Melissa Brandt’s mind flashes back to a scene in her mother-in-law’s home: bunched together on a small silver tray stood 10–15 bottles of Opi nail polish.
“They all were the same color,” she recalls. A dark, rosy pink.
Melissa jots down such slices of life for future scripts.
Making her mark
With at least three recognized film scripts to her credit, Melissa is an up-and-coming screenwriter. Her latest screenplay, “Chicken Day,” has won two prestigious grants this year, including a $25,000 award from the Minnesota-based McKnight Foundation.
Born in Iowa City, she grew up near Worthington, Minn., where her writing roots sprouted.
“I wrote a story when I was about in sixth grade,” Melissa recalls, “and I remember thinking it was a scary story, and I hid it under my bed because I was afraid of what my mom would think.”
Melissa’s love of writing grew in high school—something she credits to Ellen Copperud, the high school English teacher who introduced her to the work of fellow Worthington author Tim O’Brien. She later studied English at the University of Minnesota, graduating with her Bachelor of Arts in 1993. She intended to teach but instead worked as a service manager for Merrill Lynch and later married her high school sweetheart.
Her writing life began in earnest seven years later when her daughter Emma was born.
“I wanted to tell Emma she could be anything she wanted to be,” Melissa says. Her son Jackson, now 11, also came along shortly, and the young family moved to Rochester in 2001.
Dog years and chicken days
Her first major film script, “Dog Year,” traces the reconciliation of an adult brother and sister from Southern Minnesota as they are about to lose the family farm.
“I grew up on a small hobby-type farm in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” says Melissa, “and I think the popular belief was that these were quaint, peaceful places, but that was not my experience. There was always an animal dying or the feeling of not enough. Not enough money, not enough heat, not enough quiet to make it peaceful.”
“Watching an animal die, seeing the struggle of two hard working parents, those moments seep into a child’s consciousness. That’s what ‘Dog Year’ means to me. It’s about two siblings overcoming the challenges and learning the lessons that their parents did not overcome or learn. How we, as adult children, still have to solve those problems. They don’t just go away.”
“Dog Year” was a semi-finalist at both the 2004 American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest and the Slamdance Screenwriting Teleplay Competition, which focus on introducing new screenwriters to the film industry.
In 2009, Melissa won some commercial success with her screenplay “Cordelia.” The title refers to Shakespeare’s character in the tragedy “King Lear.” In her script, Melissa imagines the portions of Cordelia’s life not explored by Shakespeare.
“The story picks up from the moment Cordelia is banished in the play,” Melissa explains. “She leaves with the King of France, Aganippus, who has accepted her hand in marriage despite her poverty. The people in France do not accept Cordelia with the same open arms that Aganippus has, and she becomes an outcast in France. The story centers around Cordelia falling in love with Aganippus but also her coming to terms with her father’s abandonment and trying to win the love of the French people.”
A London-based film company paid for exclusive rights to produce it for one year, but the option ended without being renewed in 2010.
Melissa’s latest screenplay, “Chicken Day,” is hundreds of years and a world away from “Cordelia.” Completed in January 2012, the script draws on Melissa’s rural upbringing near Worthington. Melissa says the name was inspired by the town’s King Turkey Day and its annual turkey race.
“Chicken Day” features a competition of chickens running through a maze, and, although the race provides the backdrop, it really deals with an untold secret and a young girl’s struggles with her broken family.
The screenplay was among 25 featured in the Emerging Narrative program of International Film Week at Lincoln Center in New York this past September where Melissa had a chance to meet one-on-one with professional film producers, festival programmers and sales agents working in the independent film industry.
She came away enthused. All of her new contacts took full scripts of “Chicken Day” to read, but its prospects are not yet apparent.
Life outside the page
Away from her keyboard, Melissa works part-time as coordinator for Students in Transition—a program for Rochester Public Schools designed to help young people who have no permanent address.
Daily, she helps students stay in school as their contact for many school-related essentials: handing out free bus passes to bring them to class, arranging meals at school, distributing school supplies, finding a coat for a youngster or contacting a social worker to arrange housing.
“It’s a difficult job to leave (at work),” she says. “Families who are homeless and children living in poverty are marginalized in our society. There’s this idea that if ‘they just work harder’ they can overcome the circumstances that life has put in front of them. I don’t believe that to be true. We need to give families more than ‘work harder’ advice. The work I do with the homeless in Rochester helps me feel like I’m doing my part.”
These experiences regularly cross over into her screen work.
“The children I write about are always in really challenging circumstances,” says Melissa. “I don’t often write about homelessness specifically, I see too much of it on a daily basis to get any distance or perspective, but I do often write about elements of poverty and the helpless feeling that exists within it.”
Often ostracized, facing disabilities or extreme poverty, Melissa’s characters always find a way out of the place society has put them.
“They refuse to be marginalized,” she explains. “They refuse to remain invisible. I like giving power to the powerless. I can’t always do that in real life, but I can do it on the page.”
Bob Freund is a freelance writer from Rochester.