Marilyn R. Atlas is a talent and literary manager, author, and award-winning producer. Among her credits as a film producer are REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES for HBO, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival; A CERTAIN DESIRE, starring Sam Waterston; and ECHOES, which won the Gold Award at the Texas International Film Festival. She also co-produced the award-winning play TO GILLIAN ON HER 37TH BIRTHDAY, which was made into a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Peter Gallagher.
Marilyn has long been committed to issues surrounding diversity in Hollywood. As a member of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, she spoke at many of their writers’ and producers’ retreats. Atlas is a mentor in DIVERSE WOMEN IN MEDIA INITIATIVE. She also has lectured at the DGA-sponsored LA Asian Film Festival, as well as various other symposia for the Sherman Oaks Experimental College. She is a founding member of Women in Film’s Luminas Committee, which supports the portrayal of women in non-stereotypical roles in film and television. She has spoken at events such as The San Francisco Writers Conference, the Santa Fe Screenwriters Conference and Richard Krevolin’s USC Screenwriting Retreat. Marilyn has also taught several actor workshops. Additionally, she was a guest lecturer in the Writing Program at USC, where she previously taught a class every year on creating three-dimensional, non-stereotypical characters.
Previously, Marilyn developed The Brides’ March for Lifetime Television as well as a limited television series. She previously produced the short musical version of REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES in Los Angeles in 2009 and is involved in the current development of a full-length production for 2019. Marilyn is currently developing a TV pilot based on the Gary Phillips series of novels HIGH HAND and SHOOTER'S POINT featuring strong-willed African-American protagonist Martha Chainey. She is also developing a Chinese historical epic with the Metan Development Group and CODEBUSTERS, a children’s show for TV based on a series of best-selling books. Marilyn is also featured in the book WRITE NOW! from Penguin/Tarcher. She is the co-author of a relationship-based, screenwriting guide DATING YOUR CHARACTER, about an organic approach to character creation for Stairway Press’s 2016 catalog. We spoke recently about her current projects in development, the dominance of long-form storytelling, and the power of subtext in her favorite storytelling moment.
Order Marilyn's book here:
http://www.stairwaypress.com/bookstore/dating-your-character/ for the hard copy
http://ccwc.papertrell.com/id005100004/ for the e-book
Follow and read Marilyn onTwitter: @DatingCharacter for writing tips, thoughtful articles, & book/TV/movie reviews
Dave Watson: What's new? You've written a book since we last talked.
Marilyn Atlas: I have always been committed to multicultural and diverse protagonists. I am primarily developing projects based off books. One project I'm really excited about is by the African-American crime writer Garry Phillips, who has written Shooter’s Point and High Hand. The African-American female protagonist, Martha Chainey, in these books is morally ambiguous and lives in a world that has not really been explored in TV. Phillips also writes for the TV series, Snowfall.
I am also developing a TV series based on a well-known children’s book series with multicultural protagonists. Recently a writer/director client of mine has sold an original series to a streaming service that is currently in production, which I am also excited about.
The name of my co-authored book is Dating Your Character. My co-authors, one being my longtime associate Elizbeth Lopez, and I set about creating a book that functions as a workbook to encourage writers to challenge themselves. As a producer, I strive to promote stories that show the full human experience and from many points of view. So, when I collaborated in writing a screenwriting book, I was very careful to emphasize the importance of detailed characterization. And really knowing your character comes from hard work. You have to challenge yourself. And to me, what that means is opening up your mind to the kinds of characters you give yourself permission to write.
No one should be afraid to write about experiences they themselves haven’t had. If you approach any character honestly, researching the background you imagine them coming from and talk to people who may have shared similar experiences, you’re doing your due diligence. I think it all comes down to being able to separate yourself as a person from the character you’re trying to tap into.
DW: Do you find characters to be the root and roots of storytelling?
MA: Yes, for me no matter how many movies, TV shows, or books I see or read I may forget the plot, but I always remember compelling 3-dimensional characters that drive the story.
One of character that really sticks out is Omar Little from HBO’s The Wire. Despite being a notorious Baltimore criminal, he has a strict moral code. Omar is not interested in harming innocent “civilians.” He has an unusual distaste for profanity, knows Greek mythology and is openly homosexual which makes him standout from the typical tropes of violent criminals, especially for the time that The Wire was written in the early to mid-aughts.
DW: From a recent conversation, you've also traveled extensively. Do you find storytelling skills and element transcending cultural lines? Some more than others?
