Exclusive Interview With O2 Screenwriter Christie LeBlanc
Two weeks ago, Deadline Hollywood announced that Anne Hathaway was going to star in the sci-fi thriller O2. Echo Lake will produce the film that IM Global will finance and CAA will represent domestic rights. The script is from newcomer Christie LeBlanc. The article mentioned that she was a single mother from Gatineau, Canada. The screenplay had been sent unsolicited to Echo Lake producers Adam Riback and James Engle. It impressed enough to make it on the 2016 Black List. I decided to reach out to my fellow Quebec writer and ask her how she made it all the way to Hollywood…
JF: What made you want to become a screenwriter?
CL: It was never a want. It’s a need. I’m a story addict. I remember being a little kid, and this lady from down the street was yelling at my mom because I was giving her kid nightmares with the stories I made up… and I couldn’t understand why that was a problem. Stories expanded my then very small world to infinity. Why would anyone not want to explore every nook and cranny, even the darkest of parts? And I never grew out of believing that.
That explains my story addiction, but why screenwriting in particular? I blame my brother Norm one hundred percent. He was older, and a rabid cinephile, and he’d drag his baby sister to way too many movies – sometimes the same ones over and over again. He was my first supplier. He got me hooked on the magic. And every scene I craft, every character I bring to life, every set up and reveal; they’re all simply my desperate need to tap into this magic. And when I do, I need to keep it going, so I live it, breathe it, try to become one with it, and on a good day, shape it and create something cool.
Concerning your story addiction, did you try becoming a novelist?
CL: I tried, and I failed miserably. I have a few unfinished manuscripts buried deep in the bowels of my computer that will never see the light of day. I was young, and hadn’t yet found my voice, so I fumbled around trying desperately to be the next Margaret Atwood, but unfortunately, everything that came out sounded more like a really bad Stephen King ripoff.
What pushed you to start TheSingleScreenwriter.com website?
CL: The website was my way to keep myself writing and focused on the industry, sharing my thoughts and observations as I tried to figure out the maze that is Hollywood. It was never meant to be anything more than that, but it did get a little bit of a following, so it morphed into a vehicle for me to give advice and/or to rant to fellow aspirants. We’re not talking mind blowing revelations here. More along the lines of common courtesy and proofreading. Pretty basic stuff, but it’s shocking how many writers ignore these business basics and undermine their careers before they even get out of the gate.
Did the website help you grow as a screenwriter?
CL: It absolutely helped me grow as a screenwriter because it shifted my focus from simply writing to looking at it as part of a larger industry. Writing is the easy part. Getting your work out there, making connections, finding representation, making sales, landing gigs – this stuff is the hard stuff, and if I hadn’t spent time learning the ins and outs before I found some success, I wouldn’t have been ready, and would have crashed and burned in spectacular fashion.
Did it help you make connections?
CL: It didn’t open any Hollywood doors for me. I doubt it was big enough to even show up as a blip on anyone’s radar. It did, however, connect me with some up and coming writers that became my peer group. And for a writer just starting out, a good peer group filled with writers you respect, whose opinions you trust – that’s worth its weight in gold.
How did you manage to balance working and writing?
CL: Some days, not very well. But you do what you have to do. The way I see it, people can do only two things well at any given time. When you add more to that list, everything suffers. My kids always came first. Writing was a close second. Everything else barely scratched my priority list. We had to eat, but I freelanced so I controlled my schedule, and always made sure there was time for writing. That meant a lot of late nights, and a good deal of sacrifice. I haven’t had a social life in years.
As a single mother, how did you even manage to find the time to write?
CL: It’s amazing what you can get done huddled in the car in the middle of winter while your kids are at various activities. And did I mention no sleep? As I said, two things is the maximum a person can do well. My house is a disaster. And dating? I can’t even remember what that is. But I’m lucky. I have an amazing family, and I know without their support, I wouldn’t have been able to go after this crazy long-shot career.
Your last post on TheSingleScreenwriter.com was in 2015, what happened?
CL: That thing I mentioned about sacrifice? My poor little web site was a victim to that. Time is the most valuable resource I have, and any time not spent on my career is lost time.
How many completed screenplays had you written before O2?
CL: I have a few learner scripts tucked away, scripts I took through several drafts as I was learning the ins and outs of the craft. I would never call them finished though.
How long had you been working on O2 before sending it out?
CL: O2 wrote very fast. It poured right out of me. Two weeks to outline, then the first draft took just over a month. At that point I sent it out to a few trusted friends, then spent another two weeks rewriting. This was exceptional. My normal best is nowhere near that fast.
