The Interview: Cinequest Winner Rowan Meyer

The Cinequest Film Festival in Silicon Valley recently announced the winners of their screenwriting contests. I was privileged to serve again as a judge for the competitions. The winner of the 30-minute Teleplay category is “Patient” written by Rowan Meyer. “Patient” is about an actor who poses as a patient in a teaching hospital (it’s a real job). I interviewed the New York-based Meyer via email about where he got the idea for his winning script, how he tackled tone, and day jobs.

Synoptic Media: How many scripts have you written?

Meyer: I've written six episodes so far for my series "Patient", and a spec script for "Brooklyn Nine-Nine". I also have a bajillion sketches, a couple plays, and am working on a feature.

To how many contests did you submit this script?

I think about 8 or 9. Cinequest was the first, though. I'm waiting to hear back from the others which have summer notification dates, but I did recently find out that I'm a quarter-finalist for the ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship.

Writer/Actor Meyer in action. Photo courtesy of Tim Liu.

How did you get started writing?

I've been writing for as long as I can remember. I didn't have money as a young kid to buy Christmas presents for my family so I would write stories on computer paper and bind them into a sort of book. It was cute at first, but now they still expect it, even in my 30s. The holidays are a busy writing time for me.

Your script is about an actor, Adrian, who poses as a patient at a teaching hospital—something called a Standardized Patient. How did you get the idea?

I graduated from Rutgers with a MFA in Acting, moved to New York, and started looking for a survival job. I am, however, the world's worst waiter, so wanted to find something more creative. A friend told me about an ongoing gig he had as a standardized patient, someone who pretends to take on illnesses to help train med students and new doctors. It sounded perfect. I was both a trained actor and had a degree in biology. How could I be any more qualified, thought I? Well, all the hospitals with SP programs that I applied to thought otherwise because I couldn't even get an interview. In the end I threw up my hands and said, "Fine! I'll just write it for myself, then! That'll show 'em!"

Excerpt from Meyer's script "Patient."

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

Two days. Or, nights, rather. I do my best writing around 1:00 am.

What else is involved in your writing routine?

Can I let you know when I find a routine? I'd like to say it involves a steaming cup of Earl Gray and sitting at my reclaimed cherry wood desk for three hours a day... but usually it involves me sending a dozen emails to myself about lines or plot points I want to remember while waiting for the train or in line at Trader Joe's. Truly sitting down with the express intention to write is very difficult for me.

How did you learn the craft of screenwriting?

My only 'training' has simply been watching huge amounts of TV and film. Like digital osmosis. I've never taken a class, though I would like to this year. I did recently read "Save the Cat" by Blake Snyder which has some pretty good advice on structure. It's a bit formulaic, but it's probably a good idea to at least learn the formula before deviating from it. In terms of formatting a script, I just picked it up from reading audition sides and Googling the rest. I'm no doubt breaking at least a dozen rules with every teleplay I write. favorite comedies always have some measure of darkness or underlying tragedy in them.
— Rowan Meyer, Writer/Actor

Your script is an interesting mix of drama and comedy. There's a scene in which the protagonist, playing a hospital patient, uses stage blood to make it look like he’s bleeding from his eyes. There's a scene in which he talks dirty to a vending machine. And there’s a scene in which he sings to an Alzheimer’s patient. How did you tackle tone?

I think "Patient" at its heart is a comedy, but my favorite comedies always have some measure of darkness or underlying tragedy in them. As any stand-up comedian will tell you, comedy comes from pain. Adrian, the protagonist, finds himself (and puts himself) in endless ridiculous situations which, incidentally, are a blast to write. But when you strip away the audience and force him into a vulnerable place, you see that the laughter is a mask for the ugly, complicated stuff underneath. That's just as interesting to me as, say, writing a botched three-way (spoiler: episode 3). 

Do you belong to a writers group or have friends who are fellow writers that you utilize for brainstorming or feedback?

I do know some top notch writers who - for some unknown reason - always let me send them my stuff. I'm very lucky in that regard. Writers groups are wonderful, but I find the idea of joining one to be intimidating. I should probably get over that.

Do you have a so-called day job that supports your creative pursuits? 

I've got two. One is a desk job, and I also get work through TaskRabbit, an app that outsources chores like furniture assembly and heavy lifting. I actually kind of enjoy doing that.