Look up Kara Holden on IMDb and not only will you find that she’s written scripts for nearly every studio in Hollywood, but that she’s also pretty much a master at scripting adaptations. From 2011’s Soul Surfer to her current film, Carrie Pilby, which recently premiered at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival (TIFF), Holden has proven herself as one of Hollywood’s go-to screenwriters when it comes to putting a book onto the big screen.
It’s not surprising that her storytelling roots stem from her love for reading growing up. “As a child, I have vivid memories of my parents reading to me, whether it was my father doing the voices, or my mom taking time to read Nancy Drew together,” Holden recalls.
“We moved a lot and sometimes I had a hard time making friends. I have always been a little bit introverted. I call myself an extroverted introvert. I like getting out, but I tend to be a little bit of a hermit. Reading gave me hope and dreams. As long as you can read, you can go anywhere.”
Holden also loved movies “because they affect me in different ways. There is something about beauty and the all-encompassing feeling of being in a theatre with other people and a screen in front of you and pulling you into a world.”
A Kentucky native, Holden earned a degree in Biology from the University of Louisville before her love of storytelling brought her to Los Angeles. She spent several years as an actress, landing roles in the TV series, Clueless, and Gilmore Girls, where her interaction with series creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, inspired her to pursue writing and enrol in USC’s Graduate Professional Writing Program.
Creative Screenwriting chatted with Holden about her first TIFF experience, the keys to adapting a book to the big screen, and why Carrie Pilby was her dream project.
You went to TIFF this year for Carrie Pilby? How did you like it?
It was just terrific! It was the best. I had so much fun. The audiences were just so generous, and I was amazed at how fun it was.
I loved how everyone seemed to truly love movies. It was my first film festival ever, so it was better than I had hoped for, which was awesome.
I’ve read that Carrie Pilby was your favorite script to write, the one that inspired you the most. What was it about the story that inspired you to adapt the novel?
I’m a big Salinger fan, which might sound cliché, but I don’t care [laughs]. I love him. So when I read the book, I thought that Carrie belonged to the Glass family that Salinger used to write about, so that excited me. I could never adapt Catcher in the Rye, but I could adapt this.
But, even more so, Carrie is a female character that I loved and I connected with the fact that she was complicated. Everyone in the book was. No one was black or white, or all good or bad. They were all shades of grey, and I loved that.
I also loved that the book wasn’t afraid to cover topics that you don’t always see: morality, ethics, and a little bit of religion. I thought that was it all addressed in a smart and thoughtful way, and not too heavy-handed.
I love the opportunity to write comedy, too, and being able to mix comedy with drama. I thought that I related to her, which is always fun to write about.
Since you connected to the material so well, was there something that you learned about yourself as a writer while you were writing the screenplay?
That’s an interesting question. I learned that I loved writing this kind of story [laughs]. I learned that I wanted to do this kind of writing more. I actually really enjoy adapting. I have adapted before, and [writing this] solidified for me that I like doing it.
When I read the book, I got a clear idea of how to make it cinematic. It stretched me, though. I had to think about ways on how to get Carrie out of her head, and how to make things more visual. I enjoyed that process, but it was a challenge, for sure.
Your instinct is immediately to do voice-over, which isn’t bad, but this didn’t feel like it needed that. I wanted the audience to not know what exactly was going through her head. I think that’s why the shot at the end – the director’s choice – there’s a moment of connection that you’ve been wanting throughout the whole movie, and finally, you know what she’s thinking. I loved that.
Let’s touch on adaptations then. You’ve worked on a number of them, including your other film that is coming out later this year, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life. What is your key to success with them?
When I read a book, I immediately fold papers and underline, and then I take everything that I underlined and put them on note cards. The I start moving things around, and then I start seeing things developing into something clearer – it’s kind of like problem-solving, which I’ve always enjoyed.
I love that there’s a world already created, and a richness and a deepness right off the bat with the characters. And I think from a business standpoint, adaptations are easier to make because there is a built-in audience. People are always looking for intellectual property. With books, there is a little less risk than an original for the studios and people who are investing money.
Your work features many young protagonists, including your upcoming two films. What helps you get in the mindset for writing adolescent characters? Do you write differently for them opposed to an adult character?
