20 QUESTIONS WITH WRITER SARAH WALTON

You write films which present the plight of modern romance. How does romance differ today from the romantic films of your childhood?

Classic 80’s rom coms like Overboard and Housesitter were much soppier than most modern rom coms. They were more fantasy based, more farcical, over the top and fun. I think audiences found corniness more palatable back in the 80’s.

In the 90’s rom coms became more realistic, more drama based rom coms like Sliding Doors and 40 days and 40 nights, high concept ideas based in reality.  Now rom coms are often quite reality based like He’s Just Not That Into You and Bridget Jones’s Dairy.  Personally I love them all, but I have to admit I’ve not seen many Woody Allen rom coms. They feel too gritty for me, but I know I shouldn’t knock it till I try it!

It feels as if society is slowly becoming more accustomed to violence and graphic, sometimes aggressive sex scenes and becoming less comfortable with cheesy love stories and romance.  I don’t know who decided it was “uncool” to like romantic comedies – I imagine someone or more likely, a group of people who had been through a lot of pain and were angry at the world.  It seems audiences are more comfortable seeing character get slaughtered on screen than they are with seeing true intimacy.  Love definitely feels more natural to me than violence and I’m passionate about making more corny lovey dovey content to counteract the violence and hate spreading like a disease in the world.  Romantic comedies have the power to remind us of the love inside of us.

What is it about romantic comedies that appeals to your sensibilities as a writer? 

Rom coms appeal to me because I’ve always been obsessed with love. I’ve been so fascinated by observing and experiencing the power of love and how it transforms people and their behavior.  I didn’t start out writing rom coms.  I fell for the mainstream view that rom coms were “uncool” and although I loved them I stayed quiet about it.  In the industry they’re most often not taken “seriously” – certainly in Australia – They don’t usually win Academy Awards (although that seems to be shifting). In my 20’s when I was an actor/writer I was the epitome of a tortured artist, I smoked cigarettes, drank too much alcohol, I fit the Hemingway stereotype perfectly. The first feature I wrote wasn’t a romantic comedy and it was horrendous. I was trying too hard to be clever. It wasn’t coming from the right place. It was coming from my head instead of my heart. I threw it all in and decided to write something fun instead – a film I wanted to watch, which I admitted to myself was a cheesy romantic comedy set in my two favorite places – a tropical island and NYC!

As I matured and I cared less and less what other people thought I began to speak my truth.  I decided to do the seemingly impossible, the unheard of, the bravest thing a filmmaker can do – come out of the romantic comedy closet and admit my love for them once and for all! And not just cool Woody Allen rom coms, but the cheesy, soppy ones that make people gag.  It was a shaky road, initially I was embarrassed, but once I embraced my true self as a corny rom com lover and expressed my passion for rom coms with conviction, I found that other people came out of the woodwork and admitted their secret rom com love.  I once dated a guy who lived in a sharehouse with a group of guys who had what they called “Rom com Sunday”! They’d all huddle around the TV nursing hangovers and watching their favorite rom coms (and no, they weren’t gay! I can vouch for that!). Some people have told me I inspired them to uncover the love from rom coms they never realized they had or were too embarrassed to admit. It’s a pretty liberating experience that I’d highly recommend 😉  Rom coms being “uncool” is kind of ridiculous, but what’s more ridiculous is caring whether people think we’re cool after we leave high school. 

Different cultures have their own perspectives on romance. How would you describe your Australian homeland’s unique sensibilities towards romance?

