Interview with Devin McGrath-Conwell

Devin and I recently sat down (virtually, in separate rooms) to discuss his experience writing the web series Lambert Hall. He reflected on that process in an earlier post, and I’ve also interviewed the show’s creator and director, Danilo Herrera Fonseca. Over Skype, we discussed how the show developed from conception to shooting, his affinity for the character of Victoria, and what it’s like to see actors bring your screenplay to life. 

Had you ever written a web series before, or was all of this new to you?

It was an entirely new endeavor, an entirely new way of thinking about writing. Before that point, most of my writing had been prose fiction or poetry. I had taken screenwriting [as a course] and done some screenwriting in class. But it was not something that I had really thought about, even. But when [creator and director] Danilo [Herrera Fonseca] came to me, it was because we had taken a couple of classes together. He was trying to think of people he knew who had taken the screenwriting class so they had these basic functions of being trained in this. I thought, ‘it’s a new challenge.’ This is not a form of writing I thought a lot about. It was an opening for me to consider writing in a new format and branch off from what I had done in this moment of me deciding what kind of writer I wanted to be. 

Had you worked with Danilo and [writer] Briana [Garrett] before?

I had never collaborated with them before. I had not actually worked on a production at Middlebury. I definitely came into Middlebury thinking of going more the criticism/theory route. I was afraid to consider going down the creative route. I remember thinking, ‘I want to take the plunge and be more creative in the film realm.’ Danilo and I had taken a film history class together. I think Briana was also in that class. I knew Danilo better than Briana. My impression of Briana had been that she was hilarious and a lot of fun to be around. But we had never really spent significant time together. 

So, Danilo came to you with this idea… What was the first step? Creating a list of characters? Crafting the plot arc? How did you begin? 

When he came to us, he had gotten the MiddChallenge Grant [The MiddChallenge grant is a program through Middlebury College that supplies students with funding for a wide variety of entrepreneurial and creative projects] and so knew that he wanted to be exploring ideas of what happens when you put a diverse group of people together and look at biases and issues within that group. He also knew he wanted to explore the basement idea. But there wasn’t necessarily a tone at that point. The way he pitched it to me in an email was, ‘I want you to imagine Friends (1994-2004) meets Supernatural (2005-2020).’ That was a hook. The idea of people trapped in a basement — I was interested in that. Our conversations were around, ‘how do you want this to go?’ He had already assembled basic major plot points. He had basic outlines for a number of characters. In tandem, we fleshed out this kind of beginning. The first big step was deciding what these characters were going to be and how they ended up in the basement because you needed something to make sense and we didn’t want it to be cliché. We definitely segmented off a little into what we felt most comfortable thinking about. We outlined the basic flow of episodes and established characters. But when we started writing, we didn’t have a point by point outline of the entire season. We divided up episodes and thought, ‘These are the big things we need to do. Let’s each take a crack at writing an episode and then blend them.’ At the end of the day, everyone wrote on every episode. At the time, Briana was in China, Danilo was in Brazil, I was in New Jersey. So we couldn’t just sit there with a script. We would send drafts and Skype and talk about it. As the characters developed and we learned more about them, we learned ‘this romance makes sense’ or ‘this animosity makes sense.’ We decided we wanted certain characters in a scene together. I spent a lot of time working on Seth as a character. We didn’t really know what to do with him at the beginning. He was actually the hardest character to work with. Who is this guy going to be? What does he bring? We knew he wanted him to have a leadership quality, but we didn’t want him to be the boring 20-something white guy who takes the leadership role. What Danilo was contributing was the curiosity of wanting something within Seth to be about his seuxality. Seth was a tough character to crack. Giving him defining qualities that make him interesting was hard at first. We didn’t want him to be defined by this label we can put on him. There are some reveals about him that don’t come yet. [The latter five episodes of Lambert Hall have yet to be released.] His back story is in places beyond college. Then Seth became really interesting. 

How did you go about developing the plot and the concept and getting deeper into it? 

Danilo had enough of a framework at the beginning. We generally knew the thrust. We didn’t know the ending, so that was something we talked a lot about. I ended up writing the first draft of the finale. I remember having a conversation with him when I was like, ‘how wild can I get with this?’ He was like, ‘just go.’ As far as I’m aware, while we pared some stuff back, that kind of initial vision remained, which was so cool. There were those moments where we were like, ‘fuck it, let’s just try something.’ Briana brought so much character to the lines she was writing. She’s just so much funnier than I am. Within that humor, she can preserve a lot of heart. So we had a framework, and then once we had this very clear image of each of the characters, we had a pretty clear front half. And then the back half was a little sketchier. And then it came together. And part of that was Danilo’s interest in making each episode fixed in some way on one of the characters. That helped fill it in. Our initial plan for us, when he pitched it to us in May, was we were going to write through the summer and finish the script before the school year started. That did not happen. We came back and would meet up in the basement of the film department. We had one meeting in a hallway. We finished all of the scripts by the middle of October in 2017. I would say that we knew the full arc by August. It was just a matter of making the scenes happen in between. 

How did you map out hours of plot and character development? Your characters are just stuck in the basement, so how do you create development and keep it interesting?

We literally drew up a blueprint of what we imagined the basement looking like. What rooms can we use, how do we segment people off, how do we do this? I approached it thinking of scenarios they could get stuck in, issues they would have to confront. At that point in my writing career, I was very self-conscious of my dialogue. I had not written a ton of dialogue. I didn’t feel great about that. I felt much more comfortable if someone else wrote dialogue and then I molded it to the character. That was a mental gap I had to get over. I liked a lot of the moments that were focused on people doing something together. And we fell into these character points where people were responsible for different characters. I was dealing with Seth and Victoria; Briana was dealing with Laura and Emily; Danilo was dealing with Franco. As we split these things up, speaking for myself, we would say, ‘I know what I would do in this situation and you know what you would do in this situation, and how would they do it together?’ I wanted to see what that interaction would be since it’s so personality-driven. And that comes back to Danilo’s original goal about interrogating backgrounds and biases. 

How did the segmenting of characters happen amongst the three of you? 

It was really organic. As we developed them, we felt drawn to people. Victoria just happened organically. I took over and was like, ‘I want this.’ Briana felt a similar way about Emily. 

I understand you really identified with the character of Victoria. Can you tell me about that? What was it like crafting her character? 

I don’t remember where in the process we decided she was going to be locked alone in a room. My gut remembrance was that Danilo had that already. I don’t believe we had an understanding of how long she would be in the room. I was drawn to her because the challenge of thinking about somebody caught in a room was exciting. As we developed her, she became a character being consumed by self-doubt and injury. That was a character that I didn’t realize how much of myself I put in her until I was rereading the scripts. I was like, ‘holy shit. This was a trauma dump, and I didn’t know it was happening.’ Danilo and I talked a lot about how the room needed to be metaphorical as well as literal. It was the place where she’s trapped with what she is confronting within herself. Once we had that established, I felt comfortable playing with it. Because so much of it wasn’t about Victoria talking to people. It’s much more about how she is talking to herself and questioning what’s happening in the room. We had a lot of conversations about her trying to navigate the fact that she’s already emotionally compromised when she comes down and then she’s trapped in a room. So how do we show that she is this stubborn individual and recognize that and not make her too hysterical? Because we didn’t want her to be just crying and screaming all the time. That wasn’t the character. Figuring that balancing act out was one of the most challenging things I’ve done as a writer. I watched bits of 127 Hours (2010). At the end of the day, it was more about her internalized issues and less about the space. And the kind of friendship that develops between Seth and Victoria, he’s trying to be very calm on the other side of the door. That felt like an extension of their characters. That may just have been because I was writing both of them and wanted them to be together. I saw Victoria as a person that unlocked a lot of other people, like Laura on the other side of the door and seeing a tenderness in her that you’re not seeing all the time. My favorite experience was sitting with the actress who ended up playing Victoria, Amanda Whiteley, who I didn’t know prior to that. She, Danilo, and I ended up in one of the basements of a building just talking about her character for a couple hours and going back and forth and really workshopping that. We read a scene where I was reading as Laura in one of the conversations they have between the door, and we literally sat on opposite sides of the door. And it takes you. You see it on the page and then you hear someone else reading the words and all of the sudden it’s not just a script and it’s not just a page and you suddenly recognize ‘holy hell, I’m trusting this other person to breathe life into things I punched into a computer screen at 1 a.m.’ That was the moment I recognized that. It made seeing her performance now, years later, feel incredibly poignant because I can remember so viscerally what that afternoon felt like. 

Did you have many deleted scenes that you didn’t end up actually using in the series? Can you tell me about one of them?

There’s a scene that I wrote in the finale or penultimate episode where I went full Lynch. I knew when writing it, I was like, we don’t have a budget, we can’t do this, but I want this aura around this moment. Then we pared it down, and it became manageable in a way. I think about that scene a lot. Because I have not seen the back half, I don’t know if everything from there ended up being preserved. In the Victoria episode, Episode Five, the genesis of her flashback on the track was a flashback that showed her running as a younger child and then as a slightly older child and then a teenager. I think it was a four-minute scene getting to the same point but showing how her parents pushed her to run and her relationship with her parents. At the end of the day, that scene changed because trying to get a child actor was going to be a challenge. All of my deleted scenes that I felt attached to are Victoria-related. Others were like, oh this would be a fun interaction or I’d love to have this more horror-based element. The ones I’m attached to [that were deleted] weren’t because we weren’t interested in them, but just because they couldn’t happen. 

