Interview with actress, writer, and director Reem Kadem.
Reem is a first generation, Iraqi American, who received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Screenwriting as a graduate of Cal State University Northridge. She has been endorsed as a screenwriter/script consultant by top tier industry such as Academy Award Winning Producer, Fred Roos (“The Godfather: Part II”) Head of Production at Storyboard Media, Patrick Hibler (“The Comeback Trail”), Executive of Emmy Winning Office to Howard Gordon, Hugh Fitzpatrick (“Tyrant”), Founder of The Script Lab, Derek Luke, and many more. As a writer, she has been optioned, and has provided a multitude of script doctoring services for projects throughout her career, one to note, includes her work on a feature film adaptation of a book by the legendary, Pulitzer Prize/Academy Award Winning Writer, William Inge (“Splendor In The Grass”).
Reem has worked as a coverage analyst of scripts in virtually every genre, for Academy Award and Golden Globe Winning Offices such as FR Productions (Fred Roos – “The Godfather: Part II”), Atlas Entertainment (Charles Roven – “American Hustle”), “Mosaic” (Jimmy Miller – “Bad Teacher”), and Colleen Camp Productions (First Lady Of Paramount – “Above Suspicion”). She has gained accolades in screenplay competitions for her work as a writer, and also received attention in Variety, for directing and producing a documentary entitled “Self Serve,” a project that was done in an effort to help waiters preserve their tips, so that restaurant owners and managers would not have the freedom to pocket those tips for themselves. As a result, her project gained international distribution with WeShort, a company that has acquired films of all kinds, including ones that have gained Academy Award Acclaim. Along with her diverse work in writing and producing, she has also been featured in Creative Screenwriting Magazine with Screenwriter Mark Protosevich (“I Am Legend”), Producer, Robert Katz (“Law Abiding Citizen”), Literary Manager/Producer, Danny Sherman (“Wireless”), Two-tme Academy Award Winning Screenwriter/Director, Paul Haggis (“Crash”), among others. She was also featured in Medium’s Nostos Screenwriting Retreat with Academy Award Nominated Screenwriter, Jeff Arch (“Sleepless in Seattle”), Director, Tony Kaye (“American History X”), and a plethora of other respected Hollywood industry. Her featured article, written by Michael Lee Simpson, was ranked “Best of 2020” as one of the top 10 by Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
From start to finish, what is your process writing a screenplay? Does it vary depending on the story?
For film it tends to remain pretty consistent, and it’s been that way for years when I begin the process. For TV, it can vary a bit because of its format but the same sort of rules apply in creating and shaping great characters, plot, dialogue, theme etc.
When I prepare to write a project, I focus a lot on outlining and flashcarding, and in that order. I first begin with notes, in terms of theme and characters, and what I want that story to be. I do a lot of creative thinking as well, just in my thoughts about the world and where I want everything to land before I put pen to paper. Then with my notes and thoughts I’ve gathered, I begin with an outline that will breakdown the acts and the main beats that drive the story forward, with something called Hero Goal Sequences. So each sequence I present will lead to something new that slightly or greatly shifts the hero or heroes into the next beat of the story. Of course, certain beats, like the end of Act I, or the point of no return in Act II, are going to represent a stronger shift than other beats, but all are important, and they all need to be carefully thought out. I then break it down into scenes with flashcards on a board – and essentially, each flashcard represents an entire scene. It could be “Bob gets in a fight with his wife about another man.” That, as an example would be a sentence on a flashcard.
One of the key ingredients, is the importance of theme which must be infused into every scene, and that really is important in heightening the material. So if your story is about freedom versus segregation, or love, or friendship, etc. it must be made clear, even in the subplots as you lay it all out. Once I begin actually writing the script, the real fun begins, because then you really get to fly, while knowing you have the solid structure to back it up. I get excited, giddy like a little kid in a candy shop, once I sit down to write the scene following the flashcards, because now I really get to play after more of the hard work has been done. I think most often, people don’t take the time to do the real ground work that it takes. I used to be a swimmer, where I would just write based on instinct, but I realized pretty quickly, how much more powerful it was to take this route, and for me, I’ve applied this approach ever since to my work. It turns my first draft into a sixth draft, because so much time and thought is put into the construction of it all, and I love it even more because of that.