Australian romance can be pretty pathetic. In Australia, the sophisticated method by which a man lets you know he likes you is usually by ignoring you or teasing you.  I recently wrote the joke “You know you’re a true blue Aussie when”: 1. You understand the importance of vegemite to butter ratio; 2. You only know the first 2 verses of The Australian Anthem. 3. You call your best mate dickhead.  Excuse my French there, but you get the point.  Banter is a huge part of the Australian culture.  What we call “giving each other shit” is an endearing process by which us outback simpletons bond.  I lived in London in my 20’s and my experience dating there was that this culture comes from our British roots. Men in London were even more reserved. I find in the US and Europe men are more forthright in asking you out. This was such a novelty for me at first, I loved the confidence and straight shooter method, but at the end of the day I feel that in all cultures there’s too much emphasis on the initial “wooing” period at the beginning of dating which can be fun if you’re just dating around for the experience, but essentially it’s kind of empty and fabricated.  I find when people stop playing games and trying to be something they’re not and really get to know each other as friends, they’re more likely to find a compatible match and then from there true romance and love blossoms and flourishes.

As a screenwriter who lives in Hollywood and is female, you have a very authentic voice for the types of films you create. What responsibility do you feel to your audience in regards to creating films that are based in reality? 

I feel my responsibility is to create more female driven stories as well as smash stereotypes and challenge old unhealthy relationship paradigms. I don’t know about making sure that the films are based in reality, as I like a good farcical rom com that’s more fantasy based. I think it’s important to laugh as dysfunctional relationship patterns if I portray them in films, but I’m conscious not to encourage dysfunctional relationship patterns or promote them as healthy.  At times I’ve taken my responsibility as a writer and filmmaker too seriously and lost the true goal of rom coms for me which is to laugh at our pain and to enjoy the ride and experience love and joy myself within the process – basically to have fun! When I’ve agonized over the kind of messages my films are sending I’ve ended up writing preachy material and losing my true intention.  If I stay centered in my intention to tell stories from love about love, I find that’s when my best work comes through.  When I’m in my head I’m coming from my ego and my writing begins to feel fabricated.

I do take integrity seriously though. It’s important for me to not be swayed by external influences that focus purely on making money.  I have no problem with making money – in fact making money is good – it’s how we make more films – but I’m conscious of staying true to the heart of the story and making sure it isn’t lost in the process. This is where it’s important to have strong instincts and learn when to compromise and when to stick to your guns.

I think that the lasting effects that films have on audiences emotionally is largely neglected.  There have been many studies on the neuroscience of how film affects our brain and emotions, but it doesn’t take a neuroscientist to observe the effect the media has on our mind and our emotions.  We can experience these effects ourselves simply by observing the way commercials affect us and get into our heads. I don’t know about you, but a commercial has the power to make me cry or crave a chocolate bar so bad that I’ll be sure to eat one after I’ve been exposed to a luring commercial.  The amount of money spent on Super Bowl commercials is ludicrous and speaks to the power of the moving image on our sensibilities.  In the same way that I’m conscious about what food I feed my body, I’m conscious of what I feed my mind – the amount of negative images I expose my mind to.  I rarely watch television and I almost never watch the news.

It’s undeniable that we’re influenced by our environment- thought processes, images, sounds are all embedded in our mind when we’re exposed to them. When we’re repeatedly exposed to a succession of images, we feel the emotional effects this can have an impact on our daily lives and how we interact with others. This is why I’m so passionate about making more films that evoke and spread love, laughter and joy and remind and encourage people to live from their hearts. 

For the film JUMP, an original soundtrack was written that was inspired by 80’s music, as was the tone of the film. What do you love so much about the 80’s and what is it about this era that infers lighthearted fun? 

The 80’s music and films represent the heart and joy of our inner child. It’s fun, lighthearted and most often about love, dance and enjoying life – “dancing in the street”, “dancing in heaven”, “girls just want to have fun” …  you know how it goes.  I grew up listening to love song dedications – songs that come from love have always resonated with me.  In saying that I feel the same euphoric rush, the same joy in my heart when I listen to Linkin Park music as I do when I listen to Whitney Houston belt out a tune. Punk, rock and sometimes even heavy metal music also speaks to my heart. I think it’s about the space the artist was in when they performed the piece of music – I can feel their intention if it comes from love then it doesn’t matter whether it’s rock, pop or country music. 

