Interview with Screenwriter Maria Nation (A Street Cat Named Bob, Salem Witch Trials)

It was an honor to chat with the very talented screenwriter Maria Nation. For any new or up and coming screenwriter, this interview is a must read as she gives a lot of insight on her profession and what it takes to succeed in Hollywood. Enjoy!

Matthew Toffolo: Tell us about “A Street Cat Named Bob”? How was the process writing a screenplay based on a best selling novel?

Maria Nation: How much creative control did you have? ** A Street Cat Named Bob is a true story about James Bowen’s unlikely journey from a vulnerable, homeless heroin addict to sobriety (and celebrity!) – thanks to the influence of a ginger street cat who refused to leave James’ side. It was a fun project to write, with interesting characters and the great challenge of creating a main character out of …a cat. I was brought into the project by the director, Roger Spottiswoode, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working many times. It was late in the game, meaning the film was about to go into production but the script needed work. I ended up doing a page one revision. As far as adapting the best seller goes – I didn’t treat it any differently than any other adaptation job. Best seller or not, I think it’s important to respect the original writer and story while adapting it to the needs and limitations (and advantages) of the screenplay form. The key to doing this successfully is to understand which of a book’s elements are necessary for the screen story, which of these beats are cinematic and, when they are not, how can they best be interpreted for the screen. How much creative control did I have? Within the relatively narrow parameters of this particular project (time was of the essence, it was based on a well known story, locations were already being scouted, the director already had an idea of the tone he wanted, etc) I had a pretty free hand. But the notion of “creative control” as it applies to the screenwriter fraught. Unless you write, direct, edit and produce the project single-handedly there are always other creative forces at play. You don’t fly solo. That is the name of the game and if a writer can’t be comfortable with this he or she might want to find another line of work. That being said, there is a moment in the process, when we writers have complete creative control. It’s when we’re alone with the blank page and we go to work on it. As soon as we write the beautiful words THE END, and hand it over to the rest of the team it becomes a collaboration. That’s just the way it is.

PHOTO: A Street Cat Named Bob:


MT: What screenplay that you have written has been your most valuable experience?

MN: I must say they have all been valuable experiences. One of my recent projects, a script based on the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise liner, pushed me to figure out how to write way outside my comfort zone. It was an action/disaster movie set on a ship. And, because I knew nothing about any of those things, I was pretty sure I was going to get my ass fired. But I studied how other writers write action – how are the scenes constructed? What is the scene description like that sets up the sense of pace and suspense? Etc etc. It was an interesting process – and in the end I didn’t get fired. Valuable experience: “No matter how long you’ve been writing, you’re always a student. Go study.” One of my very first assignments was based on the fine novel, Blue River, by Ethan Canin. I loved the book and figured out how to crack the story and handed in my first draft. The producers came back with such extreme notes – changing who the main character would be, which upended the entire story – that I had no idea how to even approach my second draft. Being a novice, I wrote notes back on their notes, wanting to know what they were trying to go for, etc. In the meantime they had hired the wonderful director Larry Elikann and before I had to launch into the revision that would have ruined the story, Larry told them not to touch a word of the script, and they were lucky to have it. Thanks to him they shot my first draft and I got the reputation for delivering shootable first drafts. (Which of course was a bit of a stretch since it was my first script – but it made my career.) I guess the valuable experience in that one is “hope to god you get a director like Larry Elikann.”

MT: Have you ever been surprised after a production wraps on the success or non-success of a film/TV show you’ve written?

MN: I’m assuming you’ve experienced both pendulums – A film that you assumed was going to be a hit and the audience/critics didn’t respond. And a film that you assumed wasn’t going to do well and then ended up doing very well. William Goldman said it best: “No one knows anything.” So, yes, it’s always a surprise. The network had high hopes for a miniseries I wrote years ago. The Salem Witch Trials had a huge, prestigious cast, with Alan Bates, Shirley MacLaine, Peter Ustinov, Rebecca de Mornay, Kirstie Alley etc etc and the important subject had not been done on US networks, and it was a big deal. It died faster than one of the witches on the gallows. I recently wrote the Gabby Douglas story, which the entire world already knew thanks to the Olympic coverage a year earlier, and two unknowns cast as Gabby… and it has been a huge success – around the world. Go figure.

PHOTO: Winona Ryder in “The Salem Witch Trials”:


MT: How many uncredited “ghost writing” assignments have you had? Do you enjoy working on these assignments?

