Vania Smrkovski on SAFTA’s First Film (Part 3/6 “The Kickoff – or ‘What does Agley Actually Mean?'”

“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”

So goes the old trope, and I’ve lived by it in my many years in the corporate world. Another related one is an old military principle passed on to me as “The 70% Rule”: when beginning an ambitious project, lay out your plans until you are 70% there, and then get moving. After a while, you’ll figure out the remaining 30%, and much of what you planned changes.

These principles quickly proved to be useful.


We had our Kickoff event among the largest number of teams in the history of the Secret City/Knoxville Film Festival. Twenty-four teams met up at Pelancho’s, drank margaritas, ate deep fried avocado, and thus prepared, we listened as Keith McDaniel welcomed everyone and announced the required elements for this year’s competition. Each team would, in turn, draw their genre from a small pool of cards labeled with such options as “drama”, “comedy”, “action/thriller”, “horror” and “inspirational”. The only other required element was that each film must include some East Tennessee landmark.

Our genre was comedy. Our favored story idea would be perfect. We had this in the bag.

To handle the large number of writers, the plan was to have our writers meet the evening of the kick-off and discuss our story ideas in the light of the elements we were given. Then, everyone would be sent home with instructions to write up their own version of a screenplay for this story. On night number two, we would discuss the screenplays and decide which one was the strongest story, borrowing the elements from the other scripts as needed.


Seeing as we had already had our favored story ready — a story of two generations of women meeting for a family reunion suddenly confronted by an injured man in their yard, and of the ensuing conversation of values, love, expectations, sexuality and adventure while they transported the injured man to a car so he could get to the emergency room — I figured we’d have most of the work done by nightfall. The story had lots of potential for drama, comedy, adventure and was sure to have some real impact.

Quickly, it became clear that I was in the minority in this view. I think there was a sense that if a story was not outright comedic, it might be rejected. In my experience, the film festivals have a wide latitude in how strictly submissions are held to the required elements. In a recent festival, a requirement of a “bounty hunter” in the films resulted in characters who were, in fact, bounty hunters, characters who were supernatural, but simply referred to themselves as bounty hunters, hired thugs — a number of films had characters who simply searched for Bounty paper towels! I felt pretty confident that a comedy/drama would very easily work for the genre of comedy.

After consulting with the team, it soon became clear that the notion of our story as a comedy might not be a perfect fit. I opened the table to a round robin of alternative suggestions.

And the night wore on and on, seemingly forever.

I love creatives of all stripes. Especially writers. There are no right or wrong answers, but there are always strong opinions. SAFTA‘s group is filled with a wide variety of writers. Many are academics, PhDs, teaching classes, already published. Some are in the final year toward a bachelors program. Many are poets, some do fiction, some blogs. Most have interests in more than one or two creative areas. We have painters and photographers. We have performers. We have mixologists, cooks, home-brewers. Everyone has already learned that they are expected to offer their unvarnished critique, and everyone knows to accept critique without taking things personally. No one at a SAFTA workshop is telling you that you suck as a writer. You’ll have to figure that out on your own. Whether you’ve never published a single fortune cookie or poem in your life, or you’ve been a bestseller on the New York Times book review, you can guarantee that every person at a SAFTA workshop will point out the aspects of your draft that aren’t working well, or should be dropped outright. You’ll know the honest opinion of everyone there, and it’s up to you to decide how to use it.

And these were the people I had as my writing team.


In the end, what began as a brainstorming session ended up being a night of thorough debate and prodding of every idea that had been pitched (my own favorite ideas had been rejected in the first fifteen minutes).

I began to despair. Not because this wasn’t constructive, quite the opposite. This was a very exciting way to get our first movie project off to a great start.

Perhaps we could take a classic Grimm’s Fairy Tale/Mother Goose/Disney story and twist it somehow. Have the vulnerable princess played by a dude. Have the knight in shining armor played by a woman. Cool! How would that work, then? These pitches were exciting, and every story had its advocate. But in the end, each one died for the same reason….

The last required element of the 7 Day Shootout is that each film MUST BE LESS THAN SEVEN MINUTES.

And so far, no one had come up with a story that could reasonably be told in that time.

And it was starting to get dark outside.

The room suddenly got quiet. Everyone seemed a bit winded. This should all have been a lot easier, shouldn’t it?

And then one of our team, Courtney Vastine, piped up with a thought she’d brought up a month earlier, an idea that everyone loved, but one that got lost in the maelstrom of ideas and enthusiasm.

“I had this one idea…” she said. “I had this idea I thought would be fun. If a guy sat home with his family and had an accident where he injured his eye and he had to go to a doctor. He gets an eye patch, and starts to jokingly talk like a pirate, and everyone starts paying him attention — “

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