Big Break Winner Michael Morra on his Inspiration, Style and Biggest Writing Regret
March 10, 2023
When Michael Morra started receiving notifications that his screenplay, About McKenna, was advancing in the Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Contest he was both excited and curious. With each email, he was advancing to the Top 10 then winning the category and eventually becoming the 2022 Feature Grand Prize Winner and, as the screenplays slowly dwindled to the finalists, Morra would try to learn more about his competition and explore what the competing screenplays were about.
Morra shares, “It was really exciting and the thing is I started to look up the other writers to see what their scripts were about. You figure anyone who made it that far is executing their story really well and then I started reading the loglines and they were great ideas. So. you’re hoping you’re going to win but the other writers had great ideas too.”
About McKenna is a highly-contained thriller and Morra doubted that it would stand much of a chance against the others that won the other categories.
“When I learned I won, I was shocked,” he says.
About McKenna is about a mental health therapist who takes a break from her practice when one of her clients commits suicide. To make ends meet, she becomes a ride share driver. She gets more than she bargained for when she’s hired by a suicidal teenager on graduation night.
Morra was inspired to write this story as he wanted to explore the flaws in the mental health system in an honest way, especially when it comes to helping teens and young adults experiencing a mental health crisis.
As the father of three teenage girls and a husband to a therapist, he sees how teenagers can’t always process their emotions, especially anger, sadness and grief and how it leads to things like drugs, suicide and violence.
“That was the backdrop to it,” Morra states, “With teenagers in high school I can see the things going on in their school so that is what inspired the story.”
Another inspiration beyond the theme of the story was his desire to write a contained thriller similar to ones that he found intriguing from years ago such as Collateral, a Michael Mann thriller about a contract killer (Tom Cruise) who hires a cab driver (Jamie Foxx) to drive him to the various locations to kill those on his list. Morra’s film puts Lily, a bullied teen in the backseat of the car eager to confront the people who bullied her and her friend, McKenna. The ride share driver is Jessica who can spot Lily’s depression and suicidal tendencies.
“It’s Collateral meets 13 Reasons Why,” he explains.
It's only been a few weeks since Morra found out that he won the contest but already his career is gaining some traction.
About McKenna has received a lot of attention and downloads on Coverfly and an executive from Mar Vista, a company that produces a lot of Lifetime thrillers and content for Tubi, reached out. One of the big sells was the idea that Lily was a sympathetic villain.
On top of that, he had a conversation with a director interested in taking on the project. The company passed the script around the office and they seem eager to set something up.
This is all before Morra heads to Los Angeles for a series of meetings with executives, managers and agents provided by Final Draft to the winner of the Big Break Screenwriting Contest.
Morra’s Writing Process
Morra’s process is similar to many successful screenwriters, but he creates his own version that accommodates his style.
He likes to outline the basic story to get all the main beats down. He’s not a notecard type of outliner unless the story gets really complicated with a lot of scenes and notes.
“I’ll do the notecards but I’ll also write a treatment, even if it’s only 5-6 pages long,” Morra says.
He then spends a lot of time creating character bios.
For About McKenna there were the two main characters: Lily and Jessica, and between the two of them he had nearly 30 pages of single-spaced notes on a Word document that he confesses would only make sense to him.
“Once I started writing, I felt I knew the characters well. That made writing the script a lot easier,” he shares of writing the script.
Why be a Screenwriter?
Morra always liked stories and writing. He was an English major in college and was torn between becoming a teacher or a lawyer. He ended up in law school.
He says of his decision, “The thing that attracted me to law is the same thing that attracted me to screenwriting – it’s really story. I used to do trial practice and my mentor in law school and a few other teachers always told me that when you’re conducting a trial you’re telling a story, whether it’s a discrimination case or just a car accident.”
His itch to write creatively and try scriptwriting happened in law school when he started studying for the Pennsylvania bar exam.
“I actually started writing my first script,” he says of his time in law school, adding, “It was just addictive from there.”
Since then, Morra has written about 20 screenplays.
But there was one mistake Morra recognized early on that he corrected when it came to screenwriting:
“The mistake I made and, if I could go back and do it all over again, is I was one of those people who spent three years on one thing. When I pushed myself to write more stories my skills got better than when I stayed on one idea for a long time.”
Early on he tried different genres but Morra exclusively writes thrillers and horrors. Focusing on those genres helped him hone his craft and gain the skills to turn an idea about teenage mental health into a Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Contest winner.
Is your screenplay the next Big Break winner? Click here to learn more about the contest and when you can submit your screenplay.
About McKenna also won the horror/thriller category of the 2022 Page International Screenwriting Awards.
Morra has another screenplay, Fear Box, which is a finalist in the ScreenCraft Horror Competition.
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman is an award-winning, optioned screenwriter. He was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019 and won Best Action/Adventure in Script Summit’s Screenplay Competition in 2021. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.