NY Elite: Congratulations on being an ISC finalist. What does it mean for your work to be selected at the International Screenwriting Competition in New York?
Montgomery Burt: I was quite pleased to hear my script made the Top 12 from an initial 1840 entries. Wow—that’s steep competition! When I sit down to write a story I always hope it will stand out from the pack but you never really know. It’s all up to the discretion of the judges, isn’t it?
NY Elite: Can you tell us about the work that you participated with at ISC? What is the story about?
Montgomery Burt: It’s called “April and Mr. Stockman,” about a spirited 10-year-old girl battling cancer who is unable to get help from her doctor, her parents, and even her favorite superhero, until she befriends a kindly handyman who has a history of fixing things. But, as they learn, nothing comes without sacrifice.
I wanted to explore the subject of people you would normally assume have the power–doctors, parents, a superhero–actually don’t compared to a little girl, a handyman, and a janitor.
I lost my younger sister to cancer so it was my way of honoring her. For that reason, it’s a very personal story for me but I hope it has universal themes of love, loss, and hope that everyone can relate to.
NY Elite: Can you tell us about yourself and your artistic talents?
Montgomery Burt: At fourteen, I was making short films with my dad’s Super-8 movie gear and I’ve been hooked ever since.
In addition to writing the award-winning black comedy screenplay “The Outskirts of Paradise,” I’ve completed four feature scripts and written for radio and television. My teleplay “Career Move” was produced for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and my Twilight Zone script “Borrowed Time” won second prize in a national competition. CKNW Radio also produced my black comedy radioplay “Leonard McTivey’s Last Day at Work.” I received two Praxis screenwriting fellowships through Simon Fraser University, and I run Upwords, an ongoing screenwriters workshop that develops new talent.
A short comedy film I wrote and co-produced with director Tabatha Golat, “The United Guys Network,” played at over 50 festivals worldwide and picked up five awards along the way. This month, it screens on ShortsTV for broadcast in the U.S. and Europe to 40 million households.
I have won numerous awards for my feature and short scripts.
NY Elite: What scripts have you written so far?
Montgomery Burt: I enjoy watching films in various genres so I write in a variety of genres. Some of my projects include “Dougie Dog” (heartfelt comedy), “Zombie Corp” (horror-comedy), “Darla vs. Hockey” (comedy), “The Scroungers” (science-fiction), “My New Purse” (comedy), “Other People’s Lives” (drama), and “Francine & Gerald” (suspense). For me, the story dictates its genre.
NY Elite: Top 3 favorite projects that you have been involved in?
Montgomery Burt: I loved being involved in “The United Guys Network.” I wrote the short comedy script and director Tabatha Golat and I got funding from Telus StoryHive. It was a great experience being on set, a privilege most writers don’t get. I learned so much from seeing Tabaha in action, working with our cast and the crew. She created the perfect upbeat atmosphere for a comedy. We were a small team–only about a dozen of us in front of and behind the camera–but we all pitched in and got it shot in three days. For me, it was like going back to school. Seeing the actors interpret my material was mind-blowing, inspiring me to write more specifically for them. Ultimately, their performance is what ends up on the screen.
I enjoyed writing “Dougie Dog,” a heartfelt story about a dog dropped off at an animal shelter who is desperate to break free. My wife and I have volunteered at our local SPCA for 20 years and Heather and I often wondered what the canines were thinking about their experience there. That was the inspiration for a prison break story, told from a dog’s point of view. When I showed it to my director, Tabatha loved the story and we’ve been trying to make the film since.
I enjoyed writing the horror-comedy “Zombie Corp.” I commute every day on transit and while I’m on the train I write down story ideas. They usually are little idea fragments and bits of dialog that need much work shaping them into a script. This story, however, emerged practically whole and I wrote it in an afternoon. After three more drafts and workshopping it twice at my screenwriters group, it’s gone on to win numerous writing awards. Hopefully, making the darned thing will be just as easy.