The main character in JUMP is a 37-year old secretary who manifests her own release from an ordinary life. Presenting a female lead in her late 30’s is (sadly) far from the norm for Hollywood films these days. What inspired you to present Melody at this stage of her life for this film? 

Melody’s age was the most important part of the film for me.  To portray a character who is considered in society “old” as not only facing her fears, taking a risk and chasing her dreams at the age of 37, but also the fact that the odds are stacked against her in terms of being paired with her worst nightmare dance partner who exacerbates her “Stiff Leg Syndrome”. I’m incredibly passionate about shattering ageist attitudes.  Growing old is a beautiful process – ageing should be celebrated! I’m becoming fitter, healthier, more active as I’m getting older and continuing to push myself outside my comfort zone is an important part of growth.  If we’re not growing, we’re not really living.  Life is growth. If we don’t continue to grow we turn into rocks. No one wants to be a rock. 

The Dating Ring is a film in which you had the male and female leads presented in an emotional role reversal.  Are you constantly looking for new ways such as this to twist the romantic comedy template and how difficult is this to achieve? 

Yes, I love exploring gender role reversal and smashing stereotypes.

Although I still relate to the basic ideals I tend to have different views and opinions to mainstream society – tend to naturally think outside the box, so I don’t find it difficult to come up with new ways to twist the rom com template. It’s just the way I think.

In my experience there’s a different kind of love that’s largely neglected in romantic comedies that I’m excited to delve into in my films – what’s most commonly known as true friendship love or unconditional love.  I feel the current definition of romance is false, fleeting, lacks substance if it’s not grounded in true love.  What is romance with someone you don’t really know yet? You get swept up in the romance, but then once that fades away and you get to know the person you may realize you’re not compatible.  Romance without truly getting to know someone is like coloring your hair. At first it looks luscious and shiny, but eventually it fades and your turn colors show you can keep putting dye in your hair and each time it glows again, but after time your hair becomes brittle or the dye builds up and you have to keep treating it.  It’s a lot of work.  Why not just enjoy your hair in its natural state? Why not just be yourself when you’re first getting to know someone and then once you know you’re a good match, let the romance develop naturally from there.

I’d go even further to question the way we perceive the “opposite sex” in terms of attraction and how it can steer us away from creating deeper stronger bonds and platonic friendships with each other.  What if when we had children we didn’t’ tease them when they had a friend of the “opposite sex”.  What if we refrained from saying “oooh is that your girlfriend?” – or is that just me?  It’s harmless and well-intended, but what if from a young age we encouraged kids to see the other gender as equals – as mates.  Relationships based on a foundation of friendship are more likely to last and to grow unconditional love filled with respect and void of fear based love which includes jealousy, control and insecurity. 

Hollywood is still the biggest producer of films in the world. What are the challenges in this modern era for a writer in this current time here in Hollywood? 

I don’t see challenges as a bad thing, it’s an opportunity to adapt and grow. The addition of platforms like Hulu, Netflix etc. is definitely changing the game, there’s definitely a plethora of content being made and it seems there’s more opportunity to get alternative stories made, as these platforms are open to a wider range of ideas and concepts rather than being restricted by the constructs that the bigger channels and studios adhere to.

What’s the average daily routine for a screenwriter like yourself in Hollywood?

Everyone has a different process. I know some writers write for 4-6 hours a day while some write for 2 hours in the morning or late at night. Some work for 8-10 hour days. It depends on the individual. For me it varies. I can work for long periods without a break, but I can also work really well on short spurts.

You present romance and comedy in your screenplays. What is it about the blending of these two genres that works so well and has become such a popular combination? 

Romantic comedies are love and laughter – love and laughter are the two most powerful forces in human nature.

One of my favorite Gandhi quotes speaks to the power of love: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.”

