Monday, January 14, 2008

AFF @ 15

Severiano Canales was the 2007 Screenplay Competition winner in the Comedy category. Over the past 15 years AFF has had the pleasure of meeting many talented, young writers and welcoming them to the Austin Film Festival community. Every writer has an interesting story and Seve's story is no exception...

MARY: Seve, you heard about the competition through USC’s writing program. What interested you about AFF’s competition?

SEVE: I was actually attracted to AFF’s competition because of the TV categories. Specs are such weird things. I mean, they can get you a job or maybe representation, but they’re mostly just un-produceable, un-sellable exercises. I was proud of my BATTLESTAR GALACTICA spec and eager to share it. The AFF is one of the few places, apart from network fellowships, that cares about TV specs. So, I jumped at the chance of sending it to the AFF. I only sent POCKET PROTECTOR as an afterthought because there was still money left over in USC’s contest fund. I didn’t think I had much of a chance because I figured the field would be a lot bigger. So, it was just dumb luck, but as a rule, I try to take advantage of every opportunity to send my scripts to fellowships and contests. The Austin Film Festival stands out because it is a legitimate film festival that recognizes the importance of writers, which is an

MARY: You weren’t always at USC and on the road to becoming a screenwriter. You were first studying at MIT. What happened that made you make that great change?

SEVE: I was very good at math and science growing up, and I loved taking things apart. So, from a very young age, it was pretty much a given that I would study engineering. When I got into MIT, I had to go. It was a no-brainer. And, I loved it. That’s something people don’t understand. I didn’t switch because I hated engineering. I just don’t love it as much as movies. I’m obsessed with movies. And, in an environment where most people were obsessed with coding, it was easy to see I was different.

But, it was at MIT that I first seriously studied film. They make it mandatory to take a lot of humanities classes (they fear that most of the students wouldn’t take any if not forced and they’re probably right). I decided to concentrate in media studies and took as many film classes as I could. In fact, I was one class away from a media studies minor (something I found out much too late in my senior year). Boston really refined my movie taste and knowledge. Growing up in Miami, I didn’t really have access to any independent movies. At MIT, I had an indie movie theater within walking distance. Writing scripts stemmed from my love of movies. I always wanted to shoot some films but in those pre-YouTube days there wasn’t a lot of places to exhibit them or any interest from my friends. I started writing as a way to get these ideas out. I just write down the movie I see in my head. During the summer of my Junior year, I finished an embarrassingly autobiographic screenplay that – while very rough – convinced me I could actually do it.

After I got an A+ in my product design class solely because I shot an admittedly kick-ass commercial for the product, I decided to apply to screenwriting grad programs. I got accepted to the two I applied for but was rejected by the majority of engineering schools. This I took as a sign. So, I turned down a job at a Georgia Tech lab specializing in robots for the poultry industry and I moved to LA. Two years later, I’m still here.

But, I really should point out that in my mind the basics of design – what I was always most interested – and screenwriting are the same. They come to me from the same place. They both have to meet certain technical requirements. The components must come together to form a whole. You have to know what your customer (or audience) wants and you gotta give it to them. There is a lot of creativity involved in engineering, which is something that may not be immediately apparent. And, in turn, screenwriting is basically one giant problem-solving exercise. I think about it as coming up with an interesting problem and then solving it in the craziest, most exciting way.

MARY: What are you up to now?

SEVE: I just finished the National Hispanic Media Coalition’s TV Writer’s program, which is sponsored by NBC and ABC. In the five-week program, I wrote a RESCUE ME spec. It was kinda crazy because I found out I was a finalist for the program at Austin, and I had to interview between panels.

Now, I’m working as an assistant at a production company and on a big superhero script on the side. I’m a huge geek, obviously, and I’m really interested in writing for comics and video games. So, I‘m supplementing the hours of HALO 3 and GUITAR HERO with, what I think will be, a pretty cool sample.

MARY:Any advice to other students out there looking at competitions?

SEVE: Just do it. (Do I have to pay Nike something now?) I never imagined anyone would ever even get POCKET PROTECTOR, much less like it, but here I am. With competitions, there is no barrier between you and the people reading the scripts. You don’t need to know anyone to get it read. You just have to pay a nominal fee and it’s definitely worth it because you never know. It’s not even the possibility of money that makes it worth it. It’s all about meeting others in the same boat. Writing can be a very lonely pursuit, but competitions can make it less so by connecting you to people with the same goals and interests, which I found surprising and extremely inspiring. Obviously, there are a lot of dubious competitions out there and winning some obscure online contest probably won’t make much of a difference. But, there are plenty of great fellowships out there and, of course, there’s the Austin Film Festival, which I cannot recommend enough. As a screenwriter, I’ve never felt so welcomed and loved as in Austin, which is an incredibly rare feeling in our business. You guys should be commended and recognized for striving to help screenwriters and really treating everybody, from second rounders on up, the same. Austin is a competition where you don’t have to win to be part of the community and that makes it absolutely essential.

The Screenplay and Teleplay Competitions are now open. You can learn more about this year's competition and download your 2008 entry form at

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