MN: Boy, I’ve done quite a few. Do I enjoy working on them? First, it’s important to understand that there is no such thing as a “ghost writer,” per se. When I am hired to doctor a script no one knows at the outset if I will get a credit – or not. The WGA has guidelines that define which writer or writers deserve a credit, and an arbitration team of fellow/sister writers makes the ultimate determination. On Street Cat Named Bob I was hired to do a small revision of a couple of the characters prior to casting. But the assignment snowballed and I ended up getting a shared credit. I actually love getting called to revise scripts. All screenwriters fall in love with certain scenes or characters (and if you don’t, god help you getting through your script.) The revision writer brings fresh eyes and there is no loyalty to any scene or beat or character. While I really hate knowing how painful the process is for the first writer (I was rewritten once – and it’s just awful) it is a fun challenge to make a script work; to see the weak spots and come up with solutions. It’s a different muscle than writing from scratch – even though very often the revision ends up being a page one original. But what I really love is that, generally speaking, I get called in to revise a script that is going into production. The pressure to perform is huge. There is no time for procrastination – or many notes from the network or producers. Often the director is already on board and I really l love working with directors (with some exceptions, of course). It’s all business; no nonsense and the entire vibe of the project is different than writing for development or on spec.

MT: What film, besides the films you worked on, have you seen the most in your life?

MN: Probably The Big Lebowski – which has zero influence on my work or career but I could watch it every day and be happy. Or perhaps Chinatown to be reminded of what it feels like to be in the shadow of Mt. Everest looking up.

MT: What makes a great screenwriter?

MN: A great screenwriter isn’t made; he/she is born. But, a working screenwriter? This person needs to build these muscles: determination, patience, imagination, curiosity, diligence, more diligence, humility, a desire to learn the craft, an understanding of human dynamics, human dysfuntionality, an ear for dialogue, a love of the art, a respect for your team – even when they drive you crazy, the art of collaboration – and did I mention diligence?

MT: When receiving notes from Producers and/or Production people on a screenplay you’ve written, what are you looking to receive to help you improve your story?

MN: And what are you not looking to receive? The best notes – rather, the notes I hope to get – respect the script but bring fresh eyes to my work. They show me the weak spots – and push me to try harder. Some of the best notes I’ve gotten are the ones that are the most difficult to hear because I don’t know, at first, how to accomplish them. They push me to dig deeper. The most fun notes to get (if any are fun) come from the production team, because they are 100% pragmatic: “We don’t have a staircase; rewrite the scene with a window.” “We’re over budget. Give us the same, rich story but lose five characters.” They aren’t easy to accomplish but they are pragmatic – not ego driven. The worst notes? The ones from frustrated writers who are directors or executives. Luckily these have been few – but they’re memorable. They aren’t pragmatic. They are completely subjective – and sometimes notes for notes sake.

MT: What advice would you have for people who want to be a screenwriter?

MN: Write. Watch movies or tv. Write some more. Read as many scripts as possible (there are a million online -no excuses). Write some more. Try to get a job as a story analyst (a reader). Do it for free if you have to. Out of college I was paid 50 bucks a script to read, synopsize and critique scripts for various producers and studios. I did this for years. Did you get that? For years. …Read. Synopsize. Critique… It forces you to think about a script in an entirely different way than watching a movie – and it’s better than any screenwriting course you can take. Finally: When you’re writing your script and you think it’s just too hard to go on and you’re tearing your hair out and you’re miserable… congratulations, you’re thinking like a professional writer. Except for, maybe, pouring cement, screenwriting is the hardest job out there. And there are days I’d rather be pouring cement. Good luck. Go tell a story.

Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Screenwriter Simon Kelton (Eddie the Eagle)

It was a joy chatting with the screenwriter one of the the hit films of 2016 in “Eddie the Eagle”. Simon talks about the process from development to distribution of the film, plus shares a lot of insights on screenwriting . Enjoy!

simonkelton.jpgInterview with Simon Kelton

Matthew Toffolo: What motivated you to write the screenplay for Eddie the Eagle?

Simon Kelton: Like any Brit who loves the mountains I already knew a lot about Eddie’s magnificent adventures at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. After graduating from Oxford University, I had set up a ski company in Chamonix, France, to pursue my great passion for skiing and was so inspired by Eddie’s bravery and wild ambition that I ended up competing in the British Snowboarding Championships and World Extreme Snowboarding Championships in Alaska. Like Eddie I was over the moon just being able to watch my heroes doing what they did best. Actually being able to take part with them in competition was quite incredible so when Rupert Maconick, an English independent producer in LA, approached me with the idea for making Eddie’s story into a film I had absolutely no hesitation. I had already been working as a ski and snowboard journalist for the British press for several years at that point and I knew many of Eddie’s teammates. The fit seemed not just natural but perfect.

