Interviews | Screenwriting

Claudia Grazioso Has Arrived

1 Jun , 2007  

Written by Nicole Roberge | Posted by:

Hit screenwriter of Are We There Yet? talks about her transition from Connecticut to Hollywood, making it as a screenwriter, and how to build a lasting career in an uncertain industry.

Hit screenwriter Claudia Grazioso made her way from New Haven, Connecticut to Hollywood, but the real transition started at a little movie store back home, Best Video on Whitney Avenue.  It was run by a guy named Hank Paper, and she claims it was when she truly got interested in movies.  Every Friday and Saturday she would go in, so much that she claims she was becoming a bit of a “reclusive film geek.”  “In fact, I was in there so consistently on the weekends that one Saturday when I returned my Friday night movies, but didn’t rent anything new, Hank wondered what was up, and I explained that I was actually going out that Saturday night.  He was elated for me!  He was shouting, ‘That’s great! You look great!  Have a great time!’ as I was leaving,” Grazioso said. 

But he became so involved in her life that even when she was sick, she would send her Mom to Best Video to grab a movie, and would tell her to ask Hank what she should see.  There was one occasion when she had strep throat and he sent her home with a movie called Always by Henry Jaglom — a movie she describes as “beautiful, emotional, quirky and truly independent — about people, relationships and how they change.”  She said, “It was the first time I remember thinking: ‘This is accessible.’  Obviously the word accessible didn’t go through my mind, but I do remember watching that movie and feeling a small sense of possibility that I could write stories like that eventually.  Movies didn’t need pyrotechnics or volcanoes erupting on La Brea.  There was room for just people.”

And that is what Grazioso has done with her writing and films.  And hopefully, Mr. Hank Paper remembered that little girl begging for movies, and the talented woman she has become, so that for the next batch of kids needing recommendations, he hands over her movies.  And now, he has a great little story to go along with them.

Although Claudia Grazioso has come quite far from her New Haven roots, she still remembers them quite fondly.  She attended Columbia University in New York City and later set off to California to attend UCLA film school.  Knowing she wanted to write, and that she liked films, she eventually merged the two together, but that did not come without a few odd jobs in between.  Her time was first spent working in publishing, and she did her own writing at night, but delving into film school allotted her time to write what she wanted.  Her first script was based on a short story about how “crummy guys can be.  And oddly,” she says, “it kind of wrote itself.”  Grazioso had much success in film school — a script she wrote when she first moved to California, Galileo At The Junction, won a prestigious UCLA award, the Samuel Goldwyn Award, which garnered her much attention in Hollywood.

Initially, Grazioso had never thought she would stay in Los Angeles.  She thought she would just go out for school, and then return East.  But after the initial success with the contest, she decided to stay just a little bit longer, and it was a good thing she did.  Of course, a little bit longer turned into much longer and she is still there, but the success she is having is inspiration to aspiring writers and filmmakers in New England and beyond.

Grazioso did get an agent from winning the contest, but she explains while most people struggle in Hollywood for a while and then have success, she had a glimpse of immediate success and then it kind of dropped.  She stayed with it though, and then picked up some odd jobs that helped with her career path, such as reading scripts for different companies.  She learned what was good, and what was not so good, and what companies were looking for.  She also spent time as a theatre critic for Backstage West, simply because she enjoyed writing in a format where you have a bit more freedom in what you write, and get to see something immediately published — as opposed to screenwriting, where it takes time to see your writing come to life.

Grazioso was eventually given the option to write Bring it On Again, the sequel to the teen cheerleading comedy Bring it On.  While her agents advised against it, she took the job, and claims it was a good experience, just to have the practice in understanding how a movie comes together.  From then on, Grazioso has not been able to put her pen down.

She teamed up with Steven Gary Banks, her writing partner.  They first worked together when he was an independent producer and they developed a script.  “It was a great experience.  We just worked so well together.  It was invigorating and when he started writing, it just seemed like a natural move.  It can be great for the creative process because there is someone to bounce ideas off of, ask whether or not something rings true or is funny or sufficient motivation for a character to do something — someone who is equally invested,” she says.  And this writing team turned out to be the perfect pair.  Since matching up, they have sold numerous projects, worked in both film and TV, and had the smash hit, Are We There Yet?