There’s still an overhang of an old perspective that hate and anger are power and that love, vulnerability, kindness and compassion are weak. The truth is the opposite. It’s much harder to be kind in the face of aggression than to bite back. True strength is love and I think people connect to this truth in a good romantic comedy.

Laughter is the most positive and powerful human expression of joy and happiness and can be medicinal in its effects.

Crying as an expression of sadness is an important element in the therapeutic effects of film. Repressed sadness is what causes anger, bitterness, resentment and can lead to damaging behavior. Crying as relief is incredibly transformative and can allow the audience to connect with a film on a deeper level.  

How important are romance and comedy to you in your personal relationships? 

Imperative. I love to laugh – I laugh at everything. I can’t have people in my life who don’t make me laugh. But seeing as most people make me laugh, I’m an easy audience. Romance to me means open, regular expressions of love which is one of my favorite things to do. I do it to people I don’t know that well and sometimes strangers which can be awkward, but fun, funny and incredibly rewarding. I much prefer a card with a meaningful message or a cheap thoughtful present than an expensive gift. I guess I see romance as kindness in a way. Random acts of romance should be a thing.  I think because I do it often it comes back to me tenfold. Recently I was having a bad day and I went out for ice cream with a beautiful friend who encouraged me to “let it out” and cry (in public!) and a kind stranger came up to me, opened his arms out and hugged me. We were in Venice, so I thought he was a tree hugging hippy (I hang out in these circles sometimes, so I get it) but it turned out that the stranger was the director of one of my all-time favorite romantic comedies and now we’re friends. 

Are most of your moments of genius (in screenplays) the result of personal experience or imagined experiences? In other words, how much of your writing is based out of first hand experiences? 

My favorite moments in my films spring from a fusion of real life and being connected to the present moment – usually after or during meditation, listening to music, an inspiring conversation or exercise.  I have a vivid imagination and a tendency for exaggeration which bodes me well in comedy, but the best comedy for me comes from the truth and organic moments that pop out in presence.

Studying The Meisner Technique for 3 years as an actress I developed an obsession for organic moments – the magical moments that shoot out of us like lava when we’re in the present moment.  These are gold for both performance and writing.  This is also why I love improv. I like to use improv to help inspire ideas as well as when I direct or perform.

Real life is a huge influence on my work – like all writers I observe and soak up my environment like a sponge.  I see the beauty in everyone, I see peoples pain, their joy, their hidden emotions and stories – sometimes I feel I can see through people – that sounds creepy, but you know what I mean. Don’t you? 

Do you consider the films which you write to be therapy for the audience or how to” instruction?

I see my films as relief – escape from daily life. Have a laugh, take a load off. Laugh at our pain – therapy in that sense.  Laughter and tears are very therapeutic and a good romantic comedy will do both.

Most rom coms shouldn’t be modelled as a how to… more like how not to.  Sex and The City modelled and promoted dysfunctional relationships by making a fairytale out of Carrie and Big’s romance.  There she was, an intelligent, successful, beautiful woman with a group of good friends – a strong support system who chose to be with a man who disrespected her and strung her along for 10 years and left her broken hearted time after time – even on the alter.  This is the kind of love that happen when we don’t have a strong sense of self-worth. 

How does a screenwriter like yourself find romance in Hollywood while pursuing a career in such a difficult field? 

I don’t. Just kidding. I have incredibly fulfilling and nourishing relationships with friends and family.  I’m not interested in the traditional or modern dating structure – I did it to death in my 20’s and it was fun – and then it was painful, and now I’m done with that.

What is the DNA of a great romantic comedy? i.e. the required traits. 

The formula for a great romantic comedy is love plus laughter equals joy. A rom com needs to be relateable even if it’s a fantasy based rom com, there needs to be an element of truth.

