American screenwriter Todd Niemi’s passion for writing began at a young age. He turned it into a profession by working as a technical writer, but his real passion lies with creative writing. Todd’s first movie script, an adaptation of author R.B. Russell’s novel Bloody Baudelaire, was turned into the movie Backgammon. More exciting times are on the way, because another script he worked on, The Dark Return Of Time, will be made into a movie this year.
– When did you discover your passion for writing?
I’ve enjoyed creative writing since I was in elementary school, but it wasn’t until the 7th grade that I became passionate about it. My English teacher that year, Deborah Cranson, had us keep journals that we were required to write in several times each week. She allowed us to write pretty much whatever we wanted to, so I wrote a lot of poems and fictional pieces. Deborah told me I had talent and she encouraged me to keep writing. I took her advice to heart and never forgot it. In fact, I doubt I’d be where I am today if not for it, as her kind words were instrumental in keeping me going.
As for screenwriting, I developed a love of it while in college. A few years after I graduated my father saw an ad for a graduate course in the subject being taught by John Pielmeier at the University of Vermont. Though I was very interested in the course I didn’t have the money to take it, but my parents kindly paid for it. So I’m greatly indebted to them as well. And while I’m at it I should thank my wife, Adelaida, for all of her encouragement and support. There were several times when I was on the verge of abandoning screenwriting, but she insisted that I keep pursuing it.
– What kind of job did you do before becoming a screenwriter?
For 12 years I worked as a technical writer for several computer software companies, creating hardcopy documentation and online help systems for their products. While it paid well, I found it to be mind-numbing and soul-destroying work, as technical writing is the antithesis of creative writing.
– What do you enjoy the most: adapting books and novels to scripts or writing an original one?
Though I enjoy doing both, I much prefer writing original screenplays. With an adaptation I’m constrained by the source material because it largely dictates the characters who will be in the script, the chronology of events, etc. With an original script, though, I’m not limited in any way.
– Which one is more challenging?
I think writing an adaptation is more challenging because you have less flexibility in overcoming any difficulties you may encounter. When writing an original script, to solve a problem you can for instance invent a new character or alter the plot. It’s much harder to get away with such things when adapting something.
– What are the best and worst aspects of being a scriptwriter?
The freedom screenwriting allows me is one of the best things about the job. I work at home, I can set my own work schedule, I don’t have a manager looking over my shoulder, and so on. Also, being able to let my imagination run wild is terrific fun! And it’s a wonderful feeling to be able to work at something that I actually enjoy.
The worst thing about screenwriting is the irregular income. You can literally go years between paid writing gigs! After a producer options your script you may have to wait a year or two (perhaps even longer) before you get paid for it, because it’s common in the industry for screenwriters to not be paid until the first day of filming. And then there’s no guarantee a film will even be made from your optioned script. This is why I plan to transition into producing in the near future. Instead of waiting around for producers to produce my scripts, I’ll produce them myself. I hope to produce my first feature in the next year or two (assuming I’m able to obtain the necessary funding), and eventually I may even try my hand at directing.
– How did you meet writer Raymond Russell?
I first connected with Ray as a customer of Tartarus Press, the excellent publishing house that he and Rosalie Parker run. In 2009 Ray announced that his first novella, Bloody Baudelaire, was being published, and I ordered a copy. I enjoyed it very much and felt it could make a great independent film, so I asked Ray if he’d let me adapt it into a script, which he kindly allowed me to do. Ray and I then collaborated on a second draft of the script. After significant edits by Francisco Orvañanos, the script was shot as the movie Backgammon, which was released earlier this year. (Francisco also directed and produced the film.)
– How did you get involved with the movie project The Dark Return Of Time?
After we finished the Bloody Baudelaire script Ray asked me to read his unpublished novella, The Dark Return of Time, to see if it had movie potential. After reading it I told him I thought it could make a great movie, so he asked if I’d like to write a screenplay based on it, which I agreed to do. I sent Ray the first draft and we then collaborated on the second. The third draft included many improvements by Rosalie Parker. (Ray and Rosalie have written a number of drafts since then, a couple of which I’ve made small contributions to.)
I then began querying producers and directors about the script. I queried dozens of people over a period of about two years, and though some were quite interested in the project, they were either too busy to take it on or they didn’t have the funds to make it. I then connected with producer Ian Reed on Facebook. He loved the script and told me he wanted to make a movie based on it.
The movie, which will star Eric and Eliza Roberts, Matthew Ziff, Hélène Cardona, and Lorraine Ziff, among others, is scheduled to be shot in Paris and London this summer.
– How does it feel to see a screenplay/script you wrote come to life on the screen?
It’s exciting and gratifying, but it can also be somewhat disappointing, as the script one writes never makes it to the screen intact (unless you’re Woody Allen!). But that’s the “nature of the beast,” unfortunately. Yet another reason to become a producer: control over the script!
– Do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters?
Read a good book or two on the subject (e.g., “Writing Screenplays That Sell” by Michael Hauge & “The Screenwriter’s Bible” by Dave Trottier are two of my favorites), read the scripts of great movies, and write, write, write! Repeat ad infinitum.