Ever since she was a small child, Lorene Scafaria dreamed of seeing a movie she'd written in a theater. It's not every fourth grader in suburban New Jersey who has the specific obsession with becoming a screenwriter, but she was an exception. With the 2008 release of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Scafaria made good on her goal, and saw her words coalesce on-screen. It was the ninth screenplay she'd written.
One of the thornier concepts aspiring movie scribes might not realize is that you can work as a successful screenwriter for years without ever having one of your films actually see the light of day (or the dark of a cinema, rather.) Scafaria lived through this exact experience. She started out splitting her time between acting and writing, but quickly jettisoned performative ambitions to focus on her scripts. She managed to sell movies for years, without any coming to fruition. But she emerged on the other side of development limbo not only with concrete IMDb credits, but with enough clout to start directing her screenplays as well.
Scafaria's latest film, her second as writer and director, is The Meddler, an uplifting comedy starring Susan Sarandon that surely served as a Mother's Day focal point for many viewers earlier this month. Co.Create recently talked to Scafaria about her initial career challenges, writing like a director, and how she approaches those first 30 pages.
"I'd written three screenplays by the time I moved to L.A. and felt like two of them were livable. None of those have been made, and I think, looking back, for a very good reason," Scafaria says. "Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was my ninth script and I'd say the one I’d done just before that, it kind of became my calling card. It was about a guy who fired people for a living, who then gets fired from his job—kind of like what Up in the Air ended up being, but before that. It was the first script I thought, like, if this isn't something, I should leave town. If this isn't a script, I don't know what is. And that script got me the job for Nick and Norah's."
"It's a little depressing to write and sell a bunch of screenplays before you see one produced. It's exciting to have jobs, obviously, but there are so many stages to it," Scafaria says. "First, you're like, ‘Will anyone read my scripts?’ Just getting your stuff read feels like the biggest hurdle at first. And then people read it and you're like, ‘Will anything sell? Will anyone buy anything?’ And then, once you start to feel like you have a career going, then it does become like, ‘Oh goddamn it, will any of these ever get made?’ And so it is a completely different experience once you get past that first one and see your first script produced. It was so exciting. It feels like this is just paper until it's real. Nobody even knows what I do for a living."
"I either start with the character, or with a part of a story I know I want to touch on, but I usually just try to write the first 30 pages of something without an outline, and allow for the story to breathe or the characters to talk and think," Scafaria says. "I know that sounds corny, but I like to just see what happens and make sure I understand the characters well enough before I start to take them somewhere. I'm allowing them to walk around wherever it is they want to go and then find inspiration from there. And then of course you can go back and change absolutely everything that you did in those 30 pages."
"If you are ever stuck, just try to live your life a little bit," Scafaria says. "Because you can get lost in your own head and kind of forget to interact with people and be social and realize that a lot of inspiration comes from just getting out of your head and seeing other people and remembering that there is a world outside of you. I think that's pretty important."
"Dana [Fox], Liz [Meriwether] and Diablo [Cody] are still some of my closest friends. Everybody's lives have changed a lot, though, it's not exactly like you get to sit in the same room together and write and bounce ideas off each other like we used to do," Scafaria says. "Liz is running New Girl. Even though we live on the same street, sometimes I feel like I have to go direct an episode in order to see her. And Dana and Diablo both have three kids each, and obviously incredible careers. But we all got together for Liz's bachelorette party the other week and we're just all still incredibly close. I'm so proud of all of them, and we all do the same job but all do things very differently and get to tell different stories. But I'm just such a fan of all of them and I'm just so lucky to have such good girlfriends in Los Angeles."
"I probably always wanted to be a director, I just didn't really know it," Scafaria says. "I used to make little videos as a kid in suburban New Jersey. I was kinda the only kid in my school that was interested in all this stuff. And so it didn't really seem possible. But I like to think that I write like a director, trying to create images on the page, putting in a lot of detail. And then when I was watching Nick and Norah's get made, right after that I just thought ‘I need to do this now.’ And I set up Seeking a Friend for the End of the World with myself attached to direct it. That was in 2008, and I knew I wasn't going to take no for an answer by then."