Tears are welling up in Renee Pillai’s eyes as she recounts the life-changing turn of events of the past few months.
Last November, Renee became the first Malaysian to win the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, a prestigious screenwriting fellowship programme administered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Yes, the very people who give out the Oscars.
Renee joined its annual screenwriting competition, submitting her film script, Boy With Kite. She became one of five winners whose submission beat out over 7,300 scripts from all over the world.
Besides a US$35,000 (RM143,000) prize money, winning a Nicholl fellowship is seen as a launch pad to a screenwriting career in an otherwise nearly impenetrable Hollywood landscape. Screenwriters like Susannah Grant got her start as a Nicholl Fellow before she went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Erin Brockovich.
“I couldn’t believe it, ” she says in an interview with StarLifestyle after returning to Malaysia from her win.
Renee is, of course, talking about the near-impossible odds she has beaten to win the Nicholl Fellowship. But as our interview unfolds further, she reveals she has been fighting against the odds long before.
Starting from scratch
Renee, who always had a passion for words, has been working as a freelance writer in Malaysia for many years. From infomercials promoting kitchen utensils to a local reality modeling series reminiscent of America’s Next Top Model, she took on all sorts of writing jobs.
But working on a contract basis for most of her career hasn’t been easy. Renee, who lives about 16km away from Kuala Lumpur, often worried about her day to day expenses, especially since she’s the sole breadwinner of her family.
She adds: “There was a medical condition in my family so most of the money I made went to paying for the expenses and simply keeping a roof over our heads.”
She later worked as a content consultant for telcos and though the pay was much better, she quickly felt unfulfilled.
“I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? I’ve always wanted to write movies'.”
Renee then spent over a year immersing herself into researching how to write scripts.
“Screenwriting is a very different form of writing and because I never attended a writing class or went to film school, I read up on books about them such as Syd Field’s Screenplay and Aristotle’s Poetics. I also read as many screenplays as I could online.”
Renee finally felt ready to write her own script in 2014. As the years progressed, she mustered up the courage to submit her film script to the Nicholl Fellowship.
In a world that operates on the saying “it’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know, ” Renee found it refreshing that the Nicholl Fellowship cared solely about the quality of her work.
“It might be a warped perception. It could just be my own lack of ability. But it did seem like to get any play here, you either already had to be in the industry or you had to be rich, or you had to be connected. And I'm none of those things, ” she reflects on her past experiences.
“So what appealed to me about the Nicholl is that these things didn’t matter. You just have to tell a good story.”
Every script submitted to the Nicholl Fellowship goes through a blind read – meaning, the judges are unaware of any of the scriptwriters' personal details.
“They don’t know where you come from, your gender, your age, your race – nothing.”
Stringent selection process
Renee’s first two attempts at the Nicholl Fellowship were unsuccessful. She was informed the furthest her script made it to was among the top 10% (a shortlist of roughly 700 scripts) one year. By the time 2019 came around, Boy With Kite marked her third attempt.
She recalls the incredibly stringent selection process Boy With Kite went through before it came out tops.
“At the very first level, each script is read by two different readers who are industry professionals. The script will then be awarded points, which will determine whether it gets a third read.”
Top scoring scripts will advance to the next round where it will be read and scored by more readers. This goes on for multiple rounds, with the script in the later rounds read by Oscar nominees and winners.
When a script makes it to the finals, at least eight different people would’ve given it a seal of approval.
In 2019,7, 302 scripts were whittled down to only 12 scripts in the final round of the competition.
“I didn’t realise how prestigious this was. Just getting into the finals, as the Academy blasts out your name to the industry, you start getting calls from managers and agents requesting for more scripts.”
In the finals, the Academy Nicholl Fellowships Committee which comprises members from the various branches of the Academy – the actors’ branch, writers’, producers’ and more – engage in a robust discussion before arriving at the five winners.
“I had the hope, but not the confidence, ” she shares about being named one of the five winners.
Renee says she is indebted to her friends who not only gave her the confidence to pursue her dreams when she had none, but the financial support.
“My friends, who are not rich either, all pooled in money and paid for my passport, US visa and various expenses to attend the award ceremony.”
Pain and laughter
Set in Nebraska, Boy With Kite opens with a cold, steely 50-something woman who has to take care of her 10-year-old nephew after her brother, whom she hasn’t spoken to in years, passes away.
“It’s a story about forgiveness and redemption. It’s something everyone can connect to. We all have people in our lives who have done something to us that makes us go, ‘we never want to see this person again'.”
Renee reveals despite its dramatic theme, she added a twist of humour to her script at the last minute.
“Human beings are a dichotomy between tragedy and comedy. If I can tap into that realistically, the audience will be able to relate to it.”
She also talks about setting the story in Nebraska: “I’ve never been to Nebraska and I think that’s the beauty of it – the ability to tell stories that’s not tied to the colour of my skin.”
Renee is currently in the early stages of getting Boy With Kite on the big screen. She reveals the other scripts she previously submitted for the Nicholl Fellowship but was unsuccessful are also garnering attention from production companies.
At the same time, she is working on a new script as part of the fellowship programme. Due to financial constraints, she is currently fulfilling her fellowship in Malaysia.
“I can complete my fellowship here. But in terms of getting my career off the ground in Los Angeles, there are a lot of things that’s currently stuck because I’m not able to meet people and pitch ideas there.”
Renee hopes to fly over when she receives the next instalment of her grant money (it is broken up into multiple instalments, depending on the progress of her work).
Though the budding screenwriter still struggles to meet the day-to-day expenses, she takes it all in her stride, noting, “I don’t begrudge the struggles that I had.”
She looks back on her journey and hopes her story can help inspire others.
“It’s hard and I’ve seen people lose hope. I want those who feel like they can’t do it, that they don’t have the means, to not give up.”
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