Senior thesis spotlight: Justin Zorn ’17 writes original screenplay

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During the Steinmetz Symposium in Karp Hall 008 at 9:20 a.m., Justin Zorn ‘17 gave an in-depth presentation of his senior English creative project, “Writing a Modern Cinematic Road Epic.” Zorn walked his audience through his writing and brainstorming process that eventually culminated in a ninety-eight-page screenplay entitled “Manifest Destiny.” Using examples from blockbusters such as “Star Wars,” Zorn explained his method of story building which largely revolved around finding and answering a fundamental question that would drive the plot. Zorn’s storyline is based off America’s historical habit of destroying ancient Native American burial sites for scientifically racist purposes. The senior sat down with us to discuss the inspirations and advice that guided him through his screenwriting process.

Jenna Salisbury: You touched upon your screenplay’s plot during your Steinmetz presentation, however could you give us a more in-depth summary?

Justin Zorn: “Manifest Destiny” is a road epic following ex-confederate John Cutler and his young Native American guide Apenimon as they travel across a war torn America on a phrenological expedition to dig up the skulls of Apenimon’s old tribe. The story revolves around the relationship of these two very different men and their fundamentally antithetical opinions on the goal of their shared journey.

JS: You mentioned your fascination in learning about instances in American history where the government or Non-Native Americans trespassed and intruded onto Native American ancient burial grounds. Why did you decide to write your screenplay based on this phenomenon? What about it spoke to you?

JZ: I found the motivations of the men contracted to carry out such immoral actions fascinating. I wanted to try and understand through my own writing what sort of history or personal circumstances could drive men to carry out such a disgusting and grave job.

JS: Coming up with a “fundamental question” seemed to be one of the greatest challenges you faced in writing this screenplay. What are some other notable challenges you faced during the creative/writing process of this project? How did you work through them?

JZ: Outlining and figuring out all of the beats of the script was tough. Screenwriters are supposed to have a full outline written before they even begin to draft. I didn’t follow that process and coming into second term I had to delete about 40 pages of my script when I realized that it didn’t fit my vision for the story.

JS: Were there any specific films/directors/screenwriters that influenced you during the creation of this screenplay?

JZ: I used the Coen brother’s “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” as a model. I particularly liked how their film, a take on the Odyssey, married the fundamental question to the odd characters on the road.

JS: What do you hope readers of your screenplay will get out of your story/ characters?

JZ: I hope to subvert certain expectations they might have about some of my characters. My screenplay deals a lot with archetypes (the Confederate, the Native American) and all of these archetypes come with a certain expectation about how they are meant to be portrayed. I hope that I am able to bring in subtle changes to their characters that surprise the viewer and lend to perhaps a more accurate portrayal.

JS: What advice do you have for people looking to get into/ start writing a screenplay?

JZ: Come up with an idea that is truly interesting. Don’t write about yourself. OUTLINE and be willing to delete.

JS: You mentioned that you had entered this screenplay into several competitions/ fellowships. How would you like to see your screenplay evolve? Would you be interested in making it into a feature-length film?

JZ: I’m not sure I can envision the script changing too much in the future. Of course, I am saying at the end of the nine-month process. So somewhere down the line I may change my mind. With regards to making the film myself, I love filmmaking but I don’t feel that I have the ability yet to make this script into an accurate visual representation of my vision.

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