It came as a surprise to Central Wyoming College professor Jeremy Nielsen when he received news that a television pilot script he and CWC student Connie O’Donahue had been working on was one of the 11 scripts selected for the Sundance Institute’s Episodic Story Lab.
“The odds seemed slim,” Nielsen said. “People who are selected for this are already working in the industry as writers; many of them writing for currently airing shows. We are two people from Wyoming who haven’t broken into the industry as writers yet.”
It was O’Donahue who asked Nielsen if they could enter their work into Sundance Institute’s competition; something the two had been working on for more than a year. The idea, which started off as a simple conversation spiraled into plot, characters and a vision of a television series set in an apocalyptic wild west in the 1950’s.
“The idea is that post World War II didn’t end well for the United States,” Nielsen said. “I’ve always been fascinated with revisionist history. And I just had this idea of a cowboy on his horse in a hazmat suit.”
“We both love westerns and post-apocalyptic films,” O’Donahue said, two things that the industry tells new writers to stay away from: period pieces and mixed genres. “I love the research part of this.”
Their extensive research for the project has not only included historical events but research on technology, radiation sickness and the effects of it on DNA.
“I research all the time,” O’Donahue said. “It’s interesting and what makes writing so much fun.”
With their idea of a revisionist historical piece, they’ve had to keep things as close to history as possible but be able to include events to the world that they created in their story.
“Every little thing takes you down a rabbit hole,” O’Donahue said. “It’s a complex story and this isn’t the ‘Happy Days’ from the 50’s; it’s like ‘Mad Max’ but in the 50’s.”
O’Donahue, who has some past experience as a screenwriter, said that it’s been easy working with Nielsen on this project; his understanding of the subject makes the process fun. She is an alum of ABC’s Daytime Writers Development Program, a six-month program that she was hired for after winning her first script competition in 2005 for Film in Arizona. She also received a second award at the Austin Film Festival and is an official artist of the New York Television Festival for the second year in a row.
“I’ve never worked with a co-writer before,” she said. “It’s so much fun to bounce ideas off each other and our excitement gets amped up.”
For the first round of entries the duo not only came up with the idea but also had to create a pilot episode, five pages of biographies for the characters and an essay of the series.
“I had no intention of this going as far as it did but we came up with an idea that resonated,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen and O’Donahue received word in April that they had made the first round of cuts which required them to then submit the full pilot script that was more than 60 pages. In July they received news that they were one of the 25, from more than 2,000 applicants, selected for the second round. After that it was a waiting game to see if they were one of the finalists chosen to attend a week long lab with the Sundance Institute.
The final round included a 30 minute interview which Nielsen said was pretty surreal when the interviewers were referring to the characters by name.
“It was exciting,” Nielsen said. “You knew that they had read it which was a good sign for us.”
Now the two will go to Sundance Institute's Episodic Story Lab for a week in Sundance Ski Resort in Sundance, Utah. They will leave Monday, September 26 and during their duration there will participate in individual and group meetings that will support and enhance their project. People from the industry who are showrunners, producers and television executives will provide feedback on their project. Nielsen and O’Donahue will also receive guidance and demonstrations on how to effectively pitch their show to prospective networks in the industry such as Netflix and HBO.
“It’s an elite group that we will have the opportunity to learn from,” Nielsen said. “I’m excited to take what I’m going to learn and apply it to the classroom for my students.”
Nielsen, who has a master of fine arts in film, said his knowledge is on how to make film but not on how to sell one.
“This is going to be really beneficial for my students,” he said.
O’Donahue, who attended CWC because of the film program and the professors, said she knew she would gain the experience she needed for her future in the industry. She said she knew it was a long shot submitting to Sundance but their hard work has helped them beat the odds.
“I’m excited to make contacts with people who are on the top of the line in the industry,” O’Donahue said. “They don’t accept nobodies for this, and this is such an amazing experience to happen for us.”
The Episodic Story Lab is a yearlong program that will support and vest their time and resources for the 11 finalists.
“I think it’s rare for someone’s show to be picked up from this; however, this experience often gives writers an opportunity to write for other shows,” Nielsen said.