6 Screenwriting Lessons from Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding)

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by Angela Bourassa

My Saturday at ScriptFest was a whirlwind experience. I sat on a panel about pitching with John Bucher, Tara Bennett, and Scotty Mullen, then I got to meet one-on-one with writers for the entire afternoon, helping them perfect their pitches before the Pitchfest on Sunday. That meant that I only got to attend one session myself, but fortunately, it was one of the top-billed sessions of the day: an intimate conversation with Nia Vardalos, writer of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and its sequel.

Nia was a delight to listen to and positively overflowing with useful advice. Here are my top six takeaways from Nia:

1. Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.

One of the first stories Nia told was about how she got hired at Second City. She’d been trained in Shakespeare but felt like there were very limited roles for a woman like her, so she was drawn to improv where any person could play any character. She auditioned for Second City with no improv experience and, unsurprisingly, didn’t get in. So she enrolled in their classes and took a job in the box office, which both gave her a discount on classes and allowed her to watch the Second City show every night.

One night, a core performer got sick, and her understudy was unreachable. Nia summoned her courage and said that she knew the role. She was brushed aside until it came time for the show to start and they literally had no other choice. Nia performed, and she was hired the very next day.

2. “The battle of writing is that we judge ourselves.”

We all come up with a million reasons why we’re not good enough or not worthy of success. We judge our own processes, we judge our “ugly, fat” rough drafts, and we think there isn’t value in our scripts. Nia said, “Give yourself a moment to say, ‘I’m doing this.’ Don’t judge yourself… The process is always different in the industry, but no matter what your process, don’t listen to the odds. Say, ‘Why not me? I’m doing this. I’m an optimist. I can write a script and I can sell it.’”

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3. Don’t wait for an agent or manager — make things happen for yourself.

When Nia got to LA, her agent told her that she wasn’t pretty enough to be a lead and wasn’t fat enough to be a character actress. When asked, Nia told her agent she was Greek, and the agent said, “Well that’s the problem.” Sadly, Hollywood still has this perception that only what’s been done before can be done again. That’s why Asian actors can’t be leads and Greek women can’t star in their own movies — it’s all bullshit.

So Nia decided to write herself a role. She didn’t get anywhere sending her script to studios, so she started doing it as a one-woman show. The show was selling out, so she put a small-but-pricey $500 ad in the LA Times, hoping it would draw someone — anyone — who could help her turn this show into a film. As fortune would have it, Rita Wilson saw the tiny little ad and came. The next night, she sent her husband Tom Hanks to the show. The day after that, Nia’s phone rang, and it was Tom Hanks. That was the genesis of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Nia made sure to mention that Tom and Rita treated her like gold before she made them a dime. In her experience, the kindest people are the most consistently successful people in this business.

4. Stop making your female characters “likeable” — make them relatable instead.

Nia said that she is so tired of focus groups that say women have to be likeable on screen. You should make your characters relatable, but don’t care if they’re likeable. When they were testing My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, focus groups found the teenage daughter unlikeable, but a teenager rarely is likeable. To keep her honest and create conflict, Nia refused to make the daughter any more likeable. Now the actress has gotten a lot of great attention because of the role.

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5. “Today is the day…”

At Second City, Nia said, they always used to say, “Today is the day…” That’s the point that stories start from. Today is the day that I ask the girl out. Today is the day my daughter was kidnapped. Today is the day I face my greatest fear. Whatever the situation, your catalyst should be a vital day in the life of your main character. Then, for Nia, she writes from a point of motivation — what does the character want? That’s what drives the story forward. In her stories, the answer to that question is usually happiness.

6. The ending is in the beginning.

This is another lesson that Nia took from Second City. She said movies are like a thesis — in the beginning you tell the audience what the story is going to be about, and in the end, you deliver on that promise. The end should reflect the beginning. Once you’ve delivered what you promised (or some take on what you promised), you’re done.

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Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.

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