Carmen Elena Mitchell is executive producer/writer of award-winning web series: The Real Girl’s Guide to Everything Else. Mitchell made her filmmaking debut with Evidence, and co-wrote the Jury Level Filmaka Short “Who Could Ask for More?” with Craig Ouellette. Playwriting credits include Beyond the Dinner Table: The Unintentional Poetry of Howie Small and Off-Chance Production’s Anatomy of a Slap for which she served as lead writer with Luis Reyes. Mitchell’s words appeared in Pieces: A Collection of New Voices; she has also been published in The Sow’ s Ear Poetry Review, Deixis, and The Seattle Medium.
Mitchell speaks with Write On! about creating a web series, her writing process, the passion she has for this project, and more!
What was your big break as a writer?
I’m still waiting for that! I think my biggest break was really one of confidence. I started out as a fiction writer and won a short story contest sponsored by MTV/Pocket Books (published in an anthology called Pieces: A Collection of New Voices). I’m not sure how many doors that opened for me, but it certainly made me believe that I could do it—which is half the battle for many writers.
How did you come up with the concept for The Real Girl’s Guide to Everything Else?
I had been growing tired and, frankly, a little bored of all the mainstream romantic comedies marketed to women. So many of these stories seem to revolve around the quest to snag some inaccessible Prince Charming (often coupled with the quest for that equally elusive pair of $500 Manolos). The night before I started working on the script, Reena Dutt (my co-producer) and I saw the first Sex and the City movie and afterward we got into this conversation about all the women that SATC (and the rom-com genre in general) failed to represent: women of color, lesbians, women who don’t obsess over fashion, women who read things other than self-help books and fashion magazines. And while I don’t mean to discredit the genre entirely—SATC has had a huge influence on our culture, encouraging a kind of sisterhood movement and more frank discussions about sex and sexuality—I’m just a little tired of the shoe shopping and boy-stalking. I found myself craving something that reflected MY friends. I wanted to hear our conversations. We see plays, we read books, we talk about politics and our careers … and yes, occasionally some of us go crazy at a Payless BOGO sale, eat a tub of Hagen Daaz, and cry over our love lives … but its not the sum total of our experiences.
Why did you go the web series route?
I really loved the freedom I had as a writer and the fact that there really are no rules. It’s not like TV where—if you’re writing for Spike TV, for example—everything is geared toward 18-34 year old males. With a web series, you just tell the story that you want to tell and—with some creative marketing—the audience finds you.
What was your process for writing it? Getting it produced and out there?
I started with the now almost archetypal characters of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte, asking the question: “If these women were my friends who would they be?” They answer: “They would be ethnically diverse, they would care deeply about social and political issues, they would be strong, opinionated women, and, if they talked about shopping at all, it was about what great deal they got at the local thrift shop. And most importantly: they would not be driven by the quest to snag a man.
In terms of getting it produced, once I had a first draft I brought it to our producing team: Reena Dutt, Jennifer Weaver, and Luis Reyes. The four of us had formed Off-Chance Productions the previous year to produce an original stage play and we knew we liked working together. We started fundraising and called in a lot of favors from our circle of amazing, talented friends. The end result was a really stellar team. From our awesome director, Heather de Michele, to our Emmy winning cinematographer, Robert C. Webb, Real Girl’s wasn’t just a gig … it was a mission. Everybody involved was dedicated to the idea that together we were going to change the conversation about women and entertainment. Once we had a trailer, we started shopping it around to distributors and that’s how we found the awesome folks at Strike.TV, which was the first of five distributors to pick us up.
What is your favorite part of writing the series? The greatest challenge?
My favorite part is always when I’m in the story. When I can’t wait to get up every morning and get to work because I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. The challenging part of this particular project was how much the political landscape kept shifting throughout the process. When I started working on the script in the summer of 2008, all eyes were focused on Iraq. A lot of people advised me to set the Middle East section there, but I had an instinct that told me…”no, Rasha wants to write about Afghanistan.” And now, of course, everything is about Afghanistan. The other thing that was in flux was the legality of gay marriage. When I wrote the first draft, same-sex marriage was still legal in California, so originally Rasha and Liz had moved up their wedding date to try and get married before the November election. But then the election came and Prop 8 passed and I knew that it would really date the series if I used the election as a central issue. Also, at the time we were all hoping that that Prop 8 would be overturned sooner rather than later.
How is the experience of producing and writing this series different than/similar to your writing in different mediums, such as writing poetry, prose, and stage plays?
The main difference is that writing for film (unlike prose and poetry) is truly a collaborative process and a lot of what you imagine in your head originally has to be modified because of realities of budget, location restraints or even the vision of a director, or things that the actors come up with. I would have loved to go out to the desert to shoot Afghanistan for example … but it wasn’t in the budget, so we used an unfinished attic space in Santa Monica instead and shot everything as interiors. With plays you can get very abstract, the desert can be a spill of light or a beige beach blanket … so in some ways you have more freedom there. On the other hand you can do so much more visually with film. For me, it’s an absolute thrill as a writer learning lots of different mediums. For a long time I was quite the purist about being a fiction writer (I really didn’t want to join the throngs of writers in LA shopping around their screenplays) … but I think I’m over that.
Advice for writers looking to use the web to break in?
Write the story that you want to see, not what you think will be marketable. Write something that is meaningful to you … and you’ll find it will probably touch other people as well. Start small and be willing to self-produce. Once you show that there’s an audience for your work, then you can start talking to advertisers and investors. There’s very little money right now for online work, so the bottom line is … do it because you love it.
Additional advice for writers?
Write everyday. Even if it’s only for 15 minutes. Make it something that you don’t even think about like brushing your teeth. Writing is like exercise, the more you do it, the more you enjoy it, the easier it becomes … and the stronger the work becomes.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
If you believe in a story (even if other people are skeptical about its merits) write it. A lot of beginning writers are told “write what you know.” One of my former teachers, author and poet Terry Wolverton, tells her students: “Write what you don’t know.” In other words, write to find out. You intuitively know more than you think you know (and you can always go back fact check later). Also, classes can be a terrific way to motivate you and refine your craft, but don’t get religious about any one teacher or group. As soon as you start to hear those people’s voices in your head as you write … it’s time to move on.
Real Girl’s Season 2! We are currently fundraising for our next 10-episode season, scheduled to shoot this fall. It should be even more ridiculously fun then the last. We’ve got musical numbers, puppies, and even a singing savior!
Tags: Author Q&A Carmen Elena Mitchell Deixis Pieces: A Collection of New Voices Producer Real Girls Sex and the City The Real Girl's Guide to Everything Else The Seattle Medium The Sow’ s Ear Poetry Review Webisode Writer