Sarah Larsen graduated from Humber's Television Writing & Producing program in 2012. Just a few years later she and her co-writers were awarded the 2016 WGC Screenwriting award for A Christmas Horror Story. We spoke to Sarah about how that project came together, how her grad project at Humber continues to open doors for her, and about some of the best (and worst) tips she's received about working in the industry.
What are you currently working on; what excites you about the project?
I recently finished up in the writers’ room for Aftermath, a Syfy/Space network show, which is now in production in Vancouver, so I’m pumped to see that premiere this August. And I’m currently editing at a digital content agency and working on two sci-fi pilots with my writing partner as well as a third solo project. One of the pilots takes place inside the walls of a secret facility running experimental drug trials on its recruits, the nature of which could change the face of the earth. The second series is about a deserter of the Roman Legion who somehow finds himself in present day Washington with parallel missions set out for him in both time periods. And the third revolves around a petty thief on the streets of Barcelona as he’s indoctrinated into a more hardened and sophisticated crime group. I’m excited about all three projects because I think these are worlds that haven’t been explored before. Despite their differences in subgenre and setting, the heroes in each pilot are dealing with themes of self-sacrifice and searching for redemption, which just goes to show that, like most writers, I’m doomed to keep rewriting the same story dressed up in different clothes.
You won the 2016 WGC Screenwriting award for A Christmas Horror Story – tell us more.
A Christmas Horror Story was my first WGC nomination and win, so I was just as excited to be nominated as I was to accept the award with my three co-writers: James Kee, Doug Taylor and Pascal Trottier.
How did A Christmas Horror Story come to be?
In 2013, I worked on a horror series called Darknet, produced by Copperheart. About a year later, they asked me back to pitch ideas for a new horror anthology feature they were developing. From there, four of us writers worked independently on storylines and we collaborated with the producers to weave them all together. I remember pitching ideas in November and by February, we were already in production, so it was quite a quick turnaround time. We had a sold-out premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival (read a review here) and a theatrical release over Halloween!
What other projects have you worked on that you’re particularly proud of?
I’m most proud of my first pilot script, Antarctica. I was working on it throughout the spring semester at Humber and I optioned the rights to it six months after graduating. It’s the project that got me representation, and into meetings with producers and network executives, and it has continued to open doors for me. As a writing sample, it got me my first writing job with Copperheart and, last year, it helped get me into the Aftermath writers’ room where I co-wrote an episode.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received about the industry?
The best piece of advice I’ve received about the industry is that it’s all about who you know, so it’s important for writers to get out to industry events, get their faces seen, and try to get read by as many people as possible. I went to LA last June for a week of pitch meetings – 14 in total, with as many as three per day at different ends of the city. It was stressful and I was running on adrenaline the whole time. And although I didn’t sell anything, I did meet Noreen Halpern, president of Halfire Entertainment, who was in development for Aftermath at the time. A few months later when they were putting together a writers’ room, she put my name forward to the showrunners for consideration and I got the job. The point being that there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting.
What’s inspiring you right now?
The shows that are inspiring me right now are The Missing, The Fall and Luther, so basically a lot of British miniseries with intense, short-run stories and partially self-contained seasons. I like the model they’re using — the shows are smart, addictive and easy to digest in the way we are consuming media right now and each season feels like it has a fresh launch-off point. I’m also a big fan of The Leftovers, UnReal, House of Cards and Orphan Black. The best pilots I’ve read this year were Riverdale by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (the Archie comic adaptation), Legion by Noah Hawley (a parallel X-Men universe series about the mutant son of Professor Xavier), and When the Street Lights Go On by Chris Hutton and Eddie O’Keefe, which is being adapted from a feature script.
How did your time at Humber prepare you for what you’re doing now?
The Humber program taught me the basics of TV script writing, development and pitching. I learned that structure is key because, if done well, it will elevate emotion. Pitching a series idea is a delicate balance of keeping it short, while giving your audience enough information to keep them wanting more (mastering this is another story!). Know your audience before you walk into a meeting. Always have a couple ideas in your back pocket. Adapt your pitch as you go if it's going sideways. Know that you won’t hook every fish. Consider the note behind the note. In terms of criticism, you can take it or leave it, but try to figure out whether it’s constructive or not. All of these lessons have been both confirmed and downright denied while in the industry so I guess the biggest takeaway for me is that there are multiple roads to success, which means there are no hard and fast rules to follow, so take every piece of advice with a grain of salt.
Find out more about Sarah on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/sarahbrynnlarsen.
Sarah Larsen; photo credit Jason Colbert