Interview (Part 1): Grace Sherman

My interview with the 2018 Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting winner.

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Allison and Nicolas Buckmelter wrote the original screenplay “American Refugee” which won a 2018 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with the married couple about their backgrounds, their award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to them.

Today in Part 1 of a 6 part series to run each day through Saturday, Allison and Nicholas talk about how their mutual interest in writing brought them together to form a creative and life partnership.

Scott Myers: OK, Allison, let’s start with you. I believe you hail from Portland, Oregon.

Allison Buckmelter: Yes.

Scott: Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, how did you catch the movie/TV/writing bug?

Allison: I caught the bug early on. It’s one of those fun full-circle stories. My high school had a playwriting class, which I took and loved. At the end of the year, screenwriter Mike Rich, who’s from Portland and had a connection to our school, came and spoke to our class.

He had won the Nicholl fellowship a couple of years earlier, and “Finding Forrester” had just come out. That was his Nicholl‑winning script. He talked all about the screenwriting business, and I was really taken with it.

I remember I went up to him after class, and I said, “How do you do this? How do you get to be a screenwriter?” He said, “Oh, well you just need to win the Nicholl.” [laughs]

I was like, “OK. Cool. I’ll remember that.” Over the years, I started applying to the Nicholl. When Nick and I finally won it, we met another writer who had won the fellowship around the time Mike Rich did. I told her the story, and she reached out to Mike that night.

Soon after, when Nick and I were in Portland for Thanksgiving, we found ourselves having coffee with Mike. He had remembered coming and talking to my high school class. He’s the nicest person. I think we talked for a couple of hours. He’s been great about giving us advice.

That’s a fun thing that’s come out of this, being in contact with him.

Scott: He’s been quite successful. He did The Rookie and Secretariat. I know he’s involved in that. I think he even did some writing on Cars 3 for Pixar.

Allison: Yeah.

Scott: Did you ever attend the Willamette Writers Conference there, or no?

Allison: No. I’ve never done that.

Scott: I’ve done that twice now as a presenter in workshops and whatnot. In fact, they invited me back again this year, too.

Allison: It sounds great. I haven’t gotten a chance to do that yet. I went to the University of Oregon and they had, at the time, a pretty small film program. It wasn’t even really a full department, but they had screenwriting classes and so I took all those.

It was fun, because James Ivory is a University of Oregon alum, so he came and spoke to our class. That was really inspiring. Right after graduating I came down to LA ‑‑ a month or two after graduating ‑‑ got a job as a receptionist at a management company, started interning at a couple production companies, and reading scripts and that kind of thing. Then met Nicolas. The rest is history.

Scott: I was going to say, nice segue. Nicolas, you’re a native of Los Angeles.

Nicolas Buckmelter: I am.

Scott: You might not have had the fateful intersections with Mike Rich or James Ivory. You had the omnipresence of entertainment world around you 24/7 growing up. Did that inspire you to get into screenwriting or was there some other path?

Nicolas: Although I was born and raised in Los Angeles, my family wasn’t connected to entertainment. It was always, from my perspective, something that other people did. It took quite a while to come to the realization that this was something that I could do as well, that I wasn’t disconnected from the process because I wasn’t involved in it early on.

Scott: Were you a movie and TV fan growing up? When did you start to make the connection, “Oh, there’s people who actually write this stuff?”

Nicolas: I was a writing major at the University of California at San Diego, where they put me through the wringer with all kinds of writing from journalism to poetry to short stories to drama. My last two years there were heavily involved in playwriting and screenwriting.

In those two years it started to really click that, “Yeah, I can do this. I can be involved in this. This, one day, could be a job to pursue.” I had dabbled in playwriting in high school, but just for fun and to amuse my friends. It wasn’t until college when I really started to believe that this was potentially a vocation.

Allison: It took you a little while to get to it. You were an editor for a newspaper.

Nicolas: That’s true.

Allison: You were a musician.

Nicolas: Yeah.

Allison: You started writing. Then you started entertainment and then brought those two together.

Nicolas: After college I worked as a writer and an editor for the Mammoth Times, the local newspaper in Mammoth Lakes, so I was doing a bit of journalism. From there, through a roundabout process I was hired as a musician in Japan for Disney and then for Universal.

I was constantly trying to write scripts, even while I was living in Mammoth and in Japan. After returning from Japan I met Allison, who had just moved down from Portland. We began looking over each other’s shoulders at projects we were working on, and at some point we each felt comfortable enough to chime in.

I became a big fan of Allison’s writing, and apparently she liked what I was doing. Eventually, we turned it into a partnership and started working together.

Scott: Did the partnership come before the romance or vice versa?

Allison: No, we started dating first.

Nicolas: It was romance right out of the gate.

Scott: You knew right away.

Allison: I was interning in Santa Monica, but I lived in Echo Park. That’s quite a commute. To wait out the traffic, I would go over to an Irish pub called Finn McCool’s. They had an open session where musicians would bring an instrument and play, and I would go there and do that, and so would Nick. That’s how we met, playing music.

Then, when we started really talking to each other, it came out fairly quickly that we were both writers. When we began dating, we’d let each other in on what we were writing. I thought Nick had such great ideas. I just wanted to get in on it.

[laughter]

Allison: When we first started writing together, we were writing more relationship‑romantic comedies, dramedies, that kind of thing. To be dating and writing those was really fun, and it was helpful to have a guy and a girl perspective. That’s what we started out doing. Then we pivoted to dramatic thrillers.

Here is video of Allison and Nicholas receivng their 2018 Nicholl Award in December of last year from documentary filmmaker Stephen Ujlaki:

Tomorrow in Part 2, Allison and Nicholas discuss how focusing on writing romantic comedies, they were inspired their Nicholl-winning screenplay “American Refugee.”

For my interviews with every Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting winners since 2012, go here.

For my interviews with 53 Black List writers, go here.

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