Susanna Fogel and Jenna discuss her upcoming movie The Spy Who Dumped Me, her intentions crafting a narrative that empowers women, and writers’ responsibility championing important narratives in Hollywood.
We dive into Susanna’s writing process including the life experiences that inspire her work, how she creates unique characters, and the trick to making them relatable.
Susanna also shares her journey as a writer in Hollywood, the mindset shift that helped her overcome imposter syndrome, and how we can turn our life experiences – the good and the bad – into art.
Key Learnings and Highlights
- On her worldview as a comedy writer: “You have to see the richness in moments that feel absurd and the absurdity in some of the saddest moments in order to really process all of them.”
- On writers’ responsibility today: “It’s really encouraging that people want to hear from women and focus on stories of female empowerment. At the same time, as we see more representation, each story bears a lot of weight and pressure to represent something really profound about feminism or the female experience. It’s a product of us adjusting to a world where there are more stories from that perspective. Hopefully, there will be enough stories by and for women that it won’t feel like each one has so much responsibility. I do feel that awareness of the politics of what I am doing, though. You do have a certain responsibility as a film maker to create worlds that feel diverse, real and that don’t traffic and stereotype. There is always that filter you have to run through. My hope is that we’ll get to a place where you can just tell a story that feels authentic without people having to self censor, which doesn’t necessarily lead to the best or truest work. I do feel the pressure but I’m just trying to tell stories from my truest place which is one of feminism and equality. Whatever people may think of that or whether I have succeeded at that is up to them.”
- On the seeds of projects: “Some of my most interesting work has come from completely random moments of my life…It can come from the most micro and personal experiences you have. As a writer, you try to take those experiences and figure out what the best narrative frame is for them so you can elevate and make them accessible to people. It always starts with a really micro, small thing that happens but catches you by surprise.”
- On funneling emotions into new projects: “After a project I had been working on for a couple of years suddenly vanished from my life I felt angry and all of the stages of grief that you feel. The way that my friend and I were talking about writing an action movie was a good outlet for those feelings. It was trying to do something with the feelings that was inherently creative and trying to use them for the work instead of getting mired in writer’s block and self-doubt and assuming that everything I ever care about will fall apart. It is really easy to do that when you go through a trauma because you forget that it can feel any other way. ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is true if you can figure out how it makes you stronger and not let it chip away at your enthusiasm for what you do.”
- On overcoming imposter syndrome: “…I was afraid that there was some secret code to doing a good job that I didn’t and couldn’t understand…It led to fears that weren’t very specific but just general fears that I was going to ruin it. As I went on, I realized that when you break it down into the micro it’s the same as any other job. It is a series of a million little decisions. If I feel confident about my opinion on those little decisions, listen to advice and feedback, and can make all of the little decisions right that is all directing a movie is…I had instincts about each micro decision that led to the movie being good. There was this fear that there was something I didn’t know how to define but was going to sink me. I learned that it is a lot simpler than that. It’s just, can you do each little thing? If so, don’t get into your head about the big thing.”
- On creating characters: “Any writing I do starts with the character. It always starts with analysis of a person, what makes them tick, and what they are afraid of; Whether it’s a real person in my life who I want to satirize or an imaginary character who I want to feel real and thus want them to feel somewhat based on or inspired by people I know. It starts with just thinking about people’s insecurities, weakness, how they express themselves or don’t…It’s getting really granular about human behavior and building a character from that. It can lead to building people who feel relatable and identifiable in some way. It basically starts with shrinking people or inventing a person and shrinking that imaginary person.”
- On making characters relatable: “It’s about coming up with the most real, relatable, daily observations about people and then putting them in the same situation. We just tried to constantly ask ourselves: What would we do in this situation? What if you had to race to do a drop for a criminal but you really had to go to the bathroom first so you had to find a bathroom? What are the actual real human issues that you would face along the way? It was trying to add as many of those as possible and just finding the humor and irony in juxtaposing those with situations that are just played straight.”
- On learning to let your life unfold: “I think it is the result of success taking a lot longer than I wanted or naively assumed at 21. There are so many different ways that you write your story. You have to keep erasing it and rewriting it as you go along so you ultimately realize how dynamic the whole thing is all the time. As much as I would have loved to have an upward climb and then get to the top it’s just not how it works. When you incrementally succeed at something you set another goal. You get one thing and then you want the next thing and the next thing. If you are a driven, striving person you never really feel comfortable saying ‘I’m here! This is where I’m going to stay.’ And, the industry doesn’t allow you to be that way. Learning to embrace the unexpected was a result of realizing that unexpected things happen all the time whether you like it or not. So, if you don’t find a way to turn that into art or at least turn that into something productive therapeutically then you are just going to constantly feel destabilized by it. You make a choice to either allow yourself to be really volatile or embrace your inner zen with the fact that is just the way things are. You can learn from everything.”