MT: What were your memories of the Winter Olympics in 1988? Did the Eddie the Eagle story jump out as something that would make a great film even then?

SK: Eddie had been so famous in 1988 and for at least five years afterwards that there really seemed no point in doing a movie about him. He was everywhere. After ten years it suddenly felt like a great idea and, of course, COOL RUNNINGS had also been a hit. In the end it felt like an advantage to be so far removed from the actual date of the Calgary Olympics because it allowed Dexter Fletcher, the director, and Matthew Vaughn, the producer, to make good story decisions and practical production choices without being too rigidly confined by the truth.

MT: When writing a screenplay based on a true story, there is a fine line to set up an overarching message/theme while also making sure you don’t go too far off the real story of what happened. How were you able to balance this in your screenplay?

SK: The trickiest issue with any true story adaptation is that life is usually too long and too complicated to fit neatly into a well-honed two hour movie. My job writing the original script and drafts was to try to take a huge amount of real detail and turn it into something manageable, fun and emotional. Having made enough choices to focus the story into 120 pages, you then have to work on the emotional heart of the piece. I liken the process to reducing a great demi-glace sauce. You add a ton of delicious ingredients and then boil it and boil it and boil it. When Sean Macaulay came on after me to continue the development process this is what he was doing, refining the story, making the relationships more dramatic, cutting down the number of characters, locations and incidents so that in the end Matthew Vaughn and Dexter Fletcher could make a film where the emotional through line was really powerful and clear.

PHOTO: “Eddie the Eagle” banner poster:


MT: How much did the film change from your original screenplay to the now final product?

SK: I think I am probably extremely lucky to be one of a small group of screenwriters who can watch their film years after first writing it and feel emotionally satiated by the result. Dexter managed to capture everything that was delightful, fun, moving, exciting and inspirational about Eddie’s journey. Although there were all sorts of changes here and there to the key characters and details, the positive feelings, the comedy, the drama, the social satire, the tone and the euphoric ending all felt totally true to my original vision, which was just fantastic.

MT: How many uncredited “ghost writing” assignments have you had?

SK: I have never done a ghost writing assignment and would have to be paid a lot to consider one. To me a large part of the joy of creating something is knowing that you did it for good or bad. I can imagine a scenario where you might want to take you name off a film, but I can’t imagine going into the process already having decided I didn’t want my name involved, unless, of course, it was simply a minor polish.

MT: You were also the Executive Producer of the documentary “Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia”, a film about the legendary climbs of the alpinist. From this to Eddie the Eagle, one would assume that you have a soft spot for mountains, adventure, and daring stunts?

SK: The mountains have always been as important a part of my life as the movies. I know the American West incredibly well and have skied and boarded almost everywhere. I have been to over 130 resorts around the world, climbed a lot of mountains, and done over 450 helidrops exploring the Chugach Range in Alaska where every run is quaintly referred to as an NFZ… a No Fall Zone. I am also an adventure traveller and have been on all sorts of somewhat crazy trips from swimming with pink dolphins and piranhas in the Amazon to reading the Dalai Lama’s palm in India. I have been followed by the Chinese secret police in Tibet and tailed by Soviet cops all the way from the Polish border to Moscow after the Wall came down. Whether it’s firing a AK-47 in the mountain passes of Afghanistan with a Mujahideen warrior or hanging with a notorious drug dealer the jungles of Colombia, if there is an exciting story to dig out I’m there.

MT: What film, besides the films you worked on, have you seen the most in your life?

SK: Right now, because I have an eight and a two-year-old, my most watches films are rapidly becoming KUNG FU PANDA, SHREK, DESPICABLE ME, THE LEGO MOVIE and any other wonderful animated movie that they find on iTunes. Prior to that it was probably James Bond.

MT: In one sentence, what makes a great screenwriter?

SK: A great screenwriter is obsessed by movies, is a voracious reader, worships the power of the written word and fully understands that only by polishing the rough carbon of a first draft with the endless fire of relentless rewrites will they ever produce a diamond truly worthy of someone else’s attention.

MT: When receiving notes from Producers and/or Production people on a screenplay you’ve written, what are you looking to receive to help you improve your story? And what are you not looking to receive?

SK: I believe great notes can come from anywhere. The difference between an observation made by a top studio executive and your local car mechanic may be nothing more than the professional’s ability to communicate the source of the itch that any reader might want to scratch. That means that I listen to the underlying substance of what any reader may bring up. It is usually their solutions that are less helpful than their observations because they are not as close to the underlying structure of the story. By driving your car almost anyone might be able to notice that the wheel is wobbling or the suspension is broken, but that certainly doesn’t mean they are qualified to fix it!

