Shimmer 19 Interview: Margaret Dunlap

Tell us how “Jane” came to be.
The character that eventually became Jane goes back all the way to an exercise from my first year at film school. We were supposed to write a page about a character who was unable to love, and I came up with a girl who was convinced that her heart didn’t know how to love because her mother’s heart had stopped months before she was born. (We all have our issues.) I liked the concept, but a story wasn’t coming together, so I moved onto other things and put that character on the back burner.

And that’s where she stayed, for years, until I was stuck on a short story about a paramedic who could see death and her blind, traumatized dog. Having thrown everything else at the problem, I thought, “Well, what if the paramedic is that girl who can’t love?” I tried it, and that turned out to be the combination of scenario and character that clicked. Finally, the details of who Jane was as a person beyond her weird “birth after death” came together, and once I figured out her relationship with her foster mother, I knew I had a story.

You write for television and print. How are the forms different for you? How are they the same? Is there something you can get away with in one that you can’t in the other?
When you write a script, the hope is that it isn’t the end product. You’re creating a document to convey a story to a creative team, director, cast, and crew who are then going to translate it onto film. It might take 200 people in addition to the writer to make a finished episode of television, and without all of their contributions, you don’t have a TV show. I love that process because when it works well, what ends up on screen is even better than what you originally had in your head.

In print? The words are all you’ve got. You have to be your own director, location manager, art department, cast, etc., but the compensation is that you have more tools than just sight and sound to convey what’s going on to your audience. Even though all your reader can see is the words on paper (or screen), you get to use those words to invoke all five senses.  Depending on the story’s point of view, you can plug directly into your character’s mental state.  In print, even the arrangement and spacing of the words can help tell the story. It’s more responsibility, but there’s also a lot more control for the writer.

Sometimes it’s weird going back and forth—I have to be careful not to get too “prose-y” in a script—but there are tricks in each medium that absolutely do carry over to the other, and I think doing both has made my work stronger overall.

How cool was it for The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to win a motherfucking Emmy?
Oh my God, it was so cool!  When we started out, we were fully prepared for no one to want to watch Pride and Prejudice as a modern-day video blog, for the people who did watch it to hate it, and for the whole thing to be dead in three months. But we liked the idea, and we believed in what we were doing, so we did it anyway. That Lizzie Bennet wound up being as huge as it was, both in terms of the amount of content we produced and in terms of audience and critical response, is just amazing.

Plus, there is now a GIF of me holding an Emmy and sparkling. I honestly don’t know how I will ever top that, professionally speaking.

What’s in your iTunes/Spotify/8-Track?
Ugh. I have embarrassingly oblivious taste in music. If we ever do pub trivia together and get a music category, don’t listen to me. At all. I sometimes put together “mood music” for projects, which is basically a way for me to avoid writing for an afternoon while I fiddle with playlists. Then I play the same fifteen to twenty tracks on continuous loop until I finish whatever it is I’m working on, and after that I never want to hear those songs again. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Imagine Dragons, which I’m sure I will eventually regret making myself sick of.

Can you share anything of what you’re working on now?
Honestly, the best way to find out what I’m up to work-wise is to look for me on twitter, where I’m @spyscribe. This comes with the added bonus of my occasional D&D live-tweets, because that is my glamorous L.A. lifestyle.

 

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