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Screenwriter Spotlight: Finalist Questionnaire (Derek Sitter)

What’s your name? Where were you born? Where do you live? And what’s your hobby?

Derek Sitter.

McAlester, Oklahoma.

Bend, Oregon.

I have a ton of hobbies, but motorcycling, Off-roading and traveling remain my favorite.

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?

I’m never really sure where my ideas come from. But Bugtussle originated from a short 5-page theatre scene I wrote about two poverty-stricken men resorting to a bank robbery in order to obtain their dreams. It eventually led to this 20-page screenplay structure that is loosely adapted from “Of Mice and Men”. It didn’t take long to adapt it to a short play, but it took the length of the pandemic to develop it into a short screenplay. I probably had 30-40 drafts and studying it microscopically before I came to this latest draft.

From concept to finished draft, can you take us through your screenwriting process?

I’m an actor first. Director second…and a writer third. With my MFA in Acting and Life Membership of The Actor’s Studio, I can’t help but begin with character development. So, I always develop strong characters in conflict first. Once I fully realize the characters, their objectives, their history, and thrust them into a circumstance, then I can begin writing dialogue. Dialogue comes quickly for me. The structure usually just falls into place organically.

Action is my weakness (as you can probably tell from this explanation).  So, once I have the story written out. I begin editing dialogue to accomplish as much as I can in very few words. Then aim to tell as much of their history as possible in dialogue or in behavior/silence.  I trust actors and that the character’s objectives will unfold the plot. What do they want? What’s at stake? What are the obstacles? I continue to go through the script outline to reveal as much as possible in a very short time. Then I attempt to limit the action as succinctly as possible to give the reader a good vision of my intent. It’s like David Mamet states, “Writing a script is like telling a good joke…. get to the punchline as quickly as possible.”

When did you realize that you wanted to become a screenwriter?

I’ve directed many plays in my career. I’ve studied all the great playwrights. Breaking down scripts became a strength. Much of my influences come from realism in theatre. That inspired me to write plays. However, I’m a lover of film and have studied films and screenplays as well. I consider myself somewhat a theatre and film historian. I read and watch everything I can. But it wasn’t until a 72-hour film challenge did I write my first short film. It was under five minutes. 

We won the challenge and gave me the confidence to write more for a film. I wrote my second film “Tutu Grande” a year later. It was a twelve-minute short that I performed and directed as well. It had much success in the festival circuit and now available on Amazon Prime Video. “Tutu” gave me even more confidence to continue writing and consider myself a budding screenwriter.

Who are your biggest filmmaking/screenwriting influences? What about their style do you like or borrow?

I love so many filmmakers and screenwriters. Many of them are also playwrights or had their plays adapted to the screen. Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Tennessee Williams, Henrik Ibsen, John Patrick Shanley, Harold Pinter, Martin McDonagh, Edward Albee are some of my biggest influences. I love small character-driven stories with outstanding performances. I also love the simple films of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa.

Wild Strawberries and Ikiru remain some of my favorite films.  Of course, Scorsese, Coppola, Schrader, Kubrick, Elia Kazan, Lynch, Spike Lee, and Tarantino play a big part in my growth as a writer/storyteller.  As far as style, I’m not sure I have one yet, but I am drawn to these writers/directors because they understand that character is what reveals the story. Many of these writers use comedy to avoid sentimentality. I’m drawn to this more than anything. I love characters in outrageous and extraordinary circumstances. Making the unbelievable…believable.

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

Why? I’m not sure I’m obsessed with anyone film or TV show. If I had to, I would say I’m really obsessed with the writing and directing of Steven Conrad right now. Both his series, “Patriot” and “Perpetual Grace, LTD” are some of the finest writing and TV shows I’ve ever seen. It’s genius. His imagination, originality, dialogue, music, and storytelling devices are nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s absurd, irreverent, funny, heartbreaking, and imminently watchable. As much as I love many series love Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Peaky Blinders, True Detective, and many other crime dramas…I have to say I am a little obsessed with his work that I must tell everyone I meet to watch these NOW. Films like Sling Blade, Being John Malkovich, and Scarecrow might fall into that category because perhaps they don’t get the attention, I think they deserve.

What’s your favorite moment in cinema history? Why?

I’m not sure I can answer that with one moment. There’s too many…and it changes as I grow older, see more, and re-watch the classics. I’ve revisited so many films during the pandemic that I’ve grown fonder of moments in cinema. Recently, I revisited Taxi Driver and it’s really impossible to forget the overhead shot of Travis Bickle after murdering the pimps who lie in the Hell they created. Then the finger to the head is iconic. It’s beautiful storytelling.

Who’s your favorite character in cinema history? Why?

Again, there are so many it’s really difficult to name just one. But, if I have to, I’m going with Brando as Don Corleone. Not only is it arguably the finest film ever made, but Brando also had a presence that is rare. He exuded danger and vulnerability simultaneously. That’s very difficult to do. You rooted for him despite his job. Most of Brando’s best performances contained opposites and contradictions. But Don Corleone was the work of a master that is still imitated and copied to this day. We’ll never see another one like him.

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

Jesus. I want to talk to Jesus and ask him what the fuck happened.