Alexa Pellegrini for FilmSchool.org spoke with Kendra Daniels (@WriterK90), a second-year Michener Center fellow with a primary concentration in Screenwriting and a secondary concentration in Playwriting. Daniels divides her studies between the Michener Center and University of Texas at Austin, where she collaborates with the Screenwriting cohort. From Raven-Symoné to Shonda Rimes, Daniels is inspired by compelling Black women in the film industry who prove that authentic representation matters. Daniels enjoys telling stories that explore universal themes through a magical lens.
What are the basic expectations for Michener Center for Writer fellows?
My first semester, I took Intro to Screenwriting and wrote my first feature script. In my second semester I took a class called Pilots, and I turned that into my first TV pilot. Michener fellows have the option to take Advanced Screenwriting I and II, where you have the choice to write either more features or TV pilots in the drama or comedy genres.
The first time I wrote a TV pilot, it was very much log line; beat sheet; outline; and then finally, writing the pages. We had a stick to that timeline. By the second year [the process] was creating a logline; an outline, if you prefer to do that; a beat sheet, and then finally, your pages. By last semester it was kind of like, whatever your process is, go for it as long as you finish it by the end of the semester.
Describe a typical screenwriting workshop at the Michener Center for Writers:
In workshops, the class is split into two [groups] of six. We're all diverse -- not just with our writing styles, but also as people with different backgrounds and experiences, which is great. We meet for three hours and give 30 minutes of feedback to each student about what’s working and what’s not. It’s helped me during moments where I feel stuck about how I want to tell my story, and I appreciate that.
What tips can you offer new screenwriters who are struggling to grasp this unique form of storytelling?
If you're normally a fiction writer, there are pretty much no rules into how you write or how much you want to linger on one character […] and what they’re thinking. With screenwriting, there are a lot of extra rules. And by that, I mean that you have to think visually. You can't spend too much time on an inner monologue because that's not going to translate well on screen.
There’s also a pace [and] a [film industry] standard to match. You know, comparing the first act and the second act of a feature, there are different beats to hit at certain times. You don’t have to hit that [beat] on a certain page, but there is a flow and a certain pace to screenwriting. If you’re off track, you'll receive feedback on speeding up or slowing down a scene.
How do playwriting vs. screenwriting workshops at the Michener Center for Writers and UT Austin compare?
Playwriting […] is more about your classmates reading your pages and talking about their interpretations of what you've written. There isn't as deep of a critique. I actually had to push for my classmates to give me suggestions of how to make [my writing] better because playwriting isn't my main focus.
Screenwriting is different: You have to be prepared to take feedback and carefully choose what you want to use vs. what not to use. The workshops in both programs are heavily based on critique and helping your work fit into what the industry expects from a feature or TV pilot.
How did you find the application and selection process?
The Michener Center chooses you solely based on your letter of interest and your writing sample. When I applied, I did the typical letters of recommendations, my letter of interest, my GRE scores, and a sample TV pilot. You can submit either a TV pilot or a feature. Now, the GRE is no longer a requirement.
Should aspiring Michener fellows apply to both the Michener Center for Writers and UT Austin?
When you apply to either the Michener Center or UT Austin, they do recommend that you apply to both schools. I recommend doing that because I feel that it kind of shows that you […] really want to get into UT Austin, regardless of your admission to the fellowship program.
I applied to both. Each had the same application process, so it was fairly easy -- I updated my letter of interest to match each school, with the major difference being that I really wanted to do the Michener Center’s three-year [MFA] program vs. UT Austin's two-year program.
Why did you ultimately choose to study screenwriting and playwriting at the Michener Center for Writers over UT Austin or another school?
The number one reason for me was that the Michener Center is a three-year program. I just know I'm the kind of person that needs extra time to settle in, and I'm so happy that I’m starting my final year next fall. I have a good amount of control over my education than other programs allow.
I took my three core courses within the first year, and I have so much room to take other classes that I […] feel will help my writing and broaden my knowledge. As someone who can work independently very well, the Michener Center is a great fit.I also like the close-knit community feel. We had our first class in the [Frank J.] Dobie House, and we can go back there any time we need a quiet writing environment.
How does your program foster a sense of community between its MFA students?
Every Friday, we have a Zoom get together to hang out and stay connected. It's been fantastic to have that option during the pandemic, since you're not actually stepping foot on campus.
Email communication has been amazing. Back in February, there was that big freeze. My program reached out to me to make sure I had what I needed. There were people without water and power; it was a very scary situation, and I was grateful that they reached out quickly.
Is there a particular class or professor that has exceeded your expectations?
All my professors have been amazing. I start my thesis next semester and I had to choose a professor to be my advisor, and it was hard to choose! They’ve been amazing at […] giving important feedback while not dictating how we should write. I don’t feel like I have to adjust my writing to please my professors.
What should every aspiring Michener fellow know before they apply?
Because you have so much control over what classes you take, don't compare this program to undergrad. Make sure you save a lot of time for a workshops! In early semesters I took two to two and a half workshop-type classes. I have so many ideas I want to explore, but the time it takes to read, give feedback, and also just be in the right mental space to work on your projects may be more than you expect. Just start with one workshop and see how it goes.
You should have a strong interest in a secondary writing style, too. I really enjoy playwriting, and being at the Michener Center helped me see that it’s very dialogue-heavy compared to screenwriting. It’s been a great learning experience.
You also have to keep in mind that the Michener fellowship is going to feel more like a creative writing program than a true film school program. I’m going to graduate with an MFA in Writing, not an MFA in Screenwriting.
Is there a specific class that strengthened your grasp on the art of writing for television?
I took a Film History class, which speaks to the progress of the camera and how films are made. We watched films that were produced back when there was no sound and they were shot in black and white. I learned how directors create certain shots by applying certain techniques to convey emotion despite those limitations. And I feel like learning about that helped me better visualize how I'm going to tell my own stories.
Does your program provide opportunities for professional development and networking?
The Michener Center regularly brings in screenwriters and producers who work within all of the concentrations. It’s nice, since we’re a small group -- only five or six of us are sitting with an industry professional and learning from their experiences. During the first year, we also got to sit down and lunch with a management company.
We also receive free passes to the Austin film festival every year, which is just down the street from campus. Doing an internship isn’t a requirement, but it’s built into UT Austin’s Screenwriting program -- I can choose whether I want to take it.
What do you feel is the biggest advantage of being a Michener fellow?
The obvious advantage of being a Michener fellow is the fact that you you are essentially being paid to write and produce content. They want a well-rounded, inspiring, and diverse group of writers that they think our world needs. And they encourage us in every way to write what we want and hone our craft for three years.
To learn more about Kendra Daniels (@WriterK90 ), follow her on Twitter. Find out more about the Michener Center for Writers and how to apply on their website.
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