Cornelia Duryée. Writer, director, producer. After having many careers, Cornelia is where she's meant to be and preparing to release her third feature film, West of Redemption, premiering at Seattle International Film Festival May 25, 2015.
Crystal Lin Smithwick: How did you get started as a screenwriter?
Cornelia Duryée: I was a dancer, actor, director, and playwright. In the late 90s, my Godmother, Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time), gave me this stack of play scripts in old crumbly binders and said, “I wrote these in my twenties, and I want you to turn them into plays and movies.” When I asked her why, she told me, “You are the only living playwright that I trust.” So, I instantly dropped out of Seattle U., where I was in seminary, and went to Act One: Writing for Hollywood. Later I attended the first class of The Film School in Seattle. I had a wonderful time working with Stewart Stern, Tom Skerritt, Rick Stevenson, and Warren Etheridge. I wrote some scripts, workshopped them, and entered them in contests, some of which I won.
CS: What was your first job in film?
CDM: Rick Stevenson hired me as his Director’s Assistant and Script Supervisor on his film, Expiration Date (2006). That was my first paid job in film; then I worked on a whole lot of local productions.
I met my producing partner, Larry Estes (Smoke Signals), at a panel he was on, and he took one of my scripts that night. The next day, Larry called me and asked to get together. So, we had lunch, talked, and he decided he wanted to work with me, and we have worked together ever since. We’ve made three features together now and are working on a fourth. My first film with Larry was The Dark Horse (2006). That was the real cutting of my teeth as a writer/director. It was an amazing learning curve, to say the least.
CS: What’s your experience with the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF)?
CDM: I premiered The Dark Horse at SIFF in 2007. For a first time feature director to screen in SIFF was utterly heartwarming. It was the first of many festivals my movie screened at, but it was in my hometown. I had always gone as a fan, but now I had a movie in SIFF; it was so incredible!
I had another great SIFF experience with Zombies of Mass Destruction (2009). That was fun just to be acting talent and watch the movie and not worry about any producer details.
Then Camilla Dickinson (2012) premiered here. By then I knew to expect the marathon that SIFF can be. I always try to watch as many films as I can that are made by my peers, but I knew to pace myself, and took a couple of rest days before my premiere.
CS: How did Camilla Dickinson come about?
CDM: Camilla Dickinson was one of the stories that Madeleine asked me to adapt. It was my favorite because of its strong connection to her childhood. Every writer puts a shard of themselves into every character and every story. The film has some major shards from her young life in it. It’s a beautiful story of a young girl coming of age in New York City in 1948.
CS: West of Redemption is the first project that you didn’t write. How did that come about?
CDM: I got the script through my first AD, Tony Becerra. He knew Meagan Daine, the writer, from work they had done in LA. This was her first movie to be made, which is an honor for me. We worked on the script for a year and a half and it was a wonderful process of collaboration.
CS: Have all three of your feature films been made in Washington State?
CDM: If possible, I hope to always film my movies in Washington State. I love my state and I want to support our local industry. I have been blessed to have had two movies incentivized by Washington Filmworks. I treasure those gifts and feel very honored. We always use local Washington crew when we possibly can because they are the best.
CS: What are your next projects?
CDM: Larry (Estes) and I will be the executive producers of Strowlers, a very exciting pilot that Ben Dobyns (Gamers: Dorkness Rising, JourneyQuest) is directing, that he and his team wrote. I am also making a documentary, Courageous Dying, about aging, sickness, and death. With my mother’s (Sylvia Duryée) permission, I’ve filmed much of the last seven years of her life. She died this past December. It is turning out to be an amazing project. We all have to die, so let’s do it courageously.
CS: What advice do you have for filmmakers?
CDM: Just get on set. Volunteer if you have to, then try to get paid, even just a little bit as soon as you can. That changes the game. There are movies being made all over Washington. You could probably get on a set every weekend if you wanted to. Do it as a PA, as an extras wrangler, or craft service, like I did. Show up on time. Show them that you love your job and their project. Give 110% and you will get asked back.
I’ve come to filmmaking after several careers. I started when I was 40 years old. This is the best year yet. This is what my soul needs to do. I have been so blessed to get to direct movies. It is a huge gift that I hope someday to be able to empower others to do too.
CS: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. Good luck with West of Redemption and your newest projects!