Adapt and create

Chances are, Vanessa Taylor (IAC/NMC 85-86) has made you laugh, or cry or made you think about a sensitive subject in a new light. You may have watched her work unfold week to week, binged an entire series from your couch or sat captivated by her storytelling in a crowded theatre. You see, screenwriter and producer Vanessa Taylor has spent the better part of her career bringing to life (and at times killing) some of your favorite literary and popular culture characters.

This Primetime Emmy nominee’s credits include Alias (co-producer), Everwood (supervising producer), Tell Me You Love Me (consulting producer) and two seasons alongside fellow Interlochen alumnus Bryan Cogman (IAC 94) on Game of Thrones (co-executive producer, season 2-3). Additionally, Taylor wrote the Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones romantic comedy Hope Springs (2012), and co-wrote the film adaptation of the Veronica Roth novel Divergent (2014).

Taylor’s latest project, The Shape of Water (2017), earned her co-writer status alongside Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Though del Toro’s story, he celebrated Taylor’s contribution to the film during a recent special presentation at the Directors Guild of America in West Hollywood. Said del Toro, “When we started writing, my kinship with Vanessa was that she was incredibly good with plot….If two people agree on everything one is extra, and should leave the room. You don’t need that person. So, I need somebody that has a strong point of view, and that is a terrific writer—which Vanessa is—and can defend what she thinks is fair and needed.”

Earlier this year, Taylor agreed to talk to us between deadlines from her home office in California.

Interlochen: You just got back from the Toronto International Film Festival. How was it? Did you go to the Venice Film Festival as well?

Taylor: I did not. I was actually working and on deadline at that time, and I also have a nine-month-old baby, so it felt like a little bit of a bridge too far to try to get to Venice. But I did go to Toronto and it was so cool. I wasn't on set at all for the shoot of The Shape of Water, and so this was my first time meeting the cast.

Interlochen: How was that?

Taylor: It was so great. I felt a little awkward, because I felt like everybody else knew each other, but they could not have been more welcoming or gracious. And of course Guillermo is just an incredibly kind, generous person, so it was lovely. I really enjoyed it. I had seen the film a few months ago in a very early cut, but this was my first time seeing the final cut.

Interlochen: The Shape of Water seems very much like a fairy tale. I’ve read that when you were younger you used to write fairy tales.

Taylor: That is right. When I first met with Guillermo on this project, he was telling me the story, just pitching it to me in a meeting, and at a certain point I was like, "Oh, it's a fairy tale." It was such a fun project to write on. It was just joyful to be in that environment. I really, really liked it a lot.

Interlochen: You've had some serious stuff in your work, but there's also some of these light spots in here, too. Do you navigate between those worlds pretty easily, or is that something you have to really focus on?

Taylor: I enjoy sort of exploring different things, and if I've just done "X" I want to do "Y." I really enjoy a diversity of stories and tones and genres. I don't really think of it so much in terms of "is it this thing or is it that thing?" but I do think of it in terms of, "where would I like to be mentally every day?" I am attracted to whatever I'm attracted to, and it turns out to be a lot of different things. It's nice to try something new.

Interlochen: How do you prepare to begin an adaptation of an existing property? What does that task look like for you?

Taylor: Well, when you're coming into a show that's in progress, you need to watch all the shows, hopefully read all of the scripts, and try to tonally hit the ground running. You don't want to have any real learning curve: you want to be writing the show that's on the air. But you're also adding your own strengths, and sort of expanding the definition of what the show is.

Adaptations are a different animal. When we did Divergent, I realized very quickly that we could change almost no plot elements, because it had such an active fan base that we had to just write exactly what was in the book.

Interlochen: How do you, as a professional, handle negative feedback from fans and critics?

Taylor: With adaptations, you do the best you can. People are always going to have objections. I don't pay any attention to any of that. In terms of feedback generally, I feel like my greatest gift as a writer is that I pretty much always know the difference between when I've written something really good, and when I've written something that isn't. Obviously, I enjoy good reviews as much as the next person, but I'm a little more impervious simply because I strive to do the best I can, I know if I've done that, and I don't really need other people to tell me whether I've done it or not.

Interlochen: Let’s just go back to the beginning. What got you into the arts to begin with?