MT: What advice would you have for people who want to be a screenwriter?

SK: First, go online and find as many great screenplays to the movies you have loved and read them carefully. They are often even better than the movie itself. Read classics, read genre, read Oscar winning scripts and the very latest releases. If you then discover you love reading them and feel both a burning desire to give it a go as well as a deep-seated belief that you have visions in your mind that you must share with the world then give it a try. Do not be falsely attracted by any perceived glamour or a quick and easy road to riches. There is no industry in the world more competitive, more confusing, more seductive, and more full of brilliant talent that has yet to find its moment in the sun. Be wary, be strong, be realistic, and then be bold.


Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Tips to write the best LOGLINES and SYNOPSIS for your story/screenplay


The art of conveying both your story’s concept and theme, and tell the full arc of the story.


Here is a template LOGLINE you can use – just fill in the blanks:

(TITLE) is a (GENRE) about a (DESCRIPTION OF HERO), who after (INCITING EVENT), wants to (OUTER GOAL) by (PLAN OF ACTION). This becomes increasingly difficult because (OBSTACLES AND COMPLICATIONS)



To pitch your screenplay effectively, you need to have a compelling and clear LOGLINE and SYNOPSIS. In order to write one, you must have a clear understanding of your script.

When writing your logline, try to answer these questions:

1) What is my concept? My main conflict and story?

2) What is my theme? What am I trying to say with this script?

3) What is the genre?

4) What is the beginning, middle and end?

Overall, the LOGLINE needs to convey the full arc of your story. Three sentences, max.


A slightly longer telling of your story. You add more plot detail and character development than the logline. Using words to suggest tone, it introduces the main characters, the conflict and the overall arc of the story. You should always write it in the structure of your script, so it will reveal the pacing of the film. Visual images are necessary. Go here to read notes on writing proper loglines and synopses for professionals to read

When writing your SYNOPSIS, try to answer these questions:
1) Who is your main character?

2) The audience will relate to your main character because…?

3) Your main character’s objective is…?

4) Who is your antagonist?

5) Your antagonist’s objective is…?

6) What is the main conflict of the script?

7) The catalyst is…?

8) The climax is…?

9) What is your beginning, middle and end?

Overall, when writing your SYNOPSIS, use visual images to convey the story as much as possible. If the reader can se

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Free logline submissions. The Writing Festival network averages over 95,000 unique visitors a day.
Great way to get your story out:

Deadlines to Submit your Screenplay, Novel, Story, or Poem to the festival:

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How to Write a Screenplay. Tips for everyone



When writing a SCREENPLAY, it’s all about CHARACTER, PLOT, and THEME – the three cornerstones to telling a great story.

Below is Part One of NOTES you need to think about when writing a script. Whether you’re a seasoned script writer or just a beginner, these notes should be insightful for all – and it beats reading those long drawn-out books on the subject.

“A good film script should be able to do completely without dialogue.”-David Mamet


1. THE STORY CONCEPT – A single sentence telling who the hero of the story is and what he/she wants to accomplish
2. THE CHARACTERS – The people who populate the story
3. PLOT STRUCTURE – The events of the story and the relationship of the characters; determines what happens in the story and when it happens
4. THE INDIVIDUAL SCENES – The way the words are laid out on the page – the format, and how one writes action, description and dialogue to increase emotional involvement.
What if this happened?
What if that happened

IT IS STORY ABOUT A _____________ WHO _____________

Every movie needs THRILLS, LAUGHS and TEARS

Who is your main character?
What is he/she trying to accomplish?
Who is trying to stop him/her?
What happens if he/she fails?

Whose story is it?

Who do I care about, identify with, follow in this film?To what extent do I see the story through a specific person’s point of view?

Where do I start the scene/end the scene?

What is the point of the scene?Why include the scene at all?

What’s the most important information the audience needs to get from the scene?

What is the scene’s focus?

Where is the scene heading?

Does the scene move the story further?

Does the scene have a direction? A sense of going somewhere? A point to make?

Do I get out of the scene after the point is made?

Have I remembered that scenes are about images?

Have I remembered to play the image, to play the conflict, to play the emotions, rather than simply play the information?

Is the relationship of my scenes interesting?

Are my scenes repetitive? Flat? Boring? Or is there something dramatic and fascinating happening?

Will the audience be entertained?

1) Marketability
2) Creativity
3) Script structure




Research of MEMORY
-Explore my own past, relive the memories and then write them down.

-The creativity of your own inner thoughts and feelings. What do you dream?

Research of FACT-Research the setting and character you’re writing about.


