Rising Through the Ranks: Filmmaker Vivian Kerr on transitioning from actor to writer-director
November 19, 2021
The day we spoke, Vivian Kerr had three pitch meetings lined up after our interview for her pilot script Five Points thanks to the Women’s Weekend Film Challenge Accelerator Program.
“These two women who put this together, Tracy [Sayre] and Katrina [Medoff], are amazing. Best lab I’ve ever done. They only took eight of us and set up real companies for us to pitch to. A couple of days ago I pitched HBO! That’s something I couldn’t have gotten on my own. I feel like I won the lottery on that,” Kerr said.
She got into screenwriting while already in the industry: “I was a bitter, unemployed actor. You get to this point too ... I was getting older, I think a lot of actors, if you’re not working consistently, you need something creative to keep you going; to keep you satiated. A lot of actor friends of mine who were incredibly talented were leaving the industry. There’s something sad about a frustrated storyteller,” she pondered. “I think you have to have a conversation with yourself if you are; how are you going to keep going? For me also, what I was auditioning for at the time wasn’t inspiring, that I started to feel like, ‘I think I could tell a better story than this.’ Or for no other reason, a way to stay creative between auditions and working. I think it’s very common; I think there’re so many writers who were in other fields and transitioned.”
Beyond simply transitioning, Kerr truly fell for the craft.
“I really did fall in love with it. I started reading screenplays for the first time not from the perspective of, ‘I’m going to play this one character’ but from the perspective of, ‘how was this put together? What is the structure underneath it?’ and that was really interesting to me. I fell in love with the big picture of storytelling and theme — building a world became appealing.”
And then the pandemic happened, and Kerr found herself with “lots and lots of time.” She made the most of it and developed a daily writing routine.
“I’d written before, but [lockdown] had a big impact on what I was able to complete.” Her tip to stay motivated: “Lots of beverages. Tea, coffee, kombucha to keep you entertained.”
While everything she writes is infused with some comedy, Kerr’s passion is for character and relationships and not bound by genre. Her current project, Scrap, is a modern-day indie feature that recently completed production, while Five Points, the aforementioned script she wrote, is a violent period piece about female gangs in New York City.
The only hindrance to crossing genre lines that Kerr has found is, “There’s a cliché people say about period pieces, that they’re so expensive to make. So I write to what I think the market wants? I think that’s a bad approach. What kind of work do you want to do? What interests you? When you’re writing something, you’re also researching. ... So you want to go down that rabbit hole or get paid very well to go down that rabbit hole,” she chuckled. “I think also the thing that could be the hindrance is the thing that ends up being the reason they break through. ... Can you imagine them giving Phoebe Waller-Bridge notes on Fleabag? I think it hit so hard as it did because it’s so uncompromising in its tone. ... That’s the deal, so get on board or get off the train.”
In addition to the WWFC Accelerator Program Kerr just wrapped up, she’s been part of a couple of others that she found beneficial for going deep into the stories — and building those all-important relationships. The key part of WWFC to Kerr was working on her pitch as a writer, which can be very difficult for most of us, so having that opportunity was golden.
A very large chunk of her time most recently has gone into writing and directing her first feature, Scrap.
“So much changed from what I wrote four years ago. Originally, I was not going to direct — I didn’t have the confidence,” she said. But after the film’s proof of concept toured 25 festivals pre-pandemic, it was actually the “strong audience response” that gave Kerr the confidence to take over the role of director as she realized how much the story mattered to her.
“I began to formulate this idea that you know what, I wrote it, maybe I should direct it. Maybe I should step into that role. In hindsight, I’m so glad I did; I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I think it’s the best experience I’ve ever had on a set,” she laughed. Which just proves that stepping outside of your creative comfort zone can sometimes have huge rewards.
Kerr credits her acting experience with helping her prepare for being on set, and one of her co-producers, Rachel Stander, for “endless script discussions” — along with pitching investors — on what helped her cement her vision for the film.
“There’s this quote of Mike Nichols’ I read once, it went something like, ‘To make something alive instead of on the page is an honorable task and it turns me on.’” She smiles, “I love that; I think it’s so fun and it’s exactly right. There are words on a page and now we have everyone in a room and need to make it real.”
The picture is locked on Scrap and Kerr is working through post-production now with plans for festival submission and to seek distribution. She also has a new appreciation for how long it takes films to get made.
“It made me less judgmental of people’s work. We all need to have more kindness in how we talk about other people’s work,” she said. “It’s so hard to make anything and yeah, our tastes differ, but even the people who made the garbage — someone’s going to think Scrap is garbage, but it’s my garbage,” she laughed.
In the spirit of openness, Kerr would love a range of experiences, including staffing on a show, which she views as an incredible learning experience.
“I want to do all the things. It’s less about the medium to me. I just want to work on good stories where I would be the best asset to the story, and keep going as long as I can. There are so many different paths,” she said. “Figure out your goal. Feature? Put on a producer hat. TV writer? Have strong pilot scripts on spec to get representation — but be very clear with your representation. Don’t be afraid to send out cold emails. We’re in a time where we all have to wear multiple hats.”
Sound advice from someone who is, in fact, wearing all the hats.
Written by: Karin MaxeyAfter seeing her first big screen movie 007: License to Kill at age six, Karin naturally became obsessed with writing action-infused stories. The next time she’d see Benicio del Toro was in person, at the 68th Cannes Film Festival—he was there for the Sicario red carpet, she was there for her first produced short film in the basement of the Palais…same-same. In between, Karin earned a Creative Writing Degree and landed management at Echo Lake Entertainment. Her scripts have been a Big Break Top 3 finalist, HollyShorts Film Fest Official Selection, and a multi-Screencraft competitions semi-finalist. Karin is also a screenplay editor who delights in the process of polishing writers' work for submission. You can find her at www.writergirlkarin.com.