That’s a good question. I love writing young characters. I have always felt connected with the angst and enthusiasm of young people. That everything is so big, especially when you’re younger. The emotions are stronger.
When you’re younger, there’s more fire and I enjoy that. I enjoy the figuring out of life. For me, I hope that I always retain a youthful spirit. To see the world with fresh eyes is what helps you to enjoy it.
I have always loved young literature, like Madeline L’Engle and the Harry Potter books. And, also, with films for young audiences, you can tackle things and topics that you wouldn’t be able to do for films for adults. It seems like less things are off-limits for young people.
As for writing young characters, they tend to be less guarded. You can have fun with them kind of saying anything. They make mistakes, which I enjoy to see how they learn from them. The best thing, for me, as writer is to see a character with a very full arc. Starting somewhere, learning something, and becoming new because of it. Anyone can do that at anytime, but kids are constantly learning.
Let’s go back a little. What was your big break as a screenwriter?
I had gone through a painful divorce when I was young. I always loved writing, and then I wrote this script in which I was grappling with love and the term “meant to be” and destiny and what out choices mean. So that ended up being a romantic comedy about a guardian angel that falls in love with the woman who’s he guarding. It was my first big project. And I needed it so badly to succeed!
I was on my own for the first time, and I borrowed money from my agent for rent, so I really needed it to sell. We sent it out around town and it didn’t sell. I was devastated. I loved it so much, and a lot of people loved it as well. But it was an original, and there were a number of angel movies going around at the time.
Around the same time I had a meeting with Paramount because they had really loved the script, too. And, honestly, on the drive over, I had an idea off the top of my head called Inner Bitch and I sold the pitch in the room. And that was my big break. I remember getting the call from my manager and agent and I was crying my eyes out. It was such a validation for my life, and my writing.
So based on your own life and success story, do you think that it’s important for a writer to have a bunch of ideas and projects going on at the same time?
Oh, absolutely. Especially because originals rarely sell. But write a script that you really love because even if it doesn’t sell, it will make an impact. It can be a calling card and you can meet people. People will always ask what you’re working on, and so it’s a great idea to have two or three in your back pocket that you can share.
You have two films coming out this year, so how do you balance writing and working on multiple projects simultaneously?
It’s hard [laughs]. I’d like to say that I have a few tricks. I also would like to get to the point where I am working on different projects on the same day, like one in the morning and the other at night, but I actually don’t do that. I will work on one project on one week, and the work on the next project the following week.
I have trouble shifting my worlds, so the best thing for me is to work on one project at a time in that way so I can really flesh out the story and hold onto the characters’ voices. I don’t know if there is a better way. It can be hard sometimes because there are deadlines looming, but it all works out. I go by my gut and what I’m inspired by.
I don’t remember who talked about – maybe Bradbury – writing up to the point and stopping right before while you still know what the next scene will be, and holding that. So that the next time you go back, you can jump right in because you know where you’re going, and that’s a very helpful thing that has worked for me.
So at the end of the day, even though I know what the next scene is going to be, I will stop right before. Then I can start fresh and know where I’m going, and it gets the ball rolling. Because sometimes when you finish your thought and when you’re starting at a blank page, it can be discouraging.
You’re also working on your first animated movie The Yeggs and the Yahbuts for producer Brett Ratner and director Chris McKay. What’s the difference between writing an animated movie versus a live-action film?
Live-action, for me, has been dialogue-driven, whereas for animation, the biggest thing is world building, especially at the beginning. Mostly because anything goes. If you’re in a world where there are no rules, it’s so wide open. You’re building where these characters live and how they live before you get into specific and before you get into dialogue, which has been challenging for me.
One of the biggest skills that I think I have and deliver is dialogue, so it’s been a challenge to open up a new way of thinking. I have hit my head on the desk, thinking, “I can’t do this!” But it’s fun when you think of something exciting and different that you’ve never done before. It’s cool and scary all at once.
What is your dream project?
My dream project would be this biopic that I have been thinking about for a while and someone who’s inspired me, so, hopefully that will come about. But in a way my dream project was Carrie Pilby. After I left the theatre in Toronto where it played, a woman stopped me and said, “You made a lot of people happy today,” and I left the theatre and cried because it doesn’t get better than that.
Featured image: Bel Powley as Carrie in Carrie Pilby.