Screenwriter Spotlight: Finalist Mary Ruth Clarke and Alex Surowitz

Screenwriter Spotlight: Finalist Mary Ruth Clarke and Alex Surowitz

Chicago Screenplay Awards Questionnaire

By Chicago Screenplay Awards Dept.

Mary Ruth Clarke and Alex Surowitz                                Chicago Screenplay Awards Questionnaire

Mary Ruth Clarke

Who are you and where are you from?

Mary Ruth Clarke.  I’m from a lot of places up and down the east coast, but I’ve been in Chicago for quite a while. I came thinking I’d stay a year and that was 3 decades ago.

Where and when did you come up with the idea for your screenplay?

This is a strange little tale.  In 2007, my writing partner (we wrote and shot the film the original Meet The Parents, which we then were hired to adapt into what became the blockbuster Robert Deniro and Ben Stiller movie)…we wrote a stage farce called Suffer The Long Night.  It had 3 successful productions and we should have been better about marketing it, but we moved on to other projects. 

And then in around 2015, The Play That Goes Wrong came out and was an international touring production, so lots of people saw it.  Believe me when I say this – it’s the same play, only supersized.  A much more expensive production but the plays have the same gags, same set up, some of the same lines!  No, I don’t think this English company flew across the pond and spied on our productions and cribbed it – I think it was a matter of great minds thinking alike. 

At any rate, we realized we couldn’t put it out there because of course WE would be the ones accused of plagiarizing, even thought we wrote Suffer several years before theirs came out. 

But I hated to let it go, and I got to thinking about a teleplay about community theater, and thus I incorporated Suffer The Long Night as the play the theater is producing in the pilot episode.

And then of course I had to build the community of the community theater and that was great fun. Building it around a newly minted MFA student with a chip on her shoulder seemed about right:  Insert a young professional into a group of amateurs and give her an education she didn’t expect.

Read Also: Screenwriter Spotlight: Winner Questionnaire: Nate Wilcoxen

Can you take us through your screenwriting process?

After abandoning many projects because I couldn’t make them go past the first 30 pages, I had to put myself through a structure boot camp and learn how to tell a story.  (I was a professional actor for a long time, so I was great at dialog and character, but I didn’t know how to tell a story.)

So for me, it’s getting in the thinking chair and banging out a premise, thinking deep about who would best serve that premise, and then finding the structure of the story.  Bones first, fun stuff later.

I never break pages until I know what that hard decision, that crisis decision, the Main has to make at what I call the second Turning Point.  The break into three point.  I need something to write towards.  It may change, but I’ve got to have that as a guide.

And then after I get all those structure ducks in a row, I can have fun and write pages and do all the character and dialog stuff and crack myself up.  But I’ve got to do the upfront work, or I’ll get discouraged and give up and start having those abandoned children dreams.

What made you want to become a screenwriter?

I fell into it accidentally by finding myself in theater companies that created their own material, sitting around the table, cracking each other up.  It never occurred to me I was a writer, it took a long time for me to come around to that idea, and honestly, it suits my introvert temperament more.  But I sure didn’t know that at the time.

I just love creating worlds and shoving characters around – or rather, they shove me around.  It’s alchemy.  Sometimes writing is painful as hell, but it’s alchemy.

Who are your biggest filmmaking influences?

I’m all over the map.  I heard a wonderful interview with Spike Lee today and I so admire that guy because he creates his own reality and doesn’t let anyone get in his way. 

Have you ever been obsessed with a movie or TV show? If so, which one?

Oh, always.  Right now I’m deep into a Korean prison dramedy called Prison Break, because I needed to get a sense of prison life, since I’m writing a sit com about correctional officers.  I can’t believe the quality of the writing – it’s so wonderful.  It’s a Netflix original, but I guess a Korean structure: 16 one-and-a-half-hour episodes. So essentially 16 movies.  And they rise to the occasion.

The Golden Girls is another obsession.  Until this week, when sadly she passed, my dear mom has been in an Alzheimer’s Unit.  We would love to tune into The Girls after breakfast, in a lounge area with a lot of foot traffic – aides, nurses, laundry folks, and residents passing through.  Every color of the rainbow, from all over the world, every age, mostly women but some men. And most of them would see The Girls and stop short and tell us who their favorite girl was, or a memory about how they loved watching the girls with their aunt or mother. 

