In the Spotlight: Derek Nicoletto
Derek had the humility and wisdom to realize that becoming a screenwriter required a particular mindset. He could have easily attempted it halfheartedly and not taken it seriously. But he understood what we do is more than just a hobby, literary art, or even craft. It is a lifestyle. He made the difficult choice to truly lean in and commit. His desire to create something unique and special matched with a drive to see it become a reality lit the fires inside him. This is something we all share as screenwriters. This volition becomes so ingrained in who we are that we often don’t even speak of this truth nor do we know how to put words to it. We just live it. We are screenwriters. This is why I am honored to introduce you to him.
This is Derek Nicoletto…
I started as a singer/songwriter. When an idea for a song came in my head, I got tunnel-vision. I would call my producer and he’d say, “Great! Finish the song! In two days, I’d have a full album. It’s hard to shut my brain off, ever. Music turned into acting. I married acting, but fell in love with its sister, screenwriting. The mediums have changed, or rather, compounded, but the way I go about projects, with tunnel vision, losing myself in the world of the project I’m working on, has not changed.
I am directing one of my shorts, “Brunch in Babel” in February. My two current feature screenplays, “The Homestudy” and “A Tent on Jupiter” are making the competition circuit rounds. In January, I will begin writing a biopic entitled “Fly in the Cocoa” based on the incredible real-life story of a man named Ralph, whom I randomly met at a diner last year. To be a good writer is to remain aware and observant. I was open and aware enough one day last year to meet one of the most fascinating “ordinary” humans on the planet, Ralph Goneau. Now, I get to write his story.
Q: How did you stumble upon screenwriting?
As an actor, we are hungry for work. Unfortunately, that means we take jobs with less than stellar scripts. However, sometimes, we encounter gold. A few years ago, I was an actor in the ISA’s Table Read My Screenplay in Park City. The winning script, Josh Sorokach’s “Clean Slate,” was stellar. It was a script that was concise, yet it trusted its actors. Therefore, it was a blast to perform. I had one of those, “I could do this” moments. I decided I wanted to write scripts like Josh’s. Quality scripts that inherently trusted actors to be the trained professionals many of us are.
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Q: Who/what inspired you into taking this path?
At Sundance, I befriended Katherine Griffin, who later directed me in two projects. The second, “Le Ballon Bleu” was shot in Paris. (It’s currently in post). She and her partner Jon Bachmann are both Emmy-winning editors and award-winning screenwriters. We were in a foreign country having the time of our lives and I simply asked them, “How do I do what you do?” They told me to study the craft, read a ton of screenplays, write like crazy, and see if it sticks. I would have to do what I did for acting: learn the basics, practice like mad and see if I would fall in love with it. I fell in love. Katherine and John attended UCLA’s Professional Program, so I applied forthwith and subsequently, graduated.
Q: Who was the first person who believed in you?
In addition to my traditional degrees, I attended Atlantic Acting Conservatory, founded by David Mamet and William H. Macy. It’s very writer-focused. We were tasked to write several short scenes in our first year to perform for our class of thirty. My conservatory mates showered me with encouragement. They started calling me one of the “writers” in the company. I owned it. The first short play I wrote was called “Fill ‘Er Up,” about a gas station attendant who, in his high school years, got his prom date pregnant. Decades later, his son tracks him down. They meet over a tank full of unleaded gasoline.
Q: When was the moment you knew you wanted to be a screenwriter?
After watching “American Beauty” for the first time, I remember thinking, “Wow, that story came out of someone’s head.” Recently, my eleven-year-old son asked me to summarize my script, “The Homestudy.” He said, “Wow, you made that all up yourself?” It was a powerful moment. I realized that despite the fact I haven’t had Alan Ball’s career, I essentially did what Alan Ball did: I sat down at a computer and created a world. I had the same urge after seeing “The Usual Suspects,” “Big Fish,” and “Steel Magnolias.” I experienced almost jealous moments, where I wished I could create specific, compelling worlds like the ones in those films.
But the reality is, who am I to say that I can’t do what they did? It will take work. But I am I am not afraid of work. I’ve started that work and I intend to keep going, indefinitely.
Q: How do you define success for yourself?
I subscribe to the Martha Graham theory that an artist only ever achieves…
“…a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
I know it’s dramatic and over-quoted, but it works for me. For me, success has come in the form of community. When I gain a community of writers at the Stowe Story Lab, UCLA and in the New York arts scene, I feel success. Right now, getting involved with Script Summit means another community, and thus, another success.
Q: Give us a typical day in your life.
I wake up at 5 a.m. because I’m a super light sleeper and that’s when my husband, a medical professional, heads to the hospital for work. Then I get my kid up at around 7 a.m. Admittedly, I only drink coffee until after I take my son to school. Then I proceed directly to Orwascher’s Bagels on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a lox and cream cheese bagel. Then, I go to my secret writing spot, which -and this is important – is NOT at my house, and write until 1 p.m. If I try to begin to write too late in the day, my mind is cluttered with everything from serious political issues to social media nonsense. So, I do my best work in the morning.
That is what constitutes successful non-performance day. If I’m working on a film, play or tv show (I am one of the bald, go-to SAG stand-in in NYC) I do that for the day. If I’m working as a stand-in, I don’t write, because that work requires constant focus. Stand-in work is my bread and butter. It’s wonderful, because it’s like being paid to attend a film class. You get to work with directors and crew. You learn what to do and what not to do when you produce your own work.
Q: What’s been the most important skill you've developed on your path to screenwriting?
Patience. I am getting much better at the “put it in the drawer for a month” part of the process. If I had my druthers, I’d bang away at a script forever. But I’m getting better and pausing to clear my perspective and separate myself from my initial ideas.
Q: What’s been the greatest challenge in your writing so far?
I don’t have long periods of doubt, but I have sharp, acute pangs of it. Thankfully, I don’t get long, depressing periods of feelings of defeat, like so many of my friends do. My challenges come in the form of quick, thunderstorms of terror. In those moments, I get consumed with a belief I’ve wasted my life. I want to throw my computer, chair, notes and my houseplants out my apartment window.
Q: What’s been the greatest reward in the choices you've made?
The reward is the people I’ve met at the festivals, labs, table-reads and classes. I’ve formed lifelong friendships with people who encounter the same fears, failures and victories as I