The Interview: Script Pipeline Winners Penelope Chai and Matteo Bernardini

Putting a new twist on a classic tale is a challenge many writers choose to tackle. Screenwriters Penelope Chai and Matteo Bernardini took the “Cinderella” fairytale and spun it with strong themes of deception and manipulation.  In their version Cinderella fabricates a story of her life of servitude with an evil stepmother and ugly stepsisters – a story to make her more appealing to the Prince – and then greedily schemes against anyone who gets in her way. 

Penelope & Matteo’s efforts paid off nicely: Their screenplay “Cinderella Must Die,” won Script Pipeline’s Feature Contest Grand Prize earlier this year. I interviewed the busy Australia-based screenwriters via email about their collaboration, their last-minute dash across the Pacific, and those poor ugly stepsisters.

Synoptic Media: Where in Australia are you based?

Penelope Chai: I’m based in Melbourne. Matteo used to live here too, and most of “Cinderella Must Die” was written here.

Matteo Bernardini: I’m originally from Milan, Italy, but am now based in Sydney. I moved here earlier this year when my wife, who’s an Australian writer/director, got into Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art.

Synoptic Media: How long have you been writing together?

Penelope & Matteo: Two years. “Cinderella Must Die” is our first project together. We met a few years before that through Matteo’s wife, Anna. She was looking for her next project and came across a short story written by Penelope and published in a literary magazine. She and the producer asked Penelope to adapt the story into a short film script, which Anna then directed.

Then in mid-2014, we decided to write a feature film together. Matteo pitched the idea of a twist on the Cinderella fairy tale where the Ugly Stepsisters are the innocent victims and Cinderella is the villain who concocts a false rags-to-riches story. We liked the idea of Cinderella using narrative as propaganda to silence her opponents and rule her domain. And we liked the idea of giving voice and dimension to her sisters, who are usually sidelined and demonised. We’ve been working on the script on and off since then in between other projects. 

Dialogue excerpt from the screenplay "Cinderella Must Die" by Penelope Chai and Matteo Bernardini

Synoptic Media: How long did it take you to write the first draft of “Cinderella Must Die?” 

Penelope & Matteo: It took us about six months to write the first draft. We had to grab pockets of time here and there between other projects and scripts. The current draft bears little resemblance to the first draft. The first draft was an unholy mess and, after rigorous notes from tough but trusted friends, we kicked most of it to the kerb. The second draft was pretty much a page one rewrite.

Synoptic Media: To how many contests did you submit “Cinderella Must Die?” 

Penelope & Matteo: We submitted it to Script Pipeline and the screenwriting competition at the Austin Film Festival.  We won Script Pipeline's Grand Prize, which was a big thrill.

Synoptic Media: Congratulations on winning the Grand Prize! You were in Los Angeles this summer. Tell us about that experience.

Penelope & Matteo: We ummed and ahhed about making the trip at all. We didn’t know we’d won, and it’s a long way to travel to not win! But we decided to take a chance and booked flights at the very last minute. We arrived on Friday and attended the awards event the following day. It was great to meet Matt and Chad from Script Pipeline. We’d had email and Skype contact with them back in Australia, so it was good to be able to put faces to names. They’ve been incredibly encouraging and brilliant with championing the script. The awards event was lots of fun and it was great to meet the producers and managers who attended, and also all the other writers who were shortlisted. Everyone was lovely and welcoming.

Screenwriters Matteo Bernardini and Penelope Chai. Photo courtesy: Script Pipeline

After we won, our visit took an exciting turn. We were booked pretty solid with meetings Monday through Wednesday. The water-bottle tour of LA, we’ve heard it called. Then we had to jump on a plane Wednesday night and fly back home. It was a whirlwind few days, that’s for sure. But we plan to return soon and do it all again properly.

Synoptic Media: Do you have representation?

Penelope & Matteo: Since winning Script Pipeline there’s been a lot of interest from producers, managers and agents. We want to do a return visit before signing with anyone. Skype discussions are good but face-to-face meetings are better. RGM is representing the project in Australia. We have both been busy with other projects that had their genesis before we won the competition. We’re also sifting through a bunch of exciting ideas looking for the next script to write together as a team. 

Synoptic Media: Have you had any projects produced or do you have any projects currently in development? 

Penelope: I’ve had a couple of projects produced in Australia. A documentary that I co-wrote screened on the ABC, our national broadcaster, and a short film I wrote premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival, before screening at other festivals including Palm Springs. That short film was actually directed by Matteo’s wife, which is how Matteo and I met and became friends and collaborators. I’m writing an online series called "Other People’s Problems," which shoots in early 2017 and will screen on the ABC. I’m also developing a dystopian sci-fi and a comedic drama set in an empty city in China. Both those projects have been supported by Screen Australia, our national screen agency, which we’re very fortunate to have. 

Matteo: I was a staff writer on a couple of TV shows in Italy, and I collaborated on a lot of non-fiction for the main Italian channels throughout the years. I have a script about propaganda in the 1991 Kuwait War that I’ve been researching for four years (in fact, researching propaganda is how the 'Cinderella lied' idea came about), and it’s finally ready to become a script. We're keen to continue working together and have a long list of possible ‘next projects.” We’re in the process of sifting through them all and trying them on for size. We’re determined not to plunge into our next project until the idea is as compelling as “Cinderella Must Die!”

The end game – a script being produced – is so elusive; you might as well make the most of the journey.
— Screenwriter Penelope Chai on writing with a partner

Synoptic Media: What have you each learned about writing with a partner versus writing solo?

Matteo: I have only good things to say about writing with someone else. It makes the whole process so much easier. I’m a pathological procrastinator, unless I have someone to answer to. But more importantly, the only way for a writing partnership to work is if both of you are ready to be told “that was shit, we’re not writing that” and not take it personally. It’s a very zen-like exercise in relinquishing ego. And that’s how better ideas emerge, by going through a list of bad ones, seeing them shut down and be grateful instead of resentful – because the work is better for it. The work is the only parameter, in the end.

Penelope: I love working with other writers. For screenwriters, the end game – a script being produced – is so elusive; you might as well make the most of the journey. Matteo and I didn’t know each other very well when he pitched this idea and asked me if I’d be interested in co-writing. It was a risk, but it paid off. We’re very different, both as writers and as people, but this turned out to be a help rather than a hindrance. Together we were able to bring different skills and perspectives to the table. And when it mattered, we were always on the same page.