What are three essential elements you can recommend that make a screenplay stand out from the rest?
So in going back to the first question, I want to hit on theme first and foremost. What is your story about? How does that represent itself in the characters and the scenes you design for the reader and your audience? Because ultimately, that’s what you’re doing. You’re creating a world, but the theme is like the detailed design that you specify it to be. Anyone can say, I’ll set this in outer space, and write a story about an astronaut. Or it’s about a lawyer in England fighting for a cause. But what are you trying to say with this story? Your theme is the message you are sending out. It’s your SOS in a way. And that theme should be big. It should be grand, and ideally, be one that can reach the masses. That is how you know you have a story that hits hearts and minds on a major level. Your story can be off the wall, in a small town, strange and weird, and that’s all cool and dandy, but your theme should be big, because that is your hook to the relatability of your reader, to your audience, and to the human condition. And it should be clear in the first 3 pages or less.
Your story structure is going to be essential, and it also goes back to the preliminary question, but it makes the top 3 no doubt, because so many times, people have a great idea, they have nice dialogue, and they have interesting characters, but they don’t have a story structure that has its own two legs to stand on. It usually falls apart somewhere around Act II, and you can see it floundering because it wasn’t planned properly, but relied on some talent and a thought process as opposed to actual preparation. Am I saying people can’t write a great script without it? No, of course not, it has been and can be done, but I would say that no matter the talent, it takes a certain type of luck, and that isn’t the greatest bet when it comes to the competition. Preparation meeting opportunity will give you the greatest odds to stand out with a screenplay. The greatest construction worker still has a floor plan and a blueprint. The most brilliant directors still have a storyboard… The third thing I would say, is that your hero must be active and not passive, which essentially will also directly link back to conflict. The worst thing is to read a script and see a hero who isn’t doing much, where all these things are continuing to happen to him or her, and it becomes stagnant. How can we root for a hero that isn’t making an effort to take the bull by the horns? How can he or she be a hero if they’re not somehow taking charge? So I think it’s important to really be mindful of that, because it happens more often than we think, and it can become a trap several pages in, when a writer runs out of action steps or ideas, and falls back on events that become stasis.
What are some common mistakes you see in the screenplays you read?
Funny how I’m anticipating answers before looking… Definitely going back to the inactive hero, as that is a major one, and can be a big red flag if not executed properly. Not having a theme that is clear, or jumping around with different thematic ideas. It’s about this, and this and that. No. It should be crystal clear. Sometimes, on rare occasion, two thematic elements apply, but one has to be careful, because they will often find that it comes down to one and it tends to be most effective that way. Dialogue that is overwritten and repetitive weighs a script down in a big way and weakens it. Don’t underestimate your reader’s intelligence. Subtext is king, and so is bending the language. Another one is lacking structure and direction in your story. If you have strong dialogue and intriguing characters, but a story that is going nowhere, or taking forever to get there, then what’s the point? Also, excessive action description or not enough where necessary is another common one. Your action description should be punchy and (for the majority), displayed in fragments. Full sentences are not the way to go as an overall rule.
It’s about moving it along with a rhythm and pacing. Scripts with typos all over the place are definitely not a good look. Make sure to re-read and re-read and re-read, and read it like a reader. Don’t read it like you, but pretend you’re a coverage reader getting a script and take yourself out of it. The last thing you want people to think is that you’re sloppy with your work and don’t care enough, because if you don’t care, why should they?
What makes a story worth telling?
A story is worth telling if you can have an interesting, admirable and/or likable hero, in an ordinary world they live in, disrupted by a major event that catapults them into a new world. And in that journey from ordinary world, to new world, to the finish line, this hero must fight seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Then and only then, can you say that you have a story to tell. Before that, it’s just a concept or an idea that may or may not work.
Stories can also seem like they’re small or strange, but it’s about the execution by that writer, and the most odd and unlikely story, can be extremely powerful and effective, if done right. So it all depends on how impactfully that writer establishes this world and conflict. Also, I think it’s really key to think about the set ups and the payoffs in a story. Often times, people forget, that your twists and turns are some of the most important elements of the storytelling process. A set up is something in the story that can leave you hanging, or that dangles in the story through the display of plot, dialogue, and characters, and is paid off, with the right follow up, that either ties the twist, ties the joke back, or whatever that may be in the cause and effect, that threads the continuation of beats in the narrative.