The movie, of course, fell into Hollywood’s hands, which means that though it had originally been sold to Adam Sandler’s company, set to take place along I-95 the day before Thanksgiving, it ultimately featured Ice Cube taking his love interest’s kids on a road trip through the Northwest.  “It wasn’t really hard to see the changes, though the first time I saw it I felt a little disoriented, because I think that by the time a film goes into production, you’re very aware of how collaborative an effort it is.  Movies are very rarely any one person’s vision,” she said.

But Grazioso’s keeping herself busy — she and her partner just wrote an action comedy for Lucy Liu, called Beautiful Asian Brides, on which Liu collaborated.  “That was a lot of fun to work on.  One of the best things about being in a comedy writing team is you get to spend days trying to crack each other up.  One line my partner wrote almost made me snort tea out of my nose,” she said.  “Not a bad way to make a living.”

But aside from movies, Grazioso is now delving into the world of television — an exciting new endeavor that she seems to have both the talent and drive for.  They developed a pilot last season centering on female lawyers, but it didn’t get picked up.  So they are trying their hand at it again because they really enjoy the experience.  The new pilot is for Fox and may be a mid-season pick up.  Set in Washington, D.C., it is about young people who are working and hooking up at the center of the free world.

But to go from being immersed in the world of moviemaking to television must be a challenge in itself — just the schedule alone.  How has she handled that, and is this where her future lies?

“Writing for television is both wonderful and crazy-making.  The deadlines are hard deadlines — meaning there is very little wiggle room.  So you have to write fast and furious most of the time.  And if something is going to go into production, it will go in a matter of weeks.  In other words, not a lot of prep time.  But, the possible creative windfall is the chance to develop characters and storylines over the course of, if you’re insanely lucky, several years,” she said, seemingly excited about this new endeavor, and clearly talented enough to carry it off.

“The nice thing about writing for film,” she added “is that you get a chance to sit with the studio’s notes, absorb them before you have to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.  The downside is it can take years to get something into production.  Plenty of time for the studio to decide they don’t want to make a movie about a zebra in Paris, they want to make a movie about an elephant in the Bronx.”  That is something all too familiar in Hollywood — how movies change, it seems, in an instant.  For a writer, the movie they thought they were going to get made, disappears.  Soon, it is someone else’s.  Or the idea is now so far-fetched, they wonder if they want to keep it as their own, because they barely recognize it anymore.

But lucky for Grazioso, she has a little extra creative pull with this new television gig.  Since she has written the series, she also gets the title executive producer, so she says if she continues her work in TV, she would like to keep her work in the production end.  “It’s necessary to be there as an advocate for the story you’re trying to establish and tell.  It’s great to get a chance to actually help steer to the series.  I enjoyed producing, and certainly felt that I learned a lot, but it’s not something I would pursue on its own, outside of television.  Honestly, I’m amazed that film producers don’t commit suicide in mass numbers.  Or flood the temp market,” she said.

But there have been other things she has had the gumption to try at least, and know it was not for her.  In 2005 she brought her short film, Flash Pain Pop Love, which she wrote and directed, to the Austin Film Festival.  She directed it for the experience, and though she was glad she did it, she said she would never do it again.  “I was pregnant at the time, and we were using a donut shop as a location, and they were never very accommodating.  So at that time, it helped being pregnant.  I was like, just give me a donut!” she said, adding, “But I definitely found out directing is not what I want to do.  People were like, ‘where does this lighting go?’  And I had no idea!  I’m a writer — just make it look good.  It’s a tough job directing.  It was a good experience, and I’m glad I did it.  But that was it,” she said with a laugh.  “It was all about the donuts!”

