Search
  • After Hour Film Festival

Debra Montague Is Good In Keeping Secrets!


Do not go by the headline, we are not sure of that quality of hers! However, we read her screenplay Keeping Secrets, we liked the same and thought of chatting up with her. We reached out to her and she answered our questions happily and candidly.


After Hour : Since you have always felt very passionately about writing, what was the first piece of work that you wrote? Please tell us about your first idea and how you turned that into a piece. 


Debra : I have -- framed on the wall in my hallway -- the first piece of work I ever wrote. My mother saved it. It's a poem about sand. Given that it's printed and the language used, we think it's from first grade. I walk by it multiple times a day and it reminds me that I have always told stories; either to myself or to others. I don't remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer. I'm an older writer and we didn't have a school newspaper when I was in high school so I wrote for the church newsletter. I wrote the text for marching band halftime shows. I wrote sketches for the Music Department's all-school variety show and then for the senior class variety show. I don't have any of those things saved. I'm not sure why I didn't save that work but I didn't. I do still have my idea folder from high school which contains dozens of ideas for stories I've yet to write. 

When my daughter was young, I edited newsletters and handled PR for small nonprofit groups. I did freelance proofreading for several years. All this to stay within the writing medium. 

In the 1990's, I took a series of classes at the local community college. They had a "So you want to be a writer" series and had people from a variety of writing styles give classes. Each "session" was two classes in length and they explored novels, short stories, newspaper, poetry, screenwriting, play writing, etc. They were fascinating. I latched onto screenwriting as a way to tell the stories I had rattling around in my head. The instructor was kind of condescending but he did provide links to other places where screenwriting was taught. One of those places was the Chicago Screenwriter's Group. I went there for two years. 


After Hour : Being a writer, what aspect of your job do you find as most challenging? Do Writers' block exist in your dictionary? If yes, how do you deal with it?


Debra : Procrastination. I don't lack for ideas to write. I have hundreds and I challenged myself to create an idea a day in 2020. I find, when I sit down to write, there are often other ideas banging on my brain for attention. "Not now guys. I'm on a deadline." Having the idea journal lets me write them down so they don't get lost and I can go back to writing what I need to write. But I can procrastinate with the best of them. Deadlines, whether real or self-imposed, are fantastic for getting me heading in the proper direction. What's the aphorism, "If it wasn't for the last minute, a lot of stuff wouldn't get done."? I try not to be the person doing a rewrite at midnight the night before a contest is closing. It's only happened once. 

I also have a few things taped to the bottom of my computer screen which remind me that I'm a writer and in order to do, fully, what I want to do, I have to write almost daily. Now, I consider letter writing to be writing. I write letters. I also occasionally write articles for an on-line gaming publication. (Speaking of deadlines. Two articles are needed this week.) I find this keeps me in my flow; keeps me thinking of how words need to be wrangled into sentences. I walk dogs part-time and that's been great for figuring out problems in scripts or writing whole articles in my head. It's not what I want to be doing in 18 months, but, right now, it's been wonderful for my writing process. There are a number of studies which say get out and walk, if you're having problems writing. This is truth. The dogs don't care that I'm talking to them, telling them about this problem. They get a walk and I get to figure out how to go from this plot point to the next. 


After Hour : What inspired you to write Keeping Secrets? Any interesting story behind it?


Debra : "Keeping Secrets" was the third script to come from my time with CSG. I have no clue from where the idea sprang other than, at the time, I was watching a lot of film noir. I still watch a lot of film noir. I like the genre because women were allowed the opportunity for juicy roles. I think Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite noir actress. She got these incredible roles where, yeah, she's an awful person, but there was meat on the part and she chews up the screen whenever she's on it. Even today, I don't feel women get the really meaty roles. 

