It’s been a year since the pandemic caused a worldwide shutdown. For most of us, it has been a year of uncertainties. For Cierra Winkler, Truett McConnell University (TMU) Professor of English, those uncertainties have now been replaced with many open doors as she follows her passion of screenwriting.
Q: Can you give a brief history of how you got into screenwriting and interning at Jim Henson Studios? What pulled you into screenwriting in the first place?
Winkler: Screenwriting was never on my radar before 2017, and quite honestly, I had never considered that writing for television and film was a viable career field that one could pursue. Though I’ve only recently recognized it, God had been preparing me for a career in the business since I was a kid, when I would watch my favorite films over and over again until I had every scene, every line of dialogue memorized. I was learning the art of storytelling in both films and books growing up, and my studying and teaching the world’s most celebrated works of literature for the past eighteen years has furthered my understanding and appreciation of the hero’s journey that serves as the spine for all scripted programming.
I had connections with some of the producers and writers for a show that ran on CBS during the late 90’s and early 2000’s called “Touched by an Angel.” One of the head writers, Ken LaZebnik, spearheaded an intensive MFA writing internship with The Jim Henson Company, seeking to bring more female voices into the business, and I was intrigued. I applied in 2017, submitting several writing samples, but I certainly didn’t get my hopes up—the program only accepts a cohort of twelve writers a year, and I had zero experience in writing scripts for the screen.
While waiting several months for an answer, I researched as much as I could about the television and film industry—I wanted to be as prepared as possible should a miracle happen. Finally I received a phone call from Henson telling me to pack my bags, and I spent August 2018 to May 2020 traveling back and forth from Georgia to Hollywood for three-week-long workshops. I’m so thankful that everyone at Truett McConnell was supportive in allowing me to continue teaching while pursuing this opportunity. God worked out the timing and the workload, which were my two biggest concerns going in, and I finished last year having written two specs, four one-hour pilots, four series bibles, and two full-length features.
Q: How has COVID affected your season at Jim Henson Studios? What did the program look like before and after?
Winkler: I was at the Henson lot (which is actually Charlie Chaplin’s old studios on La Brea in North Hollywood) in January 2020, just a month or two before COVID pressed pause on the entire film industry. We workshopped for three weeks as normal, sitting in on meetings, working with our mentors on our scripts, attending table reads with Dame Julie Andrews (who was filming a Henson-produced children’s series for Netflix at the time), pitching ideas to Brian and Lisa Henson, and visiting other studios such as Paramount and Warner Brothers to shadow producers, writers, and showrunners.
It was business as usual, and none of us could have predicted how COVID would change Los Angeles studio and set life in just a matter of weeks. I flew back home to Georgia the last week of January and continued writing and teaching at Truett. Our cohort was supposed to have one more workshop at Henson in May, but, of course, we had to settle for a virtual workshop instead, and my fellow interns and I said goodbye and graduated with our MFA in TV & Screenwriting over Zoom.
When I finished the Henson internship, I spent eight or nine months praying and seeking God’s direction. The film industry in Los Angeles, where all my contacts were, was completely shut down. It started picking up some in Georgia over the Fall, but I knew no one in the Atlanta scene, and in this business, it’s all about your network—who you know and who they know. So I had been praying all along about when and how to move to Los Angeles, but, as He so often does, God had a much better plan than I could have imagined (which Winkler plans to share soon!).
Q: How has your MFA in screenwriting helped you teach students in your classrooms? Can you tell me about how your MFA in screenwriting is opening doors for new courses to be offered at TMU?
Winkler: My years of pursuing an MFA in TV & Screenwriting has definitely influenced how I teach. When screenwriters submit a piece to an executive or Head Writer for consideration, it’s important that the script capture the writer’s voice. In other words, anyone can tell a story, but what makes a story unique is the individual voice that tells it. I’ve tried to emphasize this with my Composition students—yes, academic writing must maintain a professional tone, but voice and viewpoint can still shine through, even when following the rules and expectations of academic writing.
Another way that this degree has affected my teaching is by reminding me how important it is to teach the Hero’s Journey to my literature students. I took for granted that Joseph Campbell’s theories of storytelling were common knowledge, and I had neglected to teach them for years, but I’ve returned to using the Hero’s Journey as an analytical and deconstructive tool for my World Literature surveys and upper-level literature courses, because I was reminded how helpful it is in creating story in the first place, whether for the screen, the stage, or the page.
I’m excited to announce that I’ll be offering a new Creative Writing course in Screenwriting at Truett next Fall. Students will learn the process of writing for the screen, the most common documents required by studios, and the basics of how writers work in the film and television industry. I’m blessed to teach at Truett McConnell, where I can present my knowledge and teach creative writing skills through a Biblical perspective—I’ll never take that for granted.
Q: What are some of your biggest goals/ aspirations that you hope to reach within the screenwriting industry?
Winkler: Honestly, I’m so busy with teaching and other projects, I haven’t really considered what doors God may open in the future. All I know is that He has provided a means of pursuing a career as Writer-Producer while still teaching the wonderful students of Truett McConnell, all without having to leave my beloved mountains of Northeast Georgia. I’ve learned to never say “never” when it comes to God’s plans for our lives, but it would suit me just fine if I never have to leave Truett.
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