Thursday 4 September 2014

Interview with Julie Gray

Julie Gray is a former Hollywood story analyst and Huffington Post, Script Magazine and The Times of Israel blogger. She has authored two books and is working on a memoir. The founder of the Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon in 2013, Julie has taught at Warner Bros. Studios, the London Screenwriter's Festival and The Oxford Student Union. Julie lives and works in Tel Aviv. Her website is Stories Without Borders

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in the golden San Joaquin Valley in central California and grew up in rural Northern California.

When did you first take an interest in writing?

I have written my entire life, from a very young child. I was also a voracious reader. My parents were alternative people; they were east coast academics who moved out west and we did not have a television, but we read. And I mean – I read books you would not believe, one after the other, as a kid. Treasure Island, Les Miserables, Robinson Crusoe, everything by Hemingway, everything by Steinbeck. I always wrote journals and then poetry and I studied journalism for awhile, and photography. Then I discovered movies and it was all over bar the shouting – I was madly in love.

You live in Tel Aviv now. How does that compare with, say, Los Angeles?

Tel Aviv and Los Angeles are different, as you can imagine. Israel is in the Middle East so the culture is completely different in every way. Israelis live on the razor’s edge, with a lot of existential danger surrounding us, so they play hard and live hard. The culture here is Middle Eastern, so family, food and friendship are valued. In the States there is much more focus on career and appearances, consumerism and celebrity. Life here is much harder, we have few conveniences and again, we live in a pretty heightened environment.
Navot Papushado
    One thing I really love is that the creative community in Israel is very accessible. I can go out tomorrow and meet any director or writer I want to, without the ten layers of “people” you have to go through in Los Angeles. Creatives here are happy to meet and to share their experiences with you. I have hung out with Anat Assouline, Navot Papushado, the Director of Photography of the new show Dig; everybody is generous with their time and their contacts. In Los Angeles, it is a different, rarefied scene. I was also lucky to hang out with some amazing people there, but you really have to prove who you are first, you need some kind of credibility of who you know, or what you have done or written first. Here as long as you are excited about the film or project, you’re going to have a great conversation about it. I love that warmth and creative access.

What provoked the biggest culture shock for you when you moved?

That’s a difficult question. I had been here a few times before I moved to Tel Aviv. Israelis are famously blunt whereas in the US we really value being polite above even necessarily being 100% honest. Israelis tell it like it is and no holds barred. So that can be a bit bracing. I think also the security here, the presence of so many soldiers and the visibility of the larger situation takes some time to get used to. But living next to the blue, blue Mediterranean Sea, and the heat here – I love it. I feel very much at home.

We see daily in the news that Israel is under bombardment by rockets and threat of attack via secret tunnels under the border. We can’t tell how much of the news is true and how much is spin. Can you give us your version of what is happening?

My version – well – you know, hundreds of books have been written on the topic but the long and short of it is that the conflict here is really a battle of competing
narratives. The world’s worst refugee crisis, following The Holocaust in Europe, created another crisis for Arabs living in what we now call Israel. This part of the world has been occupied for over 2,000 years, with the Romans, Ottomans and British being chief among those occupiers. After the first world war, when the Ottoman Empire fell, there was a vacuum. The UK basically got stuck with a Mandate here, to rule over a diverse group of people who, at the time, actually got along okay. After the second world war, there were hundreds of thousands of displaced Jews with no home to return to and – Israel was born. It’s quite complex, obviously, and heartbreaking. What we have going on at this point is a cycle of violence perpetuated by financing from nations in the region engaging in proxy wars and a leadership vacuum on all sides.
    As far as coverage of the latest war, there was a huge media/journalistic failure. Huge. It was disappointing to see western media run with unconfirmed stories and to report with easily evident bias. The media really became a part of the story and not in a good way. I think many heads should hang low because journalism, per se, really was the biggest casualty of this war. I can tell you from being here that the bombardment was absolutely awful; we had over 4,500 rockets fired into Israel in 50 days. I actually think the number is closer to 5,000 now. Tunnels, thwarted attacks – I mean, look, yes, this is happening and people are suffering on all sides. Indisputably. But the way this war was reported was shameful and threw gasoline on the fire for everybody involved. It was awful to witness, knowing how much of it just wasn’t true.

Could you recommend some good Israeli movies?

