Write Now with Nitzan Mager
How a screenwriter seeks to answer the question, “what is the story?”
In the early days of the pandemic, we all adapted to quarantine life in different ways. Nitzan Mager sought to explore her experiences through writing screenplays. Her show, Quarantine, I Love You, screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Enjoy Nitzan’s interview.
Who Are You?
Nitzan Mager, filmmaker, based in Brooklyn, New York. Connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.
What Do You Write?
I write screenplays. I’d say my style leans to socially-conscious comedy. I enjoy writing about issues that I feel passionate about or am curious about. But I would rather avoid getting preachy. I find that comedy loosens us up, makes us more receptive to thinking about things in a new light. Or just having a laugh when things seem bleak.
I don’t avoid any words or themes per se. I do try to be original. Though that’s actually an inaccurate description, since you can’t try to be original. It’s more of: allowing yourself to be unencumbered by things you think your writing ought to be.
I love to write. It’s been a huge part of who I am from the moment I could do the thing. Language fascinated me. I was born in Israel, but moved to the US in first grade. So my mother tongue was Hebrew, but I learned to write in English. So it was always about synthesis: thought and feeling, fact and fiction, belonging and observing.
Writing is how I synthesize experience, information, the world around me. When the pandemic began, when it hit New York, I felt like I couldn’t focus on my writing projects. So I started writing short scenes that took place in this moment. Whatever was happening in the pandemic. They were short, funny conversations that took place on Zoom. And I started to film them with some wonderful actors. And the project just took off. I ended up writing episodes that captured these big, pivotal moments: from the start of lockdown, to the presidential race, the anti-mask movement, people losing loved ones to COVID, the elections, the death of RBG, the aftermath of the elections, the start of the vaccines.
The resulting series, Quarantine, I Love You is a perfect example of writing really being a way to not just show reality, but to cope with it through writing.
Where Do You Write?
I write wherever I can be undisturbed. Before the pandemic it was in a cafe in my Brooklyn neighborhood (it has since shut down). These days I write in my home office/laundry room.
I put my phone on silent. And I try so very hard not to find an excuse to google something while I write.
I write my scripts on Final Draft, but I also do a lot of outlying and brainstorming on a regular doc.
Before I start a writing session, I ideally do my morning pages — 3 pages of handwritten, stream of consciousness writing in a simple, unlined notebook. I use an unlined book because sometimes I feel compelled to write in different forms, draw diagrams, etc. Usually I’ll use the Moleskin Cahiers one because its small and light. I like a pen that’s not to thick or inky so it doesn’t bleed through. Usually just a simple ball point, sometimes a fancy thin gel pen from Muji.
When Do You Write?
I write when I can for however long I can. (Did I mention I have two small children?) My ideal is to write for two hours, take a short break, write for another two hours. But that rarely happens.
I try to find deadlines where I can, like for grants and competitions. Or if I’m writing for something that is getting made, like for Quarantine, I Love You, then I set deadlines around the production schedule, and I have accountability to my producer.
Why Do You Write?
I write to maintain sanity. To maintain equilibrium between my internal dialogues and external ones. If I don’t write it, it spins in my head in a bad way. I write to entertain myself, to entertain others. Mostly, I write because I need to figure out what the story is. Recently, it’s been figuring out: What is the story of my experience in the pandemic? What is the story of systemic racism in the US? What is the story of families being on different sides of the aisle politically? What is the story of loneliness? What is the story of not having a quiet spot to think?
We are the stories that we tell ourselves. We are the stories that others tell us about ourselves, about the world. It’s important for me to be part of that dialogue to engage myself and the world around me in a dialogue on: what is the story?
How Do You Overcome Writer’s Block?
I don’t have writer’s block in the sense of lacking inspiration on what to write. I feel like I have a million ideas. But I get writer’s block in a technical way: how to make the story work, how to make it work better — like an engineer. I know what I want to design, but how can I do it in the most efficient, smart, powerful way possible.
To overcome that I use different strategies: I write monologues from the characters’ point of view, I outline each character’s arc in the story, I try to get a clear understanding of what each character really wants, what they fear, etc. Just asking as many questions as I can about the specifics, figuring out details that may never make it to the final product, but still help inform it.
Bonus: What Do You Enjoy Doing When Not Writing?
I love traveling. I used to travel a lot, not recently of course. At home, I enjoy branching out to other creative pursuits like painting, working with clay, or (yes, the very pandemic-style) baking.