Tonia Kempler: “Keep your word and be reliable”

Keep your word and be reliable. I’ve never been one to make excuses or to cancel. If I’m late, I’m late, I don’t give all the reasons why I was late, even if I have very valid reasons. I just find a way to get things done. And there has to be a really good […]

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Keep your word and be reliable. I’ve never been one to make excuses or to cancel. If I’m late, I’m late, I don’t give all the reasons why I was late, even if I have very valid reasons. I just find a way to get things done. And there has to be a really good reason for me to cancel or reschedule a meeting or move a deadline. We can sink in the quicksand of reasons if we go down that path. The important thing for me has always been whether I’ve satisfied expectations or not. It was nice to have this part of my work ethic and personality rewarded early on in my career.

As a part of our interview series with the rising stars in pop culture, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tonia Kempler.

Tonia Kempler lives in New York, though her roots run deep in a rural south still steeped in the occult traditions of the Gullah Geechee and the animism of the Cherokees. Growing up surrounded by the lore and practices of these mystical cultures, Tonia leans toward macabre worlds and isolated, damaged, yet capable and empathic female leads. This personal connection drives her concentration on Supernatural Horror/Thrillers, and dark comedies, including features, pilots, shorts, web series, and podcasts.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up in a family of storytellers with an emphasis on traditional lore passed down from generation to generation. As a result, I gravitate toward world-building and that is a very visual way to create, so screenwriting was inevitable.

All of my great aunts and uncles lived on my street. All were eccentric in their own way, but the love of ghosts and figuring out ways to frighten us kids was one thing they had in common. And we loved every minute of it. My bedtime stories were definitely not Mother Goose! I loved spending time with one aunt in particular, my Great Aunt Dovie. She was hysterical and told the best stories from her childhood. I would fall asleep at night listening to stories of Boo Hags and floating heads. It’s the stuff my dreams were made of and still is. Her Gullah Geechee tales are a significant part of my portfolio today. The Haints Universe consists of a feature, a TV series, a podcast, and a graphic novel. I find as I finish one project, my wheels are already turning on the next. It’s my hope to bring awareness to this incredible, vanishing culture through my writing.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

I have an emotional story that hopefully can inspire hope and fuel ambition for others to go for their goals. It’s no small feat to go from thinking about a goal, to setting the plan in motion. We get back what we put out for sure. In the early days of screenwriting, I stumbled on classes at the Academy of Film Writing and was taken by the website and Max Adams. I remember clearly the feeling of reading her Movers & Shakers column and thinking, “Wow, it would be great to be listed on her site like this.” I signed up for her master classes, took them all, became a member of her 51/50 International Workshop and I am still amazed and humbled every time I see my name on her Movers and Shakers page. I’ll never take that feeling for granted. And I am beyond grateful to Max for all she gives back to the AFW alumni.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Being terrified to pitch and believing I had to have the entire pitch mapped out line-by-line. I actually blanked in a pitch. Couldn’t remember my name, let alone my logline that I rehearsed in the mirror faithfully. I was sitting in the conference room of the production company blinking, that was all, just blinking. I couldn’t form a single thought. Then, I just started laughing and apologized and the whole room started laughing with me. It was pretty funny and, yes, horrifying. I have no idea why that was the emotion that kicked in, but I wasn’t alone. That willingness to just be human was more than accepted and the remainder of the meeting was filled with laughter. I still have those relationships and I send pages whenever I have something I feel that particular company might be interested in. Pitching is terrifying for a lot of people. Giving notes and feedback on pitches can be terrifying from the other side of the table as well. The takeaway is that you just have to be you. Just be natural and trust your story. It’s not just about the pitch. In many ways, it’s more about the person. I have learned to just talk, to have a conversation, and to worry less about getting the pitch right and more about getting me right.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

There are so many. I am working on an unscripted show. It’s following a well-known jewelry designer. She takes broken pieces, heirlooms, etc. and transforms them for her clients. It’s more about the story and the heart behind the individual and the individual item. A good comp is the Repair Shop on Netflix.

My passion project at the moment is Secrets. A really dark comedy TV Series that allows me to shed light on a culture that means the world to me: The Gullah Geechee and the Low Country (Coastal regions of GA and SC). Imagine an Addam’s Family crossed with Charmed and Meet the Fockers. An estranged daughter from a family of haints (spooks of the Low Country) brings her finance home to meet the family. I am really pleased that the pages are getting rave reviews and I am putting my all into this one.

