For Bill Labonia, winning first place in the 2015 Cannes Screenplay Contest for Best TV Drama Pilot felt like a dream – one he hasn’t woken up from yet. “Broken Family”, written as an assignment at Vancouver Film School, was his first attempt at a spec script. A huge comic book fan, he naturally gravitated towards the hit CW show Arrow, which is one of many television shows currently filming in Vancouver. Bill credits Joyce Thierry and Tihemme Gagnon as the Writing for Film and Television instructors who helped him develop the spec assignment into a Cannes-winning script.
Having good material is essential for writers, but this kind of recognition is an amazing accomplishment for an emerging (or established) screenwriter’s resume and a pretty fancy calling card, too. One thing’s for sure: Bill is well on his way in the film industry.
We had a chance to ask Bill some questions about his time at VFS, winning the contest, and what’s next. For more, read on!
Where are you from originally? What made you decide to come to VFS?
Bill: I'm from Recife, Brazil. I've been studying and working in film since 2005. Back home, it's a completely different reality. By that time, I had lived one year in Los Angeles, and I knew that if I wanted to further my career I would have to push beyond my own borders to try to reach the international market. That was always my focus. But I was not ready to take another shot in Los Angeles. That city can be toxic sometimes, especially for new writers and filmmakers. It can bring you to your knees if you let it. I started my research and Vancouver looked like the next best thing. I was close enough to Hollywood, but not enough to be beat down by the market. It was a safe distance.
When I started to browse for schools where I could further my career, VFS seemed like the logical choice. It had the name. It had great alumni. So I decided to give it a shot. I went to the VFS website and applied for a scholarship. After months of sending scripts and phone interviews, VFS finally called me and offered me a scholarship. That was the day my life started to change.
What was your time like in the Writing for Film and Television program? What was your biggest lesson?
Bill: Now, looking back to it, I feel that the teachers at VFS unplugged me from the Matrix, and I could finally see the real world. It was like looking out of the eggshell for the first time. Now I understand the market and my place in it. That was the biggest lesson I learned.
You recently won Best Drama Pilot through the 2015 Cannes Screenplay Contest – congratulations! How did that feel?
Bill: Right now, reading this, it feels like somebody else's story. I still can't believe I am that guy. I screamed, I laughed, I cried, and I did cartwheels when I got the results. I am still numb. Feels like a dream...and it is. I dreamed this! I wanted this! I worked for this! And here it is. Now all I can think about is...what's next? The new horizon in front of me is unknown and full of adventures. This is the beginning of a new dream and the start of my own hero’s journey.
What is “Broken Family” about? What inspired the idea?
Bill: I was looking for a show to spec. All I knew is that I wanted to spec a one-hour drama. I watched a lot of shows, some of them not good at all. I ended up landing on the CW's Arrow. It was my first spec ever. I am a huge comic book nerd, and I actually enjoy Arrow. The title was supposed to be “Broken Arrow”. It was a perfect title. I even had a beautiful metaphor and theme of the broken arrow in the episode. It was perfect, but the actual Arrow show used the title “Broken Arrow” in its third season, so I had no choice but to change mine to "Broken Family". The new title fits well, since this is in fact a story about family, which happens to have a super hero in it. Like the title, I wanted to “break” the Arrow character and rebuild it. The story basically is...what if the Oliver Queen finds out that one of the girls from his playboy past actually had a child and it might be his? This was the whole concept behind the story.
“Broken Family” was developed here at VFS. What class was this written for? How did the Writing for Film and Television program help you to develop your pilot?
Bill: I wrote this story in my spec script class in term three with Joyce Thierry and refined it in term four with Tihemme Gagnon. Both Joyce and Tihemme were crucial in the development process of this story. Their feedback and guidance literally took me to the prize and I am forever grateful for that. I think that if I had to say anything about the teachers at VFS, is that they care. It seems like just a small detail, but it makes the whole difference.
Can you talk to us about your general writing process? How do you approach each new idea?
Bill: I like to use index cards. I know it's old fashion, but it's just how my mind works. I have a wall in my house covered in them. I start with the main pillars of my story and start crunching them into acts, then acts into beats, then beats into scenes, and so on. I applied these scenes into my five-act structure and, after a lot of tweaks and rewrites, "Broken Family" was born.
What television shows are you watching right now and why?
Bill: I am a huge Game of Thrones fan. It's beautifully written and with a lot of twists. I love it! I recently gave Supergirl a try and I liked it a lot. It's cute and powerful. House of Cards is just phenomenal. I'm trying to discover some new shows right now (at least new for me). I recently watched the show Unreal and I like the character development in that. The first season finale of The Flash made me cry -- literally.
If you could work for one network what would it be and why?
Bill: I would love to write for HBO. I think that's storytelling at its best.
Who are some of your writing influences?
Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Chris Rock, Alan Ball, Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin.
What’s next for you? What are you working on?
Bill: There’s a lot going on right now. I have a pilot optioned here in Vancouver and a couple of features signed back in Brazil. There are a lot of old projects coming back to life and a lot of new projects knocking on my door. I'm travelling with my workshop to give a little bit of experience back to my own community before returning to Vancouver in the summer.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Bill: I guess the main point here is that there's no reward without work, and a good idea is not enough. I urge the next generation of writing students to study your market and learn the business. Don't wait because no one is going to discover you while you're sitting at home. No one is going to take you by the hand and give you a movie career. Unless you're Jaden Smith, you have to learn your craft and learn your business.
If you're curious about Bill's script, read an excerpt in the window below!