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Screenwriter Spotlight: Finalist Questionnaire (Sander Gusinow)

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

Sander Gusinow, (Goose-in-now) was born in Eugene, Oregon. After living in New York, my wife and I decided Portland was the best place to raise our Chihuahua. My hobby is Dungeons and Dragons, a game for adults and I will die on this hill.

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 wanted to tell a story with an autistic character. However, not in the usual “let’s watch this awkward person stumble through life” sort of way. I wanted to give disabled and neurodivergent characters the opportunity to be heroic with a capital “H.”

My big “ah-ha” moment came when I was talking with my brother about assault rifles. We discussed how silly the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” slogan was. I thought: “What if that were true? What if people could just kill people on a whim?” One year and eight drafts later, Mind Punch was born.

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

For me, the process feels a lot like sculpting. Once I have my idea, I start imagining characters talking. So the process of character development begins here. As they talk, the scene unfolds, and I feel like I’ve discovered the shape of the sculpture.

When I’m working on that scene, I get inspiration for other scenes. So I leap from the original scene to work on a new one. If I force myself to keep writing the old one, it always comes out feeling rushed. I’ll come back and finish it later when I know more about the script outline and the characters. That makes it look like I knew what I was doing all along.

Eventually, I start to see the whole sculpture, or story, inside the marble. That’s when everything gets clear and I start deciding the story beats. I take long walks to puzzle out what is really going on with this new thing I’ve created. What are the underlying currents driving the characters, for good or bad? This is where I discover the themes, and can bring them forward in the next draft.

Then I go back to work and it’s like the smoothing process. Making sure the scenes come out polished and with the character’s arcs visible. When I start asking people I trust for feedback, I find an essential part of the process. It’s also where I must resist the urge to send it out to strangers before it’s ready. I usually make one or two really big changes here, since I always encourage honest, foundational feedback.

After I go back at it with feedback in mind, I read the draft through with someone. I do this to make pacing edits and punch up lines and scenes that feel stale. Then it’s ready for the world.

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

I had just auditioned for acting school in New York and bombed spectacularly. It was a humiliating experience. Luckily my mom, bought me a copy of the “Inglourious Basterds” screenplay. This was a way of telling me not to lose heart.

I had only done stage acting and playwriting and never actually read a screenplay structure. It opened up a whole new world for what was possible creatively. I must have read the script eight times that night taking notes, jotting down new ideas, and happy crying. Reading it felt like being set free.

I’ve been writing scene headings ever since.

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

Number one is Mel Brooks. He uses laughter to make huge, pointed attacks on the worst parts of humanity. He doesn’t make nazism scary in The Producers, he exposes it as ridiculous, which is more damaging.

I admire Geroge Lucas and David Filoni for how they make storytelling mythical while also tying their fantastical scenes and settings to the emotional stakes of their characters. I always learn something when I watch their stuff.

Last but not least is Rachel Bloom. She uses comedy to approach characters who are deeply damaged and make horrendous choices, but so loveable you want to jump into the TV and hug them. She shows us their scars in ways that are funny and tragic at the same time.

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

I have seen every episode of Frasier at least five times. The show’s writing was superb. It had wit, bravery, and an amazingly talented cast.

It was a show about highly intellectual people, but the writers always brought the stories back to family bonds and the elusiveness of true love. Even when I was young and the jokes went over my head I couldn’t look away because I knew it was smarter than me, and I loved that. Now that I’m older and can appreciate the craft, I realize it’s even smarter than it looked.

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

The climax of Schindler’s List, when Oskar Schindler is about to get in his car to flee the advancing American Army. The jews he rescued come to see him off and wish him well. He sees the people he saved, then looks at his car, clothes, watch, and realizes exactly how many more people he could have saved by selling them.

He breaks down in tears, feeling the loss of every single life he missed. How much more he could have done. We know he will go down in history as one of the most heroic humanitarians of all time, but he has no idea. Oskar has so thoroughly completed his character arc and realized that to save a life is to save the whole world, he understands the magnitude of what he did and didn’t do.

It’s my favorite scene of all time because it shows the primordial desire of the human soul to do good, and the burden and guilt that comes along with trying to be a good person. It was momentous, moving, but deeply relatable. Who among us hasn’t realized too late how much more we could have done?

It’s the last scene of the movie and before we go back into the world, Spielberg makes us ask ourselves “How am I making the world a better place?” “Am I doing enough for those less fortunate?”  Everyone who sees that film comes out of it wanting to be a better person, which is the ultimate goal of art.

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

On a very different note, Han Solo. Usually, you have to choose between having a character be cool, capable, and charming or giving them a lot of problems and a long, rewarding character arc. Han Solo does both. He’s cool, but only because he gained skills through experience that made him jaded. He has to learn from the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed idealists he makes fun of (not to mention fall in love with one of them) to find his inner purpose and live a life where his talents don’t go to waste.

In a world of lightsabers and force lighting, his arc is the most rewarding part of the trilogy.

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

It’s a little on the nose, but Shakespeare. I would ask him about his process, what he thought about the roles people play in society, and how his wife and daughters found their way into his work. And of course, I would get all the dirt on Christopher Marlowe.