Screenwriter Spotlight: Winner Dan Stearns
Chicago Screenplay Awards Questionnaire
By Chicago Screenplay Awards Dept.
What’s your name? Where were you born? Where do you live? And what’s your hobby?
Dan Stearns. I grew up in Massachusetts, I lived in Chicago for almost 30 years, now I live in Oxford, Mississippi. I love to cook.
Where did you come up with the concept that just placed as Finalist in the screenplay contest? How long did it take you to develop it into the screenplay it is now?
The story is loosely based on an experience my grandfather had while in college during the Great Depression. He told me this story many years ago—he died in 1998–and I have thought about it quite a lot. It’s not enough material to stretch into a feature-length screenplay, but I thought it would make a good short. I was working on other projects over the last couple of years and it kept tumbling around in my head, such that when I sat down to write over the summer of 2021 a first draft came out quite easily. I then edited and reworked it during the early fall.
From concept to finished draft, can you take us through your screenwriting process?
I guess I got into that a bit in the previous answer. I do a lot of imagination ahead of time. I try to see it in my head, as though I am watching the film. In the case of this particular story, I knew the whole arc. Sometimes I like to write without knowing where it is going and let it be a process of exploration. And I agonize over revision. I find that I tend to write a lot of psychological description, which is good to get on the page, but then I have to figure out how to get that into behavior or words.
When did you realize that you wanted to become a screenwriter?
Am I a screenwriter? I am an actor, though I bummed around a few different careers through the years. Now I am teaching acting at a university.
I have jotted down ideas for stories for a long time, I just never picked them up and developed them. I’m good at coming up with ideas, but I’m bad at the follow though. Am I lazy? Maybe. More likely it’s that I have a hard time envisioning the goal.
For whatever reason, I have felt over the last few years that the next step in my creative existence needs to be writing. I got about 100 pages into a novel during National Novel Writing Month in 2015 or 2016. Though I didn’t finish it, it made me realize I could put words together. I have a couple of other projects in various stages of writing: a comedy web series, a family drama that might be a screenplay and might be a stage play, and a few other things.
Who are your biggest filmmaking/screenwriting influences? What about their style do you like or borrow?
That’s a tough one. I am a bit of a film buff, but I somehow feel like my work is distant from the work of the real pros. My students always tell me that I don’t like anything! I wouldn’t even know how to be certain I had been influenced, nor would I even be certain what I might be borrowing. I am constantly amazed by the work of Paul Thomas Anderson. I like the work of Robert Towne. And Coppola. Love the Coen brothers. All the greats, I guess, like so many others.
Have you ever been obsessed with a movie or TV show? If so, which one? Why?
Other than the original “Star Trek” when I was a kid? Not really. I have binged a lot of the new classic series that have come out in the last 10-15 years or so in this second golden age of TV. Can you believe “Breaking Bad” started in 2008?
What’s your favorite moment in cinema history? Why?
This will sound peculiar, but it is the moment in “Chinatown” when Jack Nicholson as Gittes is telling his men the “Chinaman” joke. The actor knows that the character must be surprised by the presence of Mrs. Mulwray behind him and I feel like Nicholson blows the moment. It’s just fake—his laugh, the timing, everything. And that is important because the film is otherwise flawless. The greatest film of all time. And that one moment is the flaw that makes it perfect. I know that’s a paradox.
Who’s your favorite character in cinema history? Why?
The Dude. Sorry, I’m Gen X. I can’t help it.
If you could talk to anyone from any era, who would it be and what would you ask them?
I don’t know what I could possibly ask, but I would just love to listen to James Baldwin talk. He’s at the top of my guest list for the all-time dinner party.