Screenwriter Interview - C.J. Wells

C.J. Wells is the writer of CONVENIENCE STORE, a skillfully-plotted and entertaining contained thriller that revolves around a group of strangers trapped in a convenience store during a city-wide evacuation. With a layered story that takes the subgenre to new levels, Wells has crafted a screenplay that rose above the competition in the thriller contest.

We had the opportunity to speak briefly with C.J. about the script.

CONVENIENCE STORE revolves around a very diverse group of characters, much like screenwriters as a community. How did you first become interested in a career in screenwriting?
I grew up on the outskirts of Hollywood on a tree-lined street where, by chance, a group of writers happened to live. The poet very seldom ventured out of his house and, in fact, his rose bushes grew so they blocked the pathway up to his front door. The novelist spent time out of doors but she was always muttering to herself and she turned her garden hose on the neighborhood cats that climbed up onto her back fence. The screenwriter, on the other hand, walked with a spring in his step and drove a blue convertible with the top down. When he'd finished one particular screenplay, he invited us kids in the neighborhood on a tour of the movie studio where he worked. It was magical. People in costume waved at us and we got to eat lunch in the commissary. All my fellow seven-year-olds agreed that being a screenwriter was the best job in the world.

You've taken a very popular subgenre (contained thrillers) and layered it very well in this script. What was your inspiration for this story?
While traveling on a business trip, I stopped in a convenience store late one night on the way back to my hotel to pick up some bottled water. When I walked through the door, everyone inside turned to look at me for one blistering moment before they went back to what they were doing. In their eyes: suspicion, distrust, and defensive aggression. It was brief, but I saw it. We all tend to make snap judgments about strangers as a form of self-defense or self-preservation. I never understood this so clearly as that night. The nine disparate strangers in that store were, for me, a tableau vivant of our post 9-11 world. The image hit me so hard I changed my mind about the water and went back to my car. I wondered what those people would do if something terrible happened and they had to work together to survive. CONVENIENCE STORE is that story. The nine characters in the screenplay are the nine people in the store, at least in their physical descriptions. The entire thriller was based on a two second experience, but one I’ll never forget.

Your script does a great job subverting expectations. What would you say has influenced you the most as a writer?
I read a lot of books, I watch a lot of movies; I'm lucky in that I'm profoundly influenced every week by what I see and what I read. Early on, Truffaut's films touched my heart while Bertolucci blew my mind. I've never forgotten THE THIRD MAN. Lawrence Kasden's gorgeous novelistic prose riveted me, while Michael Mann's staccato-punch action prose was exhilarating and revolutionary. The late-great Miguel Pinero changed the way I looked at "realism"; Tarantino changed the way I looked at everything. Oddly, the greatest influences in my life are paintings, ones hanging on the walls of museums. For everyone, there's a work of art that whispers your name. You've just got to visit enough museums to find it. I found mine at the Cleveland Museum of Art – a 1942 painting by John Rogers Cox called "Gray and Gold." It both terrifies me and compels me to keep writing. The day I stop being influenced by all the terrific stuff I see and read, I'm dead.

Screenwriters are often overwhelmed with the material that's out there for them. Are there any particular resources would you consider the most important to your development as a screenwriter?
The greatest natural resources for me are education and life experiences. The more knowledge you have, the more information your characters have access to. For me, I've pursued higher formal education, a collection of odd jobs, and world travel to bolster my writing. I like research, libraries, museums, cemeteries, walking tours, railroad tracks and water towers. I find pursuing those things gives me a lot of opportunities for creative thinking. In terms of websites, the Done Deal forums provide a wealth of information.

CONVENIENCE STORE definitely shows a great understanding of human interactions and character. What advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters who are working their first script?
Read 100 screenplays, minimum, before you write a thing. For example, 25 award-nominated original screenplays; 25 award-nominated adapted screenplays; 25 screenplays written on spec that sold and, for the rest, screenplays in the genre(s) you intend to work in written within the last three years. Only then read an accepted style guide, like Trottier's Screenwriter's Bible, to study formatting. Then read any books on screenwriting that seem interesting or seem to speak to you.
Meanwhile, listen to everybody everywhere. Cultivate a distracted, self-absorbed expression when you're out by yourself so that no one pays any attention to you in a public place so you’re privy to "overhearing" things. Listen and observe. Listen to not only what people say but how they say it. Take wrong turns when driving and consider yourself fortunate to be able to see things you were never meant to see. Talk to anyone who will talk to you. Learn the names of plants and trees and flowers. Volunteer when there’s a disaster in your region. In other words, fill your head and fill your heart. Allow yourself a sense of wonder no matter how old you are.
Then write.

Thank you very much to C.J. and congratulations on a tremendous achievement with CONVENIENCE STORE!

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