Making Movies with Friends

Two Nicholl fellows team up for “The Keeping Hours”

The Academy
ART & SCIENCE
Published in
5 min readNov 2, 2017

--

For over 30 years, the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting have identified and supported new voices. In the late 1990s, that included Karen Moncrieff and Rebecca Sonnenshine. Nearly two decades later, the friends and collaborators debut The Keeping Hours, which Sonnenshine wrote and Moncrieff directed. A conversation with the duo revealed a respect and passion that all emerging filmmakers can learn from.

It Started with a Fellowship

“I was always drawn to filmmaking,” Rebecca said. “I got a video camera when I was young and I made little films all the time. I think writing is a way to achieve that by yourself — I liked that.”

Rebecca became a Nicholl fellow in 1999, after graduating from UCLA film school and taking several assistant jobs in the industry.

“I decided to give that up and just try to write. I was freelancing as a reader at the time,” she recalled.

I read so many scripts and I thought, ‘I can do this better.’

Her winning script—the first she had written alone—helped her find an agent and manager, and gave her the confidence to continue down that path. “I always thought I would be a director or a producer, but after Nicholl, I decided to focus on writing,” she said.

A year earlier, Karen became a fellow. At the time, she recalled, “I was absolutely nowhere.”

After graduating from Northwestern and becoming an actress, she “became disillusioned with the lack of real creative control fairly quickly.” She turned to writing and went to Los Angeles City College “to get my hands on a camera and learn how to edit.”

Her winning script, Blue Car, “was the first thing I finished that I was really proud of.” Through Nicholl, she met her first agent and “was off and running.” Past Nicholl winners became mentors and that script became her directorial debut.

Winning was fantastic and shocking and wonderful and truly started my career.

Karen sent the Blue Car script to a producer she had previously worked with as an actress. After he signed on, she insisted on directing it: “Because it was a sensitive subject matter, I really wanted to make sure it was handled the way I wanted it to be handled.” The film was shot on a low budget in Dayton, Ohio, and soon found its way to Sundance.

It Turned into a Friendship

Karen and Rebecca at a screening of “The Keeping Hours” at the 2017 Los Angeles Film Festival

Karen and Rebecca met in 1999, the year Rebecca won her fellowship. Every cycle, the prior year’s winners are invited to the Nicholl ceremony and dinner.

“We hit it off right away and stayed in touch,” Karen said.

I liked her speech. She seemed like a kindred spirit.

Later on, Rebecca recalled, “When I went to meetings, people would say, ‘You know who you remind me of?’ And I’d say, ‘Do I remind you of Karen?’”

“We used to have a similar way of writing and very similar tastes in film, so we probably brought up all the same references.”

They both lived in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz, and would hike together every morning and share what they were working on. “We would meet at the bear and walk up to Griffith Observatory and back, which takes about an hour,” Karen said. Rebecca pitched The Keeping Hours on one of those walks.

I got goose bumps, which is my barometer for ‘yes!’ I just loved it.

“When she finished the script, she sent it to me and I loved it more than I loved the pitch,” Karen said. “It felt fully realized and it was a full emotional experience. It was scary and moving and surprising.”

Rebecca explored the script’s potential with other directors, but eventually returned to Karen, who told her: “If you’ll entrust it with me, we’ll make a beautiful movie together.”

Karen on the set of “The Keeping Hours”

“Karen is really good at working with actors and she’s very visual,” Rebecca said. “After a while, it just made sense, and I said, ‘You should direct it.’”

“The rest is history,” Karen added.

It Became a Collaboration

When working together, “you have to have a similar vision and respect the other person very much,” Rebecca said. “Sometimes when you work with friends, it gets really dicey, but this experience was so fun and we would love to do it again.”

“Karen is very, very talented. I love to watch her direct. I can’t do it like she does.” Karen holds a similar regard for Rebecca’s work.

“The Keeping Hours” (2017)

I think it’s a shame that most directors don’t have the writers on set with them.

“Things come up and words need to be changed, so it’s important to have a writer that is facile and can think on their feet and can continue to be creative while we’re shooting and editing,” Karen said. “Rebecca was very much a part of this process at every step along the way.”

With our producer John Miranda, we were a unified team and it was very respectful and loving process.

A Note for Emerging Writers

As two writers who have carved their own paths in Hollywood, Rebecca and Karen offered some advice for those starting out.

You don’t have to write from personal experience.

“But you do have to care about what you’re writing about or be able to bring a personal element to it,” Rebecca said. “That’s really what draws people through a script. If you can bring some sort of emotional insight into whatever your characters are going through, then your script is going to distinguish itself.”

To Karen, the hardest part is putting pen to paper. “Just do it. Don’t talk about it, don’t say you’re going to do it, don’t make excuses for not doing it.”

Writing is hard. Facing the blank page is hard, but you have to be disciplined and not worry about writing the perfect version of your screenplay.

“Write the crappy version first because, to me, writing is all about the endless revisions,” she added.

Learn more about the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting HERE.

--

--

The Academy
ART & SCIENCE

We are The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and we champion the power of human imagination.