A Day’s Work: Katie Cokinos, screenwriter and director

Originally from Texas, Katie Cokinos has lived in many places. A graduate of Texas A&M, with a degree in history and philosophy, Cokinos has been building her craft as a screenwriter and director. An avid writer, reader and thinker, she is passionate about her work. She currently resides in Saugerties with her husband and two children. You can find her latest film I Dream Too Much on Netflix.

How did you get into this line of work? 

Texas A&M is where I really discovered film. I was studying to go on to law school. but once I graduated I wanted to see if I could make a living from my love for watching movies. Even in high school and probably even before that, I was interested in writing. I wasn’t sure what shape that would take, though.

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In the back of my head I always knew I wanted to do something that involved writing, but I had cinema on such a pedestal that I didn’t think that I could actually make movies. I didn’t dive into it.

I’ve always been a journal writer, and there came a point when I was working on other people’s films and I realized that maybe my journals could be used to inspire films. From there, I created a short ten-minute film called Red. It moved into me wanting to tell bigger stories. I wrote Portrait of a Girl as a Young Cat, which premiered in 2000 at the South by Southwest festival.

My writing still starts from a place of journaling. It’s very personal. The first thing I do in the morning is write down my dreams, and I go into writing that way.

Once I became a stay-at-home mom, my film work became more focused on writing, because that is what I had time for. I started writing scripts here and there while the kids napped and such. I tried to get [the scripts] going, but it was hard because they were bigger-budget-type films. My husband suggested setting one of them in Saugerties, and that is how I Dream Too Much came to be.

It came from a practical side but a very personal side. I’m [the character] Dora to a certain extent, though without the Aunt Vera. It’s the story of sitting, of not jumping up and running and traveling and losing yourself in traveling. She has to shut out the world to find herself and avoid the societal pressure.

It’s very significant to me. I’m working on a new project now with a friend of mine, and we are looking to shoot here in Saugerties again.

What type of work did you do with film prior to writing?

Before I became a screenwriter I ran the Austin Film Society. I was showing films and curating. I also worked with the South by Southwest film festival in its early years, the Cinema Texas festival and the Austin film festival, too. I am an audience member first. I love watching movies.

I was also a location scout and manager in Austin, where I worked on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Return of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It was a nice balance of showing films, hands-on seeing how a film comes together, and writing my own short films that were based on music that inspired me.

What advice would you give someone who is thinking about becoming a screenwriter?

One of the first things I tell any aspiring filmmaker is to know the history of film, because you quickly realize it’s all been done before and done really, really well. So it’s very humbling. And you need to watch a lot of movies. I was watching four movies a day because I needed to be able to cultivate my own voice and vision.

If you talk to any really successful filmmaker, they know what they like and what they don’t like. It’s also great working on a film set and seeing how decisions are made. You get to see how collaborative the whole process is.  Make little shorts. That is the way to go. A feature, a 90-minute film, is a daunting task. I’d recommend doing short films about things that inspire you.

I don’t necessarily think you have to go to film school. It’s very expensive. My husband did go to film school and has his master’s in film. He would probably disagree with me.

Do you think screenwriting in different than other types of creative writing?

As far as being alone for hours in your office and starting at a blank page, I think it’s pretty much the same. Also embracing every step of it and not being too quick to move through any stage you’re in. Right now I am at the beginning part of putting a story together, and I’m trying to enjoy it even though I can’t wait for it to be a full story. Rushing through it harms your work. I think having an emotional connection to your work is probably the same for novels and non-fiction. You have to feel it in your gut each step of the way.

Something that really helps me write is having a title that you really love. When I wrote Portrait of a Girl as a Young Cat every morning I woke up trying to figure out that title. Trying to figure out what a portrait of a girl as a young cat would be really inspired me. It was the same with I dream too much. I wrote as Dora, in her journals. And one day she said “I dream too much.” And there it was, that was the title. Writing is very much a craft, and when you are in it you feel that. You are crafting a story.

What sort of person do you think would make a good screenwriter?

Someone who likes to be alone and talk to themselves. Someone who has this passion to tell a story, who can’t not tell the story. Since I also direct I immediately think about how I would direct it, so there is that aspect, too. But anyone who is in love with movies and who wants to take that on, they should do it.

What do you think a common misconception about screenwriting is?

I thought all really good writers, when they were born, had this special gift. And I thought. Well, I’d love to do it but I don’t have it. But you can’t say that about yourself until you take it on. And your first draft should not be any clue as to how good your writing is. It requires a lot of perseverance. People might think that it just flows easily, but it takes a lot of work.

How are your hours? Does it provide for a good work-life balance?

I write in the morning. If I don’t write in the morning, I won’t write the rest of the day. My brain gets too cluttered because I am mom and there are so many other things I’d rather be doing than writing sometimes. I’d much rather go have tea with my friends or clean the bathrooms sometimes! Other times I can’t wait to get down to it.

It’s just hard, and it is work. I am able to write and get the kids to school and then write for a few more hours.

What makes for a good day?

If I wake up and I’ve had a dream that informs something that I’ve been working on. I love moving out of that and sinking into my characters and having good questions that bind me really close to the story. Sometimes when I am out walking the dog or out at the store, some thought will pop into my head that I need to rush home and write down. When the characters and stories are totally embedded in my head, ideas just come to life, and it makes for a good day.

What about a bad day?

When it is hard to focus and I am distracted. Then I get impatient or anxious, and then I am not asking good questions and digging into my characters and story.

What is your favorite movie?

It would be a three-way tie between Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman, Gigi by Vincente Minnelli, and Auntie Mame starring Rosalind Russell. Each one is a jewel.

Do you see yourself doing this ten years from now?

Yeah. I can’t figure out what else to do. I can’t imagine not writing, even though most of the writing I do no one will ever see. I am a better person when I have it in my life. It grounds me.

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