The Black List's No. 1 Writer on Her Breakthrough: "I Stuck to My Guns"

Courtesy of Subject
Kristina Lauren Anderson

Kristina Lauren Anderson says of her winning script, "Even as I was doing it, I thought it was impossible"

Kristina Lauren Anderson wrote Catherine the Great knowing her biopic of the Russian empress would face one major challenge — the unlikeliness of a period piece standing out amid hundreds of costume-drama scripts. The 30-year-old's previous historical screenplays had earned her acclaim in contests — Forever Jiaying, set in the Nanking Massacre, was a semifinalist for the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship — but no deals or representation. "My friends and family were like, 'Maybe you should try to write that contemporary thriller,'" she tells The Hollywood Reporter.

"I knew I wouldn’t be great at writing that — or I would be, but I knew it wasn't my breakthrough," she says. "I stuck to my guns. I thought, 'Try one more. Try Catherine.' "

The Black List announced Sunday that Catherine the Great tops its 10th annual survey of Hollywood’s favorite unproduced screenplays. It’s in good company, with The Social Network, Argo and The King's Speech among the previous honorees of the Black List's survey of over 500 executives.

The Black List itself is partly responsible for Catherine’s success — the script was a finalist for the organization’s inaugural Screenwriters Lab, where high-caliber scribes help the selected writers with their drafts, though it wasn't picked. But Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), one of the program's mentors, offered to work with Anderson anyway. His advice was the best she says she’s ever received ("Ask yourself in every scene, what is the character's emotional journey?"), and two drafts later, the Black List made Catherine its bi-weekly Featured Script. Anderson wrote to agents and producers, and this time, it worked.

"I ended up meeting my manager, and I met my agent a week later," she says (she's repped by Verve, the Schiff Co.'s Michael Diamond and Jackoway Tyerman's Robby Koch). “That viral thing I always heard of happening but thought never would happen, it happened.”

The script sold to Atlas, which is searching for a director. Anderson is working on a couple of adaptations — the YA novel Invisibility for Warner Bros. and the period Life and Death in Eden for Grand Electric. She tells THR which biopics inspired her, how she organizes her time and when she hits the "delete" key.

Why the empress of Russia?

I’ve always been really interested in royal courts, but I didn’t know [Catherine’s] story at all. I read a biography on her, and the first 100 pages were the point in her life I told — it was just the story of her early life and marriage, and I couldn't believe I didn’t know it. If you ask a lot of people about Catherine, a lot of people just say "Oh, the Empress of Russia." They don’t know her story. But her relationship with her husband was so unconventional — in no way was this meant to happen. This girl, she wasn't even Russian, and she ends up empress. I was like, "There's your third act."

How do you draw characters out of historical figures?

I always picture what it would be like to be in the room with the person now — not picture them in their time, but if they were sitting on the couch right now. I think that people from the past would be surprisingly modern. I think they would be much more up to speed than we think they would be. They still have the same human emotions, wanting to be happy or wanting to be loved, or on the villainous side, wanting power or money. We're all in the same boat.

Were there biopics that inspired you or gave you direction while writing Catherine?

Two of my favorite movies, both foreign films. One is called Farewell, My Queen, and it's the final days of Marie Antoinette. And then there's a Danish movie called A Royal Affair. Watching those movies, you feel like you're watching people you could know.

How do you organize your days and stay productive?

I am a 9-to-5-er. I have an office now in my house, and I just go in in the morning and don’t come out until everyone else is coming out. I do page counts, too. I think that keeps you on track. I might do more like five pages a day for the first draft, and then as I keep redoing, it gets higher and higher, to 10 pages a day. When I was writing Catherine, I was living in a one-bedroom apartment in Beverly Hills and I could not work there, so I started going to a writers' space. We just moved and I finally have my own room, and [working in an office] puts me in a totally different mind-set.

What’s most important in good screenwriting?

I think it's a good combo between story and character, the right balance between the two. You're not going to have a good story without your characters being good, and the other way around. 

I personally just like finding things people didn't know about or dealing with weird relationships. What drew me to Catherine in the beginning was her relationship to [Tsar] Peter [III]. I originally wanted to call the script The Marriage, because I wanted to describe this strange dynamic — Peter is a man-child, he plays with toys and he’s interested in pretending at being in the military, and she is a woman ahead of her time, very smart and accomplished. These two people should never have been married.

When do you delete, whether a scene, a line or a character?

I'm actually really good at deleting. Some people really fall in love with everything, but me — if it's going to make it better [to delete], it's going to make it better. It's about following your character’s journey. If you've got the best line ever but it doesn't make sense for the story, maybe you pocket it to use it some other time. It's not about you, it's about the characters.

What's next for you?

What I'm doing now is another period piece, a book called Life and Death in Eden [by Trevor Lummis]. It’s about the mutiny on the Bounty, and what happened after that. The mutineers couldn't go back to England, so they tried to inhabit an island and build a utopian society. In four years, all the men had been murdered except for one. It's finding out how this happened.

Other than that, I'm definitely geared toward period stuff. I might be involved in two of my dream projects. There’s one for TV about two queens — it’s kind of a dream project — and then I'd love to do something on Joan of Arc.

Email: Austin.Siegemund-Broka@THR.com
Twitter: @Asiegemundbroka

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