And I'm very much a "what if" person. I maintain an idea journal; much more organized than a folder with scraps of paper. I'll see a trailer or watch a movie and think, "What if that part was written for a woman? How would that change the dynamic of the movie?" I think that was what gave rise to "Keeping Secrets". What if the person searching for things wasn't a PI? What if they didn't know what they were searching for? What if it upends their life? One of the best pieces of screenwriting advice I've received came from CSG. The instructor said, "Any character can do anything if given the right motivation. So, toss your character into uncharted waters and see what they can do to get out." What if you put a somewhat closet alcoholic daughter in a situation where she finds out her father's been murdered and her childhood best friend did it because he's lusted after her for 20+ years? How does she figure this out and what happens to her? 

The Chicago Screenwriter's Group closed. I'm not sure when. I still have all my course materials and I reference them when I'm working on a new idea. 


After Hour : What are your other projects? 


Debra : I have 6 completed scripts. "Keeping Secrets" is the farthest along. Last year, I wrote three scripts. When they come to me, I can bang out the first draft in a matter of 3-4 days. I should not stay up to 3:15 a.m. writing, however, but when the words come, there is no keeping them off the page. I do a lot of work on yellow legal pads and then go to FadeIn screenwriting software to actually write. I also have 5 sections of other ideas where the scenes came to me and I wrote them down, but there is quite a lot of work to be done before they are fully fleshed out. Yet, I couldn't let the idea go. 

The next developed is "A Crime in Memory" (working title). A timid gay man finds his sanity challenged when he returns home from a bender after being dumped by his boyfriend and he finds a dead body in the backyard of his apartment. Unable to account for an hour of his life during that night, he begins to wonder if he is the murderer.

After that are four scripts which I wrote but haven't done much beyond a second version. "Dogfish". This is the second one I wrote for CSG. I came back to it last year. A set-in-her ways office manager finds her desire to have life never change completely upended when the salvage company she works for finds a box of gems and jewelry and the real nature of her boss is revealed. 

"The Mill" is a new idea which came to me last year. After a plague kills most people, a quiet 60 year-old woman finds herself hunted by someone when she leaves the city where she's lived and heads to a town where she holds wonderful memories of her childhood. She falls for a younger man but finds an idyllic life may be beyond her reach. 

"Lady Macbeth" is the fourth script to come from CSG. This is an example of the "what if" principle above. Everyone talks about Macbeth as being the central character to the play. He is, but what happened to his wife that she pushes and prods him to kill Duncan? The real Macbeth had a 30-year reign which was marked by unification of the clans and peace. I decided to retell the story from her perspective and give her a plausible reason for being the impetus behind getting Macbeth the throne. Shakespeare didn't discuss this. Someone should. 

Finally, "Juniper's Magic". A bullied 5th grade girl resorts to black magic to get back at those tormenting her, but finds she can't control the demon she summons and has to go back to her teacher, whom she abandoned, for help. I have 100 pages written for this script, but they aren't cohesive. I have a lot of background work done on this. It feels like every time I sit down to actually work on "Juniper's Magic", something comes up and I need to go back to "Keeping Secrets" because it's the most polished. I like the story and it's a touch autobiographical so I would like to get it finished completely. I think what I currently have are two slightly different stories; one from page 1-60 and one from page 61 to 100 and I need to reconcile those. 

My friends love to shoot me ideas. "Guys, please. I have to work on this one." But I adore my friends and am honored they think I can turn an idea into a written work. I've been challenged to write a script where the protagonist is a woman in a wheelchair. It's in the idea journal, but it keeps popping up asking questions. I don't have any clue what would be the challenge faced by the protagonist, but the idea sits there, suggesting I examine it more fully. And, I found a movie idea on a scrap of paper. The note reads, "Script idea May 2005 -- 'My goldfish is on fire'." It's another idea I have no idea what to do with but it keeps popping up, waving at me, suggesting I work on it, and then disappearing. 

If I had to give myself a brand, I'd say I write female-centric drama; "A Crime in Memory" notwithstanding. I'm drawn to writing for women. I can't write comedy. I can be funny in person, but I don't seem to be able to do it on the page. And I'm not interested in writing a blockbuster gigantic movie. I write the small to medium movies. I want people to come out of the theater identifying with someone in the movie or discussing what lines really meant or wondering where the characters go after the movie ends. 


© AFTER HOUR FILM FESTIVAL