Screenwriter (Jurassic World 3, Pacific Rim: Uprising)
By Nicole Torres AB '11
It is the morning of the royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as I sit down to write this profile, and as my email inbox continuously pings and fills with various news outlets reporting on the royal wedding, I cannot help but think of the parallel between Meghan and Emily’s stories. As Meghan Markle went from “commoner” to royalty, so too Emily Carmichael AB '04 has gone from an unknown “commoner” to Hollywood “royalty,” working on some of today’s hottest blockbusters with the likes of Steven Spielberg and Colin Trevorrow. Photo to the left by Jen Maler.
Born and raised in New York City, Emily has been writing since her high school days at Stuyvesant High School, where she graduated as the top-ranked English student in her class. During those early years, she had already received recognition for her writing, contributing two essays to Ophelia Speaks, a collection of works by adolescent girls that spent numerous weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List.
But writing was just one of her artistic pursuits. Emily recalls her early exposure to and passion for the arts: “‘Making things’ has always been a way of life for me, really for as long as I can remember. I’ve always had good representational skill as an artist, and when I was a kid I’d occupy myself with drawing, painting, and especially origami and sculpting, other 3D arts like that. I got more into painting as high school progressed—maybe because it was less messy than all that gluing/folding/constructing. Maybe because making tiny houses out of cardboard is not, like, recognized as a distinct artistic discipline.”
Emily’s passion for English, writing, and painting continued throughout college, and she graduated from Harvard in 2004 with a dual BA degree in Painting and Literature and Visual and Environmental Studies. Emily treasures the time she had in college to develop her writing and directorial skills.
She recalls, “Harvard is where I became a director. I wrote my first play, The Impossibles, when Maggie Lehrman and Liz Janiak asked me to contribute to their short play festival. The Impossibles was the first thing I directed, and I realized immediately that I loved writing and directing more than anything. I went on to put Macbeth: The Puppet Shakespeare, an all-puppet production I did with Moss Bittner. Then I put on Stopover, which was a HUGE experience for me. After that, The Passion Sell was in a lot of ways the culmination of my Harvard theater experience. I really, really value the time I had to learn and grow as a writer and director in college.”
Upon graduating from Harvard, Emily returned to New York City to pursue a career as an artist and writer. She spent years dedicating herself to her craft, writing and directing numerous short films that have appeared in festivals such as Sundance, Tribeca, SXSW, and various other international film festivals. During this time, she also attended graduate school at New York University, where she received her MFA from the Tisch School of the Arts.
Over the years, both she and her work became known in the independent and festival communities. Emily spoke to everyone she met in the industry and was not afraid to reach out to her fellow creatives; her big break ultimately came as a result of the body of work she had accumulated and the relationships that she had built along the way. One of those relationships was Colin Trevorrow, whom she met through her friend and colleague Anna Kerrigan (The Impossibilities, Five Days Gone).
Emily credits her mentor Colin Trevorrow with opening her door of opportunity.
“Colin Trevorrow is the one who gave my screenplay, Eon, to Steven Spielberg, and that was my big break that changed everything. Spielberg signed me on to write and direct Powerhouse, and after that I booked Pacific Rim 2 at Legendary and The Black Hole at Disney. On the strength of that work, I was hired to write Jurassic World 3. Colin’s advocacy taught me just how much you can change someone’s life if they’re motivated and ready (like I was) and if you have the courage of conviction to believe in them (like Colin did). Today I’m proud to be the champion of a young writer/director named Miranda Hoyt, who just completed her latest short film called Famous Last Words. If you have the power to discover a young artist from a group that’s been marginalized, and you’re not using that power, you’re missing out on an amazing experience that has the power to change your life.”
Sometimes all one needs is a chance, and for the right person to believe in you—especially in Hollywood. But as the saying goes, luck favors the prepared and one must also be ready for opportunity when it comes knocking. Then there are the pressure and expectation that accompany success.
Emily elaborates, “I did feel pressure writing Powerhouse, since that was the first studio film I’d ever written, and in a way, it was written in the limen between my life as an indie filmmaker and my life as a studio filmmaker. The experience of writing Powerhouse gave me a chance to mend a lot of my work habits—I used to have a lot of bad writer habits and I’ve been able to set a lot of them aside. Today I feel no anxiety at all about writing a big tentpole film like Jurassic. My whole life has been leading up to this moment—including the work that I’ve done to be able to write in a more psychologically healthy way.” Photo to the right by David Mahfouda.
So what’s her secret? Developing a writing style and good habits is every writer’s individual journey, but Emily is kind enough to share some of her techniques.
“Here are my three magic tricks: 1. Use an app like Freedom to block Internet distractions, and, this is important, schedule it to be active for certain hours every day. Mine is active from 9am to 10pm so I’m off social media for those hours. I used to use an app called Self-Control, which is great, but it does not have a scheduling feature, and that’s really where the power lies. 2. Get into Dot Journaling. Dot Journaling is just a fancy name for creating your own journal that’s also a planner, and a habit tracker, and everything else that you need it to be. 3. This one might be the most important: the Pomodoro Technique. It has transformed me.”
For those unfamiliar with the Pomodoro Technique, I’d recommend googling, but essentially, it’s the concept of breaking work into short intervals with breaks. It is perfect for those of us that cannot sit still for very long without getting antsy or distracted, and it works: try it.
Reflecting on the industry as a whole, Emily emphasizes that anyone seeking to pursue a career in Hollywood needs to be prepared for the long game.
She states, “Remember that when you graduate college, you enter an economy of approval whose parameters are very different than you’re used to. In an academic setting, your TA has maybe 75 students at a time, and is professionally bound to read a hundred percent of the work that those students submit. Compare that to your typical Hollywood gatekeeper, like a producer or an agent: they’re getting thousands of submissions a month, and they’re not professionally obligated to read any of them at all. Expect that it will take a long time to make a name in this new environment. It took me about ten years.”
In the same vein, sustaining that long game by building a body of work requires persistence and an understanding that recognition is not likely to accompany one’s first, second, or even third project. It can be difficult to motivate oneself and push forward when one has devoted all of one’s energy and resources into creating just his or her’s first project.
This is where Emily notes that graduate school comes in handy.
“Grad school is most helpful to you when you're making NOT your first short film, but your second. You pull all the favors you can for your first short film, you spend all of your money. Maybe your first short doesn’t come out how you want it to, or maybe it comes out great, it has a great festival run, and at the end of its run, you still don’t have an agent or a job in the industry. This is the moment where grad school really helps: it MAKES you get back up and make another movie. If you’re not able to attend grad school, I would prepare yourself, now, for that moment when it’s time to make your second short film. Get over the notion that your first short film is going to change everything for you, because it most probably won’t, and you’ll probably have to make another. You might find it easier to get back in the ring for your second (and 3rd through 6th) short films if you view that as part of a long-term plan and not an indication of failure—you may also be better able to budget money, resources and favors.”
Ultimately, and the recurring theme time and again: a career in Hollywood takes time and persistence. Prepare for the long haul, work on your craft, build relationships, and stay positive. When lady luck eventually comes knocking, you’ll be ready.