Laura Wexler and her longtime writing partner, Charlotte Stoudt, know screenplays and TV pilots, but learning to script Virtual Reality presented them with a literal learning curve.
“VR [scripting] is more similar to staging theater in the round than to writing a movie script,” Wexler says. “You need to be thinking about what’s happening in all quadrants because it’s 360 degrees. Everybody is onstage all the time. If you [write a] close-up, the viewer can say, ‘I’m not interested.’”
Wexler, 46, a Baltimore-based writer – who formerly served as senior editor at Baltimore Style, teaches at Goucher College and co-produces The Stoop Storytelling Series — says she and Stoudt were initially moved to try VR writing a couple of years ago. VR meant “being pioneers, creating not just a project or a film, but also contributing to the making of these new things.”
Stoudt is currently executive story editor for “Homeland.”
The relatively new world of VR also meant less competition, Wexler admits.
After the women’s TV pilot — about 1950s housewives who start a psychiatric clinic — lost steam in development limbo, Wexler and Stoudt shopped their research-heavy story ideas. Bingo. The true tale of an interracial couple, Betty and Barnie Hill, who claimed they were abducted by aliens and used hypnosis to access their experiences, fit the VR bill.
“A UFO abduction is an inherently VR experience in the sense that it happens to you alone,” Wexler says. “It’s immersive and isolating. It’s hard to tell somebody what your alien abduction was like. Wouldn’t it be easier to have the experience?”
As a Baltimore resident, Wexler received a Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund in Film and Media at Johns Hopkins University in the fall of 2016, which enabled her to work with a mentor and learn more about the high-tech aspects of VR.
“That [mentor experience] was really kind of a rewiring of my brain to be thinking about this whole thing that people can see all the time everywhere,” Wexler says.
To be fair, the VR world wasn’t totally alien to Wexler — she’s married to computer programmer/entrepreneur Mike Subelsky, with whom she has a daughter, 10, and son, 8. Subelsky keeps her abreast of the tech landscape. As Wexler gained a real skillset via Hopkins, she and Stoudt wrote their script, “Dinner Party,” working mainly bicoastal.
They were eventually matched with director Angel Manuel Soto represented by Stoudt’s management company.
“People, for the most part, hadn’t been trying to tell narrative emotional stories in VR, and that is where we wanted to plant our flag,” Wexler says. “We are storytellers.”
Last May, Wexler and Stoudt were selected to attend the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab. Over the summer, they received a $100,000 grant from Engadget, a generous amount but not adequate to complete filming.
Thanks to a partnership with Skybound Entertainment (“Walking Dead”) and other funding, “Dinner Party” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
“I would love to do more VR,” Wexler says. “The film is a pilot for a series we’re hoping to produce. Each film would be focused on a different supernatural episode, and would allow us to explore a social issue. For example, a woman in 1974 Culver City, Calif., claimed she was raped by a ghost. [We would interpret this as a] #MeToo story. We want to use VR and the supernatural as a fresh way to come at these social issues that are ongoing.”
Betsy Boyd is a Baltmore-based freelancer writer and editor.
Watch the conversation with Laura Wexler on Need to Know — JBiz edition on facebook.com/jmoreliving May 29: