Another Screenplay Win at Oaxaca

Cheers to the judges!

Cheers to the judges!

Even if “The Wailing Woman” hadn’t picked up another award at the Oaxaca International Film Fest Saturday night, I would have considered it a huge success for a different reason. The taxi driver who drove us to the airport at 4:45 in the morning after the celebration wanted to know all about my version of the story. I gave him the pitch — La Llorona’s children come back from the dead for revenge against their father. And even in my mezcal-hungover Spanish the taxi driver loved the idea so much he asked for the publicity postcard — just in case any famous directors ride in his cab and he can convince them to make the movie in Mexico.
I think I’ll sign him as my new agent. Or at least give him a drive-on role if, or should I say when? the cameras roll. This picture is of a talented young Mexican director — Enrrico Wood — who loves the project, as well as festival director and Seven Deadly Arts producer Ramiz Adeeb Azar.
With the exhausted, but exuberant Festival Director Ramiz Adeeb Azar

With the exhausted, but exuberant Festival Director Ramiz Adeeb Azar

Thanks again to the wonderful organizers and volunteers at Oaxaca Film Fest. They’ve done such a great job at supporting screenwriters that there were something like 60 official selections this year (including newcomer and fellow South Carolinian Laura Valtorta. To win the honorable mention, along with news friends Diego Ibarrola and David Lopez, was a huge honor. And congrats to Kamal John Iskander for “The Gospel According to Charlie”!

Teatro Juarez, on red carpet night in Oaxaca

Teatro Juarez, on red carpet night in Oaxaca

The best sponsors ever -- Alfonso and Leticia of Mezcal Delirio

The best sponsors ever — Alfonso and Leticia of Mezcal Delirio

Pitching and Focus Group Testing in Mexico

atpitchPitching a La Llorona screenplay in the country where she was invented isn’t about explaining the classic Latin legend. What’s been the key is reminding them why the story scares absolutely everyone. When you’re a kid, the stories of La Llorona your mother cleverly tells you, make you afraid to go anywhere near a body of water alone. Especially at night. La Llorona might drown you, like she did her own two children to get back at a cheating father.

When you’re a grown man, La Llorona still frightens you. She’s the voice in the back of your head warning you how bad it could get when you do a woman THAT kind of wrong.

But for us women, she’s the most terrifying of all. Because there’s a little La Llorona in all of us — we know we’re capable of extreme acts of jealousy under the right circumstances.

Once producers and directors remember why they’re scared of her, they realize how universal and gripping a modern day version, set in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, would be. Which is why my pitches to producers interested in filming in Mexico have been going great. The Oaxaca International Film Fest throws a fabulous week of networking, workshops and pitching for screenwriters of all levels. This year they even recorded pitches on camera for writers to use pitching back home.

But even more fun than pitching producers who “get” La Llorona and want to read my script, I got to conduct an impromptu focus group on people utterly unconnected to the movie business. Gary and I rented a car and drove out to the countryside south of the ruins of Mitla, about an hour and a half away from Oaxaca but still in the same state. It wasn’t our first pilgrimage. We drive there whenever we can to buy handcrafted mezcal from a Zapotec farmer named Martin. (Check out another blog I write called Right Brain Safari to read the backstory, or wait until my next book comes out.)

So this time, once we’d sampled his many varieties and seen how his newest maguey plants are coming along, I asked if they’d ever heard of the legend of La Llorona. No, not the legend, they said. They’ve been visited. She isn’t just a myth to them. Or me me and Gary if I’m completely honest. So when I read my screenplay synopsis to them — to get the reaction of real people who aren’t even quite sure what a screenplay is — I got the best reaction of all: Martin poured the four of us another round of gourd-shell shots of his finest Mezcal. To calm our nerves.

Pitching La Llorona to the Press

A film crew, synching their digital still camera video with I-phone audio

A film crew, synching their digital still camera video with I-phone audio

It turns out I’m a better reporter than interviewee — at least when the questions are in Spanish. I’m afraid my Sandalista-days Spanish from back in my college years isn’t holding up too well, but I gave it a shot yesterday at the School of Fine Arts Venue at the Oaxaca Film Fest.

Guillermo Rivera -- the Mark Shaffer of Oaxaca

Guillermo Rivera — the Mark Shaffer of Oaxaca

Guillermo Rivera is an online newspaper reporter who interviewed me back when I won best screenplay here in 2011 so this was the classic “what have you done since then” interview.

La Llorona is a much easier concept to explain than my first screenplay was — since everybody here knows the legend of the creepy woman cursed for eternity to search for the two kids she drowned in a fit of jealousy. So being interviewed is great practice for pitching the logline to producers and actors. My twist on the story — the kids coming back for revenge — is an instant hit, but I’m getting a follow-up questions that I didn’t anticipate. Guillermo and every other reporter I’ve talked to immediately asks “revenge on whom?”

It’s a common problem writers face. We know our own story so well that we’re blind to our own assumptions. In my screenplay, the drowned kids are out to get the man who did their mother wrong, not La Llorona herself. She’s already punished for all eternity so I figured it was time the cheating husband got some payback. And thanks to the squadron of young reporters from Oaxaca, I’m getting better at my handshake speech every day. If the interest level in the Mexican press is any indication, this screenplay is already building an eager audience. I guess I better keep going to the nightly parties and meeting producers, right?