NY Elite: What type of scripts do you want to write in your career?
Montgomery Burt: I favor dramas and neo-noir but I’ve always written stories that have a comedy or black comedy element to them. As I mentioned, I enjoy seeing films in a variety of genres but I have a soft spot for bio-pics. My wife and I rush to them the most. I’ve never written one but I am fascinated with true stories of people’s lives.
NY Elite: As a writer, what is the most important aspect of building a character?
Montgomery Burt: I aim for an interesting character with a strong goal. If it’s a short film that goal probably isn’t saving the world from an alien invasion, it may be something as small (but important) as a young girl trying to stop her parents from bickering in the car. I often like throwing ordinary people into a situation that puts them off-balance and see what they do to make things right again. For example, in my script “Darla vs. Hockey,” a newlywed suddenly becomes a “sports widow” and goes to great lengths to win back her hockey-crazy husband.
I think there should be something relatable about the character, even if they are a dark character. My stories often begin with a true event that happened to me or somebody I know, and I extrapolate it. My real estate agent, for example, told me about a woman she caught stealing personal items from open houses and I explored what would motivate somebody to do that in “Other People’s Lives.”
NY Elite: What projects are you currently working on?
Montgomery Burt: On the writing side, I’m nearly finished a short called “Hugh Was Here,” about a nondescript fellow’s last day at the office that goes terribly wrong. I need to workshop it one more time in my screenwriters group, Upwords, before showing it around. On the producing side, director Tabatha Golat and I are trying to raise funds to make our latest film, “Dougie Dog,” a heartfelt comedy set in an animal shelter. We put together a proposal and video pitch that was supported by Film Collaborative in Los Angeles:
NY Elite: Do you express yourself creatively in any other ways?
Montgomery Burt: I love music as much as film. I have a huge collection of CDs in a variety of genres—blues, soul, gospel, rockabilly, Cajun, zydeco, Tex-Mex, Cuban–you name it. I love how music creates a certain mood and often tells a story. Especially with blues songs, you can’t beat those cautionary tales from a well-lived life. For “The United Guys Network,” we licensed a blues song from harmonica master Harpdog Brown and it was perfect for the film.
I don’t play an instrument myself but I use a lot of music structure and emotional directness in both my writing and editing. I work as a news editor at Global BC in Vancouver and I love taking the material a cameraman has shot and shaping it into a story. It’s a two-minute slice of life told for a 6 o’clock deadline. I’ve done this job for many years and still enjoy finding out about other people’s lives. I’m fortunate to work on This Is BC, a series of profiles about interesting people living their best lives. These are some of my favorites:
NY Elite: What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a career in filmmaking/writing?
Montgomery Burt: Learn how to tell a good story. Audiences are attracted to compelling characters in conflict doing interesting things. Take more time than you might think you need to work on the script because that’s the foundation for everything to follow. It was Hitchcock who said, “To make a great film you need three things: the script, the script, and the script.”
On the business side, network as much as you can because you can’t do it all yourself. I’m an extrovert but many writers are more introverted by nature so get out there and find others in the business. Team up with talented people to accomplish great things.
Focus and follow-through. Too many people are great at starting projects but they lose interest along the way. Or they do finish the script (or film) and they fail to promote it fully.
Don’t believe the naysayers and doubters. Many of your friends and family will give reasons why you should be selling plumbing parts instead of filmmaking, but don’t listen to them.
Have somebody in your corner. Through all the ups and downs, two people are my most ardent supporters, my Aunt Lois and my wife Heather. I would have given up years ago had it not been for them.
Learn to collaborate. Filmmaking is a team sport.
Learn to take feedback and learn from that feedback. Set up a writer’s group and watch how you magically all get better together.
Make time to write. It’s so easy to come up with reasons not to write. I know life gets in the way sometimes, but nothing gets done until you apply butt to chair.