonder what your idea of success was when you were sort of initially getting started and how it’s evolved. And sort of like what you hold as success now.
Nikole Beckwith: Such a complicated question. And I know you ask it every episode and I was like listening to other people’s answers being like, yes, I’m like, oh, that’s good, maybe I’ll take that answer. I don’t know really. From 2012 when I got the Nicholl, I was a nanny when I got the Nicholl, and I quit my nanny job. And all my friends were like $35,000 and $7,000 increments is not that much money. Why are you quitting your nanny job? And I was like, do you know how much money I make as a nanny? I’m bonkers rich now. I have $7,000, all at once. So from that moment to now, I’ve only recently been like, oh, well, I guess I have been supporting myself as a writer since then. And that feels like success. But it’s so tenuous that it took me from 2012 until 2021 to be like, I guess that’s what’s happening, and I hope it continues to happen because now at this point, I’m really not qualified to do anything else. I don’t even think I’d be a good nanny at this point.
The freelance life and the landscape and the business, it all changes so much. And of course now, we’re coming out of this, I mean, we’re just like, how does it work now? We don’t know. I might feel success and being like, oh, I’m really doing this, that’s crazy. But I’m not comfortable. I’m not like, wow, the water is great, come on in. I’m like, the water is either freezing cold or boiling hot. Is it healthy to be in here? I don’t know. That’s kind of what’s going on. Can I drink it? Because some got in my mouth. That’s what it feels really. It feels really crazy. But I just want to keep working.
I was talking to my father recently who’s like, at this moment in time, he’s like, maybe he’d hate that I’m saying this, whatever, redact it, I saw a review that my dad wrote for the movie on Google, and he was like, the director who I know quite well, blah, blah, blah. And it’s like, dad, we have the same last name. I was talking to my dad recently, and he’s very, you know, he’s getting into retirement zone or whatever, he can see it on the horizon, and he was talking about that and just his relationship to work and what working is. And just being like, oh, yes, but like, you work this creative job. I was a community theater actor as a kid. I’ve always been doing these unconventional things. And he’s just like, it’s so great and now you’re an adult, and this is what you do for work. And I was like, yes, that’s true. And I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I’m so grateful for it.
But I was like, you work a job for your family, for your house to travel. You work as a way to support your life. I work to work. So it’s a very different feeling. It’s like I’m doing bigger paid jobs or ghostwriting jobs or writing on someone else’s television show so that I can squirrel away enough money to then take two years or whatever, a year and a half and make Together Together, which is the work that I’ve been carrying around under my wing trying to get done. And then like, that’s great. And then as soon as I have the space to then get another job so I can start squirreling away money so that I can, so I work to work and that’s really what it is. I have no concept of anything else. I woke up recently, and I was like, am I going to rent forever? I don’t know what I’m doing.
Geri Cole: And is that bad? Maybe not.
Nikole Beckwith: And is it bad? Who knows? I don’t know. I don’t even know where I live anymore. I’m back and forth between places. And so, it’s just a very different kind of life. I love it and I feel very connected to it. But when that is your relationship to work, I do think my mark of success is just maintaining a space where those opportunities are available to me, and that feels very successful. My shirts have holes in them. I don’t own anything in the world other than my shirts with holes in them. I got fancy Everlane jeans.
Geri Cole: They fit real good.
Nikole Beckwith: Really fancy. And so there’s that zone it’s just like, it’s just a different, I don’t think of success as being like, I’m putting in an infinity pool. I decided I’m going full infinity guys. That doesn’t occur to me. And neither does retirement actually. It’s just like, right, I’ll just work until my arm breaks off and turns to dust while I’m trying to use the computer. That’s just what it is. I feel very lucky to work to work, to have that cycle. So I guess that’s success to me.
Geri Cole: I feel like I’m in a similar position where it’s like I just want to be able to make stuff that I truly love, which is me working. Obviously, money is nice, it makes things easier. I think that’s a fair statement. But it’s certainly not the end.
Nikole Beckwith: I still feel so close, the realization that I haven’t worked at a coffee shop or as an assistant for a while has only recently dawned on me. I mean, I did actually take a break in 2017 where I was like, I don’t know what I’m doing. I had an existential crisis and came back to my hometown and went and got the job I had when I was 14, my first job, I went back and I was like, hey, guys, do you need any help cleaning the bank? I’m losing my mind and I don’t have any money and I don’t know what I’m doing. And they were like, yeah, sure. So I was just vacuuming offices and banks after hours for four months, or five months in 2017.
And it’s funny because I actually walked past one of the banks, and also I was fired in 2017 just the same way I was fired in 1994. So, some things don’t change. Thanks, guys. I’m bad at it. I spilled the mop water on the carpet. I was walking past the bank, there’s one bank that has this big lit up window. It was also very funny because I would run into people, I’m from a small town, I would run into people when I was back having my don’t know if I’m like made for this world, I don’t what the goals are, I don’t know what success is. I don’t know what any of this means to me.
And then people would be like, hey, Nikole, what’s up, you’re so famous now to us because I went to LA, I went to New York, and meanwhile I’m loitering around waiting for them to go to their car so they don’t see like I’m not just at that building, I’m waiting for everyone to leave so I can vacuum it. And I’m like yeah, I’m just fancy now. And just really fancy, it’s so fun to be fancy. And then they get in their car and I’m like … And the bank was always really hard because it’s a big glass window. And so it’s like you can just walk by and be like is that Nikole vacuuming.
Geri Cole: Spilling the mop water.
Nikole Beckwith: Does she own this bank?
Geri Cole: I thought she was fancy.
Nikole Beckwith: And I was walking past that bank the other night remembering in 2017 spilling mop water and listening to my music thinking about Together Together and trying to figure out, what do I have left in me to keep going? What am I doing and how do I get there? And just trying to imagine that version of myself and this reality of myself looking at each other through the glass, it’s like, you just never know.
I came out the end of that crisis being like, I’m going to keep going. I’m just going to go forward until I just fully run out of gas. I feel getting a janitorial job from when I was a teenager was just me kind of being like, okay, I have a third of a tank left. Do I like set up camp here or am I going to keep going? And so I was just like, let’s just go. Let’s go till we’re running on fumes and go, go, go. And then some good things happened and I just opened myself up to it in a new way and tried not to lead with fear. And stuff happened. And so that was nice. So here I am. But it’s like because of that, in three years. I could be like, knock, knock, I know you fired me twice, but-
Geri Cole: Sounds like you’re really bad at mopping.
Nikole Beckwith: I’m really bad. I’m like, but is there a chance that you all need help, I’ll Windex? I’ll just Windex, Windex only. Do you guys need help? And it’s like, I ran into one of those guys the other day, and they’re like, you’re back. And I’m like, it’s not like before. I’m not in a crisis, I’m just enjoying the quiet or whatever. But yeah, it’s not lost on me, I mean, that could happen at any time and that’s okay. There’s peaks and valleys. It’s like a windy, weird road and just to be okay with it.
Geri Cole: Man, that is the perfect way to end. Thank you so much. This is so amazing. Such an encouraging and lovely and hilarious talk. Thank you for making the film, it’s incredible. Everyone check it out if you haven’t done so already. Nikole Beckwith, thank you so much for talking with us today.
Nikole Beckwith: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Geri Cole: That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. Tech production and original music is by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East online at wgaeast.org, and you can follow the guild on social media @WGAeast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. I’m Geri Cole, thank you for listening and write on.