June 3, 2015

SCA Student Stories: Olivia & Bella Cohen

Bella Cohen '18

Isabella (Bella) and Olivia (Olie) Cohen ’18 both radiate an infectious enthusiasm for providing a platform for strong and multi-dimensional female characters in their work. Having finished their first year at SCA, the Cohen twins reflected on their freshman year, their shared passion for screenwriting, and their work with the “Humans of USC” project.

1. Why did you pick Screenwriting as an emphasis of study?

Isabella (Bella):I remember one time when I was away at camp at 13-years-old, I just lied in my bed and came up with a movie plot from start to finish just because I had time to kill. In high school, I realized that film was something I was actually interested in not just as a pastime. And that sort of set it all in stone. New ideas always pop in my head and I feel like it’s my duty to carry them out onto the page. And I just enjoy writing. Screenwriting isn’t about ego or fame (because most screenwriters never get “famous”). It’s about characters, heart, emotions, and journeys and I just think it’s such a good way to express the things you’ve learned in life or maybe the things you want to learn.

Olivia (Olie): I have been acting on camera since I was 13-years-old, but my parents were never really supportive since they didn’t think acting was a good career choice. When I started to get more serious about acting, I asked them to help me find an agent, but because they wouldn’t really help me, I figured I would help myself and make my own opportunities. That’s when I started writing. My twin sister and I wrote our first feature length screenplay in our sophomore year of high school and I’ve been in love with screenwriting ever since.

2. How has SCA changed your view of the screenwriting discipline thus far?

B: SCA has changed my view of it all by making it clear that screenwriting, unlike other storytelling techniques, is much more technical. One of my professors compared it to architecture in the way that everything has to be so carefully planned. So, it’s made me more aware of the little tricks and techniques you can use to create emotional outcomes without the audience knowing.

O: During my time at USC, I’ve realized that there is a huge lack of appreciation for screenwriters in the industry. I’ve learned that as a screenwriter, your job is to just tell the best story you can and hope that, once the script is sold and out of your hands, the producers or director will have your story’s best interest in mind when making creative decisions. It’s also made me want to take more of a stance in the decision-making and storytelling process, whether that be through acting, producing, or something else. I’d love to tell stories for the rest of my life, but I’d also like to have a little bit more of a say in the decision-making process.

Olie Cohen '18

3. What advice do you have for prospective/current students in your program?

B: Act. Acting has helped my writing tremendously. As an actor, I know what dialogue would be really hard for an actor to say aloud, or when dialogue sounds too cheesy or fake. It’s important to make your dialogue sound natural so that the characters are believable and relatable. Also, don’t worry about the message of your film. It’ll come out subconsciously. Just write the script and then dissect it later. Also, be patient. I want everything to happen right now, but I’ve been realizing that things take time and everything happens when it’s supposed to. Sometimes I have anxiety about not doing enough to advance myself or my career even when I am working on a million projects, but it’s just because I’m so impatient. I need to take a chill pill.

O: My advice is to be open to criticism. I’ve always been okay with that because, as an actor, you get used to rejection and critiques, so hearing it becomes second nature to you. So, I think if criticism is not something you’re used to hearing, it can be easy to confuse script critique with personal critique. It’s just good to remember that people’s comments are not a reflection of you or your talent, but that the person is only trying to make your script better. Criticism can actually be a really positive thing if you let it.

4. How has the School of Cinematic Arts impacted your creative vision and growth as writers?

B: I’ve met some of the coolest people in this program and it’s taught me that collaboration is key. Being a writer is a very solo craft, so it’s good to write with other people or go to other screenwriters for writing advice. That’s why I love that our writing classes at SCA are workshop based. I love when students give critiques on my scripts because they have some of the best ideas.

O: Coming to SCA has really inspired me to explore the different stories I’ve always wanted to tell. I’ve always wanted to tell a zombie, post-apocalyptic story and I was able to write it this semester, which was super cool. I’ve also been inspired to write strong female roles because every girl in the film school I’ve met is incredibly strong, unique, and complex and I think it’s important for us, as women, to reflect that in the roles we write. It just doesn’t make sense how some writers write one-dimensional female roles because, no matter the gender, humans in general are complex. It just doesn’t make sense to take that complexity away from a character because of gender.

5. What in your past has given you inspiration or a unique point of view that you bring to USC?

B: Because I was raised by a lot of strong women, I love writing strong female characters in my scripts. In the film industry, dynamic female characters are seriously lacking, and I hope, through my writing, I can turn that around. I hope to showcase female characters in my films that are multi-dimensional and capable. I have also steered away from describing them as physically attractive, like most screenplays do, which reinforce the idea that a woman’s most important characteristic is her body or her face. It’s not. It’s her heart, her bravery, her kindness, and intelligence.

O: I think because I’m an actor, I always try to write characters an actor would want to play or that I would want to play. I always keep that in mind, especially when writing dialogue. Sometimes as a screenwriter, you can forget that people will actually be saying these lines and becoming these characters, so I try to stay as realistic as possible. But I would say everyone in this program is pretty good with that.

Also, growing up, I felt very stifled emotionally and creatively in high school, so I used screenwriting and acting as an escape. I think that desire to escape has really allowed me to invest in the world of my stories. Also, because I didn’t like high school, I was always trying to find ways to succeed so I could drop out of school. It didn’t happen but I think I’ve carried that determination and hunger for success with me to college. Everyone tells me to relax, but relaxing just isn’t very relaxing to me! I don’t know why. I like to be doing things.

6. Looking to the future, how do you see yourself and your work evolving?

B: Looking into the future, I see myself living in a cardboard box on the side of the street, preferably in Hawaii. Just kidding. In my dream life, I would act in all of my screenplays, get a couple of Oscars for writing and acting (because why not) and then marry a handsome foreign guy and live in a penthouse in New York City. Realistically, I just hope I’m somewhat moving forward in my life and growing, whatever that means. And I hope my work grows with me.

O: Ideally, I’ll probably pull a Good Will Hunting and win an Oscar for a film I acted in and wrote with my best friends and then live beachside in Malibu married to one of the Avengers, preferably Chris Evans. But, realistically, I just hope to get an acting and writing agent and to find a niche in the business where I could do both. That would be cool. I read a quote on instagram the other day, which became my new life goal: “Be a boss. Date a boss. Build an empire.”

7. The “Humans of USC” project is the brainchild of Olie and inspired by “Humans of New York.” With the project gaining traction, how do you hope this venture will impact the USC/SCA community?

B: USC has a stigma of being superficial, which it can be, but underneath it all, we’re all human. I think this page will remind people of that. At the end of the day, we all still have our own struggles and joys and even though we’re all different, we’re all kind of the same. We’ve all experienced pain and we all want to be happy. Also, Humans of USC’s goal is very similar to that of SCA: being able to tell stories about interesting people and getting to see the world through their perspective.

O: I think for USC, especially, there is a large assumption that everyone here is vapid, wealthy, and spoiled. But, this page shows that the people here are a lot more diverse, complex, and genuinely interesting than people give them credit for. It also shows the other students that people are so much more complex than stereotypes based on their ethnicity, sororities/fraternities, or majors. You’d be surprised. Some of the most seemingly intimidating people we’ve interviewed turned out to be the sweetest and down-to-earth people, who surprisingly reveal through their interviews that they are actually insecure. So, we hope to show that there is always more to a person than meets the eye.