“I steal from every movie ever made.”-Quentin Tarantino

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to for more information and to submit your work to the festival.


Writing PLOT for your Story and Screenplay


How to Write a Screenplay? PART 3 – PLOT Screenwriting

For most writers, PLOT is the most interesting part of screenplay writing, and why they begin to write to write the script in the first place. They have a good idea for a story, and they want to write it.

PLOT Screenwriting is a mixture of two things:
1) What happens to the characters
2) What they do because of WHO they are

Most PLOTS wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for the CHARACTERS. A CHARACTER(s) should drive the story, and vice versa.

You always know you’re watching a BAD FILM when any human being can insert themselves into the film. The UNIQUE character has to drive the PLOT.

The last thing you want is for you, the writer, to be a character in the plot.

“The stuff that I got in trouble for, the casting for The Godfather or the beginning scene I wrote in Patton, was the stuff that was remembered.”
-Francis Ford Coppola Writer/Director (Godfather Trilogy, Apocalypse Now)


Every story has a BEGINNING, MIDDLE and END, and every story has to come from a certain point of view. It can come from the point of view of a character (or characters from scene to scene) OR it can come from the audience’s point of view. WE the audience are looking into the story and seeing what is happening.

Think about reading a NOVEL. Either it’s written in the first person, where the character is telling the story, OR it’s in third person, where the actions are telling the story. The same goes for a script.


1) SURVIVAL – Many good films are about survival – human instinct – do-or-die situations. If you’re into Hollywood scripts and stories, think about the top-grossing films of all time. 99 out 100 are stories with characters in DO-or-DIE situations.

2) SAFETY AND SECURITY – Need to find a secure/protected setting once again.
3) LOVE AND BELONGING – Someone longing for connection – wanting to feel LOVED.
4) ESTEEM AND SELF-RESPECT – Wanting to be looked up to, and be recognized for their skills.
5) THE NEED TO KNOW AND UNDERSTAND – Curiousity, and understanding how things happen and what they have to go through to get answers.
6) THE AESTHETIC – Trying to be connected with something greater than themselves – a higher power.
7) SELF-ACTUALIZATION – The characters need to express themselves – to communicate who they are. The audience roots for someone to succeed. A lot of comedies have this plot.



Each scene has to be a minor, moderate, or major turning point

The effects of TURNING POINTS are fourfold:

You need to lead the audience into EXPECTATION, make them think they understand, then CRACK and open a SURPRISE

SURPRISE and CURIOUSITY always bring the audience into the story

Give the audience the pleasure of discovering life, pains and joys at a level – and in directions – they have never imagined

SETUPS/PAYOFFS-Setup is layering-in knowledge-Payoff is closing the gap and delivering the knowledge to the audience

1) Empathy with the characters. We don’t need to like them, but understand them and feel for them.
2) We must know what the character wants and let the character have it.
3) We must understand the values at stake in the character’s life.

The more often the audience experiences something, the less effect it has.

EMOTION peaks and valleys rapidly in a great story. It’s the catalyst for the PACE of the story.

THE LAW OF CONFLICT – Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.

As long as conflict engages our thoughts and emotions, we travel through the hours unaware of the VOYAGE that is leading us.

Make sure to check out WILDsound’s Screenplay Festival where you can submit your script and get it read in front of hundreds of industry people.

“Usually when you have a block, it’s because you’ve lost the motor of the story.”
– Amy Holden Jones, Screenwriter (Indecent Proposal, Mystic Pizza)

“The singular image is what haunts us and becomes art.”
-Julia Cameron, Author (The Artist Way)

1) Define Conflict
-Who drives the scene, motivates it and makes it happen?
-Look at the character; what does she/he want?
Then ask:
-What blocks that which they want?
-What do the forces of the Antagonist want?
2) Break the scenes into BEATS
-A beat is an exchange of action/reaction in character behavior

3) Survey BEATS and locate the Turning Point
-Find the ARC in each character’s transaction
4) Note what begins the scene and what ends the scene
-The great industry cliche is to LEAVE THE SCENE EARLY and ENTER THE SCENE LATE

RHYTHM AND TEMPO – Set by the length of scenes. How long are we in the same time and place? Two or three minutes average for a scene (but come on – it’s not always that easy).

UNITY AND VARIETY – Because something happens in the beginning, something has to happen in the end.

PACING – Rhythm, serenity, harmony, peace, revelation. But we desire change – challenge, tension, danger, FEAR – never repetition.



One of the greatest aids when writing a screenplay is to BELIEVE in the story – believe you are discovering it, instead of creating it. If you believe it already exists somewhere in your head in its entirety, there is no problem you can’t solve with a little detective work.