Interview - Screenwriter Lauren Dunitz

Lauren Dunitz is the writer of the feature screenplay, REUNION! When the glamorous, petty, fifty-something cast of "The Wives" gathers for their season's reunion, a masked killer begins to torture them one by one. The women must squash their beefs and forego their receipts as they fight to survive the brutal killer.

After the competition win, we spoke with Lauren about her development as a writer and the story that got her here.

How did you first become interested in becoming a screenwriter?
It was December 2000 in the San Fernando Valley. My fifth grade class's Winter Break was in full swing and I had two weeks of homework-less freedom, so I went to the movies. The film du jour for this particular outing was Miss Congeniality. I was instantly entranced by Sandra Bullock's special brand of unfussy femininity, her confidence, and, of course, her clumsiness as FBI Agent Grace Hart. I knew right then that my future was sealed: I was going to be the most badass cop that Sherman Oaks had ever seen. Then I awoke the next morning from a nightmare about a shootout and had to scrap those plans. Somehow, I figured out that it wasn't Sandy's law enforcement that I was responding to, but the romance and magic of the movie itself. I was as in love with the fictional Agent Hart as I was with film's director Donald Petrie and its cinematographer László Kovács and, especially, its screenwriter Marc Lawrence. I was desperate to figure out how to craft something that was at once funny and thrilling, just like what I'd seen. I had lost it at the movies and I needed to be a part of them.

I soon started penning my own scripts -- meandering sketches here, a feature-length adaptation of The Piña Colada Song there (I still think that one has legs) -- all while honing my voice as a writer. As someone now slightly older than ten, I have written, produced, and acted in several short films that aim to evoke in the viewers that same feeling that came upon me in fifth grade. I am proud to tell my own clumsy, chaotic stories of unfussy femininity, female friendships, and the ways women contend with the world.

REUNION! combines some very evocative and commercial elements that would make it a very marketable genre film. What brought you to write this story in particular?
I am an obsessive fan of two cultural phenomena: the Real Housewives franchises and slasher films. While both may appear, on their faces and in their own ways, somewhat hideous, they actually subvert the anti-feminist tropes for which they are known. Some may argue that heavily made up, wealthy women fighting amongst themselves over hotel rooms or weaves or possibly fake diseases offers a glimpse of the worst of what women have to offer one another, but that is not how I read these shows. As women, we are socially conditioned to be polite and not make waves; to just “be cool.” This creates a, perhaps subconscious, fear of speaking one’s opinion. We sublimate. We push our feelings down. But the Real Housewives live their – yes, petty – truths out loud. They don’t fear they will come off poorly and they don’t care that their honesty may disrupt a pleasant evening. They act on their authentic instincts, a deviation from female norms that is more empowering to me as a viewer than what most scripted, uplifting “feminist” dramas have to offer.

Similarly, the slasher genre presents women with another subtle but important framework through which we may view our gendered experience in the world: the Final Girl. The Final Girl, the singular woman who survives the horrific acts of the preceding two hours, is an omnipresent symbol in slasher movies. She persists through unfathomable trauma to save herself and, often, at least one other person. She is strong-willed and caring. She overcomes unthinkable fear. She outwits the men and she survives. I argue that the Final Girl offers a simple, however exaggerated and heightened, allegory for all of our lives as women and non-male-identifying persons: predators of differing levels of extremity chase us, ignore our calls to stop, push their will over ours, and lose.

Genre films, in all their exaggerated and heightened glory, have always felt like a safer space to explore difficult truths about humanity than their grounded dramatic counterparts. The subconscious cultural response seems to be, if we can discount the film for being too campy or gorey or outrageous, it must not have anything real for us to face about ourselves. That dismissal of any inherent value in genre actually provides a freedom for a film to explore something challenging but honest. The siren sound of that honesty has always drawn me to horror and I wrote this script because it represents the film that I wish would force our culture into self-examination.

Were there any particular movies that you feel made the most impact on you and your own work in screenwriting?
The movies that have had the greatest impact on my screenwriting share a few common qualities. They concern powerful women making powerful mistakes. They are spectacular and surprising. They are funny and human. There are three branches of filmic influence that have possessed me for as long as I can remember: needless to say the first one is the Sandra Bullock Cinematic Universe (one day, I'll be thrilled to argue the merits of even Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous, but I'll spare you that torture for now), campy horror/thrillers concerning human-on-human violence, and hardcore comedies.

Scream, Basic Instinct, and Silence of the Lambs taught me what I look for in a scare. Scream is the natural fairy godparent to REUNION!, with both sharing an embrace of traditional slasher rules, female gaslighting, and humor. Basic Instinct, boycotted by LGBTQ groups at the box office in 1992, felt revelatory and unpatronizing to me in its portrayal of the psychopathic bisexual Catherine Tramell when I watched it for the first time as a young adult the late-2000s. I was seeking thrills from my movies and Sharon Stone's confident, uncloseted killer jolted me with excitement and opened my eyes to the powers of the female anti-hero. Silence of the Lambs is so much more than chianti and fava beans; it's an exploration of how a woman can never escape the torment of her trauma, even as it may propel her into greatness. At their cores, these films are about women and the degradation and strengths of the relationships in their lives, and the notion that nothing is scarier than the emotional violence one human can inflict upon another.

Relationships, more specifically friendships and how they evolve and devolve over time, have always been at the center of my writing and a subject of my fascination. Movies like Superbad and Mean Girls might present in heavy comedy-drag, but they are ultimately brutally honest examinations of high school friendships. High school friendships are some of the deepest, purest, and most codependent relationships that we will ever experience and which form who we become as adults. They wound us and they heal us right before we launch into the world and inflict our mini-traumas on the new environments we move into. These two films mirrored all of that for me while murdering my stomach muscles with laughter.

Do you remember how you began the writing process for this project? Was there a detailed outline or did you just jump in?
REUNION! brewed in my brain for a few months before I started writing. I remained excited by the simplicity of the idea (reality stars meet to tape their reunion episode of the season and everyone dies) and eventually started to roughly outline the script. The first draft was executed quickly and from there I spent months re-writing until I was left with, hopefully, the most fun, elevated, and scary version of the idea.

Is there any particular advice you would give to new screenwriters working their first script today?
My first exposure to screenwriting was when I was in college at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. My beloved professor Imani Douglas introduced us to several screenwriting books and the one that resonated the most with me was Viki King's "How to Write a Movie in 21 Days." King's "9-minute movie" provides an easy clarity for how virgin screenwriters can approach the structure of their script. Once a writer has a basic understanding of structure, I find it can be very helpful to acquire copies of scripts from the films the writer loves and wants to emulate. I have always enjoyed seeing how the screenwriters of movies I admire infuse their voice into the stage directions and how they manage pacing. But, the best piece of writing advice someone ever gave me was: "Just write the thing!" It can be scary to look at a blank page, but the page isn't going to fill itself out, and we all deserve to see our art all the way through.

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