Screenwriter Karolyn Carnie is at the center of a changing Hollywood landscape that has seen a wave of strong female millennials make their way into the cutthroat industry both through creative tenacity and storytelling. Drawing on real life experiences, Carnie’s stories have emotionally touched script judges and film buffs nationwide, additionally earning her the respect of high profile showrunners like Aaron Korsh, for whom Carnie has worked for on Suits since season four. Making it in Hollywood is no easy feat, but Carnie has been able to network herself and her stories successfully despite the odds. We had the opportunity to ask Carnie about her inspirations and aspirations as a screenwriter, getting a small glimpse into the mind of an inventive storyteller.
What inspires you to stay consistently creative given that script and screenwriting can be such a mentally draining process?
Carnie: I love to write. A lot of writers say they love having written, but hate writing. That’s really not me. I love crafting every word, sometimes when writers block happens those words can be hard to get out. But as long as you get them out, the sentiment is there and you can go back and rewrite. If I’m really drained I’ll take a day off or two or watch shows similar to what I am writing. I also will choose one song for each script I write and play it on a loop. That way each script has its own soundtrack, and when that song is playing that is what I’m writing. Most importantly you have to live your life. If you’re always behind a computer you’re not gaining more experiences and knowledge create new things, they may start to feel repetitive.
As a writer in Hollywood, how do you stay true to your own perspective and voice while simultaneously trying to create material that is wanted by your superiors?
Carnie: It can depend in what sense. If you’re writing for a show, yes you need to stay in the voice of your creator, that’s your job. No writer on SUITS is going to be writing a Harvey becomes an astronaut story line… whoops gave away next season’s opener! Just kidding. However, a lot of our stories do come from versions or twists on our own stories and experiences, if they are appropriate for the story. When it comes to your agent, or selling your own show, it has to be your voice, and your perspective, otherwise, why are you writing it? Sure, sometimes you get IP, or someone else’s pitch. But what makes it so is you are the one doing it. And the important thing to remember is that your voice can be more than one thing. I have written a prohibition piece, I have written a family sitcom, all are my perspective and my voice.
When you are writing and developing a show, do you find yourself creating female characters that partially embody you in some way?
Carnie: They tend to. I don’t know if it’s on purpose or not, but I like to think they are. It tends to be exactly what you said, parts of me. I wrote a sitcom based on a father and daughter who have a very close relationship, are best friends, and that’s based on me and my dad. I have female characters that are die hard sports fans, as am I. I have written a prohibition piece that I like to imagine is how I would be in the 1920’s. In an feature I wrote about an FBI analyst that can quote movies and shows as her natural speech, because it makes her more comfortable than her own words. All these things put together and you get glimpses of me.
How have you been able to bring a strong female perspective to both your job and your characters in an industry that has traditionally been male dominated?
Carnie: I have been told before if you take my name off my script, I write like a man. Because growing up I lived and experienced stereotypical male worlds. That is what I know, that is who I am. My perspective is my own, no one has lived my life. What I always try to do for my characters is give them the strength every woman wishes they had. Maybe not all the time but in an instant. I’m not saying get rid of vulnerability, but in one moment for one thing they can be strong, which actually releases so much more depth to the character. Let them fight against what they know and see how they are going to land? Are they going to fall, and if they do, how do they pick themselves up? Living my life I try to think WWMCD – what would my character do? I don’t know how meetings with me would shape up if my name was Kevin and not Karolyn, and I think I get some meetings blind because of my writing style, with them expecting a man to walk through those doors. But when I get in that room I show them why I am so valuable and what I can add to a project.
How long have you worked on the TV series Suits with showrunner Aaron Korsh? Has your role with the show grown over time?
Carnie: I have worked with ‘Suits’ since season four, and have been in the writers room with Aaron since season six. I started many moons ago in Toronto on the production side, when I moved to Los Angeles I started in the writers room, and since then the amount I have learned and grown has added to me being a writer and my writing style a lot. I actively pitch in the room and very much feel part of the team.
Has Korsh helped you develop your own work?
Carnie: Not personally my own work. He has helped me so much in developing my skill as a writer but not my work personally. Aaron has so much on his plate, with our show, the potential spinoff and his other work in development. He has previously joined forces with a writer on his pilot that was filmed for USA, but subsequently was not picked up.
