Last September, judges at the 2017 Austin Revolution Film Festival (ARFF) chose Ashley Marie Ryan (Twitter: @CreatedByAshley) as their honoree for Screenwriter of the Year. I decided to touch base with Ryan about how she is doing as a screenwriter and how she got to this spot in her career.
I’ve never met a 10-year-old who when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, replied “Screenwriter.” When did you decide on this and why?
I knew I wanted to be a writer. I started storytelling from a young age with dolls. When I was 10, I attended summer writing workshops at the University of Florida! I thought I wanted to be a novelist. In fact, I never heard of screenwriting till I was in college. I was 18 when my friends were talking about this class and I realized, “Duh, of course, someone wrote the story before it was shot.” I think it’s because TV and film are a visual medium that it’s often overlooked. The man behind the curtain, so to speak.
I’ve heard writers’ rooms for TV shows can be rough. Have you ever actually experienced one? If yes, what did you take away from it?
Each writers’ room will be different depending on what kind of show it is, what the tone of the room is, and whom you’re working with. But yes, some rooms have reputations of being harder than others.
Overall, what makes the room exhausting is the labor of writing itself. Breaking story for an entire season can take weeks. It’s not the average nine-to-five job. Most writers wrote the actual episode from home and would bring it in for a table read. It’s an around-the-clock gig.
I’ve been in one comedy room. I interned as a research assistant for Netflix’s new comedy The Green Beret’s Guide to the Apocalypse. One of the creators, Daril Fannin, is a student at Loyola Marymount and offered this internship to his fellow students. It’s very rare to get into a room like this. I had a wonderful experience. Granted, it was a comedy room, so people were always cracking jokes or sharing ridiculous stories. I don’t think every room will be as free-spirited as this one, but it was certainly a great experience.
You interned at TNT/TBS. (I hope they didn’t make you get coffee.) What were the three most important things you learned?
TNT/TBS would never make their interns get coffee! I was able to work in casting, original programming, and current programming. It’s one of the best internships I’ve had.
I learned three really important lessons during the internship.
First, make friends with the assistants and the receptionist. Those are the gatekeepers, the people you want to have good memories of you because soon they will be moving up!
Second, people will pay attention to you when you take time to talk about their lives and career. The secret to networking isn’t making “connections,” it’s making “friends.”
And three, always proofread every email you send!
If you could take any classic piece of literature and turn it into a film or series, which one would it be and why?
You know, Leo, I am really not interested in retelling a classic story or fairytale. What people are looking for is something unique. I tend to get a lot of my ideas from history. I bought a book called Bad Girls by Jan Stradling from a bargain bin with the tag line “The most powerful, shocking, amazing, thrilling & dangerous women of all time.” There are all kinds of women varying in race and age in this book, including Mata Hari, Madame Mao, and Countess Elizabeth Bathory.
Now that is a story I want to tell. I love female villains. And I’m not the only one. There is a huge demographic of women who are interested in other women who have tested the waters of society. My dream would be to create an anthology series with women from this book and call it Dangerous Women.
You are on track to graduate from Loyola Marymount with a masters degree in Fine Art in Writing and Producing for Television. Do degrees really help in this business? Isn’t it all about who you know?
The large majority of Hollywood is who you know. And then there is another part where you need to know craft. Graduate school was important for me because I didn’t study screenwriting as an undergrad. I took classes and knew the basics, but I knew I wasn’t ready for the industry. I really needed time to learn how to structure, build stronger characters, and how to world-build. And LMU does foster a community of filmmakers. So, it’s like you’ve got someone already looking out for you. And people do notice those three little letters behind your name. Sometimes that’s the key to get them to take a look at you.
Your work tends toward comedy. How do you know when you’ve written something funny?
Ha, you don’t! Honestly the only way to know if something is funny is to have people listen. I’ve written lots of stuff that doesn’t land even though I think it’s hilarious.
They really seem to like your work at Austin Revolution Film Festival. How did someone going to school in West LA become a favorite in south Texas? Have you been to other festivals?
I met ARFF organizer James Christopher in 2014 at the Austin Film Festival. He was a friend of my screenwriting professor, Lorraine Portman. James is really great. He was easy to talk to; we had a great time at the festival. After the festival we stayed in contact via Facebook. He told me about ARFF and suggested I enter it. So, I did, and the rest is history!
I enter about 10 to 15 festivals and fellowships a year. I can’t attend every festival I become a semifinalist or finalist in, but I always go to Austin. There is a saying, “All screenwriters live in LA, but meet in Austin.” I think Austin is a city of connections [and] I wouldn’t miss that for the world. And of course, I love fried southern food!