How's this for a film fest reception venue? I know, poor me

How’s this for a film fest reception venue? I know, poor me

Note to all festivals -- Dos Equis and Mezcal Delioro as sponsors guarantee good turnout

Note to all festivals — Dos Equis and Mezcal Delioro as sponsors guarantee good turnout

Where Is The Wailing Woman? In Oaxaca, por cierto

How perfect is it that I’m back in Oaxaca, at the 5th Annual International Film Festival, with a lanyard around my neck identifying me as “The Wailing Woman.”

In a Oaxaca plaza, checking out the program

In a Oaxaca plaza, checking out the program

It’s the name of the screenplay that earned me another spot in contention for the festival’s top writing award (I won in 2011 with “Mask of the Innocent”) but on first glance it could creep out anyone who’s ever heard the story of the legendary wailing woman or listened to Lila Downs or Chavela Vargas sing about it. She’s not me. Really. I don’t even have children and if they did I’d teach them to swim.

But wearing “The Wailing Woman” nametag around my neck is perfect because La Llorona’s true identity is part of the mystery of my screenplay. The logline I’ll be pitching to producers and directors in Oaxaca this week goes like this:

“A honeymoon in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula descends into psychological terror when the locals suspect the bride of being the reincarnation of La Llorona – a mythical, wailing woman cursed for eternity to search for her two children she drowned in a jealous rage.”

It’s based on actual events that made me wonder if I could have been La Llorona in a former life, except that I have a witness: the husband I saved from her clutches.

Gary is alive and with me in Oaxaca for the festival, taking beautiful photos of one of the loveliest spots on earth.

The Film Fest isn't the only event in Oaxaca, there's also the chihuahua parade

The Film Fest isn’t the only event in Oaxaca, there’s also the chihuahua parade

But if you ply him with enough tequila he’ll tell you the story of our encounter with La Llorona. It involves a very localized version of the legend, one in which she lures men to bodies of water at night before freezing and drowning them. (I guess her kids weren’t enough) In my screenplay it gets a lot more twisted, but in real life Gary woke up in a Mexican hotel room, next to a body of water, so completely frozen stiff that it took me an hour to thaw him with my body heat. I was the only woman staying at the hotel and let’s just say recounting the story the next morning to people who believe in La Llorona made me feel less than welcome.
The press conference reception

The press conference reception

The post-opening night party, sponsored by Dos Equis

The post-opening night party, sponsored by Dos Equis

Here in Oaxaca, it’s the exact opposite. The festival director, Ramiz Adeeb Azar and staff have made me feel like returning royalty. Even a reporter who interviewed me three years ago came up to me at the opening party last night with a big hug and crossed fingers that “The Wailing Woman” takes home another Agave Award. He’d read the synopsis, translated into Spanish courtesy of the lovely Josefina Blanc, and got chills wondering if La Llorona could still be wandering among us.

But just to be on the safe side, Gary and I are staying nowhere near a body of water.

(here’s a teaser of the opening scene, followed by Josefina’s translation of the synopsis in Spanish.)

FADE UP: The distant shape of a woman’s back is obscured by a humid jungle mist. She’s wearing mourning black, sobbing as she stands over a sinkhole filled with clear blue water. There’s something dangling from each hand, dolls maybe? She flings them into the water below, one at a time. There’s a heavy splash, a high-pitched wail, and then another heavy splash. We realize these are children.

En un comienzo, la escena -enmarcada entre las exóticas ruinas mayas y las pozas de agua de la exuberante jungla- es un lugar de encanto para los novios Lara y Alex, pero pronto emerge su amenaza inherente. Lara se niega a permitir que los recientes reportes de personas ahogadas ahonden su impresión de estar en tierra desconocida, incluso cuando nota que el personal del complejo turístico evita todo contacto con ella. El reparto es íntimamente pequeño: un amistoso -quizás demasiado- barman, miembro de un grupo musical nombrado en honor a La Llorona, y dos arqueólogos mexicanos que investigan los túneles subterráneos que los antiguos dirigentes mayas usaban para efectuar dramáticos escapes y reapariciones entre templos remotos. Sin embargo, cuando la hermosa experta en cultura Maya , Julianna, entra en escena e inicia un coqueteo con Alex, dos misteriosos y silenciosos niños emergen de la niebla y acechan a Lara. Son acaso simples mendigos que intentan ganar la simpatía de una turista, o son los fantasmas de los asesinados hijos de La Llorona que han retornado en búsqueda de venganza?

Why winning best screenplay at Oaxaca International Film Festival rocks.

1)      The “Agave” Award for best screenplay  is made by the Oaxacan artist Alejandro Santiago. If you haven’t heard of him you will – he’s so hot the Mexican government has secured permission to put his face on Mexican money someday. Think Diego or Frida, but still alive.

2)      Directors and producers from Mexico, Germany, Canada and the US are now reading “Mask Of The Innocent.”

3)      They serve free Mexican beer and mescal at all the after-parties.

4)      Reporters covering the festival wear fedoras.

5)      “Mask of the Innocent” is set partially in Mexico, so if it sells there’s a good chance I’ll get to come back when it’s produced.

6)      They let screenwriters throw cocktail parties in three-hundred-year old colonial buildings.


7)      You can buy mescal from roadside, one-burro stills. My favorite is Martin’s.

8)      Many celebrations happen on rooftops. No releases are required.

9)      Restaurants serve appetizers like tongue sliders and roasted grasshoppers. This is why mescal is important.

10)   The screenplay judges are Hollywood insiders, yet the festival itself is the most inclusive and supportive of emerging writers you can possibly imagine.

Mauricio Arango and Patricia Chica

Young + Mexican

Thanks Ramiz Adeeb Azar, me encanta Oaxaca y Viva Mexico!