Q&A with Screenwriter Debbie Castanha
At Upward Media Partners, we’re in search of stories that break out of the cultural
norms that have dominated Hollywood storytelling since the start of moving images
on screen. So when the renowned agent, Diane Wang of The Library Agency,
presented us with the stories by writer Debbie Castanha, we immediately felt like
it was a serendipitous collaboration. Debbie’s penned a dozen-plus screenplays and
shorts, and was invited to the inaugural Black List Women In Film Feature Writers Lab.
She was recognized as a Nicholl Semifinalist (2020), a Finalist at Script Pipeline (2019),
a Semi-Finalist in both Big Break & PAGE Awards (2019), and is a four-time Second
Rounder at Austin Film Festival. Our team has two scripts of Debbie’s in development
and pitching phases and we’re looking forward to announcing news about them soon!
In this Q&A we learn more about Debbie’s goals as a writer and the motivation for the stories she has a calling to share.
1. Could you share your personal background with our readers and how you came to land in California?
Debbie: I moved around as a kid... A lot! From Mississippi and Florida, to Alabama and Ohio, Nebraska, South Carolina, etc., I was always the new kid on the block and at school. You have a lot of time on your hands as the friendless new kid, but you always have the library, a neighborhood to explore, a wealth of new faces and places to analyze. I landed in California and worked through college, apple picking, cleaning house, and tossing pizza before landing in Santa Barbara, where my husband and I raised our two kids. From our red-tile clay roofs and sparkling beaches, to the vineyards and rugged mountains, my stunning little town will take your breath away, and I assure you, you’d find it inspiring too. When you’ve moved as much as I have, the world is a little harder but bigger and richer too. I learned that if you look hard enough, there’s always a positive take-away, so I’m basically a mixture of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL. At our house, I’m “the finder”... I find everyone’s lost stuff: the misplaced sunglasses, the lost cell, the other shoe, because I’m very good at seeing things. On my journey through life, I find I’m constantly looking. I’m compelled to search for what's good, to find the brightness and the beauty. And you know, I always find it.
2. What is your ultimate goal with the stories that you choose to tell?
Debbie: A primary goal of my stories is to get people to look more deeply about how they see their fellow man. That elderly is more than a wheelchair-bound senior; he was someone’s hero... and probably still is. I’d like to make people wonder, think differently, or maybe walk in the shoes of someone new. I often find my stories are “coming of age” stories, as I veer to common men and women growing, becoming bigger, better. I love nothing more than to create an arc of growth for my characters, where they see themselves become empowered.
3. How do you discover your characters or become inspired to tell these stories?
Debbie: For me, the more I write, the more excited I become as my characters push to get their voice on the page, but a big way I find inspiration is by sharing my work. This isn’t a common or suggested strategy by any means. I’m fairly certain that most people would suggest that you NOT share your work early or often, however, hearing from readers inspires me... yes, even hearing from those who disliked the project or worse, those who were “meh” about it! A reader who is confused or bored will push me to consider why the story failed to engage them, why they were confused about a plot point, etc. Getting notes is another opportunity to make the project better than I originally imagined, and what could be more inspiring than that?
4. How did you become inspired to get into writing and how do you stay motivated?
Debbie: I have always loved the movies and been an avid reader, but I didn’t pick up a pen for anything more than a grocery list or thank you note until my late forties. I basically thought, “I have a story idea...why not me?” so I bought Final Draft, and was immediately hooked. I mean, what an awesome power trip writing is... to be anyone, to do anything!? Certainly the rejection writers face makes any small success that much sweeter, so I find motivation from reader comments (“Your script made me cry!”) to momentum in writing competitions, but mostly I believe the writer has to like where they’re going with the project to stay vested and excited. We all have heard the oft-cited adage: to be a writer, you just have to love it--and I do.
5. What are your writing processes like, do you finish a screenplay every few months? Or how do you rewrite something? What are some creative processes that may inspire other writers?
Debbie: I simply want to be proud of what I leave on the page. While ideally, I’d love to complete two screenplays a year, if a project can be improved with rewrites, I’m willing to do what it takes. After all, if I'm not in love while writing something, how can I expect someone else to be moved while reading it? Traveling and being out in the world is inspiring, but frankly, just listening to a podcast about screenwriting, storytelling, or music, or anything creative is stimulating as well. For example, on a quick walk in the neighborhood, I’ll probably pass some old plumber getting in his truck, where I can’t help but note the peeling paint on his truck, the crazy bumper stickers, the half-hearted way he yanks his pants to cover his plumbers’ crack, lol! It all catches my attention, and I fall a little in love with humanity all over again.