Getting Into Development with Feature Screenplay Contest Grand Prize Winners Mrs&MrThomas

By: Laura Huie

 

 

Mrs&MrThomas is a wife/husband team who makes darkly comic and dramatic films that unflinchingly lift the lid on middle-class problems. For the last 19 years, Nell Garfath-Cox and Dave Thomas have worked together as producers, writers, and directors. In 2016, they were the Grand Prize Winners in our Feature Screenplay contest with The Assessment, which tells the story of a perfect couple that elects to complete a grueling and humiliating assessment where a stranger scrutinizes their suitability for parenthood, in a near-future, overpopulated Britain.

 

Following their win, the script was optioned by our Contest Judge, Oscar-nominated producer Stephen Woolley (Carol), along with producing partners Elizabeth Karlsen Carol and Jo Laurie (The Limehouse Golem). The Assessment was filmed in 2023 starring Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Olsen.

 

 

Having seen their script through to production, we sat down with Mrs&MrThomas to gain their insights into what is actually required of a writer when you develop your script for production, and to get their advice for emerging screenwriters, who want to work in features.

 

This year, we are offering screenwriters the opportunity to win a Guaranteed Paid Option prize with Showdown Productions, a Los Angeles-based Production Company founded by Bo Youngblood and John Ierardi, and repped by UTA. They have produced multiple feature films, including Blumhouse’s Torn Hearts, Follow Me, and Safer At Home. Learn more about our Feature Contest here.

 

Question: Tell us about what made you apply to the competition, and how the writing process works in your writing partnership.

 

Mr. Thomas: Before writing The Assessment, we were working on another film and didn’t receive enough feedback in the process of writing it. We decided next time around we were going to spend ages working on the script and actually get some feedback.

 

So, I Googled competitions and Shore Scripts was one of them. We only entered at first because we wanted the feedback. We didn’t even think about the competition aspect at all. It just looked like a great competition to get feedback. We wrote the first draft in six weeks, having written quite a detailed treatment before that and then we entered the competition.

 

 

“We would never be here without Dave and Shore Scripts. It’s 100 percent down to this incredible idea that he had to get unknown writers to enter competitions. None of this would have happened if we hadn’t entered that competition that day.” –Mrs Thomas

 

Mrs. Thomas: Did we get the feedback straight away?

 

Mr. Thomas: Yeah, we got the feedback straight away and it sounded like they quite liked it. The feedback discussed some areas of development and it was really detailed and full of great ideas. Funnily enough, the improvement areas were things that ended up going into the development process. But then we just put the script down and forgot about it. And then the competition came about. We started placing and then got more and more excited until we discovered that we won, we jumped out of our seats

 

Question: What was the process like after you won the feature competition?

 

Mr. Thomas: Everything happened really quickly. Dave contacted us and told us that two producers were interested in the project from the Judges list. The American producer wanted to buy the script, but I don’t think was too bothered with working closely with us in the development phase. Then, Stephen Woolley from Number 9 Films optioned The Assessment only a few months in, and he was more local to us in London.

 

Question: Is it important for you both to not just sell a script, but also be a part of the entire process going forward with your film?

 

Mrs. Thomas: It felt really important to be attached to it. One of the things we’ve learned as a writer is that you aren’t going to deliver this on your own anyway.  It’s all about the team. You’re getting all that energy from these incredible people — the producer, the director, the other development execs — all that energy is being poured into the project. And it was nice to have a seat at the table. It’s very important to be at the table for us, but it’s that team of people all wanting the best for an idea of yours which is lovely. And we knew about Stephen and his incredible body of work. Everybody has seen his movies. Everybody loves his movies.

 

Mr. Thomas: He’s a legend in the industry. And obviously, Elizabeth [Karlsen] and Stephen make amazing films together. So we knew that this was what we wanted to do.

 

Question: Could you shed some light on the evolution of the story or the characters throughout the development process? Were there some pivotal moments or changes that shaped the final version of the script?

 

Mr. Thomas: One of the notes that we had was about the ending and the science-fiction aspect of the story. Although this is a science-fiction film, we initially didn’t explain why the test existed.  Whereas what happened in the development process quite quickly with Stephen was that he wanted the world-building to be much more comprehensive.

 

Originally, we were writing a film that we were going to make ourselves, so it began as small and self-contained. And then our producer made us aware that he wanted to make a bigger movie than that.

 

Also, we’d thought through the main couple quite well, but we hadn’t thought as much about why The Assessor was the way she was, and why she did the things that she did. So, that first year of development was a three-pronged approach of fleshing out the world more and improving all the characters — really thinking about the why.

 

The structure of the film didn’t change a great deal throughout the whole development process. It was always a seven-day test. But the detail and depth went further every time someone joined the project. That first draft was really just a template for the story, and then we decorated it.

 

Mrs. Thomas: One thing I really remember from those early meetings with Stephen, and I think what remains so impressive about him, is that it felt he knew our story better than we did. I can’t quite put my finger on what that was, but he is such a cinephile. He was so absorbed in the story and therefore completely elevated our game.

 

We had the bones of the script and the development process forced us to dig in and actually understand the history to the point that we mapped out the characters’ lives and what happened in the world for 50 or 100 years before the events in the film. We knew all of it in detail by the end of that development process.-Mrs Thomas

 

In essence, the story is based on the rules. The rules are everything. If you break the rules you break the bubble, right? In a science-fiction film, you get one thing wrong and all of a sudden you’ve transported your audience out of a believable, plausible world into nonsense people wandering around in the future. So every rule has to be 100 percent true, has to be authentic to the characters, and has to be authentic to the story.

 

And I think the process of development was constantly testing that we knew what the rules were. And we were subjugating ourselves to them. If the rules won’t let you do it, you cannot do it. And I know when you see the film, you’re going to see at every moment that all the rules have to be king.

 

Mr. Thomas: It was really surprising how little of the structure changed and amazing how much of the detail and depth of the story changed. And the characters weren’t like characters by the end. They were like real people, you know? They had lives beyond the pages of the story.

 

Question: Do you have any advice for emerging writers whose goal is to option their script and get it developed?

 

Mrs. Thomas: One thing that’s helped our writing is making our own stuff. Don’t be scared to make your own stuff. It’s not going to be perfect and that’s okay.

 

We’re so lucky to have so many wonderful actor friends in our circle who were willing to read our scripts aloud or be in a short for us. So even if it’s just a script read, get your friends together, listen, and take their feedback. When the lines aren’t working kind of take that on yourself. If you hear it out loud and that actor can’t deliver that line or can’t find the emotion in that line, there’s something you need to dig into in your writing.

 

Mr. Thomas: Yeah, you have to test it. You have to step outside yourself and go, “If this was someone else’s script I was reading, how would I respond to it?” And sometimes that means that you read your own work and actually don’t love it. And that’s okay. And then you have to work out how to make it better.

 

The testing and developing of strong ideas is really important and developing lots of ideas and working out which ones you keep coming back to. Because it’s such a long journey with writing anything you need to be obsessed with and love the idea.

 

And that is where I think the success we’ve had came from. We came up with an idea that we absolutely loved. “What if there was a seven-day test for parenting? What would that look like?” When we tested the idea with people early on, and even now when we tell people what the film’s about, they’re interested in it.

 

“The strength of that idea is what will carry a script forward. Then find those people around you to ask questions because what will develop the script is the challenging of the writing to see if it holds up.” –Mr Thomas

 

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Laura Huie is a writer and editor involved in comedy-drama screenwriting, fiction editing, and full-time marketing copy. Laura is also a freelance article writer for Shore Scripts and has worked with Script Pipeline on their live Symposium series. She is one-half of the screenwriting duo, Bloom & Huie. Together, they have written multiple television series as well as a feature-length film. Their mission is to write honest and witty female stories wrapped up in unbelievable worlds.

 

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