ANYA (aka Narwhal-American): Script Development

I recently did a short piece for the Stowe Story Labs newsletter. I’d workshopped the screenplay for my first narrative feature with Stowe and they were curious how the script had changed through development, pre-production, production, and now post. 

300 words didn’t come close to covering it!  I ended with a much longer response which I’ll share here in smaller pieces. This post focuses on development.

I hope you find it an interesting case study.


ANYA is a love story set in contemporary New York City about LIBBY and MARCO, newlyweds who find themselves at the epicenter of a scientific discovery when they turn to unlikely sources for help getting pregnant: the geneticist Libby almost married (SEYMOUR) and the immigrant enclave community Marco abandoned.


My writing/producing partner, Jacob Okada, and I conceived of the film in May 2014. Jacob was story producing for a National Geographic show about an exotic vet. He was watching a lot of surgeries. He asked me how species diverge. As an anthropologist I gave him a basic answer about genetic drift. The conversation got around to how their could be (technically speaking) multiple species of humans alive today and we’d never know it. It would just look like infertility. Until the right person happened to spot the needle in the haystack. Our first screenplay was born. 

By August 2014 we had a rough draft of our first screenplay, then called "Anya."  

Our first longline was: When a newlywed couple trying to have a baby seek help from an unconventional geneticist, he discovers one of them isn’t human. The geneticist must choose between protecting them or forwarding his career.

Over a year, we sought feedback through Blacklist and screenplay competitions and revised the screenplay. We got encouraging reviews but the script was complex, hard to describe, and too long at 120-130 pages. Early drafts were more expensive, more expansive, and had more chaotic comedy, for a while we played with a Supreme Court cold open and the tongue-in-cheek title, “Side Effects May Include Genocide."

We wrote the initial drafts based only on my my basic knowledge of evolution from teaching introduction to anthropology. In early 2015, the Science & Entertainment at the Exchange National Academy of Sciences introduced us to geneticists Dr. Ting Wu and Dr. Ruth McCole at Harvard Medical School's Wu Lab and the Personal Genetics Eduction Project (pgEd). They read drafts, shared insights into the life of academic geneticists, written letters of recommendation, and let us use their research in the film. We visited their labs and congressional briefings and took part in an industry forum.

Each visit led to revisions, some minor, some major. The script is far richer for their participation. During production, Ruth even choreographed and supervised the lab scenes. In many ways, Ting, Ruth, and the pgEd crew have been the project’s biggest cheerleaders. 

Ting suggested a new title, “Humans Among Humans,” that we used for over a year. We still adore the title but have moved away from it because of feedback that it is too SciFi for the film’s content and tone.

We chose to workshop the script through Stowe Story Labs. Stowe, and making a documentary and three shorts, became my film school. In September 2015 I took the script (as HUMANS AMONG HUMANS) to Stowe's Narrative Labs where we pitched our story’s to industry professionals in groups of 6. As an anthropologist turned filmmaker, it was the first time I'd pitched a story. It was also the first time I tried to boil down our script to three minutes for an audience of nonscientists. (I'm still learning how best to do that!)

At the Labs, I struggled to communicate the essence, tone, and genre of the piece. Was it a drama with comedic elements, sci-fi, a mystery, and/or (as one Stowe alumn suggested) a love story? In part, the problem was that we’d written two movies in one screenplay: one about a geneticist who makes a major discovery and one about the couple at the heart of that discovery.  Truth be told, I was more interested in the former but we realized the science-heavy script would be more accessible to a broader audience if we could put them in the shoes of the couple.

We continued workshopping versions of the script through a writers group of NYC Stowe alumni, 2 internal table reads, a staged public reading at the Philip K. Dick Film Festival, screenplay competitions (we were a semi-finalist in Blue Cat and finalist in Sundance Sloan and TFI Sloan), and the 2016 Stowe Writers’ Retreat

By September 2016, the script was clearly a love story. The story still had all the same cutting edge genetics but we’d stuck to a new rule: all science must first be explained to the couple and be directly tied to them.

Our now producer, Roger Schwartz at Chockstone Productions, got excited about this version. His detailed feedback helped make it accessible to a broader audience. 

From October to December, we set the script aside and worked on other projects. I workshopped another script (based on Mjke Wood's short story THE LAST DAYS OF DOGGER CITY) through BlueCat’s Online Screenwriting Class: The Rewrite. For 10 weeks, a small group of us met with Gordy Hoffman by Skype. I struggled with a lot of the same problems: wanting to tell too big of a story (a mother's redemption AND a disaster/action movie AND a climate-migration story) and getting caught up in science or world building. Jacob made the astute observation that I was trying to do the job of the production designer in the script, something that also weighs down earlier drafts of Narwhal-American. 

Slowly, painfully I learned to streamline and declutter.

Gordy's biggest tip? Open a new document and retype the old script, letting it change in the process. This advice would prove invaluable when we decided to go into production with ANYA and rewrote the script to lower our budget without sacrificing story.


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