I’m interested in exploring a different definition of romance than our current understanding of it in mainstream society. I believe romance should come later rather than at the beginning.  It should start slow and increase as your relationship develops.  The current model shows and abundance of romance in the first couple of months or the “honeymoon period” and then once there’s commitment and safety often people get complacent and the romance fades.  Id’ like to see that turned around. This would make for a long term sustained relationship full of romance.  A higher love is achieved when two people love themselves fully and don’t need or expect the other person to make them happy.  They take full responsibility for their own happiness and merely join together with someone else who is whole and complete.

I’ve fallen into the expectation trap in past relationship, but when I took a 2 year break from dating and focused on me I noticed the ebb and flow of emotion, joy, and love within me and it became clear when I was going through challenges that it came from me – when I no longer had someone else to blame! These themes that surround love are what I’m fascinated in examining further and portraying in my films. 

What film did you not write but wish that you had and why? 

Disney’s Enchanted because it’s a magical fantastical musical with a message of love and believing in wonder and the good in people.  I write music into my films and there’s usually at least one scene where characters sing and/or dance, but I’m yet to make a musical feature. I write songs, so it will happen one day in the not too distant future. 

Describe your idea of a nightmare writing assignment for a film idea. 

Anything on violence or an empty sexualized rom com focused on aesthetics – anything that would contribute to the negative body image content that we already have an abundance of.  Many films are highly sexualized these days – they focus on physical attraction and base the development of love form this foundation of initial attraction or chemistry.   The problem with this is that it fades, it’s not sustainable long terms.  Societies obsession with image breeds insecurity competition and fear which are not compatible with true love which is ultimately what people are searching for whether they admit it or are aware of it or not and what compels people to watch romantic comedies. Enjoying fashion, beauty etc. is totally healthy, it’s the relationship we have with it – when we gain our sense of self and our worthiness from image that’s when we can run into problems. The paradigm – this obsession with superficiality – is flawed and perpetuates itself in a cycle of destruction. 

What is the most avoided topic in romantic comedy films and why? 

I don’t know if there are many avoided topics in rom coms these days. Pretty much anything goes. You hear to steer clear of religion and politics, but I’ve seen some of the best comedic moments on these topics. 

You’re obviously a very creative person; how do you maintain that constant flow of creative ideas over an entire career? What is your personal means for doing this?

 Mediation, yoga, dance, running and spending time with good friends is usually the best inspiration for me as a writer.  The heather and happier I am in myself and my life the more creative ideas flow through me.  I’ve found I’ve still managed to churn out decent work when I’ve been stressed and overworked, but it’s less enjoyable, so I prefer the healthy, happy method!

 Finish this sentence; the best thing about Sarah Walton is….

 Can I say for me what the best thing about “being” Sarah Walton is?

For me it’s that I love everyone and this brings me so much love and joy. It’s not that I don’t find people challenging like everyone else, but I always find a way to connect to empathy and love people regardless of what behavior they display. I see people as who they truly are, not their behavior. My upbringing gave me many gifts, but the one I’m most grateful for is having parents that are so different. My father was brought up in a poorer, small town non-religious family with 11 children while my mother was brought up in a fairly well off suburban catholic family.  This polarity allowed me to relate to a wide range of people. I grew up camping and staying in fancy hotels, so I appreciate the beauty in simplicity while also enjoying the glamorous lifestyle without placing any importance on the superficiality of material things.  I was also blessed with enough make or break me challenges in my life to force me to discover self-development and well-being practices that have changed my life dramatically and lead me to explore new ways to find happiness, love and joy in life regardless of external circumstances. It’s an ongoing process and sometimes I’m like – I’m done! I want to go back to how I was before, ignorance is bliss! – but I know it’s not and I’ve found ways of achieving natural highs through dance, meditation, yoga, laughter etc. which is a pretty good incentive to stay on this path!

Bonus:

Finally, what do other writers say about you when you are not listening?

What others say about me is not really any of my business, but I know sometimes people comment on how cheesy and mainstream my work is thinking that it’s an insult, when for me it’s a huge compliment. I enjoy hearing other people’s perspectives. It makes me laugh.

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