KCET’s Fine Cut Speaker Series: Melissa Blake on finding your own voice

Fine Cut

KCET’s Fine Cut Speaker Series continues Monday, April 12 with screenwriter Melissa Blake (October Faction), who will share her expertise in a presentation entitled “Creating Content That Cuts Through.”

In this special event, she’ll explain the importance of not just having a good idea to bring into the room, but having something that is special to you and embracing your own personal uniqueness. I recently got to know Melissa before her speech and learn more about what she’ll be teaching other writers and creators next week.

You can register for Melissa’s event and the remainder of the Fine Cut Speaker Series for free through Eventbrite.

Brittany Frederick: How did you become involved in the Fine Cut Speaker Series originally? What made it appeal to you?

Melissa Blake: Between three and five years ago, I participated when it was an in-person event for the Fine Cut series, where they hosted a large number of filmmaking students at the CBS Radford lot here in Studio City. [They] had set up this kind of mixer in a way, if you will, where the students would rotate between tables; each of the tables would be a figure, sort of a mentor, if you will, to speak with and we covered different topics and subjects within the industry. I was among the writing faction of things and it was a great opportunity for the students and for us to interface.

I’m well-versed in doing things like this. I’ve been for the past ten, maybe more years, working in tandem with the university that I got my screenwriting degree from, Loyola Marymount University, here in Los Angeles doing workshops and panels and all kinds of classes, lecture series and whatnot for both their undergrad and master’s screenwriting programs there. I have a lot of experience with and also an affinity for emerging screenwriters and filmmakers and really enjoy collaborating with them and trying to shed some more light on this seemingly terrifying and massive and difficult to weigh through sometimes field that they are trying to get into.

BF: What’s your ultimate goal with this specific event?

MB: I plan to guide the participants in coming to understand the sometimes mysterious and hard-to-pin down writers’ “voice” through sharing tips and proposing exercises to help them establish and then capitalize on their own voice—that unique perspective they bring to all their work whether they realize it or not, which stems from life experience, background, interests, and much more. I look forward to assisting them in discovering this and hope to encourage them to cultivate their authentic selves to manifest the career opportunities they hope for. 

BF: That’s something everyone talks about in this business, though; how there aren’t unique ideas in Hollywood or what makes a unique idea. Where do you start with such an oft-discussed topic?

MB: A lot of what we do as writers, especially at this stage of our career, is very much autopilot. You sort of have to back up and go, “Okay, wait, how did I get to this place? How is it that I proceed in this manner and kind of try to dial back and get to the heart of things?” I’d have to say that for a long time, I certainly wasn’t a writer that necessarily knew or really even paid an awareness to what my voice was on the page and what my style was or how it was coming across.

Then at some point you start figuring that out, largely because you are in meetings and now you’re in a position to be developing and pitching new ideas and thoughts, and the people that you’re working with and trying to work with are very much wanting to understand what it is exactly you’re bringing to the table. And that really boils down to who you are as an individual because honestly, everything that ends up on the page, that somehow makes it into your brain and takes hold and is something that you want to follow through and you must get down in some form, that is all informed by who we are, where we’ve been, where we’re from, the experiences that make up our life and our daily existence. And what’s great is that that is completely different for everyone.

If I’m going to be writing a certain piece that’s sci-fi with aliens or whatever, it’s going to be massively different than what anyone else would be doing. Maybe some of the specifics seem the same but I and that person, we’re going to bring such a different take to it that is really infused with our life experience and our makeup. And I think a lot of times we don’t spend enough time thinking about what that is. It’s really important to consider that and harness that in order to be able to speak to it. A lot of writers will be going out on meetings and people will have read the material and they’ve made what they will make of it, but they also really want to know more about you, separate from your work.

We don’t spend enough time sort of crafting our personal story. And that’s another story that we need to pay some attention to and really put some effort into crafting. We’ve crafted the pitch that we want to go in there with and sell them on and all of that, but why are you the person to be writing this? Why should they entrust you with this? Why are you the one that a showrunner wants to put on a staff to bring what their vision is to life? Well, it’s because you have had some experience with that thing. You are able to connect to the lead character because of this certain part of your life that you are willing to share with them. Which also just comes across as a huge gift when you’re being really open and vulnerable with people, because it will tell them that they are going to get a really authentic, honest and interesting thing from you again and again.

BF: Since we’re talking about aspiring writers and filmmakers, what’s one of your most memorable stories from when you were a student?

MB: It wasn’t writing, but it was editing, which is part of the storytelling process, right? It’s your final stop to make the project what it’s going to be. And the class that I was in nearly did me in. It was an editing class that in which we worked on the old-timey Moviolas, where you had to cut and splice together the pieces of film to edit the project. We all had the same project to be editing; it was a scene from Gunsmoke and the whole idea was, just to see how many different ways you could twist and turn a story. The different ways that you could tell it, with the exact same footage.

But I am such a perfectionist, and coming from the space of the writer’s brain, just really wanting each moment to resonate and to come through as the vision intended but with that process of taking these pieces of film. And it was very easy to lose a little piece of film strip [or] maybe it clipped off a piece that you needed. Oh, it was horrifying. It took me until probably three or four hours before we were going to be showing our finished product to finish it. And I was so concerned because also the soundtrack was separate that you had to edit together to the visual track. To get those all matched up together, I just was certain it was going to be a complete and utter fail. And somehow, by the grace of God, it came together and it was great. I managed to survive that class.

And then the first job that I got after graduation was on a TV series, to work as a PA in their post-production office. I was like, “Okay, well, this is going to be interesting.” I did just do that editing class and know a little bit about this. Obviously I wasn’t going to be doing the editing; I was just going to be running tapes around….But the first day I walk into the editing bay, and I am shocked to see that these editors are in front of computers, just pushing buttons and things are coming together. I was like, “Hold everything.” I truly did not understand at that point that the technology was this. I’m thinking, Why did I have to learn that horribly painstaking process that has clearly been out of style for decades?

But it taught me some grit and some stick-to-itiveness and I got a lot out of it regardless. But I was floored that I had to go through that process only to then find out there were some keystrokes. Obviously editing is far more than that—it’s very involved. It’s very technical. It’s difficult, but I am very pleased though that I’ve been able to enjoy participating in editing on the various projects I’ve been on. And that has been a much more enjoyable and calm experience. (laughs)

Melissa Blake joins the Fine Cut Speaker Series on April 12. Register for the Fine Cut Speaker Series now through Eventbrite.

Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.

Tagged with: