Tears are welling up in Renee Pillai’s eyes as she recounts the life-changing flip of occasions of the previous few months.
Final November, Renee grew to become the primary Malaysian to win the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, a prestigious screenwriting fellowship programme administered by the Academy of Movement Image Arts and Sciences. Sure, the very individuals who give out the Oscars.
Renee joined its annual screenwriting competitors, submitting her movie script, Boy With Kite. She grew to become one in all 5 winners whose submission beat out over 7,300 scripts from all around the world.
Apart from a US$35,000 (RM143,000) prize cash, successful a Nicholl fellowship is seen as a launch pad to a screenwriting profession in an in any other case almost impenetrable Hollywood panorama. Screenwriters like Susannah Grant bought her begin as a Nicholl Fellow earlier than she went on to obtain an Oscar nomination for Greatest Authentic Screenplay for Erin Brockovich.
“I couldn’t imagine it, ” she says in an interview with StarLifestyle after returning to Malaysia from her win.
Renee is, after all, speaking concerning the near-impossible odds she has overwhelmed to win the Nicholl Fellowship. However as our interview unfolds additional, she reveals she has been preventing towards the percentages lengthy earlier than.
Ranging from scratch
Renee, who all the time had a ardour for phrases, has been working as a contract author in Malaysia for a few years. From infomercials selling kitchen utensils to a neighborhood actuality modeling sequence harking back to America’s Subsequent High Mannequin, she took on all types of writing jobs.
However engaged on a contract foundation for many of her profession hasn’t been simple. Renee, who lives about 16km away from Kuala Lumpur, usually anxious about her daily bills, particularly since she’s the only breadwinner of her household.
She provides: “There was a medical situation in my household so many of the cash I made went to paying for the bills and easily preserving a roof over our heads.”
She later labored as a content material guide for telcos and although the pay was significantly better, she rapidly felt unfulfilled.
“I believed to myself, ‘What am I doing? I’ve all the time needed to write down motion pictures’.”
Renee then spent over a 12 months immersing herself into researching the way to write scripts.
“Screenwriting is a really totally different type of writing and since I by no means attended a writing class or went to movie faculty, I learn up on books about them corresponding to Syd Subject’s Screenplay and Aristotle’s Poetics. I additionally learn as many screenplays as I may on-line.”
Renee lastly felt prepared to write down her personal script in 2014. Because the years progressed, she mustered up the braveness to submit her movie script to the Nicholl Fellowship.
In a world that operates on the saying “it’s not about what you already know, it’s about who you already know, ” Renee discovered it refreshing that the Nicholl Fellowship cared solely concerning the high quality of her work.
“It may be a warped notion. It may simply be my very own lack of skill. But it surely did look like to get any play right here, you both already needed to be within the trade otherwise you needed to be wealthy, otherwise you needed to be related. And I am none of these issues, ” she displays on her previous experiences.
“So what appealed to me concerning the Nicholl is that this stuff didn’t matter. You simply have to inform a very good story.”
Each script submitted to the Nicholl Fellowship goes by means of a blind learn – that means, the judges are unaware of any of the scriptwriters’ private particulars.
“They don’t know the place you come from, your gender, your age, your race – nothing.”
Stringent choice course of
Renee’s first two makes an attempt on the Nicholl Fellowship have been unsuccessful. She was knowledgeable the furthest her script made it to was among the many high 10% (a shortlist of roughly 700 scripts) one 12 months. By the point 2019 got here round, Boy With Kite marked her third try.
She remembers the extremely stringent choice course of Boy With Kite went by means of earlier than it got here out tops.
“On the very first stage, every script is learn by two totally different readers who’re trade professionals. The script will then be awarded factors, which is able to decide whether or not it will get a 3rd learn.”
High scoring scripts will advance to the subsequent spherical the place it will likely be learn and scored by extra readers. This goes on for a number of rounds, with the script within the later rounds learn by Oscar nominees and winners.
When a script makes it to the finals, at the very least eight totally different individuals would’ve given it a seal of approval.
In 2019,7, 302 scripts have been whittled all the way down to solely 12 scripts within the last spherical of the competitors.
“I didn’t realise how prestigious this was. Simply stepping into the finals, because the Academy blasts out your identify to the trade, you begin getting calls from managers and brokers requesting for extra scripts.”
Within the finals, the Academy Nicholl Fellowships Committee which contains members from the varied branches of the Academy – the actors’ department, writers’, producers’ and extra – interact in a sturdy dialogue earlier than arriving on the 5 winners.
“I had the hope, however not the arrogance, ” she shares about being named one of many 5 winners.
Renee says she is indebted to her buddies who not solely gave her the arrogance to pursue her desires when she had none, however the monetary assist.
“My buddies, who are usually not wealthy both, all pooled in cash and paid for my passport, US visa and varied bills to attend the award ceremony.”
Ache and laughter
Set in Nebraska, Boy With Kite opens with a chilly, steely 50-something girl who has to care for her 10-year-old nephew after her brother, whom she hasn’t spoken to in years, passes away.
“It’s a narrative about forgiveness and redemption. It’s one thing everybody can connect with. All of us have individuals in our lives who’ve carried out one thing to us that makes us go, ‘we by no means need to see this particular person once more’.”
Renee reveals regardless of its dramatic theme, she added a twist of humour to her script on the final minute.
“Human beings are a dichotomy between tragedy and comedy. If I can faucet into that realistically, the viewers will have the ability to relate to it.”
She additionally talks about setting the story in Nebraska: “I’ve by no means been to Nebraska and I feel that’s the fantastic thing about it – the flexibility to inform tales that’s not tied to the color of my pores and skin.”
Renee is presently within the early phases of getting Boy With Kite on the massive display screen. She reveals the opposite scripts she beforehand submitted for the Nicholl Fellowship however was unsuccessful are additionally garnering consideration from manufacturing firms.
On the similar time, she is engaged on a brand new script as a part of the fellowship programme. As a consequence of monetary constraints, she is presently fulfilling her fellowship in Malaysia.
“I can full my fellowship right here. However by way of getting my profession off the bottom in Los Angeles, there are a whole lot of issues that’s presently caught as a result of I’m not in a position to meet individuals and pitch concepts there.”
Renee hopes to fly over when she receives the subsequent instalment of her grant cash (it’s damaged up into a number of instalments, relying on the progress of her work).
Although the budding screenwriter nonetheless struggles to fulfill the day-to-day bills, she takes all of it in her stride, noting, “I don’t begrudge the struggles that I had.”
She appears again on her journey and hopes her story might help encourage others.
“It’s laborious and I’ve seen individuals lose hope. I need those that really feel like they’ll’t do it, that they don’t have the means, to not hand over.”