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Screenwriter Spotlight: How Anna Klassen Turned Competition Wins into a Thriving Career

June 21, 2024
7 min read time

Finding your way into the Hollywood screenwriting circle is one of the hardest hurdles any aspiring writer has to face. However, there are several ways to break in. One of them is screenwriting competitions.

This is the path screenwriter Anna Klassen took, and it has paid off big time. With her J.K. Rowling biopic, When Lightening Strikes, landing on the Black List in 2017 and helping her win the ScreenCraft Fellowship that same year, Klassen took her early competition wins and turned them into gold.

Klassen spoke with Final Draft about her path to writing for major studios in Hollywood, and how her workflow has evolved over time to make her one of the best writers in the business.

Final Draft: How did your career get started?

Anna Klassen: Two things helped jumpstart my screenwriting career: I won the ScreenCraft Fellowship in 2017 with a dramatic pilot, and that same year, my J.K. Rowling biopic, When Lightning Strikes, made the annual Black List. Both things helped me get a representation, and from there, it was off to the races, taking a million general meetings with studios and producers, pitching on open writing assignments, and landing my first movie.

Read More: The Different Jobs of a Screenwriter

Anna Klassen headshot (Source: Izak Rappaport); How Anna Klassen Transformed Early Competition Wins into a Thriving Career; Photo Credit: Izak Rappaport

FD: When did you start writing?

AK: The first time I can remember doing any sort of creative writing was when I was 6 [years old], in first grade. I wrote a story about two best friends who went on wild, fantastical adventures. If it was a movie, it would cost about $500 million. The set pieces were massive—my unfettered child brain had no limits in terms of vision or scope.

When I was 10 [years old], I won a statewide writing competition with a story about a woman fleeing from a terrifying, unseen creature. The monster is never revealed, but in the climax, just when she believes she's escaped, it comes knocking at her door. The last line was something like, “And then the door opened.” It was very Edgar Allen Poe for a fifth grader, but my sensibilities haven’t changed that much since.

FD: Do you have a writing process?

AK: I love a good outline and usually spend more time working on the outline than writing the script itself. Breaking a story is like doing a math equation or fitting together pieces of an intricate puzzle. Once I know the pieces are fitting together in outline phase, I feel more confident going to the draft.

An outline is also my insurance policy against writer’s block. Even on days when I don’t feel compelled to write, I can refer to the outline and produce a rough version of what my more motivated past self envisioned because bad writing is always better than no writing.

FD: How has your writing changed over time?

AK: For better or worse, I think my writing has become more structured. When I was first starting out, I cared less about the structure and followed the story wherever it led me. That was a beautiful thing. I produced some ofmy most inspired work in those early days when I didn’t know any better. 

But now, film structure is so ingrained in me that it’s hard to watch a movie without overanalyzing it. I anticipate what’s coming next, dissect why filmmakers made certain choices, and consider what I would have done differently. It’s a continuous learning process, which I love, though sometimes I wish I could go back to the days of simply dreaming up a story in my head and writing it down.

Read More: Outlining Your Screenplay Your Way

A notebook in front of an open laptop at a coffee shop; How Anna Klassen Transformed Early Competition Wins into a Thriving Screenwriting Career

FD: What do you think was the most pivotal moment in your writing career?

AK: Landing my first Netflix movie. I’ve been lucky to write three movies for Netflix, but securing the first one felt like winning the lottery. When I got the news it was the most exciting day of my life, and coincidentally I also happened to be at my first high school reunion, which gave me some pretty epic bragging rights among former classmates.

FD: What is your favorite thing that you’ve written?

AK: My favorite movie I’ve written is an original horror film called UNITY. It’s bold, emotional, disturbing, and completely, 100 percent me. I didn’t write it for anyone but myself, and creating it felt cathartic, helping me process things I was going through in my real life.

I wrote the first draft of UNITY more than five years ago, and since then it’s seen many different iterations and bounced around the studio system with different producers attached for years.

Now, finally, I have a team behind it that is just as excited about this project as I am. We have fantastic producers and an incredibly talented director at the helm. And if the stars continue to align we’ll go into production near the end of this year. 

FD: What is your favorite thing that someone else has written?

AK: I’m obsessed with the script for NIGHTCRAWLER by the legendary Dan Gilroy. 

It’s such an exciting, exhilarating, page-turner. He uses a million ellipses to connect thoughts and scenes, almost like a stream of consciousness. He breaks a lot of the traditional “screenwriting rules” by switching fonts, dedicating entire pages to a single word, and using the format to evoke a deeply unsettling feeling in the reader. It’s completely brilliant.

Glasses on a screenplay page; How Anna Klassen Transformed Early Competition Wins into a Thriving Screenwriting Career

FD: Do you have any advice for someone looking to break into screenwriting?

AK: Read scripts and watch movies. Specifically, read a script and then watch the movie of that script to see what changed from page to screen.

As someone who didn’t go to film school and has no professional screenwriting training, I learned everything I know by reading scripts to understand format, tone, themes, etc., and watching movies. Luckily we live in an age where many scripts are available with a quick Google search, and if you read enough, the format and style will become second nature.

Also, don’t be a one-hit wonder. Always have more than one great script in your pack pocket. One script will get you in the door, but the second will make you hireable.

Having multiple projects in the works also helps protect against heartbreak. Hollywood’s favorite word is “no,” and if you have more than one iron in the fire when one project falls apart, you can direct your attention to the next one. “Mourn and move on,” has become my motto.

FD: Do you have a preferred writing snack?

AK: Anything salty and crunchy!

Read More: Weekend Writing Inspiration: 7 Ways to Come Up With New Screenplay Ideas

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Anna Klassen is a screenwriter and former journalist living in Los Angeles. She’s written three films for Netflix, among others. Her J.K. Rowling biopic When Lightning Strikes made the Black List in 2017, and she won the ScreenCraft Fellowship that same year. Anna has been named on several best-of writers lists, including The Hit List and Young & Hungry. She is profiled in publications like Collider, Bustle, and L.A. Confidential

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