The comedy script you wrote last year, “Gold Medal Domination,” received acclaim and earned you the chance to meet Bond writer and producer Michael G. Wilson. What was special about this script and how did you approach this project given that it was a feature script rather than a TV episode script?
Carnie: Before writing that script I had written two other features, and that was it. The first one I ever wrote got attention by a producer, somewhat in the tone of ‘Sleeping with Other People.’ It was a fun first thing for me to write, but it was very much the first feature. The second feature was me stretching and testing my writing muscle. And the third feature is when I was really finding my voice. I knew what I liked, what I wanted to write, because it’s what I want to watch. I write things I like to watch. I like ‘Miss Congeniality,’ ‘Spy,’ and ‘Blades of Glory,’ and I used tones of all of those to create ‘Gold Medal Domination’. I also did something I had never done before with ‘Gold Medal,’ and that was I picked my dream cast and I wrote to their voices. I think that helped to really individualize each character’s dialogue and responses.
Do you have any additional scripts that are currently being considered for development?
Carnie: I do, I have sent two TV-Movie ideas to some producers who work with Hallmark for consideration for pitching; a Christmas and Valentine’s Day movie. I am working on a kids show with a former boss of mine that I am writing the script for. As well I have my prohibition piece that has been sent to some Canadian producers.
What advice would you give to other less experienced screen/script writers in regard to pitching a show or idea in front of a room full of other creative minds and Hollywood-types?
Carnie: They are looking for a unique voice, so don’t try to be what they want, because they have veterans who can give that too. What do you have that their go-to people may not? Always start with a personal connection, I think that is the best way to start any pitch. It shows why you should write it and chances are they will find an emotional connection.
Are there any existing shows that you would particularly like to write for, or showrunners you hope to collaborate with as you continue working in LA?
Carnie: Absolutely. I’m very lucky to have worked with great writers, and an amazing showrunner, and a hit show, but there are some shows that just call to me. Right now that is ‘Wayward Sisters.’ It is the potential ‘Supernatural’ spinoff, and it is everything I have ever wanted in a show. I grew up on stuff like ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ ‘Charmed,’ and I was a fan of ‘Supernatural’ since day one. And, having a strong group of women kick some monster behind is something I am all for. I have also written something in the supernatural world before, so I feel right at home. I’m also a huge fan of procedurals that add some fast witty dialogue. I was a fan of ‘Castle’ in its day, ‘Bones,’ ‘Blacklist,’ etc. I really love ‘Lethal Weapon’ right now. I knew the movies like the back of my hand and I think the actors, Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford, are brilliant and I would love to write lines for them.
As for showrunners, I have worked for some top tier people, and they have all been men. I would love to write for a female showrunner. Jenji Kohan, Shonda Rhimes and Amy Sherman Palladino and Moira Walley Beckett are some that come to mind, and one male that is very much at the top of that list is Dan Fogelman. Jenji has built a universe on women that are put in situations and deal with the hand they have been dealt. Whether it’s from ‘Weeds,’ ‘Orange is the New Black,’ or ‘Glow,’ those show women that didn’t think this would be their life, but they pulled up their boot straps and learned to adjust and survive, and they had to deal with the ramifications. They had to fight against who they saw themselves as and had to learn to live with who was staring back at them in the mirror. Jenji earlier in her career also worked on two shows that are the reason I started writing, ‘Will and Grace’ and ‘Gilmore Girls,’ so I think there is a lot I could learn from her. Speaking of Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino should be knighted with a quill pen. Her dialogue is smart, funny, witty, and for her I believe the pen really is mightier than the sword. Shonda Rhimes is an icon. Before her I would say I want to be the female Chuck Lorre. Now, I can say I want to be just like Shonda Rhimes. She has an eye for a hit, she knows what she wants and she makes it happen. Moira Walley-Beckett has crossed the scope of what she has written, from ‘Breaking Bad,’ to ‘PAN AM,’ ‘Flesh and Bone’ and now ‘Anne With an E.’ She has shown amazing range, and was not type cast from one project to another. Her voice shows a range of what she is telling and I see that in myself. As well, Moira works on Canadian IP and is able to do projects which are co-pros, which is exactly what I want to do. Dan Fogelman wrote the story I always thought I would one day write, the first female baseball player for the MLB, and that’s because all through my childhood I thought I was going to be the first female baseball player in the MLB. Though it didn’t work out, both with ‘Pitch’ lasting only one season and my baseball career having long since ended, it was a story I’m so glad got the opportunity to be told.