The exquisite scripts written by Helene Wagner serve as a template for many writers, myself included. I adore the founder of the Virginia Screenwriters Forum. She is a mentor not only because of her award winning, produced and optioned screenplays, but because she launched her writing career at age 40. This energetic University of Richmond screenwriting instructor is a lively reminder that talent and determination are ageless. May this creative dynamo inspire you, too!
You founded the Virginia Screenwriters Forum more than 20 years ago. What are you most proud of? That I created a home for screenwriters, here in Richmond. When I moved to the Richmond area 29 years ago, there was no group for screenwriters. With the help of the Virginia Film Office, I established the VSF. I believe writers need other writers to help them to grow, to learn from each other and to believe in themselves and their dreams. The film business is one of the toughest businesses to break into. Yet, throughout the years we’ve had members do just that. I am a champion of writers. I love to see writers succeed, including myself. The cliché, ‘The key to success is to do what you love to do, because it never seems like work’ is very true. I might add to that, you must also have the persistence and the determination to believe in yourself.
–What advice do you have for women writers who feel they are “too mature” to start a writing career? You’re never too “mature” to start a writing career. With age comes wisdom and a greater appreciation of life as time goes by. Writing is always about learning something new – about yourself. Who is this character? Questioning. Oh, my God, is this character too much like me? How do I solve this new ending now? Where do I go to research this true story? Writing is discovering. Don’t let life just pass you by. Take the bull by the horns and discover the sheer joy of writing while you still can. To quote Cher, ‘Life is not a dress rehearsal.’
I am astounded by the breadth and depth of your creative projects and the fact that you did not start writing until you were 40. What got you started? That’s very funny to me as I’m very much past 40,but at my age now I think of 40 as being young. I grew up in New York and both my parents were in show business. My mother was a beautiful dancer and my father was an actor and comedian. I was exposed to the creative arts early on. My mother was a great reader. When I was 11, she came home from the library one day and handed me Gone with the Wind and told me, ‘I think you’ll like this one.’ I did. So my love of reading wonderful stories came from her. My father would travel working in nightclubs and on stage. He spoke five languages and was a very funny storyteller. When he came home from a trip we would all sit around the dinner table and he’d tell us of his adventures. They also took me to many movies as a child. I remember… seeing the transition of the GWTW book into the Gone with the Wind film, which was a magical experience.
When I grew up, I never imagined myself as a writer. I am dyslexic and a terrible speller. Thank goodness for spellcheckers. I discovered many famous writers who were Dyslexic, including F. Scot Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie and film and TV writer Stephen Cannell who kept the same secretary for 30 years because she could translate his backward dyslexic writing into scripts. It took some time for me to write because I married a wonderful man, my husband Tom, at the young age of 19. I was lucky enough to be a stay at home mother and raised my two daughters, Christine and Laura, who are wonderful independent women. When they ‘left the nest’ my husband’s job took us to Dallas. Since I was an empty nester then, I thought I had to do something creative, or I’d go crazy. Frightened as I was, I signed up for a creative writing class. It changed my life. To my amazement everybody in the class loved my stories. I was accepted as a member of the Dallas Creation Writer’s Factory, lead by a wonderful man, Jim Kerr, an English Professor, previous comedian and a brilliant screenwriter. I knew I had found my home there, along with the other writers, who to this day are still my friends. While in the Creation Factory, I wrote my second short story, The Princess: An Urban Fairytale and for the first time submitted it to The Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition. It placed in the top ten short stories out of thousands of submission from around the country. That’s when I knew I was really a writer. Two years ago, it was chosen as a winner in the Mary Baldwin One Act Festival and was performed for a number of days during the festival. It was great fun to see it performed again.
–Your scripts are masterfully done. How many drafts do you typically do and how do you know when they are ready to be entered in contests or sent to agents? Robin, thank you for your kind comments. It’s always tough to know if this is the draft to send out. I have found from experience, it’s best to put your just completed draft (1st, 5th, 8th, whatever) in a desk drawer then wait at least 2 to 3 weeks before you pick it up and re-read it again. If you say, ‘Oh no! ‘ that’s a good indication it needs another draft. I typically write at least 5 to 6 drafts, or more before I submit my work anywhere. When I wrote my first mystery thriller, now entitled, Lady Justice, it took me 18 months and 12 drafts. But, it won a big competition, landed me an agent at Creative Artists Agency in Beverly Hills, was optioned and was cast as a CBS movie. During this time, I had the pleasure of working with a seasoned producer on two more drafts of the screenplay. I learned so much from him about screenwriting. I will be teaching another six-week Introduction to Screenwriting (non-credit) evening course at the University of Richmond this September. I always tell my students: ‘When you submit your writing to agents, professional producers, editors, etc. you only have one chance and that draft better be the best draft you’re capable of doing before you send it out.’
–What’s been your proudest moment as a screenwriter and agent? As a screenwriter, when I submitted my first screenplay to the prestigious Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting and placed in the top 100 scripts out of over 5,000 scripts from around the world. As an agent, the first time I was able to have one of my client’s screenplays optioned by a major production company in Hollywood. He worked as a security guard for a prison in Connecticut and was one of the best writers I ever represented.
–You teach at the University of Richmond, write new content consistently and co-own Virginia Film Tours. How do you unwind? I’m l blessed to still have my husband and my children. I try to enjoy them, along with my friends whenever I can. I love to take walks with my dog, June, go to the beach, or take short getaways and attend theater.
–You also write amazing plays. Please tell us about The French Apartment and your hopes for it? The play is now under consideration at Samuel French Publishers in NYC. I just had a full staged reading of The French Apartment, a full- length, romantic comedy with a terrific cast and directed by Melissa Rayford at CenterStage. It was the 6th draft of the play. We had an audience feedback after the play. It was also the first time I had seen the play staged entirely. it was such a great learning experience for me. I am in the process of beginning the 7th draft.
–What’s next? I intend to adapt one of my screenplays, The Marriage Tale, into a full-length stage play. Think of this romantic comedy as a story about the restoration of a heart, a marriage and 1968 Camaro. I can’t wait to dig in to create these characters on a stage and to start writing it!