One of the coolest things about all of these social networking sites (that are now a part of our daily lives) is reconnection. Twenty years ago, if you neglected to ask for (or lost) someone’s snail mail address or phone number, it would be pure serendipity for two childhood classmates to find one another in adulthood. All you’d have left is a yearbook photo, a few handwritten scribbles, and a slippery memory. That was certainly the result of my life growing up an Air Force brat. With people coming in and out of my life at the start and stop of every school year, no traditional childhood hometown, and a family that moved every two to three years, it was so easy to lose touch. And to keep in touch over an ocean...well…a preteen would have to be pretty committed to penning a letter on paper and sticking a stamp on it, then waiting the two weeks to sometimes one month turnaround journey of an overseas letter. All of this was dependent on whether you’d even thought to ask for an address during the chaos of moving in the first place or weren’t too busy in your new school trying to make an all-new set of friends. So it’s amazing to think that people from our past can return to us with the click of a button. What’s even more amazing is to learn that one of those people from your childhood now shares the same passion that you do as an adult.
That’s how I found Kristall (Yoder) Burke. We were middle school classmates in Ramstein, Germany two decades ago. And with a click of a button, and 120-character (or less) wall post, I found her and found that she’d also grown up to become a writer.
M: Wow, Kristall. I think it was 1990 that last time we saw each other. My family had returned stateside in August of that year--I think we must have parted ways at the end of the school year. Strange to think we were both middle school military brats in Germany during the years right after the Berlin wall came down. Did you know then that you wanted to be a writer?
Kristall: It is amazing how quickly the years escape us, and baffles me the history we actually lived at such an impressionable age. No, I did not know I wanted to be a writer back then. I still thought I would be a Doctor without Borders one day and spent many hours writing about that dream. (laughs) My mom will tell you I have always been a writer.
M: (laughs) For myself, I knew I loved writing as early as middle school but it wasn’t until my second try at college in my late twenties that the idea fully formed and I took it seriously. Can you tell me, in short strokes (I know it’s a big question) what your path to writerdom looked like over the last twenty years?
Kristall: I also found my love of writing at a young age. Journaling always help me process the many moves and losses of military life. I have only actually begun to think of myself as a writer within the last six years or so. Growing up I always loved movies, partially because the Movie Theater or Kino was one of the only things to do as a military brat. I started taking theater classes as a way to help me overcome my shyness and fell in love with the craft. When my husband and I first moved to Austin, TX from Colorado Springs, CO, I jumped at the opportunity to try my hand at film acting. Austin has long been filmmaker friendly. Over the course of five or six years I was a working actor, trying to make a name for myself. It is a tough business. Sometime around 2005 a lot of our work was being outsourced into Louisiana due to a recent tax incentive for the film industry. A great acting coach/teacher, Mona Lee, suggested we take this time to write a screenplay and cast ourselves in it. It felt very natural to me and I was hooked. That screenplay, ‘Split’, was well received amongst my peers and I was encouraged to enter it into a film festival. I choose WorldFest Houston and won a Silver Remi Award in 2006. I was shocked.
M: Congratulations on the Remi! I know you recently submitted a screenplay. Where to and what is it about?
Kristall: My most recent screenplay is titled, ‘The Spectacular Spectacles’, I decided to submit it to the same film festival, WorldFest Houston. It is the third oldest film festival in this country and jumpstarted the careers of many great filmmakers. This screenplay is an action based family film. My main character, Spencer Murphy, is an awkward and shy boy, who is tasked with a class project on his family history and must speak publicly on it. The year is 1980; his family has been dry land farming for several generations and is in jeopardy of losing their farm. Spencer is left to do his report while in the care of his Grandmother for the weekend. Rifling through his Grand Dad’s old trunks, for research, he comes upon a very old pair of glasses or spectacles. The spectacles become a vehicle into his family’s actual past, while shedding light on the future.
M: Sounds like a fantastic fresh story. Best of luck! It’s interesting to me how writers come to the form of storytelling that they do. For me, I knew I wanted to write books -- in part -- because I read books. My assumption is you hope to find a film audience one day in the same way I hope to find an audience of readers. What draws you to storytelling through the medium of film? And do you think you’d ever (or have you ever) delved into writing a novel?
Kristall: Thank you! I also, love a good book, but I am a very visual person. I enjoy imagining what the characters in a book would really look like, and yes, I usually cast them from a pool of actors or actresses. Film for me is beautiful, and allows you to escape into a different world when you only have two hours to spare. Life gets busy. I have recently thought about writing a novel. My latest screenplay, ‘The Spectacular Spectacles’ is a bit on the historical fiction side and geared toward preteen boys. I have a young son and we spend time reading together every night. It has become apparent to me that there is a small supply of novels for this age group.
M: As an actor and screenwriter you’ve experienced the process of filmmaking from a couple different angles. Screenplays and how those screenplays turn into films are a bit of an enigma to me. Can you walk me through what it takes to get a screenplay made into a film?
Kristall: (laugh) I wish I knew. The technical side of it, from what I have seen, they take a screenplay and divide it up into locations. The next step is to separate it into ‘sides’ or daily shots, meaning whatever they plan to film day by day. Most importantly though is a great story, knowing the right people, being in the right place at the right time. Of the few screenwriters I have met, this is what they tell me. Film Festivals are supposed to be a great outlet; most of the judges are typically producers.