As far as features, I am currently writing a coming-of-age thriller that I am really excited to finish. To quickly summarize, life quickly unravels as two teens who have been friends their entire lives attempt to cover up an accidental murder, leading one to discover a disturbing truth about the other.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I am currently working on a TV Series with an old friend from my music industry days, Michael “Eppy” Epstein. Eppy is known for his club and his stories. He has led to many acts over the years getting signed. It’s shocking who has graced the stage of his club in the early stages of their careers (and now). Working on this project has been hilarious. I always have to stay prepared for the unexpected. For instance, he calls daily with a new known musician or band member on the line. To say you’re put on the spot when Eppy calls and says, hang on I want to patch in Steven Tyler’s people, is an understatement. More than once, I have had to say “No, too soon, not yet.” Eppy is a character in his own right. He is one of the most likable people on the planet and his long-term relationships speak volumes. The series is about a has-been concert promoter’s goddaughter who attempts to rebuild his club after a fire caused by his own negligence. She perseveres in spite of his constant meddling, awful luck, and his overall man-child view of the world. The cameos we’ve already confirmed are mind blowing. We should be ready to shop this one early 2021. And until then, I have halted the random surprise calls — I think?

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Find something you love outside of writing and lose yourself in it every once in a while. Whether it’s walking, reading, biking, painting, etc. Give your mind a release and a chance to focus on something other than story. It’s easier said than done, but oftentimes the ideas flow more smoothly when you back away, even if just for an hour. For me it’s my family, my pets, cooking (I love to cook), cleaning my house, and art. I find just taking a walk with my kids and hearing about their day or helping them with their own projects breathes new life into my day and creativity.

Also, and this one is more difficult, try working on several projects at once. Be willing to put one away and work on another. We all hit walls and to try and force them to move out the way seldom works. Stepping aside to another open space is sometimes all it takes to see clearly and overcome writer’s block or work out a kink within the story when you go back to it. Our minds are working on our stories whether we are focused on the pages or not.

I’ve also found a lot of momentum by focusing on creative endeavors around a project outside of the actual script pages. For several TV series projects, I have embarked on writing graphic novels and/or doing fictional podcasts of the concepts. Not only does it cure fatigue, it allows you to see your script in a new light. Focusing on story for a purely auditory experience or to be told through images, really helps when you come back to the actual script pages. Challenging myself always helps with “burn out.”

You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

I always try to encourage others not to focus on all the ways one might fail. That way of contemplating a career path can be overwhelming and limiting, yet we all do it. Instead, consider all the things you have to offer. We each have our own life experiences to share, our own stories, and our own truths that only we can tell. We are all interesting, unique, and have the capacity to captivate others. I told myself the same thing as a young girl, fresh out of school with an opportunity to be a concert promoter. There were obvious obstacles to overcome and it took acknowledging them, yet not fearing them. I had something to offer and that was where I chose to focus. I closed out my music career as a manager with 27 clients worldwide. The collective clients garnered 9 Grammy’s in total. I made a choice once in my life not to be afraid of failure with a career path that much like screenwriting, presented many reasons not to try. The hurdles were immense and they were very real. Part of what we do benefits from failure, depending on one’s own definition of the word. We send pages out, only to get rejections. We edit, change, and rewrite continually based on notes and feedback. We alter pages until the actors are in front of the camera and even then we are editing. We need failure to become better writers. The beauty of screenwriting is that I am not pushing another to reach their full potential as was the case with being a manager, I am pushing myself.

Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Kindly share a story or an example for each.

For my psychological state of mind, I have routines with my pets. The most relaxing part of my day is caring for our saltwater tanks. It helps that we have the puppies of the sea, puffers and burrfish, both of which have the biggest personalities imaginable. For humor, I spend quite a bit of time with a cockatoo I have had since I was a teen and she is still going strong. For comfort, I have the most amazing Italian Mastiff, along with our cats and Angora bunnies. Without animals to care for and balance my thoughts daily, I wouldn’t be near as prolific. I’ve worked out quite a few story bumps while out walking my pup.

For my emotional framework, I enjoy my family. We play board games together. We read together. We cook together. And, yes, we watch a lot of TV and movies! For my sanity, I make time for my friends and fellow writers. These conversations and relationships are priceless to my overall well-being.

I must admit I have put my personal health behind writing and that is something I intend to change in the new year. I’m going to ignore the fact I said the same thing last year. I will go the entire day writing before I realize I haven’t eaten. I do not know what I would do without smoothies which I load with juice but we’ll ignore that fact. For my physical regime, I stretch and do yoga daily while writing. I plan to start 2021 with daily walks and to eat more regularly. I bought a Peloton bike two years ago that’s collecting dust but that’s going to change in the new year, too!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I wish someone had told me to relax and be myself, that it would be okay. When you walk into the room as a person first and trust that no one is expecting you to be flawless, the conversation is much easier and the fear melts away. I can still recall the queasy feeling when it dawned on me that I couldn’t hide behind the keyboard forever. It took some soul searching, but nowadays I can hold my own.