Had you been sending unsolicited material for a while?
CL: Mostly I was using contests to gauge how close my work was to being at the level it needed to be to make a leap to the pros. I tested the query waters with a previous script and got some reads, and wasn’t at all sure O2 would attract any interest.
When did you decide to send your O2 script to Echo Lake?
CL: I finished O2 in June 2016, but I’m extremely obsessive. I spent a month researching reps, making a list of the ones who had set up similar projects, tracking down their contact information, and finding out everything I could about them. I then embarked on my query campaign, targeting the ones I most wanted to work with. Echo Lake responded with a read request, and I sent my baby out.
Were you surprised they responded?
CL: No. I write killer loglines, and I knew I had a good concept, so I knew I’d get some reads. I was, however, very surprised when they followed up with a meeting request. I don’t think I ever sweat so much in my entire life.
For that meeting request, was it on the phone? Did you fly to LA?
CL: Remarkably, I have yet to step foot in LA. We Skyped for that initial meeting.
How much did they help you develop/polish O2?
CL: The development process on O2 with Echo Lake before sending it out to the town was surprisingly painless. Adam and James really believed in my vision. We aged the character up to attract an A list star and made a few other changes, but it was a really fun process.
How did it get on the 2016 Black List? and how much exposure did that give you?
CL: Echo Lake set me up with meetings at various agencies, and I signed with CAA. Between my new agents and my guys at Echo Lake, I think they must have gotten it to every executive in Hollywood. And it resonated with enough of them to land me on the 2016 Black List. I still haven’t picked my jaw up off the floor over that. As to how much exposure it gave me? The words that come to mind are huge, life-changing, and epic, but those don’t even come close to encapsulating the impact it has had on my life.
CL: I’m currently juggling two scripts, and I’m very excited about them. I’m working on a cool studio project and am fleshing out a dystopian sci-fi spec.
For our fellow screenwriting enthusiasts, we’ll get down into the nitty-gritty details of writing. What’s your brainstorming/story building process like?
CL: When it comes to brainstorming and story building, I’m a big believer in getting the hell out of my own way. I wade through thousands of mediocre, and sometime downright awful ideas, in order to find that rare flash of brilliance. I recognize it because it’s the one that sets my soul on fire. I then brainstorm story directions, making copious notes on any and every idea that comes to me without judgment. That, for me, is the key. At this stage any and every idea is worth exploring because what seem like the best directions at the beginning, often end up only okay when explored, while the goofy, cringe-worthy ideas sometimes lead to mind blowing brilliance. If these sessions don’t end in tears of laughter, I’m not doing it right.
I’m also a big believer in outlines, so I then take all the good stuff and switch on my critical brain. I take the raw ideas and flesh them out into a basic outline, being very critical at this stage to make sure it works as a whole story, but I keep my outlines to broad strokes, giving myself plenty of room when writing the first draft to get from point A to point B, and so on, using instinct and inspiration. For me, that initial bare bones framework keeps me on track, but doesn’t stifle the magic of discovery. It’s an organized chaos.
At what pace do you write your first draft?
CL: I write my first drafts fast, making sure as I mentioned, to get the hell out of my own way. If I slow down at this stage, I switch from instinct to judgment, and second-guessing before it’s fully formed means I stop taking risks. There’s plenty of time for a critical eye during revisions, but if I do it too soon, I cut myself off at the knees and don’t’ truly expand the concept to its full potential. That’s why I believe in taking the time to craft a solid outline. It keeps me on track and gives me a rough map to follow, but lets me take some detours and explore some cool ideas along the way.
How much do you rewrite?
CL: As much as it needs! Really, it depends on the project. I tend to do several revisions passes on my first drafts while wearing my critical hat, focusing on different elements each time (character, set-ups/pay-offs, beats, pacing, tone, etc.) but I still consider it my first draft. When I’ve taken it as far as I can without getting feedback, only then do I consider subsequent revisions second and third drafts, and so on. That familiar saying, ‘writing is rewriting’, it’s absolutely true.
What advice would you give to all amateur screenwriters?
CL: I feel ridiculous giving advice when just a few months ago I was reading pro advice myself! But I guess I could talk from my research as well as my limited experience. I think I’d have to say write ’til your fingers bleed. Then write some more. Read every script you can find, immerse yourself in film, be your own worst critic and biggest champion. Never stop taking risks, and most of all, trust your gut. At the end of the day, it’s just you and the page. Your gut is what will separate you from everyone else.
Special thanks to Christie for answering all my questions. What a wonderful success story!
No release date is set for O2.