Interview with Write LA Grand Prize Winner Nathan Dame

Nathan Dame Nathan Dame grew up in Ogden, Utah, and studied theater at Weber State University before moving to New York City 13 years ago. He worked initially as an actor but started writing plays shortly after moving, and that soon became his primary pursuit. In addition to playwriting, Nathan makes his living as a musician in musical theater – conducting, orchestrating, and accompanying classes and rehearsals on piano. His television pilot Fräulein Schreiber's Mixtape was recently named the Grand Prize Winner of the Write LA Screenwriting Competition.

MovieBytes: Tell us about Fräulein Schreiber's Mixtape. What's the script about, and what inspired you to write it?

Fräulein Schreiber's Mixtape is about young hipster musicians trying to make it in the big city – only the city is Vienna and the year is 1823.

I'm really interested in the subcultures that emerge when kids from all over the place strap guitars to their backs and move to the city to start a band, and I was thinking about New York in the punk or post-punk period of the '70s - '80s Lower East Side, the CBGB era, with characters like the Talking Heads, Blondie, Sam Shepard and Patti Smith. And I had this notion that it must have been like that at all times, in all places. During the classical music period, Vienna was where you went to make it as a musician. It was the center of the universe. Presumably you'd strap your violin to your back and move there from your sleepy village to start a string quartet or play in Beethoven's orchestra – and you'd more than likely end up waiting tables and serving Beethoven at brunch.

That's what Frieda Schreiber does – she's a composer who shows up to town only to get doors slammed in her face (she is a she, after all), and by chance meets Franz Schubert, who at the time was just some punk kid trying to make it himself. He threw these legendary salons called Schubertiads – this is a real thing – which were basically rowdy parties where his peers could play their music, get drunk, and presumably hook up with each other. His immortal Death and the Maiden string quartet actually premiered at one of these drunken jam sessions. The milieu and the costumes are period, but the dialogue and politics are super 2021, as if we scooped up Williamsburg, Brooklyn and dropped it in 1820s Vienna. Imagine Amadeus but The Ramones are there.

MovieBytes: Have you written and/or sold any other screenplays?

I've written a bunch of plays and TV pilots over the years. In a way, 2020 ended up being the most productive and creative year of my life. Not to make light of the situation we're in, not at all, but as I writer all I ever wanted was time to stay home and just write. My goal was to come out of quarantine, whenever that may be, with a new script or two that I could use to try to get representation. I ended up writing four pilots last year.

"I never ever show someone a first draft ... It would be a waste of their time, and you have to be precious with other people's time."

MovieBytes: You were selected as the Grand Prize Winner of the Write L.A. Screenplay Competition. Have you entered other competitions, as well? How do you determine which contests are worth a submission?

That was the other goal – I basically spent the money I would have spent going to plays and movies and dinners on competitions. I submitted each of the four pilots (plus I think one I'd written before, and a play or two) to a ton of different competitions over the past year. I placed in quite a few (always a semi-finalist, never a bride), but Write LA is first competition I've ever taken first in.

Since it costs an administrative fee to enter all these contests, you have to be selective about what you're spending your money on. I guess my guiding principle became – would I spend this amount on whatever is in the prize package without entering a competition? If I could reasonably answer yes, then I figured it was at least worth the gamble.

I've also learned over the years not to stretch the brief of the competition to squeeze my script in there. Like, a couple of my pieces might have a futuristic-speculative leaning, but does that strictly make them right for a Sci-Fi competition, for instance? Not necessarily.

MovieBytes: The prize package for Write L.A. includes a live read of your script. How did that go, and what did you learn from that experience?

That was awesome. They put together a really talented group of actors to do a Zoom recording and then it was edited and uploaded onto YouTube. Everyone was very game and enthusiastic about doing it, which I very much appreciated.

MovieBytes: Fräulein Schreiber's Mixtape is a television pilot. What made you decide to write for TV instead of film?

The long form! I love the novelistic scope of television. I tend to think in terms of long arcs with big architecture and deep payoffs (or some less pretentious way of saying that). And even though I was saying earlier that I just want to sit at home and write, there's a big part of me that also wants to go to a job and collaborate with others. The best part of doing theater, which is where I've made my living for the past decade or so, is being in the rehearsal room and building something as a team. I've become more aware over the past couple years of what are my superpowers and what are my deficits as a writer and collaborator, and I think I have a good feeling for working in a writers room – or, Zoom, as it were.

MovieBytes: Beyond the pilot, have you written any other episodes? Have you written a Bible for the series, or an outline for additional episodes?