Keep your word and be reliable. I’ve never been one to make excuses or to cancel. If I’m late, I’m late, I don’t give all the reasons why I was late, even if I have very valid reasons. I just find a way to get things done. And there has to be a really good reason for me to cancel or reschedule a meeting or move a deadline. We can sink in the quicksand of reasons if we go down that path. The important thing for me has always been whether I’ve satisfied expectations or not. It was nice to have this part of my work ethic and personality rewarded early on in my career.

As a TV writer, the importance of a series bible can not be understated. In the early days, it would have been helpful to have this stressed more. It’s an easy thing to work on as the pilot is being developed and it will influence and change your pages along the way. I tend to write 3 or 4 pilots starting at various places on the timeline so altering and tossing out complete drafts has never been an issue, but completing a bible upfront would have grounded me and saved time. So, now I always start with the bible! I have much more to juggle these days, so time is a precious commodity.

I write features as well as pilots. In my early days of pitching, it would have been helpful to know that it’s not always the right call to mention you write both out of the gate. This takes me back to patience, timing, observation, and being a good listener. It is important to research and know what to pitch before walking into the room. And even more importantly, to know how to read the room once you are there. I am not saying to limit yourself, just to understand and have a clear idea of what the executive is looking for and what they are not looking for and how they feel about the importance of a writer’s individual brand. It varies greatly. Just be aware of when to go big and when to be reserved.

Lastly, even though writing is mostly a solo pursuit, I cannot overstate the value of writer’s groups! I didn’t realize how crucial this was until I met Max Adams of the Academy of Film Writing. We have a weekly chat where our group just chats with one another about life and what we’re going through or wish we were going through. We support one another. In addition, we review each other’s pages monthly. It’s a great community. Find a group of writers. Share your pages; share yourself. I am now in several groups. One group does live reads each week of a member’s pages. One group is just for female writers and the struggles we face. We can share an emotional side that we usually suppress. When the pandemic first started, I was part of a movie/script review club. We would watch the movie and read the script for discussion via zoom. The camaraderie and genuine interaction was good for my work and for my soul! I am also part of Roadmap Writer’s Top Tier. Through Roadmap, I am able to workshop new pages as I write or develop new ideas with Executives. Once polished, I pitch projects and have the opportunity to see how the pages are landing. I’ll stress it again, find groups and mentors. It’s one of the main contributors to my success today.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are a few quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson that pop to mind. I’ll go with the one I use daily: “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” As a writer, patience, timing, and perseverance are key for my psyche. My spiritualism is 100% rooted in nature. I stare out my window when I write. It’s grounding and reminds me to be patient. It reminds me to listen and to plan properly. It reminds me that what we toss out into the world does come back, but it often takes time to see the rewards of our works. And I’ve been lucky enough to experience the cycle of patience with a recent short film. I shot a short Proof of Concept for a feature film several years ago called Leora. The short is now in 28 festivals and has won awards for Best Writer, Best Editor, Best Director, and Best Horror Short among others. I had to wait for the right time to release the Leora Short into the world. Patience was key. Next step: I have to observe, listen, plan, and wait until I see the right path to the actual feature becoming a reality.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Absolutely! I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without Max Adams from the Academy of Film Writing’s instruction and guidance. I wouldn’t have taken many of the chances I’ve taken without her encouragement. And I wouldn’t be as grounded without her friendship. She was the sole motivating factor that led me to take some of the risks that have lead to my current success as a writer. There is also Joey Tuccio of Roadmap Writers. What’s not to love about Joey? He puts his writers first. He is selfless in helping Roadmap writer’s reach their full potential. I’ve met most of the executives I know in the film industry through him. I can’t imagine my writing career without Max and Joey and the incredible writers in both Max’s 51/50 International Workshop and Roadmap’s Top Tier program.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to start a movement focused on diverse and unheard voices outside of Los Angeles. There are amazing writers with unique viewpoints and strong voices that can’t relocate or need a solid plan of action before they can relocate. Those voices are beginning to have a bit of light shed in their direction through companies like Roadmap Writers. What Roadmap offers is invaluable for diverse and unheard voices. I would love to be able to aid the momentum. I completely understand the benefits of being in Los Angeles for relationships to fully blossom, but many many voices are overlooked as a result. This new normal we find ourselves in has definitely provided a peek into what it could be like. Writer’s rooms are happening via zoom and the like. And while nothing can compare to actually being in the room together, in person, there must be stronger awareness of the missed opportunities for excluding writers based outside LA.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

There are a few, yes. I am a huge fan of Eric Kripke. I am a supernatural world builder and I would love to have the opportunity to learn from his insight over a breakfast or lunch. I am in complete awe of the creativity behind Supernatural. There are no words!

Another is Will Smith. We share a passion for the Gullah Geechee Culture. He was going to do a series on a root doctor from Beaufort County, South Carolina a few years back. It would be fantastic to hear his point of view on several projects I currently have in the works.

How can our readers follow you online?

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!

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