What is your advice on how to effectively take feedback on your material and how and when to apply it?
I’ve always had a group of readers I trust that I go to, and it alternates from time to time, or it will change slightly depending on availability and relationships that evolve. But I suggest always – going to a handful of writers or more to get initial feedback. I would certainly not go to less than 3, because at bare minimum, you want to “break the tie.” So for instance, I have a rule, that if more than one person says something about the script, I consider it, but if 3 or more say it, then that’s really something I should go back and look at. I also think about my own preference and weigh in of course, if I disagree entirely, which can at times be the case, but is rare. Perhaps it’s a true story which I know like the back of my hand, and people may question the efficacy of that truth, that could be something where I have to make my own judgment call, or, I may need to present that truth in a different manner, so that it can be more effective in how I want people to receive it.
I think that if you’re taking feedback directly on the phone or in person, you should listen, and allow the person to speak. They took the time to read your material and whether you agree or disagree, you asked for that feedback. As a side note, I’ll get to feedback, that you also didn’t ask for, but are required to receive in a moment. When it comes to the requested feedback, make sure to take notes on what they say, because you will want to remember these comments, to remind yourself of what you don’t agree on, just as much as what you do agree on. This becomes important once you have others weighing in and all your notes are back. I think as far as responses to people who give you feedback: avoid being defensive, because ultimately it is your story and your script. You can offer clarity as to why you made certain choices, certainly, but it shouldn’t be a war.
Now, going back to required feedback: if this is someone that is a higher up, who determines your next step, like an executive you’re working for on a studio or independent film, or for a TV series in a writer’s room, you need to find that delicate balance. Working with other writers in a writer’s room, becomes a much more collaborative effort, but the showrunner is in charge. You ultimately don’t have the final say over the person hiring you to do the job, but you can ask insightful questions, or even ask to digest it all and come back to them with more clear headed thoughts; not to argue them, but to have a conversation and see how open they may be to meeting you in the middle on a few things. In that instance though, you will have to be willing to lose a few times, and that’s just the name of the game, when someone else is writing your check.
What would you suggest to writers who are trying to effectively write comedy and how did you incorporate that when writing with “The Real Me”?
I think comedy is an amazing craft, and such a noble one. It’s harder than straight drama, because it’s more challenging to think of ways to make a majority laugh at something. That’s often why, except for the rare few, comedies don’t translate as well overseas as they do domestically. It’s a beautiful challenge, and I would recommend keeping several things in mind. The first, being, the reversals. When writing comedy, one must always remember the reversal, which essentially is the moment that follows a statement or action that is opposite of what you thought was coming. It’s the woman who pretends to love the dish at her table and then immediately turns around and nearly pukes. That’s funny–because we don’t expect her to turn so quickly, and yet she does. And it’s the same with the idea of surprise. Comedy is all about surprise and misunderstanding. One person says one thing, another person says another, and they understand each other in entirely different ways, thus leading to more disastrous results, which become high stakes and highly comedic.
Comedy must be filled with huge conflict. It’s an emotional life death but on a humorous level. Theme and preparation all apply the same here. And when it comes to your characters in particular, it’s important to keep the various viewpoints in mind, so the jokes become clear. As an example, in watching “Friends,” the writers were clear on the type of response Chandler would give, as opposed to Joey or Rachel, because they knew these characters inside and out, and therefore, the jokes were born from their understanding of who they are and how they distinctly view the world.
“The Real Me” has some really exciting new developments that I’m thrilled about, as we just brought on some great stars to add to the project, including major comedian, Maz Jobrani (Netflix’s “The Immigrant”) who is currently attached to direct and star. So we look forward to sharing more on this soon.
You wrote an intense true story biopic called “Betrader.” Can you tell us about that and the fine line between truth and writing for the screen?
