The Interview: ScreenCraft Winner Lynn Esta Goldman

Whether it’s a newspaper article, a workplace incident, or a personal relationship experience, there is no better place to mine stories and characters than from the world around us. For screenwriter Lynn Esta Goldman, winner of ScreenCraft’s Family Friendly Screenplay Contest, it was a particular television image from a real-life disaster. "Buddy, A Dog of New Orleans" is about a young boy separated from his loyal dog during the tragic flooding that ravaged the city during Hurricane Katrina. The story is told from alternate points of view: the lost Buddy, the distraught boy, and the determined woman who becomes instrumental in their tearful reunion. I interviewed the San Francisco-based Goldman via email about re-writing "Buddy," late-night writing, and the best source for great dialogue.

Synoptic Media: How did you get started as a writer?

Goldman: I was initially a painter who wrote short stories and loved films. My paintings were becoming so narrative that an artist friend joked I was writing movies. It was like a light bulb switching on. I went to my local library and read the only screenplay they had – “Dances with Wolves.” And that was the beginning.

After reading your first screenplay, what else did you do to learn the craft?

I read every book on screenwriting and screenwriting format I could get my hands on (Seger, McKee, et al.).  I also downloaded and read PDFs of screenplays from produced films.  (This is something I still do.) For the past few years I have been a member of The Left Door, a private online workshop for serious screenwriters.

How did you come up with the idea for "Buddy, A Dog of New Orleans?"

Like most Americans, I watched the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina unfold on TV and was horrified at the sight of people stranded on rooftops and bridges for days, waiting to be rescued. On top of the human suffering –the loss of life, home and community – the victims of Katrina were also forced to abandon their pets because the shelters didn’t allow them. The video image of a bewildered and frantic dog, running back and forth across a flooded roof top, burned itself into my brain. As the years went by, I kept coming back to that image, wondering what had happened to that dog, to that dog’s human family, wanting to believe that there was a happy ending. Finally, six years (and much research) later, I decided to imagine what happened and write that happy ending.  

The dialogue, specifically the characters’ vernacular, helps the characters come to life on the page. How did you go about trying to capture that?

I don’t really “think” about dialogue. I do put a great deal of thought into my characters, even the minor ones – who they are, what their lives are like, what they are experiencing internally and externally in every scene – and once I know who my characters are, then what comes out of their mouths should ring true. Writing dialogue, too, is about listening closely to the world around you. I’ve lived in the South and the West, I’ve traveled abroad, and I live now in a multicultural, urban area. I take public transportation. I walk. I encounter amazing characters on a daily basis and I try to soak up everything I hear and see.  All of that finds its way into dialogue.

Screenwriter Lynn Esta Goldman

Did you win or place in other contests with "Buddy?"

I wrote "Buddy, A Dog of New Orleans" in 2011 and entered the initial draft into the PAGE, where it won a Silver Prize. I continued to work on the script. In 2014, I entered a newer draft into the Nicholl and it advanced to the Semifinals. Last spring I did another polish on the script and submitted it to the NYWIFT Writers Lab, where it made the Finals. And late last year I sent the script into ScreenCraft, and happily, it won the Grand Prize.

After that success, what made you keep working on the script?

Whenever I read through a screenplay that I’ve written, regardless of how finished I think is, I see places where it can be improved. Maybe enhancing a character, or adding or eliminating a scene. After finishing a screenplay, I try to put it away for a few months. Returning to it with fresh eyes always surprises me. With "Buddy," I not only polished and tightened it on the re-writes, but I actually added two more short scenes to the third act.

Do you have a particular writing process or routine?

I don’t have a regimented routine. I’m a night person, and my most productive time is very late at night when the world around me is quiet and sleeping. I wait until I can close my eyes and roll the entire film in my head before writing the actual script. Of course things change -- sometimes drastically -- as I write and new ideas occur to me. But I start out with a clear idea of the story I want to tell.

What’s next on your writing agenda?

This year I had a creative spurt and started work on three new screenplays, a dramedy, a sci-fi drama, and an espionage thriller. I’ve finished two and I’m working madly to finish the third. Then comes the hard work of re-writing and polishing.