By Katie Chambers
Please join us in welcoming new NYWIFT member Stephanie Okun! Stephanie is a screenwriter/director and recent grad from Wesleyan University. She is currently working on a feature film that she started at Wesleyan called At Sea, as well as throwing herself into Production Assistant and other entry-level jobs. She is excited to be a part of NYWIFT and get more entrenched in the world of film and television.
Previously, Stephanie was a NYWIFT intern – and even wrote a few of the pieces in this series! Now, we’ve turned the microphone on her to learn about her writing, her theatrical roots, and her dreams for the future.
Tell us about yourself – give us your elevator pitch!
I’m Stephanie! I’m from New York. I lived in the city as a little girl then moved to Westchester for the rest of my childhood. I just recently graduated from Wesleyan University and I’m finally going after what I love to do, which is to write, direct, and be a part of creating things constantly.
I like to be active: I love to travel, paddleboard, and I just started horseback riding. I have a little Maltese named Jenny who I’m absolutely obsessed with and she’s super sweet but also very feisty, which is a personality type that I deeply relate to.
I love getting to know different kinds of people and feeling that I have made or done something that connects with them, which is probably why I’m so drawn to writing and this industry. Writing and my love of entertainment is such a huge part of who I am, but I’ve learned to expand my identity beyond just that.
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in filmmaking – was there a specific moment that set you down this path?
I always loved movies but, growing up in New York, I was first exposed to the theater and would go with my family all the time. I’ve told people that I wanted to write scripts for a living since I was in third grade and I always knew deep down, but I never had any evidence that this was truly my endgame until I joined programs at Stephen Sondheim’s Young Playwrights Inc. I submitted to their contests from the age of eight. Then, when I was 13, I got to meet them in person after I was a finalist in their Write A Play NYC competition. They were so welcoming and they knew who I was as soon as I introduced myself, saying that they had been reading my work for years and loved to see what I came up with next. It was so rewarding to that they enjoyed reading something that I wrote.
After that, I did their summer Urban Retreat intensive program before my freshman year of high school; that’s when I got real experience in the world that I wanted to be a part of and realized that I would like to stay there. So that’s when I went home at 14, after Day One of the intensive, and told my mom that it was official: this was what I wanted to do with my life. Next, I got into their year-long Advanced Playwriting Workshop and, finally, I did Urban Retreat again before my sophomore year of high school.
Unfortunately, the organization shut down when the artistic director who I adored, Sheri Goldhirsch, passed away suddenly. Now other YPI instructors like Brett Reynolds and NYWIFT member Fran McGarry are trying to revive it. When I joined Young Playwrights, I had never felt so prolific or freed up and seen in my life. I have been chasing the feeling of community and vibrant creativity that I had there since I left. Even as I have drifted more toward the world of film and TV, I will never forget my roots. They completely changed my life for the better and I’d love for their legacy to continue so stay tuned for their comeback!
Tell us about the screenplays you are developing now!
I wrote a script this year called At Sea. It’s about a lackadaisical 20-year-old in his sixth year of high school who skips classes to work at a fish store and run his own weed business on the side. He needs to get it together and move forward into adulthood but he has no interest in his own future. The question is: will that change over the course of his last semester?
I’m did a couple of industry table reads of it at the end of January. I originally wrote it as a feature but adapted it to make it a full-length play as well, which is why I had two different showcases– one for the film version and the other for the play version of the script.
I also have a couple of short films in the writing process and then a couple of other concepts that I’m grappling with. I generally have a lot of different ideas circulating at once. I don’t do it every day, as much as I wish I would, but I love to do free writes regularly and get my juices flowing. Whether it’s a scene, three-page ramble, or a random smattering of thoughts for an idea, I’ll write down whatever inspires me. It feels so healthy.
What kinds of projects excite and inspire you?
I live for a good, character-driven story and a riveting plot. These two elements along with incredible visuals can make for a classic film. I am in awe of vivid, innovative images on screen and I would love to incorporate those more into my own work but, recently, I’ve been really excited about the combination of the cinematic and the theatrical in film. For instance, The Whale! They took full advantage of the small space that they had and made it come alive– and no one would argue that Brendan Fraser’s performance wasn’t stellar. Again, I love a good film and theater world combo. Samuel Hunter and Darren Aronofsky make a great team and their collaboration inspired me, for sure.
I think that we need to expand our views on what film is and what the creative medium can do in the same way that we have a bit more with theater. Film is a newer form than theater so, of course, we haven’t had the same amount of time to explore it, but I believe that expansion is happening and will continue to happen. I’d love to be part of merging the two worlds one day!
Approaching entertainment with the eyes and ears of a screenwriter, what have been some of your favorite films or TV shows recently and why?
That’s so hard to say! I always find a new movie or TV show that I’m into so my answer could be completely different next week. I saw The Fabelmans and, unsurprisingly, that was spectacular. The mixture of the exciting way that the camera moved with the action and the dialogue that organically revealed so much about the protagonist’s relationships with the other people in his life was something that I aspire to achieve in my own productions. Steven Spielberg’s phenomenal directing and Tony Kushner’s real-feel writing is the obvious answer to this question but there are many others as well.
And even though I’m a narrative girl, I’m also a documentary junkie. I probably stream more documentaries and docuseries than anything else, but that’s a whole other question.
What is your dream job? What do you hope to be doing 10 or 20 years from now?
Writing and directing! Producing and acting! I want to be making things that a lot of people are aware of, watch, and are affected by. I want to be up there working with the best of the best. I want to be doing all of it but I also want to be having a full life with family, close friends, and lots of acquaintances. What is everything else if I don’t have good people in my life to ground me?
Every now and then, I worry about being able to find balance while working in this chaotic business where you get pulled away from your life so often due to traveling, working insane hours on sets in the rain and the cold and the heat, or just being so immersed in your own projects. I know that sometimes my social/personal life will take a hit as I’m pursuing this but I want both and I know other people who have both so why can’t I have it too? Maybe it’s a naïve answer because they say no one has it all but isn’t that the real dream? If we are dreaming, then we might as well dream big.
What made you decide to intern at NYWIFT, and what did you learn?
I was looking for opportunities post-grad this March and talking to Fran McGarry who recommended the internship. That’s when I applied. Then, I went to one of your zoom networking events, met a bunch of people, and loved it.
I’ve really enjoyed the nurturing community here. Being a part of NYWIFT has really cemented that the connections you make and the relationships that you form are everything, and I have greatly benefitted from the space that you have created for that. It’s really something special.
And what is next for you?
I wish I knew. I recently scored my first large-scale PA job. As of mid-December, I’ve only been on set one day so far but, of course, I loved it. My goal is to move into my own apartment in the city but I need to make a bit more money before I do that. So I’m looking at opportunities as a teacher, or a corporate speech writer, or something in Marketing and PR. Something more lucrative that I can do at the same time as I pursue this that can get me out of my grandparents’ house in Westchester and living independently again. But hopefully much more than that! I’m excited about the two short film scripts that I’m working on right now too.
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Congratulations to NYWIFT Board Member Joyce Pierpoline, Executive Producer of Mediha, which just took home the U.S. Competition Grand Jury Prize at DOC NYC! In this immensely collaborative film, a Yazidi teen once held captive by ISIS takes us into her world of grief, pain, and hope. We spoke to Pierpoline (prior to the exciting win) about her involvement in this important film.READ MORE