Taylor: I had been pursuing theatre acting since I was about 10. I think I got the bug when I was in elementary school. We had to write something and perform it for the class, and I did it, and people laughed. I thought that was so great. I thought that I was going to make people laugh, and for a long time being a comedic actress was what I pursued.

But, that entire time, I was also writing because my mom is a writer. I grew up with her writing all the time, and I honestly thought that was just what you did. I hadn't really given any thought to whether you could make a living at it. When I eventually decided not to pursue acting, I really felt like I had more talent for writing anyway. I was living in LA, and I was about to go to law school when I found out about television writing. I had really only known about film writing, and television felt to me like you could actually make a living at it. I just decided to take my shot and see if I could get in the door, which in some ways is the hardest part of the whole thing. I just got lucky.

Interlochen: Tell us about your time at Interlochen. Do you remember what you did for your audition?

Taylor: This is so embarrassing. For the first year I was there, I was in the musical theatre side, and I—for some reason—did not realize that upon arrival, you had to audition for the show. So, I show up, and I don't have a song prepared or anything. I think I probably did something from Hair. So I sing the worst audition song of all time, it is nail-bitingly horrifying. It was such a disaster.

My next summer was much better because I did Shakespeare, which was a much better fit. I had a much better audition, and I just had a better everything.

That was a difficult time in life for me. I was a big nerd, and didn't feel like I was one of the popular kids. Getting to Interlochen and finding myself surrounded by people who shared my interests and finding acceptance there was a really important thing for me at that time. It really opened up a world to me and it also gave me a real shot of self-esteem. I realized there's a place in the world where I belong and people who think that I have value and something to contribute. And I really took great memories from that time. I was only there two summers, but it had a huge impact on me.

I really, truly feel that I learned discipline at Interlochen. That was infinitely valuable to me. We had to practice in these practice rooms. If you were going to go to a cinder block hut filled with bugs, you had to be pretty committed to whatever it was you were working on. I was surrounded by people who didn't think anything of having that kind of discipline. You don't think of that as being a major part of an artistic life or a career, but it is. It's huge, especially for a writer. You're going to sit by yourself in a room for hours and hours and hours, and I really feel like I came out of that experience understanding like, "This is what you're going to do."

Interlochen: I'm sure your office now is not made of cinder blocks and covered in bugs.

Taylor: No, it looks great, relatively speaking. It still has some spiders, I'll be honest, but it looks terrific.

Interlochen: What advice do you have for young artists or writers in terms of how they should approach selling their work?

Taylor: It's very unlikely that you’ll write your spec and make it happen. However, some people's specs are getting made, so why shouldn't it be yours? When I wanted to get into the film side of the industry, I talked to my agent about it because I wanted to know what I should write. He said, "You should read this script, it's called ‘Lars and the Real Girl.’ And I went and read it, and I was like, ‘Oh, I get it. He's saying write what you want to write and let the chips fall.’" And I think that's what you have to do because it's a weird industry. There are a lot of writers working, but it's incredibly difficult to break in. I think whenever we get too focused on what I'm going to sell or what my manager is going to think, it’s counterproductive. I think you have to take your strengths and do the best work you possibly can, and then you have to figure out the best way of getting someone to read it. I do think that people in the industry respond to good, authentic, original voices and writing. If you can put that together for yourself, you have a decent chance of breaking in.

Interlochen: What do people get out of arts education? How do you advocate for arts education?

Taylor: Ah, that's an interesting question. I can't speak for people who don't end up in a career in the arts. I certainly think that it’s important for people to have the opportunity to discover their own talents, to learn discipline, and to just sort of find out what's creative in themselves. There are a lot of people who don't end up being singers or actors but who really enjoy having a creative outlet in their lives. To be surrounded by those other people and see what their gifts are like is sort of invaluable.

On Dec. 11, 2017 Taylor received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Screenplay for her work on The Shape of Water. The Shape of Water is currently playing in limited release and opens nationwide on Dec. 22, 2017. Taylor is currently working on Guy Ritchie’s upcoming live-action remake of the 1992 Disney animated film Aladdin. The film is scheduled for release in the U.S. on May 24, 2019.