MA: Yes, I feel that good writers regardless of their cultural background are able to bring universality to their characters and open up the world to you in a different way.
As a young girl, I was always curious about the world and I've always read stories and watched movies from other cultures, which impacted me in my later life as both a manager and producer. I remember vividly the impact the book Out of Africa had on me. I was impacted by the writer Karen Blixen who chose to live by her own rules and led a big adventuresome life. And was an independent woman during a time where were most were not.
Many writers are motivated by wanting to make a difference in the world and being remembered in some way because of the mark they’ve made. I truly believe that this starts with the writer answering: Why are you telling this story? A writer needs to identify what is really under their skin. This is the important emotional fuel that will make a story memorable and transcend cultural lines.
DW: What are you looking for in material now?
MA: As stated, my focus is primarily “books” – IP that can be adapted for TV from YA to dark thrillers and mysteries. All these books must have strong multicultural protagonists because that is a key way to respect the time we are living in and deeply embody a specific background. I am also interested in true stories, but the writer has to have an interesting slant. I’m not interested in chronologically accurate and linear storytelling. I want to be as surprised and confused as I am by well-told, teasing thrillers, as in any real basis for a story. I want, if anything, a character who is so hyper-real or outrageous, that if not for the disclaimer “based on a true story,” the script would be thrown in a bin.
I also like psychological thrillers that are in the lower budget range, as I spend most of my time along with Elizabeth, developing TV series for streaming or cable. I am not the right producer for fantasy or sci-fi or horror that does not have strong psychological elements and memorable characters.
I think the fact that I started by representing actors and still do, I am acutely aware of the kind of material and characters that actors can connect with that are challenging and original.
DW: Streaming and storytelling in long form appear to dominate the landscape. Would you agree?
MA: Yes, stories today need to have a more particular niche–specific cultural hooks because people are consuming material differently. Therefore, writers in streaming environments have to target their writing. When writing for network TV, shows that are extremely structured benefit because the writer is thinking about act breaks to frame the main dilemmas because of the limited amount of airtime they have. While with streaming, the story structure is becoming more and more flexible. There is not even a limit as to how long an episode can be with streaming, which gives writers a chance to seriously contemplate how many scenes are needed to develop both plot lines and character developments. And since streaming rewards an immersive experience, character is key to keep audiences glued.
With the Bingeing Culture, viewers want long-form stories that are complex and they are finding them more proactively. Viewers are evolving away from agenda-less channel surfing and searching with the benefit of algorithms to cater to their specific tastes in their favorite genres. Traditional TV networks are struggling to adapt their models to this ever- fragmenting variety of viewership tastes. They often have to balance novelty with tradition, by meshing tropes within existing genres like The Rookie (cross-generational coming of age with police procedural) to maintain their broad appeal to wider audiences.
Streaming giants like Netflix, which have extensive media libraries at their disposal, can speak to various built-in audiences precisely and directly, keeping eyeballs without the need for further ad expenditure. I’d also say the role of graphic designers is key since viewers are deciding in part to try an offering based on the book-cover-type depiction of series.
DW: What's next for you?
MA: I have various projects in different stages in development. One project is a true story of a fascinating female Asian protagonist with an extraordinary character arc.
I have to be really passionate about a project because it takes so long from the time when I first read material through the whole development process to get it ready to pitch and then attach the right elements. So for me, if I am not immediately engaged by its freshness and the excitement it creates in me, it’s a no-go.
DW: Finally, what's your favorite cinematic moment?
MA: I am flooded by powerful scenes from such recent TV shows such as Barry, Euphoria and Chernobyl. For example, in the last moments of HBO’s new and well-deserved hit, Chernobyl: Episode Two, three engineers are told to drain the water of reactor four. Their flashlights suddenly cut off in the tunnels, in a dramatic twist of irony we understand the true dangers involved where our characters do not. Then, we go to a sudden ending to pure audio, which leaves you with a really eerie tone that resonates after the episode ends.
When I have the pleasure of speaking with writers to make sure they are not writing “on-the-nose” dialogue, I talk about the power of subtext. I think a brilliant scene that demonstrates this is in Big Little Lies in the scene at the therapist’s office. There is a single extremely-long take where two main characters discuss their mutually abusive relationship. Using the power of subtext, there is a brilliant shift of power from the therapist to the characters, portrayed by Alexander Skarsgård and Nicole Kidman, as they take over the discussion outside of the normal constraints of a session.
Clip: Big Little Lies
Editor's note: the fluid nature of the scene is instructive viewed in full.