Nicole Jones-Dion is an LA-based writer/director who specializes in genre films. She is currently in pre-production on a YA fantasy that begins shooting this spring. Her first feature film, a YA sci-fi called STASIS, was from one of the executive producers of CLOUD ATLAS. Her writing credits include THEY FOUND HELL for the SyFy Channel; DRACULA: THE DARK PRINCE starring Academy Award-winner Jon Voight, which was distributed by Lionsgate; and TEKKEN 2, based on the best-selling series of video games. She also has several projects in development with her mentor, Sean Cunningham (creator of FRIDAY THE 13TH).
I met Nicole during Women in Horror Month, at the official WiHM website. Timing didn’t allow for an interview to take place during that month, but we decided not to let that get in the way. Nicole’s graciously agreed to answer a few questions about working in the film industry, her CV, etc.
Talking with Nicole Jones-Dion
S&S: How old were you when you realized that working with film is what you wanted to do?
Nicole Jones-Dion: I’ve always been a storyteller. When I was a kid, I used to write and perform little neighborhood plays and puppet shows, and when I growing up in Germany, I was part of a travelling performance group that went around to different military bases entertaining the troops. I quickly realized I wasn’t the world’s best singer or actor so I focused on my strengths working behind the scenes instead.
Even making the transition to film took a while… I moved to LA to work in video games and I’d written a few spec video game scripts that a friend told me would be better as movies. I’d say I was probably 26-27 when that happened. The person who I really credit with getting me into screenwriting is Iris Yamashita (who was later nominated for an Oscar for LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA). We were both working for a software company at the time and we would meet up every day at lunch to work on our scripts.
S&S: Now that you’ve got several credits under your belt, is there anything about working in the industry that you never expected?
Nicole Jones-Dion: There is a certain mystique about the film industry but at the end of the day, it’s a job. For the most part, the industry is full of normal people living normal lives – paying bills, getting their oil changed, shopping for groceries — doing all the things the rest of the world does. They just happen to have a really, cool, fun creative job that they love.
I think most newbie screenwriters envision producers as these Scrooge McDuck type-caricatures sitting in their giant money vaults but that’s not the case at all (at least not with the producers I’ve worked with. If you know any of those money-vault guys, send them my way!). Producers are some of the hardest-working people I know, busy juggling multiple projects in multiple stages of development at any given time. They’re always hustling, always working a deal. Love them or hate them, producers are the gears that keep this town moving.
S&S: Is writing for films just a stepping stone to eventual pure directing or producing for you? Or is writing where you’re happy?
Nicole Jones-Dion: I’ve actually doing a lot of soul-searching about this lately… writing is my first love. I live and breathe it. But unless you’re a novelist, a screenplay is not the end product – the film is. I know so many writers who are sitting on a great big pile of unproduced scripts that will never see the light of day, and that can be really disheartening. Or if you are fortunate enough to sell a script… only to have it completely rewritten by the producer and director it goes into production, so the finished film is just a pale specter of what you had envisioned. How do you change this? You decide to make these films yourself.
Making that transition from writer to writer-director and writer-producer has been eye-opening. Now those scripts that I used to think were “good enough” are total crap. You look at each scene differently — it has to earn the right to be in the finished film. Is there tension, is there drama, is it moving the story forward? If not, it’s gone. Same thing with all those characters – do we really need all these speaking roles? Can some lines be cut or can certain background characters be combined to save costs? Locations and set pieces go through this same process. Looking at a script through the director’s or producer’s perspective instead of the writer’s definitely changes things.
So far, I enjoy directing. It’s an extension of storytelling, but using moving pictures instead of words. It’s like learning a new language, but I like the challenge. I still have a way to go before I’m as comfortable directing as I am writing but that’s OK, it’s part of the journey. Producing feels more like “work,” but if you want ultimate control over the end result, producing is the way to go.
S&S: You’ve got 5 credits as director, 6 as producer, and 12 as a writer. There’s a lot of overlap, especially in your shorts, so I was wondering if you could answer a basic question for us: What is the difference between directing and producing, in your experience?
Nicole Jones-Dion: I think in general, the director comes up with the creative vision for the film and the producer acquires the resources to make that happen. So while the director gets to do stuff like building outlook books and watching movies and TV shows for visual references, the producer is responsible for raising money, hiring the crew, negotiating contracts, and getting insurance. They are vastly different jobs. Some producers do get involved in the creative process as well, but usually in the development stage. Once production starts, they are busy putting out fires so the director can stay focused on making the day.
S&S: When serving solely as a writer (as you did on Dracula: The Dark Prince), how much interaction do you have with the movie as a whole? When does your job on the movie officially end?
Nicole Jones-Dion: Dracula was interesting because it was shot in Romania but because the budget couldn’t afford me to fly out there, I was still in LA. We would have meetings at midnight my time where the producer would give me script changes that would need to be ready for the next day’s shooting schedule. So I was essentially working on Romanian time. Even after the film was shot, I was brought on to write new lines of dialogue for ADR. So even though I wasn’t physically present, I was involved all the way through post-production.
S&S: You have a preference for thrillers, and a lot of those thrillers have a technological bent to them. What draws you towards delving into the ways that technology can be used against us?
Nicole Jones-Dion: My preference leans toward what I call “hidden realities.” These can be expressed in a number of ways, from ghosts and demons to secret societies and government conspiracies. I like to draw back the curtain, so to speak, to expose a little piece of the many possible worlds that overlap our own. Technology does it in a more seductive way… by hiding in plain sight. The Netflix show BLACK MIRROR does a fantastic job of shining the light on the myriad of dangers that our dependence on technology creates. It’s such an excellent show, so disturbing but incredibly thought-provoking. One of my new favorites, for sure.
S&S: On average, how long does it take you to see one of your shorts through to release?