M: That’s certainly more than I know about the process. (smile) It’s fascinating. I know as an aspiring novelist there’s a certain amount of keeping-my-finger-on-the-pulse-of-the-market that I do. I can’t allow myself to get bogged down by it, but at the same time I can’t exactly ignore market labels and demands when I’m trying to find an agent and publisher to sell my book. I’m very aware of what authors and which kinds of books sell. And I’m often tasked with trying to figure out where my story fits into all those labels. When you’re writing a screenplay, how in tune are you to the film industry’s cycles and labels? And subsequently, how much of it do you try to tune out?
Kristall: I try not to think about it too much. I just try to enjoy the work; mine and that which is released by others. I guess my thought is that from page to screen takes at least six months, if you’re lucky, and to keep it fresh, original and write what you know. The more authentic it is, the more believable it is, and therefore, the more people will relate to my story. Of course there are several industry key elements I always keep in mind. First and foremost is the tenth page or ten-minute mark. You have to have something big or exciting happen around page ten or you lose your audience. This is a fun game to play when you are watching any movie, see how you feel ten minutes in of the next film you watch. (grin)
M: I will have to try that. It’s sort of like setting up the inciting event in the first ten pages of a novel. I guess story telling at its base is similar no matter the medium. This is a great segue to talking about craft. Explain a little how the structure of a screenplay is set up. What are some of the crucial elements a of a screenplay that a screenwriter just can’t leave out?
Kristall: I agree, story telling does follow a pattern throughout the different mediums. The format of a screenplay is very rigid. The industry has very specific “rules” on how they must be laid out. The font of every screenplay is Courier New 12pt. The beginning always starts with a FADE IN: and ends with a FADE OUT:, the individual scenes open with INT. (interior) or EXT. (exterior) followed by the place, time, and then the set up. The rest comes down to dialog and tab placement….okay boring…again I am a visual person; it made more sense to me when I actually looked at and read a screenplay.
M: I haven’t read a lot of screenplays (actually, I don’t think I’ve read any.) How does reading a screenplay differ from reading anything else?
Kristall: Reading a screenplay can be confusing at first, with all the abbreviations, but the beauty of this format is that it makes them really easy to read. Everything you need to know about the story, the characters and its ‘flow’ is all laid out for you. That doesn’t mean that the story itself won’t surprise you. I think the medium is just meant to be very concise.
M: I’ve read two books that I know were written by screenwriters. (I may have read others and didn’t know it). Those two novels were, The Princess Bride by William Goldman and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I noticed both of those books were amazingly structured and incredibly paced. How important is pacing in a screenplay versus a novel? And from a crafting standpoint, how do you make sure that pacing transfers from the page to the screen?
Kristall: Structure and pacing are very important when writing a screenplay. Unlike a novel you really only have 90-120 pages to work with. Each page constitutes to about a minute of screen time, so ninety pages is an hour and a half movie. Making sure the pacing transfers from the page to the screen falls on the director, not an easy job, but a beautiful thing to watch unfold.
M: I know dialog can be a big tool in a writer’s tool belt where pacing is concerned. How do you go about dialog as a screenwriter? Is it a different process than when you sit down to write a novel or short story?
Kristall: I feel that the dialog as a screenwriter is a slightly different process then when you write a novel or short story. It is still dialog, yet, these words are meant to be spoken by an actor, someone who will breathe life into the character on the silver screen. The dialog itself must carry some emotion that the actor can feed off of and run with. There are no actor notes (or very few) within a screenplay. The scene setup and the dialog itself is all they have to go on. A screenplay is really just the ‘bones’ of the final intended product.
M: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received concerning your writing endeavors? How has it molded you as a writer?
Kristall: Write what you know; your feelings, your dreams, your passions, your history…all of my characters, all of them, have a little piece of me within them. It makes any story, any genre, any style…real and believable.
M: What’s on the horizon for you as a writer? What’s next for Kristall Burke?
Kristall: I am just going to continue to write. I am currently working on a piece for a screenplay contest, this is a first for me, but I like the challenge and it came at the right time. I had just recently finished the screenplay, ‘Spectacular Spectacles’ and had not started a new one, yet.
M: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer all of my rambling questions. It’s great to be back in touch. We’ve got two more posts planned with you over the next two weeks that we’re really excited about. And even after those, we hope you’ll drop by the Pod from time to time and keep us posted on your endeavors and your thoughts on the craft. Best of luck and happy writing!
Kristall: Thank you Michelle and all the Ninja Peas! This has been a lot of fun and I am going to miss the ‘excuse’ for us to email each other on a regular basis. I am truly flattered that you asked me to guest blog and interview for you, and would be happy to drop by any time! I think the Pod is a wonderful read and source of information for writers of all walks of life. Thank you for having me. (hugs and kisses)
As you should have gleaned from this imaginary readers -- Kristall is joining us for a three part series. Next week? Fifteen tips that every aspiring screenwriter should know. Until then...pay attention to minute ten of the next movie you watch!