1.What drew you to adapt Ruta Sepetys’s novel “Between Shades of Gray”?
Ruta’s novel is already so cinematic feeling, with such distinct and complex characters, when Marius approached me about adapting it I could already see it. It’s a tribute to Ruta’s writing— I knew it would translate well into a visual medium. It was also a story I was unfamiliar with, and even though it’s a true story, and a very tragic one, I knew there was an opportunity for it to feel romantic in a somber but layered way. It felt like an important story to tell.
2.What was your writing habit when you wrote Ashes in the Snow?
It was a long and off-and-on process. And it required a lot of research that went beyond Ruta’s novel. I ended up going to Lithuania before I began writing, just to help myself understand who I was writing about culturally and historically.
3.Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do to get back on track?
I can get stuck, for sure, but usually it’s out of fear of wasting time on writing something that’s not good. Which is a silly fear in a way, because usually when it first goes on the page it’s not that good— it’s usually just a start, a general idea. If you’re not on a deadline you can maybe wait it out by changing things up and working on something else for a moment. But if you are on a deadline, best to just push through and allow it to be bad for a minute. Allow yourself to understand that writing is an often inefficient process— it’s two steps forward, one step back— and try your best not to be discouraged by that reality. I wish I knew the answer.
4. Which screenwriter/s and filmmaker/s do you admire?
At this moment I'm really into the filmmakers Abbas Kirarostami, Kelly Reichardt, Eliza Hittman… Some of the screenwriters/playwrights I admire are Tracy Letts, Alexander & Karazewski, Steven Knight, Sam Shepard.
5.What is the biggest surprise that you experienced while writing Ashes in the Snow?
Candidly, I kind of feel like I over-wrote the screenplay for Ashes. That is to say, there were a lot of scenes that were included in the script that didn’t make it into the film, because they weren’t moving the story forward the way I thought they were going to… So that was a surprise I suppose, just how small the story ended up being considering the somewhat sprawling subject matter.
6.Were you ever on set for the making of Ashes in the Snow? If so, could you tell me what scene you were present at? Were you able to meet any of the cast members?
I was on set for a few days toward the end of production. I was there for the scene where Lina draws Kamarov, and the scene where they first get off the train in Altai. It was great to hang out with the cast. All such talented artists, some of whom I’ve kept in touch with.
7.How was your overall experience working with the director Marius A. Markevicius?
Marius and I have been pals for a long time, so it was a blast. He’s Lithuanian-American, and was very passionate about this particular story. But at the same time he was very open to hearing any and all ideas.
8.What is your favorite line from one of your screenplays?
Probably a line that was cut from Ashes. At the start of the film Lina’s in a library, and originally her cousin leaned over and said “Look over your shoulder…” referring to some boys that were watching them. It was going to be the first line of the film. The idea of having to “look over your shoulder” is something I felt when I was in Lithuania researching. It’s a country that’s been terrorized by larger nations for centuries, and when I was there I felt everyone was kind of looking over their shoulders at all times. On guard. There’s a sense of tension to it, and I liked opening the film with a line that reflected that idea.
9.Of all the characters you have created, which is your favorite and why?
I’m partial to all of the characters in Everything Sucks! They’re all very near and dear to me.
10. What’s the best advice you have ever received about writing?
One of my producing partners / mentors used to refer to the fictional “Village of the Happy People,” and that when writing TV, especially, you want to AVOID that village. It's just a funny way of saying, “Be sure there is conflict.” Without conflict, scenes have no drama. Without drama, it’s just a bunch of happy people hanging out, which could get boring real quick.
11.Have you ever consider writing a short story, novella, or novel?
I haven’t, perhaps because I think of myself as some sort of filmmaker/TV maker first and a writer second. That said, I’d like to write a play. I’ve actually tried but it just ended up becoming a screenplay. One day.
12.Like Crazy was a personal film for you and Drake Doremus to write, did you face any challenges writing it or everything fell into place in the process?
Honestly, it feels like a lifetime ago and any sense of hardship while writing has been erased from my memory. It was a very clear idea from the start, and we did it very fast. Perhaps before it felt too emotionally difficult.
13. It’s been four years already since Anton Yelchin passed away, could you express your thoughts about him and him being in Like Crazy?
Anton meant a lot to me. And it was his belief in the outline for Like Crazy that got us some momentum to make it happen. He was a great guy and it’s unthinkably unfair that he doesn’t get to keep doing the thing he loved the most. It’s just not fair.
14. Where you able to meet any of the cast members on Like Crazy? If so, give an interesting, fun fact about your experience working with them?
I was there for a good portion of production. I remember the day Jen Lawrence learned she was going to be in the X-Men movies, and that was really exciting news.
15.What are your thoughts about the coronavirus pandemic, and how are you dealing with it?
I’m dealing with it as best I can, I suppose, like everyone. I think it’s important to follow all of the CDC rules and make plans that accommodate for this crazy change in lifestyle. It’s not going anywhere any time super soon, so it’s better to accept that and figure out new and hopefully temporary ways of living and loving.
16.Last question, if you must wear a t-shirt with one word on it for the rest of your life, which word do you choose?
Endless gratitude to Ben York Jones for taking his time to do this interview. You can currently watch Ashes in the Snow at any VOD or streaming service: Vudu, Amazon prime, FandangoNow, and Google Play. You don't have to wait to check it out right now. Thank you for reading this interview as always and I hope you have a profound experience watching Ashes in the Snow.