Visionary Writer Doug Williams on “Black Star Rising”

Doug Williams, screenwriter

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?

Doug Williams: A lot. This is the kind of recognition that is essential to getting noticed for projects that might otherwise be under the radar or simply overlooked. It’s a great competition, with a meaningful impact, and can be a game changer for writers at any level of skill.

NY Elite: Can you tell us about the work that you participated with at ISC? What is the story about?

Doug Williams: It’s been an adventure. Black Star Rising began as a play 25-plus years ago that I was commissioned to write, based on the life of U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, probably the most prominent Black political figure of the 1970s. The play was not very good, but a stage director in New York I’d worked with over the years saw it and said she could fix it, which she did. She set up a directed reading in New York, featuring the late Lynne Thigpen in the lead, and it was a total hit. After the performance – which got a standing ovation from 450 or so audience members packed into a theatre on 42nd Street – we thought it would get picked up by a major theatre. The problem, though, was that it was uneconomic – 17 actors playing about 40 roles – and Ms. Thigpen suggested I turn it in to a screenplay. All these years and God knows how may rewrites later, here we are.

NY Elite: Can you tell us yourself and your artistic talents?

Doug Williams: I write pretty much everything but opera and poetry. As a playwright, I’ve been produced four times in New York, once in Houston, and in regional theatres. Critics compared my last novel, Nowhere Man, to Homeland and House of Cards. I’ve also co-written or ghost-written a number of books, most recently A Sacred Duty, the true story of a blind Navy veterans, Paula Pedene, whose government turned against her and tried to destroy her when she blew the whistle on corrupt practices in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – a story that got worldwide attention. Right now, I’m finishing a new novel, The Compound, the story of a failed marriage disguised as a political thriller, and with my partner Donna McKenzie I’m working up a “memory play” about growing up in the Cold War.

NY Elite: What scripts have you written so far?

Doug Williams: Black Star Rising was my first. I’ve just finished The Kronos Protocol, a female-based thriller that revolves around three women: A troubled 28-year-old looking for answers when she begins to age rapidly after a freak accident; an irascible 80-year-old slipping into dementia who becomes her unlikely partner; and a scientist – a mad genius – who believes she has discovered a genetic fountain of youth. It’s already won some Best Screenplay awards, and a script consultant I worked with called it a “science fiction action thriller with a smart premise that delves into topics that are always relevant (and) will fill theaters easily.” My partner Donna McKenzie and I are also working on a screenplay based on the whistleblower book.

NY Elite: Top 3 favorite projects that you have been involved in?

Doug Williams: Black Star Rising has been terrific, because it breaks a lot of rules – shattering the fourth wall, non-chronological – and explores themes such as identity, racial stereotyping, distorted perceptions, and betrayal. The Kronos Protocol is dear to my heart because it combines my passion for mystery-suspense-thriller stories with a clear-eyed look at what happens when we get old (my Mom’s experiences played an important role in the story). And I really loved writing the book, A Sacred Duty, and working on the screenplay with my partner Donna McKenzie, who showed me how to put my outrage on the back burner to tell a human story.

NY Elite: What type of scripts do you want to write in your career?

Doug Williams: I want to write stories of some depth, that go beyond the obvious, that may look like one thing but are really about something else. My last play, The Boundary, which I wrote with Donna McKenzie, is a political thriller that explores love, marriage, passion, and how institutions fail us. The Kronos Protocol is a thriller that’s really about our fear of aging. The upcoming script about a family coming apart during the Cold War – the Cuban missile crisis, specifically – looks at how the promise of security is a fallacy.

NY Elite: As a writer, what is the most important aspect of building a character?

Doug Williams: You have to know who they are and why they act the way they do. I don’t necessarily buy into the idea that you have to create a birth-to-present character history before writing. I start with a core understanding of my characters, what they think, what they really think, and how they act, and allow those things to change as the narrative unfolds. In my past novel, I added one trait to the lead character, and had to rewrite about 60 percent of the book in one way or another. That said, you’d better know motivations, why people do what they do – consciously or subconsciously. Otherwise, you’ll get lost in the woods.

NY Elite: What projects are you currently working on?

Doug Williams: A new novel, The Compound, about a failed FBI agent who believes his wife has been kidnapped by a cult, and sets out to rescue her – not knowing that powerful forces inside the government do not want that to happen. A new play, Swimback, about a family unraveling during the Cuban missile crisis. And a new script, Veterans Day, based on the true story of the VA whistleblower.

NY Elite: Do you express yourself creatively in any other ways?

Doug Williams: I write. It’s what I do. I can’t paint, write poetry or music, sing, play an instrument. I stare at a screen and try to make magic, with varying degrees of success.

NY Elite: What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a career in filmmaking/writing?

Doug Williams: I’m a firm believer in outlining. I don’t start a project until I have 60 cards on the corkboard. About a third of that, usually more, will change over the course of the work, but if you don’t know where you’re going (as they say), you’ll end up somewhere else. Also, be a good self-editor. Leave your ego at the door, and look at your work with clear eyes and a healthy skepticism. Attack every scene, every word, every piece of dialogue, every motivation. Weave – don’t just ladle episode on top of episode, but make sure everything is part of a narrative whole that moves from A to B to C., and that everything on the page is in some way essential to the story you’re trying to tell. And for God’s sake, find an editor you can trust. Finally, don’t be afraid to walk through the doors that say Keep Out.

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