By Malia Mendez
Golden Spike Studios, the newly launched film production club at Stanford, welcomed Mexican screenwriter and producer Anna Grajales for its inaugural event on Thursday, Nov. 5. Grajales’ productions and stories have screened in film festivals in Mexico, the U.S., Canada, Spain and Italy, and she has received the Distinction of the Cinematographic Merit by the government of the state of Guanajuato as well as a spot on the “30 Emerging Writers” list put out by the Oaxaca Film Fest. Her first comedy feature script, co-written with Paola Mazlum, will begin production in 2021, and a second original feature film and upcoming comedy series are in the works.
Grajales was writing and producing long before she even knew what a feature film was. As a kid, she illustrated her own picture books, directed her sister in household plays and carried her camcorder with her everywhere.
“Telling stories was the way that I could interpret the world and what was happening around me,” Grajales explained.
However, it wasn’t until her freshman year of college that she knew she wanted to be a filmmaker. She’d originally decided to major in business because her career path was uncertain and a business degree seemed to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Now resolved to pursue film, she pestered every filmmaker she met about their work behind the scenes and even convinced her college’s business program to begin offering film classes.
Around the same time, she started producing small-scale short films with friends.
“They were pretty bad,” Grajales laughed. “But how else are you going to learn? You have to be really bad at something before you can be good at it.”
After graduating from MIT in the winter of 2016, she premiered her first short film “Just Remain” in June 2017. The existential and mildly surrealist short tells the story of a young banker who has an unexpected day of reckoning. Though Grajales shared that the piece was an homage to her father, she also said it’s the kind of film that might warrant the question, “What did this guy smoke making this?” Maybe it’s the banker going from slightly neurotic to spellbound at the sight of an oasis, or the somehow increasingly cryptic dialogue.
The project underwent three production disruptions — one typhoon-induced — and though the crew weathered each of them, the process flattened any romanticized conception Grajales had sustained about filmmaking.
“When it fell apart it kind of hit me, ‘Do you really want to make films, or are you just in love with the idea of saying you’re going to make films?’” Grajales said. Quoting “Rick and Morty,” she emphasized, “Because if you want to make films, you’ve got to get your mess together, put it in a backpack, all your mess, so it’s together.”
“Just Remain” was Grajales’ “real, big budget short film” backpack to show she meant business. Although the film wasn’t a particularly lucrative venture, it got her the attention of production companies, and she was soon getting job offers from merchandising businesses and Oscar winners alike. Despite getting her foot in the door with some commercials, though, she still didn’t feel passionate about her work.
Then her director from “Just Remain” asked if she’d ever considered screenwriting. Given the predominantly white, male demographic of screenwriters, she certainly had not.
“I didn’t know I could be a writer,” Grajales said. “Because all the movies that I’d seen and grown up with were written by guys.” She’d always aspired to be like Kathleen Kennedy, accustomed to seeing women as producers but never as writers.
However, in a flurry of screenwriting classes, post-production high and film festival afterparties, an idea came to her — what would become her first feature film — and she briskly transitioned into writing. A chance conversation with a makeup artist turned into a coffee with the artist’s daughter Paola Mazlum — also a writer who graduated from MIT — halfway into which Grajales asked Mazlum if she wanted to co-write a screenplay. Within a month they had a draft.
They’ve since sold the feature film to Cinema226, who endearingly refer to the duo as “the millennial female versions of Phil Lord and Chris Miller.” However lighthearted the nickname, their position is not one that Grajales and Mazlum take lightly.
Grajales spoke candidly about how #MeToo exposed the shameful degree to which women are underrepresented and exploited in the entertainment industry. According to her, the label of “a woman in film” comes with the responsibilities to seek more diverse representation on screen and expand the industry to welcome those who have historically been excluded from it.
“Young Anna didn’t think she could be a writer because she didn’t see enough films that were written by women,” Grajales reflected. “If we’re not pushing that and telling those stories, then the next generation is not going to know that they want to be filmmakers.”
In addition to altering the demographics of film, Grajales advocates for complex female characters and egalitarian screenplays.
“If I see mansplaining or sexism in the script, I call it out,” she said. “If you stay quiet, then you’re never going to feel peace.” Grajales is also an active member of the Mexican chapter of the Women in Film & Television organization, demanding fair and just representation of women in front of and behind the camera, and she has recently released a decologue on writing female characters.
Despite a problematic history, Grajales believes in a genuine meritocracy within the film industry.
“You do not need permission from anyone to be a filmmaker,” she said. “Screenwriting is judged by what’s on the page.” What matters to film executives is not a screenwriter’s status but their screenplay’s potential. For Grajales, the screenplay is the beginning of everything.
There is a common thread in entertainment that one must suffer scorching afternoons outside and ad infinitum coffee runs before making it to the elusive “top.” Grajales is a strong proponent that passion for one’s story serves a career better than time put into jobs and stories one does not care about in the slightest.
“If you have the right story, you can start on top,” she mused. “It’ll be a huge learning curve, but if you have that story, that’s your way in.”
Aside from passion, the two most significant pillars of screenwriting are partnership and patience. Ultimately, a production company can love a story but have no interest in working with a disagreeable writer who pitches it.
“What you should communicate is ‘I’m willing to put out the work and make this something that will be ours,’” Grajales instructed. “Movies are made by talking.” She also emphasized how her creative partnership with Mazlum has made her a better listener and humbled her into deep mutual respect and admiration. As writers, they complement each other, “filling in each other’s weaknesses,” as Grajales coins it.
As for creating a draft, Grajales typically begins with an extremely detailed outline, sometimes even including the big punchlines. Next, she haphazardly gets preliminary thoughts on paper. After writing her whole way through, she reads the entire draft over and polishes it step-by-step along the way.
“The life of a screenwriter is a life of patience,” she remarked. “It gets tough, and it’s a lot of waiting. If you’re not passionate about your idea, you’re going to want to quit six months in, because a lot of your life is going to be invested in these stories.”
In addition to a deep investment in the material itself, Grajales will often construct personas of potential readers in her head to guide her process.
“I’ll think to myself, ‘Oh, this is a girl in Colorado who is 18 and loves snowboarding and Taylor Swift,’” she said. “That’s who I’m writing for.”
Ultimately, the screenwriter’s primary concern should be sticking to their convictions and unabashedly presenting stories with personal stakes, Gajales said. Grajales encouraged attendees to always be honest about a screenplay’s intentions and reach — whether it’s a Blockbuster film or an experimental piece.
“What’s going to make you stand out is you, and I know that kind of sounds like a Tumblr post, but it’s about being unique and what you bring to the table,” she advised the group. “Maybe you grew up in a certain thing or have a certain perspective; it’s figuring out that thing that makes you unique and then milking it.”
Unfortunately, filming — including for Grajales’ upcoming feature film — has been largely halted by COVID-19. However, because of this elongated pause and social distancing limitations, production companies are more focused on development than ever before. Ultimately, Grajales believes this time period and societal context will shift the landscape of film.
“The stories that we’re going to be telling will be different,” she concluded. “Because the world’s coming out from a year that’s been stressful, we’re going to see a lot of feel-good movies. We’re going to see a lot of crowd pleasers, and it’s going to take people time to get back into the cinemas. I don’t think the theatrical experience is going to die, but I do feel like it’s going to take some time for the audience to regain trust.”
We can only hope that the trust comes sooner rather than later, and that some semblance of the theater experience can bring relief to a weary world.
Contact Malia Mendez at mjm2000 ‘at’ stanford.edu.