“Tell the internal and external naysayers to get lost”: an English Department Grad Goes to Film School

GW English/Creative Writing Alum
Mary Sette
Mary Sette has taken her English/Creative Writing (with honors) GW degree and moved to film school at the University of Southern California.  Professor Margaret Soltan recently talked to Mary about GW, USC, and her work in film.

1. Let’s start with the immediate present.  Having recently graduated as an English/Creative Writing major at GW (with honors), you’re now enrolled in the University of Southern California’s Writing for Screen and Television MFA program.  Has it been a culture shock, moving from the east to the west coast?

Not too much! I had been thinking about moving to Los Angeles after college for the last two years, so I had a long time to process the decision. In July, I drove cross-country from New Jersey to Los Angeles and it was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. But I won’t lie, moving to the west coast was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done.  Even having the security of graduate school, it’s nerve wracking to move across the country and start a new kind of life. It makes you feel like you’re an adult; but in reality, you don’t own dental floss and you haven’t done your laundry in weeks. Since coming here, I’ve been surprised and relieved by how much I like it. Los Angeles is a vibrant city full of opportunity for artistic people. Graduate school at USC has been full of artistic challenges and rewards and what’s helped me get through some homesickness is feeling like I’m growing as a writer and artist. I also live by the beach and eat a lot of tacos…so that helps!

2. In what ways did your education at GW prepare you for USC?

My time at GW absolutely prepared me for my time in graduate school. The critical analysis in GW’s literature classes comes in handy every day in classes, whether we are workshopping screenplays or pulling apart the structure of scripts and films. In my senior year, I took Jennifer Green-Lewis’s 19th Century English Literature course. In that class alone, you dive deep into how creative work strives to create emotional and unforgettable imagery. This is the foundation of screenwriting; you’re trying to capture an image and make it live in your imagination.

3.  I looked at your Linked In page, and it’s clear you’ve known you want to write for the screen and make your own films for a long time.  How did you come to know that’s what you wanted to do?  Were any professors/courses at GW useful in helping you think about that?

My time at GW was four years of a lot of self-realization. I came to GW as a political science major. I thought I wanted to work for non-profits or intern on the Hill. All the while, I think I knew that wasn’t going to make me happy. I had my hand in the creative writing and fine arts program at GW, and I knew I liked writing dialogue, but I never thought that was an employable skill. During my sophomore year of college, I took Noah Stern’s Screenwriting class. It was mostly by chance. None of the other creative writing classes fit my schedule. I took the class and, honestly, I just got hooked on screenwriting. Professor Stern was the first person who put the idea in my head that screenwriting could be a profession and not just a hobby. I remember he said to me, “Have you thought about film school after college?” And I just stared blankly into the dark void I considered my future when I was a sophomore in college. Pretty quickly after that, I started getting serious about screenwriting. I took Noah’s Advanced Screenwriting Class and an Independent study with him. I took all of Pati Griffith’s playwriting classes, and eventually did my senior thesis (the screenplay for Vagina Mumbles!) with her. And I also loved learning about video production and editing techniques with Siobhan Rigg. Her class was the reason I could shoot Vagina Mumbles in the first place. I still think about some of the video art and short films we watched in that class.

4.  I love the title of your film, Vagina Mumbles – I take it that the title means to echo in a kind of satirical way Vagina Monologues.  Tell me more about that.

Thank you! I really love the title and it still makes me laugh when I tell strangers and professors about it to this day. It’s about a recent college graduate trying to be a slam poet while currently living in her younger sister’s dorm room. It deals with depression, suicide, love, death, and hopefully some enjoyable penis jokes. I wrote that project as my senior thesis in screenwriting with Pati Griffith. I wrote it with the intent of being able to shoot it on campus. It was a big collaborative process. My friends helped produce and act in it. For me the title is a play on Vagina Monologues but more than that it’s a humorous way to point out the protagonist’s depression. This kind of girl’s vagina wouldn’t monologue, it would mumble. And of course, she has to learn to let it roar! (My mom loves that joke.) 

5.  Do you have any advice for current GW English and/or Creative Writing types who might be thinking of doing something like what you’re doing?

Go after artistic internships! Even the most remotely artistic. Whether you’re the copyeditor at a think tank, or an intern at a literary agency, it all helps. Next, reach out to people at GW and in the DC community. There are tons of people interested in film and the entertainment industry in DC. The Women in Film and Video, DC chapter, is great and holds a ScriptDC conference every year usually not too far from campus. I also strongly encourage people to write on their own and go after projects during their free time. I know the work load in college can get hard and it’s difficult to look too far in the future when you have finals and papers a week away, but it pays off. I shot Vagina Mumbles completely during my free time in my last semester at GW and I think it was the most rewarding thing I did in college. Make things for yourself and tell the internal and external naysayers to get lost.

6. Do you have a next film project in mind?  Have you found fellow students to collaborate with at USC?

Yes! In terms of writing, I’ve just finished writing a short film, a drama feature script, and a television spec script for The Unbreakable Kimmy Schimdt.  For my next film project, I’ve started preparing to shoot a web series based on one of the videos I did for Siobhan Rigg’s video class. It’s called tentatively “Mary is…Destiny’s Child!” It’s a comedy and it follows a young weird girl who holds a talk show under her bed. This is a project I’m doing on my own for fun and some creative release outside of school.  In terms of collaborating with USC classmates, I’ve met a ton in the writing, directing and producing tracks. There are a lot of people I’ve talked about collaborating with and hopefully over the summer those plans will be seen!

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