Robin Swicord was born in South Carolina and raised in rural Florida and Georgia. She is a screenwriter and director known for her screenplay adaptations of Little Women (94), Matilda (96), and Memoirs of a Geisha(05). She was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (07). Her debut directorial feature, The Jane Austen Book Club(07), screened at the Festival. Most recently, she wrote and directed Wakefield (16), which premiered at the Festival, and is currently producing the upcoming feature Little Women (19). We caught up with her to discuss her career journey ahead of her Books on Film talk in Toronto, where she will discussing the process of adapting a book for film.
When I was younger I wanted to be … boringly enough, a writer. Preferably anywhere but here.
I became a screenwriter because…I felt fully absorbed by movies. When I was young, I didn’t know that movies were written. I wasn’t even aware that movies were directed, when I first fell in love with films. What I loved was the acting, the characters, the costumes, the sets, the music, the story-telling, the witty dialogue, the photography – in short, everything. When I watched a movie, I would memorize it, and replay it mentally as I fell asleep that night. When I was a child, I had thought that I would write novels or children’s books. The moment that I finally noticed the “written by” credit on a film, I felt electrified. If movies were “written by” someone, then why couldn’t I write them?
My proudest accomplishment is…probably not related to writing, or directing movies. I tend to reflect back on my own work (and even my own personal experiences) with a restless feeling of “What did I learn from this? What can I do better next time?” or even “How did I get into this??” That’s not a mindset that makes much room for a sense of arrival. In fact, it’s possible that all I ever allow myself is a sense of relief!
My boldest move to date was…escaping from the small Southern town in the Florida Panhandle where I grew up.
The best thing about being a screenwriter is… (I usually joke and say “The wardrobe”), but the best thing, really, is that I get to make movies, sometimes. Even when the scripts I write don’t make it to the screen, I feel privileged that I get to do something creative every day, as a way of life. I know how lucky I am.
The most challenging part of my job is…dealing with disappointment when projects don’t move forward. All professional screenwriters do a great deal of paid writing that is never seen on the screen. You have to have stamina to persist, to return again to the inner creative source, and to make something new.
I would tell my 21-year-old self… “Love yourself.” (“And oh by the way, don’t bother dating anyone until you meet Nick Kazan, when you’re 29.”)
My biggest setback was…most likely not my biggest setback. To be a screenwriter – or perhaps any creative person — is to be beset by the very ordinary problems of rejection and harsh criticism, as well as confusing notes from underqualified people, and betrayals and failures of character by producers or directors or executives or agents; some of which in the moment swell to the size of catastrophes. But weirdly, over time, the things that feel so terrible and insurmountable are later revealed to be ridiculous, or common, or predictable – and certainly not worth the emotional investment we give them at the time. The good thing about my having been a screenwriter for 40 – yes, that’s forty years – is that I have FINALLY begun to develop a sense of perspective — though perhaps too late for it to be of any real use to me. If you need to borrow my sense of perspective, let me know.
“To be a screenwriter – or perhaps any creative person — is to be beset by the very ordinary problems of rejection and harsh criticism”
I overcame it by…writing something new.
My greatest advice from a mentor was…not from a mentor, because I grew up in the generation of unmentored women. But I did get a useful piece of stray advice from a studio executive who stopped me to chat in the halls of MGM. I was in my mid-20s, and I had sold my first screenplay to MGM. The executive, David Chasman, asked me how it was going with my project. I was at that moment writing my 9th or maybe 10th draft of the screenplay that I had sold to a producer at MGM, and I was at the studio that day to hear yet another round of story notes. I said, “I don’t know…I keep writing different versions, and hearing more suggestions, and then I take all their suggestions …but when I turn in the draft, I hear a lot of new suggestions. I keep hoping that I’ll finally write a draft that’s good enough for them to make into a movie.” David Chasman stopped me right there: “Movies don’t get made because the script is good. They get made for a lot of other reasons – but it’s never about the script. Movies are made all the time from bad scripts. You could write a perfect script – and it still might not be made into a movie.” It was good advice, even if it sounds cynical, because Chasman gave me an accurate description of filmmaking within the studio system, where I would work for many years. After that, I allowed myself to relax more as I wrote, trusting myself, and simply doing the best work that I knew how to do, without worrying about pleasing a constantly shifting hierarchy of development executives. It’s actually wonderfully freeing, creatively, to know that what you’re doing is irrelevant. Until it isn’t.
If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… a strong work ethic.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know…some very basic truths.
I stay inspired by…watching other people’s movies and TV shows, and by reading, and going to galleries and museums and stage plays and music performances – taking in the rich world of the arts. I love trees – my husband says I’m a tree worshipper – and I make a point of being around trees, especially when I’m feeling creatively drained.
The future excites me because…I see who is coming, among the young people who are making their first films and web series now.
My next step is…always into the unknown.