Hi Travon, first congratulations on your Oscar win for your short film Two Distant Strangers! How has your professional life changed since the Oscar win?
It turns out there's a lot more work available once you win an Oscar. Who knew?! It's been incredible to have a world of opportunities every filmmaker dreams of come flying at you full speed.
Where did the idea for Two Distant Strangers come from, and is the final result a larger or smaller version of that original thought?
The idea came from life and lived experience, seeing the repetition of Black bodies being killed by the police and having to process the emotions of those repetitive stories over and over again. What you see is exactly what was conceived of and intended from the conception of the idea.
What personal experiences were you able to bring to this story? Would you recommend aspiring screenwriters use personal experiences in their screenplays?
I'm a Black American who has had many encounters with the police that were not provoked by anything other than being Black, so I'd say I brought my life to the story because the story is essentially, my life. Writers should start with themselves when looking to tell stories because it's where you're going to find the richest tapestry and deepest well to draw from.
In your interview on The Ellen Show, you said that you wrote the screenplay in only 5 days?! That’s impressive! Can you tell us more about your writing process in these 5 days? Did you write the outline first or did you go straight into screenwriting software and wrote the whole script with the dialogue from the first scene to the last?
There was no outline, It was written first to last scene from the story in my head. I went straight to writing because I knew what the story was and when I feel like I know the major beats I like to just write my way to them versus trying to script or plan every moment. I find a lot of times the rhythm and feeling of the story will guide me in the direction of the next piece that leads to the major plot points. I started writing in TV so I'm used to writing fast. A typical comedy show requires you to write a 30+ page script in a week and TDS was about 28 pages.
On your Instagram account, you have a picture of the note that says, “This spot reserved for Oscar”. You wrote that note before you started writing a screenplay. Did you have the ambition of winning an Oscar before you started writing? Do you think the power of intention is important?
As a writer and director, as with anything I've done in my life, I always aim for the highest target. When I started my TV writing career it was the Emmy and I won twice. As with filmmaking it was the Oscar and here we are. But one thing I've always believed in is the power of intention, and so with each endeavor, both the Emmys and Oscar, I always make that post-it no matter the outcome because it inspires me. Not that I need it to actually happen (I've won two of the seven Emmys I've been nominated for so it's definitely not science!) but because it pushes me towards excellence. It may not be for everyone, but it's working out for me, I'd say.
Do you think about the practicalities of filming when you write? In terms of how much the short film will cost to produce? Speaking of the costs, how did you get the funding together for your short film?
Coming from TV, you're trained to think about budget and practicality when you write because it makes no sense to write something that isn't financially possible for the show to produce. And knowing the script I was writing had no money or people attached at the time, and it was the heart of a pandemic, it was important to make everything as "possible" as possible. Eventually our funding came together through private investment and donations of people who read the script and wanted to be a part of telling this story.
What attracts you most to the screenwriting process? Do you think screenwriting is a craft that can be learned?
I've written most of my life, since I was a kid. When I got to college and learned the screenwriting process it became something I fell in love with, a new way to tell stories. And I had been writing poetry and short stories and I loved movies and the way they made me feel so it felt like something I wanted to do to other people; have them watch something that had a profound emotional effect on them.
I think the fundamentals of screenwriting can be taught. There is enough information and books and formulas out there for the average person to learn the basics of storytelling through screenwriting. I think the craft element is much more difficult because it requires a significant amount of time and dedication to learning or uncovering the particular craftsperson that you yourself might be. It's hours and hours of sitting alone in front of a computer screen or nose in a book or watching hundreds of movies to do this, and people will quickly discover if they truly want to be this type of craftsperson.
In order to be good enough to make a living in the business of film and TV writing, you have to be obsessed with it. Because that obsession is what powers you past page 30 when the going gets tough. You have to want to solve a story problem in the way a scientist wants to cure cancer. Otherwise, it's very easy to walk away.