I think that writing for the screen requires that we not only propel the conflict throughout the story, but that we also heighten the language of the characters and their dialogue. So essentially, it’s a dance between capturing truth, while still bringing out the cinematic appeal that will excite the readers and viewers to watch the film or TV series. Heightening the language is another way of creating a more clever form of dialogue. It’s not exactly how we may talk at a coffee shop to our friend on a Sunday afternoon. It’s more compact, it has purpose, and instills conflict. I emphasize these two things in particular, because when it came to “Betrader,” which was based on a real family, I was honored to receive the feedback that when they did read the final script, they felt that I had basically captured 95% of truth in the project. Now that being said, I heightened the language with the use of my own imagination in many scenes, but overall, it captured the essence of what that moment in their life was about. That’s the job of the writer, to create something magical on the page while still capturing the intention of that story.
As far as any true story I’ve dealt with, this one most definitely was the closest to the truth of any script I’ve written. This family’s life was so filled with conflict, that one of the responses I got from my group of readers literally was: Really? Did this actually happen to them? And of course my response was: Yes, it did.
My lead hero in particular faces some of the most unjust treatment one can imagine, and really tries all he can to be the good guy in world filled with greed and corruption. The project involves an internationally notorious individual, but this is a story and a side that no one has yet to hear. It’s a cross between “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” and to my fortune, has already gotten the interest of an Academy Award Winner to direct. So we’re looking at various financing options right now. I’m thrilled about the story, because not only have I become very close to the family, but it will also provide freedom to the hero who is under a different identity today. And to me, that’s the stuff that art is made of. What better way to create something, than to help people in the world along the way, so I look forward to us being on our way to getting that mission accomplished.
Tell us about “Baghdad in the Bronx.”
That project is a special one, and quite personal to me, as it is loosely inspired by my mother who escaped Saddam Hussein’s Regime in 1979. In reality, my mother was thrown in jail by the regime and was forced to escape the country or be killed, so she had no choice but to flee. I took license with the project and turned it into a historical fiction, espionage thriller, a la a female Bourne type, with a “Three Days Of The Condor” sort of feel.
I not only wrote it for the screen, but I recently just completed my debut novel for the story, which has been endorsed by Academy Award Winning, International and New York Times Best Selling Writers. It’s been such a thrill to accomplish something like this, and now I’m in waiting mode, as it’s out to some very big agents.
I didn’t plan on being an author, but it just sort of happened, and I’m really glad it did. I enjoy writing books, and while it’s very different than screenwriting, it’s enormously satisfying and creatively fulfilling in its own right. They’re spectacular crafts, and I’m grateful to be able to do both and be received so strongly in both mediums.
You recently signed with Rough Diamond Entertainment. How do you see that shaping your career from now on?
We just signed on the acting front, yes, and I’m so thrilled about it all. My managers are awesome, and Julia Verdin, who is the president of Rough Diamond, has also been a long time producer. In fact, she just directed and produced a movie called “Angie: Lost Girls” which was featured in Times Square and has not only released in the US but also in the UK and Australia. It’s hitting several platforms and has been in theaters all over. The film deals with the subject of sex trafficking and is a powerful piece, that I recommend everyone go see. She’s produced all kinds of films including “The Merchant Of Venice” starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons, “2 Jacks” starring Sienna Miller and Billy Zane, and many others. She’s a director on the board of the BAFTA committee, so I know who to go to if I’m trying to go up for one… I jest, but ya never know, that is a goal on the acting front.
We’ve discussed some different thoughts on addressing a script of mine on their producing side. Julia has been a fan of my writing and being my manager, it’s exciting to think about the potential of where we may go with a vehicle and what not, so it’s definitely a conversation. Laura Nickowitz is also my manager there, and she’s been so great to work with. She’s a go getter and really believes in me. And Julia’s partner, Jason Piette focuses on the production side – he’s a terrific and smart guy in the business. They’re very selective and have a tight roster of about 30 clients, so it’s a beautiful thing to have that intimate of a list, and with great talents. Their client, Jamie Harris is one of the main cast in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and just landed a series regular in Amazon Prime’s “Carnival Row” with Orlando Bloom, so the company has some heavy weight, and they’ve already opened so many doors and opportunities for me with Casting, so I can’t wait to see where our journey will all go… I’m excited and proud to be part of their stellar team.