Nicole Jones-Dion: People underestimate how much time it takes to make a short. I guess if I was just shooting something on my iPhone, cutting it together myself and using stock music, I could whip something up in a week or so (heck, as the 48-Hour Film Challenge has proven you can make a short in 2 days). But since I never went to film school, my goal with my shorts was to gain as much experience of what a “real” film production is like as possible. So I wanted to go through each step of the process and glean as much from it as possible. From fundraising (2-4 weeks), pre-production (another 2-4 weeks), filming (1-3 days), editing (4-8 weeks), sound, color correction, music, VFX… it all adds up. Especially when you’re calling in favors and people are helping on the side. I think for our 15 minute shorts, they each took about 6-9 months. DEATHDATE is unfortunately taking a bit longer because I shot my feature STASIS in the middle of it, but we’re hoping to wrap it up soon.
S&S: On several of the movies you’ve worked as a writer on, the main character has been male. Is it hard writing characters of the opposite sex? Have you ever had anyone check you about something that didn’t seem quite right?
Nicole Jones-Dion: No, and that’s an interesting question because I see the reverse happen all the time (male writers totally misrepresenting female characters). I think it might be easier for women to write men because all our lives, we’ve been inundated with male-dominated stories. We know those characters because we’ve seen them a million times. I can’t tell you how many times a reader has read one of my scripts then went back to check the title page because they didn’t believe it was written by a woman. I take it as a complement, but it’s also sad that the general consensus is that women can’t write horror or sci-fi and should stick with more traditionally “female” genres like character dramas and rom-coms.
S&S: Alright, now for an obvious question: Do you feel like being a woman has helped or hampered you in any way during the course of your career?
Nicole Jones-Dion: Ask me again in a few years, LOL. As a writer, I feel that the words on the page are gender-neutral – either you can write or you can’t. As a director, it’s a bit different because you’re not only judged on the end result of the film but also by also your cast and crew while you’re on set. You have to manage a team of people and make decisions in real-time, often under incredible pressure and impossible deadlines. I think working in management in corporate America helped prepare me in that capacity, but there is still an undercurrent of gender bias in the film industry. Luckily more attention is being paid to the problem now and there are programs in place to try to correct the imbalance, but there’s still a long way to go. We’ll see how it all works out in the long run.
S&S: As a director: Practical effects or CGI? We know a lot of that depends on budget, but what’s your natural instinct?
Nicole Jones-Dion: My first choice is always practical. In the low-budget space, I think nothing takes you out of a film faster than bad CGI. There are certain things you just can’t accomplish without it, but I try to keep it to a minimum. I would rather err on the side of subtlety than shoot for the moon and end up looking cheesy.
S&S: What is one of the most frustrating things about working on a film for you? (IN general, or pick a specific capacity.)
Nicole Jones-Dion: Film is a collaborative medium. When you surround yourself with great people and everyone is on the same page working toward the same goal, it’s like a glorious symphony. But on every production, it seems like there’s always that one person who is out of tune with everyone else. When you’re an introvert (like me) dealing with people issues is the most annoying part. I’ve had other directors tell me that when they’re on set, they actually spend very little time directing and most of their time babysitting. It’s crazy-making.
S&S: Tell us a bit about Stasis, your upcoming movie, if you can? IMDB is not very helpful at the moment!
Nicole Jones-Dion: The producers are being pretty secretive, but I found this synopsis elsewhere online so I think it’s safe to share: “After a night out of partying and left behind by her friends, Ava wakes up and sneaks back home only to find that she’s already safe in bed. But that’s not Ava… it’s someone who looks just like her. A time-traveling fugitive has stolen Ava’s body, her identity, and her life. What’s more — she’s not alone. There are others, hiding in the past, secretly living among us, plotting to alter the future. Without her body, Ava is a virtual ghost, silent and invisible to the world. And, as far as she knows, she’s the only one who can stop them and put the timeline back on course.”
As for the film itself, it’s been picked up for US distribution by XLrator Media. I don’t have any release info yet, though, sorry…
S&S: They Found Hell, your 2015 adventure/fantasy/horror movie, was made for TV. What’s the difference made-for-tv and a regular film? Are there any considerations apart from budget?
Nicole Jones-Dion: Huge. The structure is completely different. Instead of 3 Acts, there are 8 to allow for commercial breaks. Each Act has to end on a cliffhanger to entice the viewer to come back after the break. There’s hardly any time for character development up-front, you have to grab the audience by the throat in the opening scene and never let go. But the biggest difference is also turnaround time. For THEY FOUND HELL, I only had 2 weeks to write the first draft of the script. It was tough but a fun challenge.
S&S: What piece of work are you most proud of so far? Why that one particularly?
Nicole Jones-Dion: I will always have a soft spot for DEBRIS because it was my first solo project as a writer/director. And I just love the visuals and the subject matter (It’s about a cursed samurai sword that washes ashore a California beach in the aftermath of the Fukushima tsunami). Hopefully someday I’ll be able to work on the feature version of that story. STASIS will also be special because it was my first feature. I’ve learned something new from each of my films so hopefully my best work is still yet to come.
S&S: How do you sell your script?
Nicole Jones-Dion: I wish I knew the answer to that but I haven’t actually sold one yet! All of my produced credits were all written on assignment. This is the reality of working as a professional screenwriter – 90% of the jobs out there involve writing (or rewriting) someone else’s ideas. If you don’t like the sound of that, then it’s time to put your producer hat on and make your own films.
That’s not to say a spec script is completely useless. Having a killer spec is your calling card. You will need a strong writing sample to get your foot in the door with producers, to win contests, to give you credibility – in short, to prove you can actually write. If you’re lucky, your spec might even get produced but think of that as the secondary goal, not the primary one.