“Crucify the Cat”: An Interview with Screenwriter Martha Polo
Haikuist and Screenwriting Up-And-Comer Martha Polo explains why she doesn’t write believable characters.
Alexis: Martha, thanks so much for agreeing to this email interview. I know how busy you are. You’ve developed quite a reputation as a Haikuist, even to the point of spending years studying under Fay Aoyagi during her visits to Tokyo. There’s been huge anticipation about you turning your attention to the 21st Century art of the screenplay. How have you found this change of direction? You said you wanted to share about character?
Martha: As I sit in my writing room considering the folly of my chosen profession, my mind spins at the thought of how good my screenplays could be. But writing really good scripts is such hard work; or perhaps easier when you’ve written a lot. But then writing a lot of really good screenplays so that it can be easier to write really good screenplays, is – one can only assume – very hard work as well.
And then no one wants to read your offered script. Even I don’t want to read offered scripts. When my ex-film school compadres [Martha attended film school to switch careers from Haikuist to Screenwriter — AK] put messages online about “will you read this”, I never never never never never never never respond. When I am invited to join reading rooms, I consider my options: gouge out my ovary-producing organs with a steam-heated razor, or read the scripts? The preferred choice floats to the top easily.
Alexis: I’m always told that if I want to write screenplays, I should read screenplays.
Martha: A vast number of scripts deeply disappoint me, thus wasting the precious moments and tears of my three score years and ten. Even those that top the yearly Black List fail to amaze me sufficiently. Are my expectations too high? Perhaps. Or perhaps yours are too low. But who am I to judge — I’m a nothing made, nothing sold, unrepresented, preWGA (how I loathe that term) scribbler, and the light at the end of the tunnel is reminiscent of those occasional photon strikes you can see if you sit in a dark lecture theatre for 15 minutes until vastly rare subatomic events eventually become visible to the eye.
Podcasting literary managers claim the first point of entry for us noobs is a “great logline”. However, when you come up with an eminently fantastic logline, and as a result they read your script, then BAM! the script’s not good enough for them. I mean, for Heaven’s sake don’t these quinoa-eating top-skimmers know they OWE me a frigging career?
Alexis: I understand your frustration, but surely we should be grateful for producers and literary managers. They’re just business creatives trying to earn enough from their percentage right? It’s not a conspiracy against us.
Martha: So I join yet another pointless Zoom room run by a failed writer to hear an asslicking interview with a gatekeeper desperate for clients or for an ego stroke, and I ingratiatingly ask a question (preceding by a pathetic “thanks so much for doing this”) in a vain hope of being noticed and remembered when I send my predictably ignored query email later, they spout crap like: “does it have characters I’d love to spend time with, from a writer who has something to say, in a voice that is unique?”
To which I respond (or would respond if I wasn’t so desperate to get their approval) “is this voice unique enough you white pampered asshole?” Screamed in a tone that is somewhere between Darth Vader at the end of Sith, Shatner in Wrath of Khan, and Pee-wee Herman when kicked in the balls by the arresting officers.
Alexis: I don’t want us to get too far from the original point. When we spoke earlier you mentioned your feelings about writing good characters.
Martha: Yes let’s remember, this isn’t about me. It’s about character. What about character, I hear you type? About the irritating, infuriating, frustrating fact that people with an IQ over 35 get bored of fiction unless it has a compelling, nee fascinating, main character, and well fleshed-out secondary characters.
Picture, if you will, a situation in which a demented screenwriter has pushed themselves to the edge of sanity developing a concept and world that extends the boundaries of cinema and television. Their consciousness has felt like an overstretched balloon as they seek to imagine this unique world in detail, and then implement a concept so bizarre and alien to human nature that as soon as it is placed in a logline it causes producers and managers to eviscerate each others’ entrails using a weapon improvised from an iPhone, AirPods and a smart-casual belt in an attempt to get hold of this golden hundred pages.
Sitting in the mesh spinning chair, with the ever-so bendy back, surrounded by screens, their slip-on shoes, trainers or low heels up on the desk, they scan the pages on their iPad Air in feverish anticipation. Page 1. Wait for it… Page 2… Oh… Page 3, shit. Skip to back. End page minus 3, Hmmm, End page minus 2, Poosh!, End page minus 1, What a fucking waste of 5 minutes. A wave of melancholia sweeps through them like muddy flood waters as they realise the true nature of the script.
Alexis: You seem to feel like you’re a victim? I don’t like the word gatekeepers. Surely these business people don’t set themselves up as judges or arbiters of taste?
Martha: Really? Consider, the writer, brain still a soup of imaginative juices coalescing into a web of doubts for their own sanity, receiving an email from the mang-ucer. With a huge adrenaline rush they click! (If they can still bear to look at typed images of the English language on a screen, after so many months of seeing them burned into their visual cortex by the searing red hot world building and conceptual unfolding.) They’ll see: “Hi Martha, really enjoyed your script. It’s such an amazing concept and you’ve built a totally unique world
I didn’t feel the characters were quite strong enough…
[At this point Martha’ email trailed off. She later called and explained she’d been paid to judge a Haiku competition for West Hollywood College Preparatory and could she get back to me. As a taster for the next part of the interview he kindly sent us the below from her widely anticipated collection “BLOODSUCKERS OFF WILTSHIRE”— AK].