Do you feel like you started to develop your own personal writing style during this process? 

The confidence boost was immeasurable. It was the first time that I admitted to myself that I love doing this and would like to do more of this. I can’t thank Danilo enough for being someone who said, ‘you want to do this?’ I honestly don’t know if I would have ended up working on the production and making my short film if this hadn’t happened first. I think a lot about how I wrote Victoria when I was working on this script this year. It was great because Danilo and Briana and I all had different excesses, things that if left unchecked, we would have gone too far with. I’m not always writing with other people and having that voice in the back of my head saying ‘is this good because it’s something that I want to happen, or does it serve the story?’ In terms of my writing, I can’t overstate how important it was. There are moments watching the episodes when I say, ‘I wish I could have that line back.’ But there really aren’t that many moments. I think that’s part of being someone who puts something out into the world. It also showed me that I like drama. I knew that in terms of my watching, but I was, at that time, really discovering my love for horror, especially. Being able to be responsible for the most thriller/horror aspects of the show was what made me excited. If I can make someone a little freaked out, that’s the goal. The stuff I work on now is really either comedy or horror. I like tension. For me, horror and comedy function in a similar way. You have an expectation, and you either use that expectation to make someone laugh or be shocked. It depends on how you play that. You create a different response. I find laughter and fear oddly close together. They’re both this indescribable gut reaction. Jordan Peele is the dream in a lot of ways. It’s the Jordan Peele/David Lynch/David Fincher level of the world where you take a genre and infuse it with an absurdity or a comedy and say, ‘look how these disparate tones aren’t actually that disparate, how they can blend together.’ I think Get Out (2017) is a masterclass in a script. Peele did something purely original and breathtaking. I’ve seen it probably nine or 10 times. I still get chills. I still laugh. I still see things I didn’t notice. 

Who or what influenced you as you wrote the script? 

At the time of writing Lambert Hall, I had not fully discovered a number of people I now consider to be my most influential writers. I saw Get Out three weeks before I started writing this. So it was very present in my head. It is a limited space with a limited primary set of characters. That claustrophobia was definitely on my mind. I was also just coming off being abroad and watching a lot of British films. David Lean was in my head for a lot of it, thinking about how he as a director staged his action. How in something like Brief Encounter (1945), which I deeply love, he used interesting flourishes to make benign settings compelling. A very present figure in my head who I’m always thinking about is Hitchcock. Obviously Hitchcock wasn’t a writer. Again, at that time, I wasn’t familiar with all of the important names in terms of screenwriting. I didn’t know who Robert Towne was. I didn’t know screenwriters as well as I knew film directors. A lot of that came in the year after writing. This revisit of Hitchcock’s movies and thinking about how are these scenes composed? How are these moments played out? There are a number of Hitchcock films that play with claustrophobia in a number of ways. I thought a lot about North by Northwest (1959) because Thornhill’s lack of control was compelling. 

What are your plans for the future? 

I am currently a faculty member at St. George’s School in Newport, RI where I teach film, English and, as of this past term, creative writing. I will hopefully be teaching more of that in the future. In terms of long-term goals, I would love to primarily operate as a screenwriter in some way. I have completed a full-length script I’m editing. A friend and I are actually working on a pilot for a show, which would be fun. I consider the possibilities of going down the creative route or following an academic route. I’m a person who is always anxious about the next step. From an academic standpoint, I want to take study to the highest level I can if I’m going to commit to that. As a writer, I learn best by reading and watching. I was primarily a huge novel reader throughout most of my life. It flip-flopped in college. I loved reading still, but I’m antsy if I don’t watch a movie or a couple episodes of TV every day. I want to pick it apart and think about how it is made from an academic perspective, from a creative perspective. I would not be happy if I’m not creating and analyzing in some way. Writing for this publication is really useful for that because it is an analytical and creative endeavor. Finding a way to meld that into my career would be wonderful. 

Is there anything else you’d like to say about this experience? 

It was an unexpected joy to suddenly have this show appear. It reached a point where Danilo kept saying we would see it, but I was not entirely sure. I did not have complete and utter faith in the process. I have complete and utter faith in Danilo, but in my head it was an experience I had, it was really important, but if it doesn’t happen, I still got to do that. So when he said it’s happening, it was this moment of ‘holy shit. Now I get to actually send this to people and put this on my resume. It’s not just an experience I had, it’s a product.’ The feeling of seeing the words ‘By Devin McGrath-Conwell’ at the end of a production is the best thing that’s happened to me during quarantine. Me sitting in my chair, crying alone. It was a nice feeling. Miracles do happen, kids. 

Season one of Lambert Hall is now available for streaming on YouTube.

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