The middle, peace-keeping child of a large, close-knit Irish Catholic family who moved 14 times while she was growing up, Mugs Cahill felt destined to become a covert operative or a preschool teacher. She utilized the skill sets of both to settle into a fulfilling writing career. Named as one of ISA’s Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch, Mugs was hired to write the screenplay adaptation for the NAACP award winning play Rounds. Her original pilot Jook was a Finalist in the Emerging Screenwriters and Roadmap Wise Words contests. Her feature and TV pilot scripts have placed in the Austin Film Festival, PAGE, Screencraft, Slamdance and Scriptapalooza competitions, and she is an alum of the prestigious Stowe Story Labs.
Why did you decide to become a screenwriter above all other careers?
I suppose it was inevitable. Because we moved a lot growing up, I wrote many letters to stay in touch with people. Sometimes I didn’t have a lot to say so I would make up stories to fill the page. But I didn’t consider writing as a career until later. I studied Economics and landed a job on Wall Street with an offer to start as soon as I graduated. Two weeks before I was set to start, the firm was bought out and everyone except a few at the top were fired. They sent me a letter of apology and a $500 check. I took the money and came to LA to hang out for a month. On a dare, I got a freelance job to write taglines for Paramount. It was easy money and I kept getting more freelance assignments around town. That month in LA became a year and then another. At that point, I was a professional writer. I never lost my love of letter writing, however, and one day decided to learn how to craft my stories into scripts and my focus became screenwriting instead of marketing / advertising writing. Only recently did I realize that this is the career I’ve always been working toward.
What personal qualities do successful screenwriters need to make it?
Talent. A strong work ethic. Perseverance. Self belief.
What did you learn with each draft of your script?
I get a feeling after I write the last word and type the final period of a draft; it’s borderline self-gloating. Then later, after reading it again before a rewrite, I laugh at myself because I see how much work it still needs. But it’s okay. I used to be an avid cyclist and learned early on that thinking about the 100 miles at the end is daunting. So I would set my sights on what was 5 miles or 10 miles down the road and celebrate that accomplishment. Doing that 10 or 20 times untiI I hit mile 100 was much easier than one long ass ride. That’s now how think of each draft. Celebrate it but know there’s more ahead and go on.
What misconceptions have you discovered about establishing a screenwriting career?
Screenwriters have to do more than write. You need to be the producer of your own success. A good screenplay is the calling card, but you also need to be aware of, and constantly update who’s who and what’s going on. And you need a good attitude. That doesn’t mean you always have to be captain positive, but you need to remain aware that this is a collaborative business.
What inspires your imagination?
The simplest things trigger it. Feeding the neighborhood squirrel family. Reading the newspaper (yes, in print.) Vacuuming. It doesn’t take much. I’ve always been a person that absorbs as much as I can. My wife calls it “busy brain” and I admit that it can be difficult – for her, not me – when I don’t turn off.
Do you have a preferred genre, format, theme you write in?
I prefer stories that celebrate overcoming obstacles, tackling adversity, challenging the norms. Whether I’m writing a spy thriller or a coming of age drama, I want to infuse my story with strength of the human spirit. I lean toward people whose voices are discounted or ignored. I try to create a platform so they can be heard.
How do you train and improve your writing craft?
I find that the best way for me to get better as a writer is to continually write and rewrite. I am very open to using others as a sounding board. But I am conscious of having just anyone read my work. Max Timm at Story Farm is a great consultant. Jen Grisanti is a must for anyone writing TV. I rely on constructive criticism from those in the industry who have a good reputation. Otherwise it’s simply getting opinions and that’s not helpful to me.
Do you have any mentors, heroes or heroines?
I feel that “Hero” is a really strong word and I don’t take it lightly. It puts an ordinary person up on a pedestal, and a true hero doesn’t want to be up there. So, yes, I do have heroes/heroines, but I’ll reserve the right to say who so that they can continue to be without the expectation to be.
What advice do you have for screenwriters wanting to make next year’s ISA Top 25 list?
Don’t fret about how to get on lists. Put your time and energy into your writing, into meeting people and fostering relationships, into getting outside of your head and filling the well. And then write some more. If you’re doing the work, you can’t help but get noticed. But you have to do the work.
What is something that few people know about you?
When I was very young, I had an infection that resulted in an odd round scar on my left leg, which the doctor at the time said would disappear as I got older. It did not. To this day, I instinctively reach for it to determine my left from my right.