What's some of the best screenwriting advice you've received?
Every movie is someone's favorite movie, so write and tell the story you want to tell. You write your version of "The Godfather" by not trying to write "The Godfather." Meaning the best will come out of you when you're not trying to be anyone else but you. When you're not trying to emulate anyone else. And 99.9% of us will probably never write a film that becomes that famous or important to cinema. But it doesn't mean you can't write a damn good story or even one that comes close. You're trying to tell a story you hope resonates with as many people as possible and once it's written and given to the world, it's no longer yours.
How did the Netflix deal come about? Did you submit the film to them, or did they contact you? How does the deal work? Do they buy the film from you? Or do they pay a licensing fee for one or two years and you still own the rights to the film?
The netflix conversation started last summer when we were looking for financing but then sort of died. It picked back up after our Oscar nomination and they purchased the film from us. So they own it forever!
As you know the winner of our Short Screenplay Competition will get their short script produced by our company. We then intend to submit that short film to Oscar-qualifying festivals. What was the road of your short film to receive an Academy Awards nomination? How did you go about getting the film into festivals?
We took a very unconventional route. We were in zero festivals. We made the film last summer with the hopes of getting it into Sundance since it was the only festival opening left on the calendar by the time we finished shooting in September of last year. We were rejected by Sundance and so the only thing we had left was to submit to the Oscars. So it was a pretty short road. We turned up to the biggest race of the season with an untested car and hoped for the best.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned during the production and release of this film?
Make things with people who truly believe in the product. It will get you over any hurdle or challenge you encounter in the process. If everyone hasn't bought in 100% it will show and affect the outcome.
What has been the audience's reaction to this film, and have they been what you were hoping for? How has this film helped raise awareness?
We received an overwhelming amount of love and it was very humbling and amazing to experience. Our film is being used in schools and law enforcement training and that's leaps and bounds above what we hoped for. It truly exceeded our expectations.
In our Short Screenplay Competition, we evaluate submitted screenplays in these 10 categories: Idea, Plot, Characters, Concept, Structure, Pacing, Dialogue, Originality, Writing Style and Marketability. When you’ll be reading the screenplays from our contestants which of those 10 categories will be the most important for you?
It's hard to say one in particular, but probably a combination of originality, character, style, and dialogue. I think the other components are important overall, but to me these are the ones that draw me into a script more than anything. I think people are generally more forgiving of plot or structural weakness when you have memorable characters and dialogue done with style and originality. Obviously we all strive to balance all of it as close to perfection as possible but this is a subjective medium and they aren't all equally important to every filmmaker or audience member. Every meal doesn't need to be seasoned or constructed the same to be satisfying.
Many of today’s most famous writer-directors have adapted their short films into feature films. Do you have any ambition to adapt Two Distant Strangers into a feature film?
Absolutely not. It was a difficult piece to create already, given the emotional toll it took on all of us to tell that story in half an hour. I couldn't do it for a year.
What would you say is the main difference between writing a short script and a feature-length format?
Having to have 90 more pages worked out haha.
Do you think short films are just stepping stones to “bigger” projects or so-called “calling cards”? Or do you think short films can be an art form of their own?
I think they can be both. It's not that dissimilar to directing a TV episode but it allows more creative freedom and can really show a director's abilities. I think it's time for the industry to really take shorts more seriously.
We will finance and produce the winning script of our Short Screenplay Competition. Do you have any final advice for upcoming screenwriters who are looking to get their short screenplays produced?
If all else fails, find a way to do it yourself. The iPhone shoots in Dolby Vision now at 24 fps, we have movie cameras in our pockets. If you have a story you're dying to tell, tell it. By any means necessary.
To receive an EXCLUSIVE one page written feedback report from TRAVON FREE click below to Submit your Short Script to our Short Screenplay Competition: https://writers.coverfly.com/competitions/view/outstanding-screenplays-shorts