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February 1, 2017

Student Spotlight: Evan Dodson

Writing Division undergrad is on the 2016 Black List

By Sabrina Malekzadah

What does it mean to be the youngest screenwriter to make The Black List? It truly hasn’t hit me yet. As screenwriters in the program we are constantly told how big and how much of a milestone making The Black List is. I always dreamt of making it but, in my head, I saw it coming much farther down the line. Therefore, because I received it at 21, for a script I wrote at 20, it, in a way it feels like a fluke. I’m just baffled that it happened, and happened so quickly. I’m in class now and teachers say “you want to make The Black List as writers” and I’m still sitting there, agreeing, nodding my head thinking “I have to make The Black List, I HAVE TO MAKE THE BLACK LIST” completely forgetting, oh wait, I actually did. Now what?

What were your initial expectations when you first submitted to The Black List? I actually didn’t submit my script to the Black List on my own. I am fortunate enough to have a great representation team over at Verve Agency and Good Fear Management. In August or September, I believe, Verve and Good Fear got a hold of my script. From there, they signed me and have been pushing my scripts out to so many studios and companies. From that, I went on meeting after meeting, being introduced to executives from all over Hollywood. I, however, didn’t know that from these meetings, these executives would be voting whether or not they believed my script was worthy of making the list this year. So making The Black List was actually a complete shock to me. I had no idea, nor did I believe I ever had the slightest chance of making The Black List. It was never on my radar. I had no idea of the qualifications of how one even goes on the list. I was just having fun going along on the ride, unaware that the people I was meeting with had the power of voting to put me on the list.

Tell us about your screenplay. So my story is called Two Butterflies. Torn apart by tragedy, two estranged sisters are forced to reunite and confront their differences after one sister must be transported to an Alzheimer’s facility. So, in my head and hopefully for people who read it, it’s a story about forgiving yourself and others, not harboring burdens, for things that are out of your control. I don’t want to give too much away in the off chance that it gets made and everyone can go see it. If you’re reading this, please make it. I still have tuition to pay and USC isn’t cheap.

What is your process? In terms of process, when I get an idea, I jot down in my notebook any and every thing that comes to mind about it. It’s very streamline. It’s often one-word themes, character traits, lines of plot, very small stuff. From there, I go to the outline phase after, in my head, I have come up with a sizeable arc for the characters I want to follow. I have to see the beginning and I have to see the end. Then, in outlining, I begin filling in with different scenes to best tell the story. It’s like an almost finished puzzle. I’ve finished all of the corner pieces and now it’s time to try the middle, fitting in different scenes until it’s right. Many times it’s not right. When it comes to actually writing, I have to be in a silent room all by myself. No distractions. I talk to myself in character voices and no one needs to see that. I get embarrassed if I’m writing in public because I’m afraid people can see the initial words I put down and those, in almost all cases, are truly rough. With this script, it was a little different. Because we were in class (shout out to Robert Ramsey’s 206 class) I was able to receive amazing notes from my peers, making each draft better and better. I wouldn’t have gotten to The Black List if it weren’t for the people I had around me.

What inspired you to write this story? I was really attracted to the characters. It follows two elderly black women, both strong willed, stubborn, complex, sharp tongued, and intelligent. They’re so reminiscent of the women in my family who, to me, are the most interesting people I’ve met in my life. The main character is based off a hyperbolic version of my grandmother. She’s the most fun, quick-witted, and savage person I know. Savage in the way that she’s unapologetic about who she is. She’s crazy but in a way that is legitimately crazy, but so entertaining. She’s one of my favorite people, and she, as an 86-year-old woman, full of life, is a character meant for the screen. She’s intricate and stories showing elaborate and well-rounded African American women need to be shown.

What do you love most about screenwriting? I think in screenwriting you can get away with anything. You can get away with being honest as you can’t be, brave as you wish to be, and afraid as you’re too embarrassed to be; all through the characters you create. The biggest critique I get from others, in my personal life, is that I rarely show emotion or that I don’t get vulnerable often. It’s true. At times, it’s too revealing and I think I can figure everything out in my head without talking about it or crying in someone’s lap. However, when I have meetings, the best feedback I get is that I create extremely emotional and vulnerable characters. They bring people to tears, so I’ve been told. It’s the weirdest thing. I think, subconsciously, I am able to write my truth even if I don’t show those truths to everyone in my actual life. People are amazed, after meeting me, that I have the capacity to write characters in such a way. One, because I’m so young and two, I just seem like the cheeriest person. I enjoy making others happy in my life, and only making people happy. In my scripts, I can make people and my characters cry. It’s okay in there.

What are your career goals for the future? I have so many goals that revolve around accolades and accomplishments. It’s rather vain, I know. People say it’s not about awards and I truly believe that. It’s just a way to quantify the steps. If I never receive an award for a single thing I write but I’m able to eat, I’ll be perfectly and utterly happy. But, my wildest dreams, and I think it’s extremely important to have wildest dreams, I want to be an EGOT winner. I firmly believe you can’t accomplish things unless you unashamedly believe in yourself, to say ridiculously wild things aloud, have people hear and hold you accountable for said unimaginable things. I will be perfectly happy if I won’t win a single award, let alone an EGOT, but in order to maintain success, you have to work as hard had you can at the highest level. So, in short, I want it all. I won’t get it all, but along the way, with the mentality, I know I’ll get something and that’s enough for me. I could genuinely be okay with only ever making it onto The Black List and nothing else because it’s literally insane. It was on a list, unimaginable and here we are. Who’s to say what’s next!

What are you up to/involved in right now? I am currently just building up my portfolio. Crazy enough, Two Butterflies was the first feature I’ve done. I just try to write as much as possible. I just finished my second feature loosely based on Stephanie St. Clair, one of the first African American female mob bosses, set in the 1930's. I’m also beginning a pilot as well as starting two other features. Hopefully the rest are as well received as the first. Fingers crossed.

Anything else you would like to share? I assume this is where advice most likely comes in. I, however, am as green as the next person so I feel like I need advice too. The one thing I can say, that truly helped me, is ‘compete with yourself and only yourself.’ In programs such as USC’s Cinematic Arts Program it’s easy to fall into the trap of competing with your classmates. Trying to be “the best” in a creative field is a useless quest because the work you create cannot be replicated. There is no comparison between you and your classmate. Your work and your voice are your own. Your experience, your, truth, and everything that comes from within cannot be compared to the next person. Have fun doing what you love. Tell the stories you want. Be better than your last script. Learn from those mistakes. Don’t be embarrassed to tell the stories in your heart and that speak to you. Write a Rom Com. Write a Super Hero movie. No one can be the you that you are. Isn’t that crazy? Knowing that you can give a room of 25 people the same prompt and you won’t get the same story twice. You’re one of a kind. Go kick some ass like only you can!