It really drove home the power and appeal of something as seemingly lightweight as a sit com, even years and years after it stopped being produced. 

What’s your favorite moment in cinema history?

The technicolor when Dorothy opens the house door after she lands in Oz. 

Who’s your favorite character in cinema history?

Maude, played by Ruth Gordon, in Harold and Maude.  Later in the film, when that old adventurous cutie exposes her arm and we see the etched concentration camp number, it gave the story an unexpected potency.  It wasn’t just a light and fluffy story anymore. And no explanation was necessary – just that powerful, tragic visual.  Oooof.

If you could talk to anyone from any era, who would it be and what would you ask them?  

Al Capone.  And I’d ask him if there had ever been anything in that damn vault, and if so, what the heck was it and where’d he stash it?! 

Why?  Because in the late 80s or early 90s, a friend dragged me to a huge bathtub gin prohibition party at the Chicago Hyatt in honor of Geraldo Rivera opening the vault on live TV that night. There was a lottery you were automatically entered into with the entrance fee, and the winner got to pick someone and get whisked in a limo down to the southside to that vault to watch the great opening in person, as the world watched with baited breath on live TV.  Some guy won and picked me because he said I was the biggest fish out of water at the party (I was Goth before it was a thing.)  I was fairly snookered and all I can remember is praying I wouldn’t tumble down the wobbly wooden steps to the basement with the cameras rolling,  the incredible thickness of Geraldo’s orange foundation make up close, and the fact there wasn’t a thing in that damn vault! And I wanna know why, Al?!?

Alex Surowitz

Who are you and where are you from?

My name is Alex Surowitz. I’m a filmmaker originally from Williamsburg, VA but currently live in Grand Rapids, MI.

Where and when did you come up with the idea for your screenplay?

I came up with the original idea as a freshman at the Savannah College of Art and Design 13 years ago. Our first project was a film noir that I wrote the script for. The response was overwhelmingly positive. In 2020 I decided, after reading a lot of Chandler and Hammett and watching classic noir films, that I needed to revisit the idea and smooth it out.

Can you take us through your screenwriting process?

I usually start with a lot of research. Reading books, studying artwork, studying people. From there, I come up with an ending and try to work backwards. Ideas are written down in notebooks and on sticky pads to see what works. Then I sit down and write. From there I try and get a second or third or sometimes ninth opinion to see what people think.

What made you want to become a screenwriter?

I did a lot of creative writing in high school. I wanted to make sure people understood it and could see what I was seeing in my head. The number one comment I got was “Your stuff reads like a movie.” As a senior in high school I made a short film for a class project. After we finished showing it, somebody shouted “I want to make a movie with him!” and I was convinced that this is what I wanted to do.

Who are your biggest filmmaking influences?

Creative influences come from all over, from filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Mel Brooks, Clint Eastwood, Monty Python and Alfred Hitchcock to authors like Agatha Christie, R.A. Salvatore, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Even actors like William Powell, Myrna Loy, Humphrey Bogart, Chris Evans, Henry Cavill and Mark Hamill influence me with what they do. Even my family influences my creativity.

Have you ever been obsessed with a movie or TV show? If so, which one?

There are almost too many to list! Movies have always been an obsession. Star Wars, Labyrinth, Ladyhawke, the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Thin Man, Mannequin, The Princess Bride, Harry Potter…and TV shows go even further. Supernatural, The Expanse, Hercules, Upstart Crow, The Alienist, Downton Abbey, Defiance, Suits, Firefly, Legend of the Seeker…the list goes on and on.

What’s your favorite moment in cinema history?

There are so many great ones. When I was younger, the big reveal in “The Empire Strikes Back” was a huge deal. I also like the reveal of Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight.” Most recently, though, has been the establishment of the MCU. It really proves what careful planning and great characters can accomplish.

Who’s your favorite character in cinema history?

Another list of so many. Nick and Nora Charles, James Bond, Malcolm Reynolds, Phillipe Gaston from “Ladyhawke,” Jareth the Goblin King from “Labyrinth” and Luke Skywalker are just a few of my favorites.

If you could talk to anyone from any era, who would it be and what would you ask them? 

I would pick David Bowie. The man did it all and I would ask him how he maintained the balance.

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