I've written a short pitch document (about 4 pages) that we are sending out with the pilot. It has a pretty solid but brief Season One outline, and then ideas for further seasons and smaller arcs that would be fun to play with. The pitch doc, at least at this stage where we're just introducing people to me and the pilot, is about capturing the tone, the spirit, and the Why Me Why Now Who's This Guy of it all.

MovieBytes: Can you talk about your writing process? Do you outline scripts before you write? How many drafts do you write before you start showing the script around? What kind of software or other tools do you find useful as a writer?

My ideas always tend to come from a scenario (“What if this event were to happen to this kind of person?”) and then build up from there. So I just start with a notebook. I'll fill up like half a Moleskine, just building on the initial idea, figuring out characters and situations, etc. Then an outline sort of naturally emerges, at least the big ideas – an opening image, an inciting incident, a turning point or climax – and then I explore in outline land for a while. As those scenes and beats start to come together, dialogue organically starts to come out of it, and then by the end of the notebook I'll be on page 1 of the script. And then – and this is really important to me – whether I'm working on a play, a musical, or a script for the screen, my first draft is always in long hand. It's for the simple reason that there's no delete key when you do it that way, so you can't edit as you go. You just go.

Eventually I'll transcribe it (if it's a play I'll use Word and use a formatting template I've built for myself, if it's a screen/teleplay it goes into Final Draft), and continue the process from there, going back and forth from notebook to script. There is a danger in committing it to Final Draft too soon, because it creates the illusion of – Well it sure looks like a script, so I guess it's ready!

I never ever show someone a first draft, because I know what's wrong in my first draft and they're basically gonna tell me only whether they're interested in it or not. It would be a waste of their time, and you have to be precious with other people's time. It's by the third or fourth draft when I ask a couple trusted writer friends who like my work (that's very important) enough to think about it while they read and give me notes on the project when it's in a more mature state.

MovieBytes: Why is it important to choose someone who likes your work?

That advice sounds like a cowardly tactic to protect your ego, but it's actually very practical. I remember years ago giving a play to a writer friend to look at and he was giving me some really generic notes that other people weren't giving me, and that would change the essence of the entire thing ("What if Willy Loman DIDN'T die at the end?"). It took me a while to figure out that he just didn't understand what I was trying to do with it and so his notes were along the lines of "If I were writing it, here's what I would do." No fault to him, he just didn't like the thing I was writing. He was trying to get me to write a different play than the one I was trying to write, which made his notes not very useful. The obvious benefit of having other writers read your stuff is that they know and can talk about craft. The covert downside of having writers read your stuff – they're writers! They want to write, and so their impulse is to rewrite. So you want your early readers to be people who understand your project, and who will have the ethic and discipline to help you write the script you want to write, not the one they want you to write.

MovieBytes: You recently signed with manager Sean Woods of Fourward. How did that come about? What can you tell us about the company, and how you'll be working together?

Sean Woods is the hardest working person in Los Angeles, as far as I can tell. He's been so committed and unrelenting in setting me up in the industry. Part of the Write LA prize was introductions in the industry – some formal, some more informal, and so I was able to send my script out to a handful of managers and agents through that process. Angela Bourassa (one of the people in charge of the Write LA competition, along with Tim Schildberger) introduced me to Sean, and he and I hit it off. He loved the script, and he immediately called me and wanted to read a stack of my work, and away we went.

Sean has been setting me up with a ton of general meetings, around 3 - 5 a week since the New Year, and a few with a specific eye on two of my scripts that he is sending around and currently trying to get placed. (One is Schreiber, and another is a half-hour fish-out-of-water dark spy comedy called Gayle.) It means so much to have someone in the industry who believes in my work and wants to help give me a shot. Sean has been a great partner to connect with.

Angela and Tim from Write LA have been incredibly supportive during all this. They continue to keep coming back to me with ideas for opportunities, and they have left the door cracked for me to come to them for suggestions and advice, which I take advantage of all the time. They are so generous and considerate – a very rare thing.

MovieBytes: Where to from here? Is Fräulein Schreiber's Mixtape being actively marketed? What else are you working on?

As I said, Sean has the four scripts I wrote last year and we are going out with two of them right now. We're also trying to get me set up in writers rooms, which is a major ambition of mine.

I'm working on a feature screenplay, and (at least?) one TV pilot right now. On the theater side, with a writing partner, Rob Baumgartner, I co-wrote a musical adaptation of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and we have been workshopping that at various theaters around the country for the past couple years. We are currently working on our second musical, an original.

(Posted: 03/15/2021)