Screenwriting poses its own challenges though, the main one, she said, that of living with uncertainty.  “And that never bothered me before I had kids.  Now I lie awake at night tallying tuitions and feeling sick.  I guess the antidote to that is trying to stay current and innovative.  As my husband (screenwriter Peter Filardi — Flatliners, The Craft) says, to not give in to lazy writing.  And that’s a challenge as well,” she said.

Another challenge that has come up, and not just with being a screenwriter, is that of being a woman in Hollywood.  In a job dominated by men, it can be tough for women to break into, and then once you do, there are stereotypes, and you have to be true to your craft, and yourself, to maintain your career.  She commented on that notion:  “It has been challenging, because there aren’t as many women writers, and you have to remember that when you go into meetings.  It was especially interesting when I became pregnant, and I went in for work, and all of a sudden I was getting offers to adapt children’s stories, and it was so odd because that had never been my tastes before.  And it wasn’t like my husband was getting offers for things like Thomas the Train.  So it’s a really interesting dynamic, which makes it more challenging, but I’ve still been able to do the things I like, so I’m lucky.”

But aside from that, screenwriting does have its high points, from the creative process of developing ideas, to writing the script, to seeing it unfold in production and then to the final product — the movie.  “For me, I’d have to say the biggest allure is watching a movie.  Maybe that goes hand in hand with being a writer, and hence more of an observer.  Some people find the set invigorating, but I’m not one of them.  They’re big and distracting, and how anyone can concentrate is beyond me,” she said, adding: “Also, I don’t think I deal well in abstractions — I can’t see how moving a light six inches to the left will result in more emotional resonance, until I see it on screen as part of a whole,” she explained.  This was something that she said she also found difficulty in when directing her short film, that she wasn’t as accustomed to the formats of sets and the “other” things that are expected and needed for a film to be made — lighting, sets, etc.  To that, she says, "I am in awe of people whose minds do work that way."

Again, just as her creativity flows with her creative partner, being a screenwriter is where it is at for her, and that is when the real project begins, so it is no wonder that she said: “Another part I love is the very beginning of the process — when everyone is just ringing with possibility.

It is clear Grazioso is one of those talents ringing with possibility.  She has come quite far with her accomplishments and seems to have quite a career ahead of her.  She knows the business well now, but also truly believes in the craft of screenwriting.  She has worked quite hard to get where she is, and with a variety of projects, it seems as if she will have her hands full for a long time.

And Grazioso is very encouraging to all aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers, because she is a sure example that it can be done, especially coming from such humble roots as New England.  Her best advice?  “Observe, observe, observe.  If you want to use art — any art — to communicate in any way, I think it’s important to really see what happens around you,” she said.  “Almost everything I write now is either inspired by or has something do with things I remember from growing up back East.”

She also encourages women to get involved, and is excited by the fact that there are even more women working in the industry now than when she began, and that is something that she hopes will translate to the big screen — more stories from a woman’s perspective.  “I feel like for a while we had a glut of movies from a guy’s perspective about being young and hip and lost, or in love, or dating crazy women, or whatever… but not so many about being a young woman and facing those same challenges.  I hope that as more women start to work in the industry that will start to change,” she said, then added some robust advice: “’Go west, young woman, and grow up with the country.’”

If Hank Paper is still around, running Best Video on Whitney Avenue, he should be proud to be recommending Are We There Yet? to all of the happy customers that come in.  And when he does, maybe he fills them with stories about how the screenwriter was once a little girl who came in to that very store asking him to recommend films. 

Nicole Roberge is a Connecticut-based Journalist and has been published in The Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, ELLEgirl, Gotham Baseball, Script Magazine, and served as editor to Tuned In Music and a book contributor to Hungry? A Los Angeles City Guide for Families. She can be contacted at NicoleMRoberge@hotmail.com.


Nicole Roberge is a Connecticut-based Journalist and has been published in The Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, ELLEgirl, Gotham Baseball, Script Magazine, and served as editor to Tuned In Music and a book contributor to Hungry? A Los Angeles City Guide for Families. She can be contacted at NicoleMRoberge@hotmail.com.