'An unstable way to live'

Lifestyle/Technology | A former nun takes by storm the life of a Hollywood screenwriter

Issue: "Return of the Lion," May 17, 2008

Screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi gets up early and writes for four or five hours in her pajamas before leaving her apartment in the Hollywood Hills and going to church at noon. After church she walks and listens to her iPod, which she calls "a great gift to the world."

Regardless of what Nicolosi is doing, her mind is never far from the story she's trying to tell: "When you're working as a storyteller you are never not writing. It's always on the corner of your frontal lobe. . . . It's like living with a crossword puzzle."

Nicolosi is an intense, fast-talking former nun. Still a Catholic, she carries hints of her New Jersey roots in her voice. She's speaking in Austin at a Transforming Culture symposium-something that she doesn't do all that often. In between sessions, she leans forward in her chair to explain the problem she's been wrestling with for three months-how to show, in a script set during the French Revolution, that a Carmelite nun has turned to the dark side. Show, don't tell: "What can she do to show she's lost her faith?"

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It's a little moment-Nicolosi figures "it will be three lines, a half page scene"-but a crucial one, because it's "when the audience will see it and know." Some screenwriters might leave a hole and go on, but Nicolosi says she's not that kind. The problem has become a big block: "I roll out of bed, wake up, and it's the first thing in my head."

She acknowledges that she's obsessive about her work: "A sign of a legitimate artist is obsessiveness. I'm just obsessed because it's part of the job . . . dwelling with a movie in your head."

The movie in her head right now, the one about the Carmelite monastery during the French Revolution, has 17 main characters, including five nuns who all have their own stories. On a big white board she lists the main characters and diagrams their story arcs. It took her a week and a half to draw the location, which includes details down to trees and benches.

Getting the details right requires research-and Nicolosi is a stickler for research. "As soon as I got the assignment I ordered books. My job is to do all that homework so the audience can enjoy." She read 23 books for a script about Emily Dickinson. Now she's reading-you guessed it-books about the French Revolution and Carmelite nuns and monasteries.

Although Nicolosi may never be able to put a current project completely out of her mind, she doesn't spend all day writing. She also reads scripts and writes critiques ("notes") about them. Good note-writing is hard: "You don't want to crush the writer. Your job is to tell what isn't working, not solve the other writer's problem."

She also goes to at least one meeting a day: "They are always over food in Hollywood. Everything in Hollywood is about 'building a package,' which is a project. You're constantly meeting people wanting to see if you fit a slot." Three nights a week she goes to film festivals, film screenings, or symposia: She lives in Hollywood so she can "grow in who I know and what I know. . . . It would be tremendously hard to make a living at this outside of L.A."

Of course, it's hard for all but a few to make a living even in Hollywood. Screenwriting is "an unstable way to live," Nicolosi says. "You receive a huge check and then may not get paid again for two years. . . . I have to be constant. I can't be euphoric or despondent. My job is to write, do my work, and then do the next one."

Writing is hard work: "At the end of a week you can have four pages and have thrown away 30." A screenwriter can complete many scripts and not get them produced. "You need to have something else you do that gives you meaning."

She knows that many Christians are deeply suspicious of Hollywood-but when people like herself are successful there, others have "hope that there are Christians in the heart of the industry. . . . There are more of us than people think."

But not all of them are as thoughtful as Nicolosi about what they are doing. She talks about intentionality: "I want to do something that's going to affect people for good . . . something that is True, Good, and Beautiful . . . If something is profoundly done and beautiful, smart and insightful-that can be saving to people."


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