Here are six of my favorite Israeli films, for a rare, wonderful, sad, funny and extraordinarily human take on life in Israel in all its complexity:
Kalevet (2010)
Ajami (2009)
Five Broken Cameras (2011)
The Attack (2012
Nina's Tragedies (2003)
The Band's Visit (2007)

What are three things you wish someone had told you about making a living from screenwriting when you were starting out?

That it’s not really likely at all. I just wrote an article in Script Magazine about how screenwriters should add other forms of writing to their repertoire so they can increase their satisfaction and reward in writing. Sorry, that’s not three things, that’s one, big over-arching thing.
    There was a big boom in spec sales in the '90s, but it’s never really happened again. The boom gave rise to this idea that anybody could write a script and that anybody would be a part of the world of paid screenwriters. But it’s not really true. If the screen is really the ONLY medium you want to write for, I think producing your own short films is the only realistic option for getting your work out there. You have to do what you love and to pursue it with a passion but there are also so many other ways to get your work out into the world, that have much lower barriers to entry that can bring writers more satisfaction much more quickly.

You’ve written (yet another) book about screenwriting, Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter's Atlas. How does this book differ from Campbell/Field/Alessandra/Snyder/Vogler/Cameron/Seger/Truby/etc.? Why should I buy it?

Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter's Atlas, alongside the other books/authors you have listed here, is more drilled down and pragmatic in its advice and teaching. It is written, as you might imagine from the title, in a playful, easy-to-read way. People just love the book; it is highly entertaining, while teaching screenwriters the important fundamentals of screenwriting technique. It also discusses, in pragmatic terms, life in Hollywood and the life of a screenwriter. The book includes the GASP List – the list of the top 200 movies you BETTER have seen if you want to work in the film industry. Blake Snyder was my mentor and a dear friend. My take on screenwriting was very much influenced by Blake’s sense of playfulness.

If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book (not your own) to a newbie writer in Adelaide, which one would it be?

The Writers Journey by Chris Vogler. I really believe one must understand the most fundamental ideas of story, whether you write prose or scripts. I love that book.

What are your ten favourite (favourite, not ‘best’) movies of all time?

This is never a question that can be answered; I have been in love with movies all my life and there are just too many to name but these are some of the most memorable movies of my life – but I could go on for pages!
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
The King and I (1956)
My Dinner with Andre (1981)
Waiting for Guffman (1996)
Cabaret (1972)
Amelie (2001)
Toto les héros (1991)
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)
Rushmore (1998)
The Life of Brian (1979)
Some Like it Hot (1959)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

What’s next for Julie Gray?

Wow what a fun question – who knows, right?!
    I am living in the Middle East and am thusly much closer to Europe and so do travel and teach there often, which is nice. When I was in the US, everything else was so far away! I still work dominantly with screenwriters in the US, UK and AUS, and increasingly novelists, as a story editor. I have story edited four novels in the past six months, something I also really enjoy.
    I work with Israeli writers and filmmakers as well; I’m quite interested in the creative scene in Israel and Palestine. I just interviewed the writer/directors of Big Bad Wolves (2013), Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado. Quentin Tarantino called Big Bad Wolves “the best film of 2013.” The interview will appear in Script Magazine, where I have a monthly column. I also blog for The Huffington Post where I generally talk about my experiences, having moved from Hollywood to the Middle East. I’m working on a memoir about this radical move and what it has been like.

    I am working with Amnesty International in coming weeks to provide some reading aloud experiences and writing workshops for Sudanese refugees from Darfur who are living in Israel. Very excited about that and will be reading a YA fantasy novel that I story edited – Jim Morgan and the King of Thieves. These refugees are hopeless and stranded and to be able to help transport them through their imaginations is important to me. I am also reaching out to some large peace organizations in Israel to provide writing workshops for Arab women both in Israel and in Palestine. In the past I volunteered with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project and really enjoyed being a conduit for young women to write about their life and experiences, which were often quite traumatic.
    So I have a lot going on as usual. I am bored if I am not busy, doing several things at once. I am lucky to lead the life I lead. I read stories for a living and help writers express. That’s nuts. But I like to think I’m pretty good at what I do.

Julie has a number of short videos available on Vimeo. In them she talks about aspects of screenwriting. Here's one example:

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Julie Gray says that if the screen is really the ONLY medium you want to write for, producing your own short films is the only realistic option for getting your work out there.