March 8, 2011

SCA Family Stories: Mary Sweeney

Writing Division Professor Discusses Her Intuitive Process

Mary Sweeney, the interim chair of the Division of Writing for Screen and Television, has had a long and varied career as a writer, director, producer, editor, and educator. Most recently, Sweeney has been hitting the festival circuit as the producer, director and writer of the indie hit Baraboo about a dilapidated resort in Wisconsin and its unique inhabitants.

Mary Sweeney, the Interim Chair of the
Writing Division

Sweeney joined the writing faculty at USC in 2003 and teaches courses including Advanced Rewrite, Writing the Screenplay for Production, Graduate Thesis and in the fall will be debuting a course she designed called Writing from the Unconscious. She recently shared her thoughts on what a young storyteller can expect out of the writing program and how being a screenwriter is a little like being a detective with Trojan Family Stories.

Coming from a long professional career in entertainment, how has teaching changed your view on screenwriting? Teaching screenwriting has compelled me to articulate the processes that I had internalized in my 30 years working as an editor, producer and writer. I hadn't thought much about how I did my work. It was an intuitive process. I felt the story, particularly in editing and writing, like feeling a piece of music, knowing when it's working and when it's not. It was eye opening for me to examine my work in my efforts to communicate with my students, and share my knowledge with them. I have also learned a great deal from these creative and intelligent young men and women.

It seems like the students have changed so much in the past few years. What has been the most notable change in your opinion? The biggest change I've noticed is how much young people get their entertainment from their laptops. The only films that seem to draw them irresistibly are the giant action and FX films.

Do you have any advice for incoming students on how they might be able to navigate the changing landscape? I don't know what the landscape will look like. That's the only thing I can say with any certainty with respect to media and delivery platforms. What I do know is that however much those things remain in flux, storytelling is not going anywhere. The focus of my teaching in the writing division; on character, personal style and getting to the story a writer is burning to tell, will survive all the technological changes. Storytelling is founded in our need as human beings to communicate, to create, to articulate our deepest fears and desires, and that won't change.

Do you have any advice for prospective writing students in general? I advise them to use the program to find their voice. If they succeed in doing that they are well ahead of the game of writing professionally. It's a struggle to find and hone your own personal style, your strengths as a writer, and it's better to do that in the atmosphere of support that exists in an academic program, than in a professional, competitive environment. The confidence they gain as writers in our program will help them immeasurably in the work force. I always tell them that this is the last time they'll be getting notes from people who are more interested in what they have to say about the story.

What from your extensive professional career most informs your style as a professor? The greatest tool I have as a teacher is my curiosity about people. I find the infinite variety of human personalities, experiences, gifts and vulnerabilities fascinating. I'm always interested in what makes people tick, and I like trying to figure it out, to learn about them, like detective work. And writing is a very big clue to all that. I am never bored by the stories they tell. My career as a filmmaker has given me the confidence to trust my own instincts, while helping my students to learn the same.

Your classes are very popular at USC. What has been your proudest moment on faculty? Any time I hear students say that I somehow helped them to write their best work, this makes me both proud, and happy.

What are you working on now? I recently directed my first feature film, Baraboo. It was a joyous experience, I dedicated two years to the project, it was an incredibly positive experience and I'm immensely proud of the accomplishment.

Official Trailer for Baraboo