Alumni Spotlight on LADY IN THE LAKE Writer Sheila Wilson – American Film Institute

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Alumni Spotlight on LADY IN THE LAKE Writer Sheila Wilson

Leading up to the premiere of the new limited series LADY IN THE LAKE which debuts July 19, we spoke to AFI Conservatory Alum Sheila Wilson (AFI Class of 2017) who worked as a writer and producer on the show. The series was created and directed by Alma Har’el and stars Academy Award® winner Natalie Portman and Emmy® nominee Moses Ingram. Previously, Sheila served as a writer on the cult hit fantasy drama WARRIOR NUN, as well as a story editor on the Marvel series HELSTROM. She is also the creator of The Black Book, a resource for studio executives that features Black writers in the WGA to help facilitate staffing underrepresented scribes, and in 2022 she was named to Forbes 30 Under 30 list which recognizes talented young leaders within the industry. We spoke to Sheila about training at the AFI Conservatory, serving as a mentor for AFI’s Writers Room Ready program, working on LADY IN THE LAKE and more.

AFI: What first led you to AFI and can you tell us more about your experience earning your MFA?

Sheila: I’ve always loved theater and filmmaking and storytelling – but I didn’t know that I wanted to go into screenwriting for a long while. That all changed for me when I took a screenwriting course at Columbia College Chicago. One day my professor pulled me aside and told me that she thought my writing was good. Then she told me all about AFI and said that if I applied, she would pay my application fee! So, naturally, I took her up on that offer, and the rest is history. Rigorous is a really good way to explain the AFI program, and I think for me personally it was crucial for my success. I spent a lot of time immersing myself in the basics of filmmaking, but I never really had the opportunity to hone my skills in the craft of screenwriting, and AFI gave me a safe space in which to do so. It’s where I developed my voice and truly learned how to be a storyteller.

AFI: What did you learn throughout the process of getting staffed on WARRIOR NUN and writing your first episode of TV?

Sheila: Getting to write on WARRIOR NUN was a massive shift for me because prior to staffing on that show I had zero professional experience. I was very lucky to get signed by my manager just a few weeks after Pitchfest at AFI. I wrote a new pilot, and that pilot got me staffed about a year after I graduated. Naturally, on my first day, I was extremely nervous and didn’t talk much. I just listened and chimed in when I thought I had something helpful to share. Through the process, I learned that listening is super important in the room, regardless of what level you are at. Staying engaged with what everyone was saying and not going off on my own train of thought too much helped when it came to pitching ideas that were helpful to the room. I also learned that even the most experienced people in the room feel the same way as the staff writers. Everyone wants to do a good job. Everyone is self-conscious. Everyone is making things up as they go. I mean, that’s our job. To make things up! And once you realize that everyone around you is literally in the same boat, it makes it so much easier to relax and pitch and write and just have fun. When the room is having fun, I think the best ideas come to the surface, and that was definitely true during my wonderful time on WARRIOR NUN.

AFI: How did you get involved with the new series LADY IN THE LAKE and what was it about the themes of the story and the people involved that drew you to the project? 

Sheila: My team sent me the book in early 2021, and I was immediately gripped within the first 10-15 pages. It’s a really compelling read cover to cover, but I think what initially drew me to wanting to work on this project was the Cleo character who is played by Moses Ingram in the show. It felt like there was just an immense amount of potential to expand upon her character and explore the events that led to her death. Thematically, the book also explores a lot of what it means to be a woman in society, and it does that primarily through the lens of Maddie’s character, who is a white, Jewish woman. I feel like it’s relatively rare in media for white people to want to delve into the complexities of their own privilege, especially once you throw in aspects of womanhood and Jewishness and assimilation and how all of those intersectional pieces weave together to create a certain experience in America. After talking to Alma – who’s such an incredible visionary – and realizing the direction she wanted to take the show in, and just feeling how open she was as an artist with going to that place, I jumped at the chance to work on such an honest and pertinent and timely story.

AFI: What were your greatest challenges working on the show, and how did you navigate the parallel narratives belonging to Natalie Portman’s Maddie and Moses Ingram’s Cleo?

Sheila: Our show deals with a lot of very sensitive subject matter, and so as writers, I think balancing those themes within both Maddie and Cleo’s storylines was definitely one of our biggest challenges. It felt very natural in the writing to have their stories mirror each other, but it was tricky finding the equilibrium. I also got the incredible opportunity to write and produce on location in Baltimore for the majority of the shoot. Though I’d gotten to produce my individual episodes of different shows I’d worked on in this past, this was my first time being on set as a producer for the long haul. It was fun, but definitely a big learning curve for me in terms of dealing with the day-to-day challenges as both a writer and producer of the show!

AFI: From your experience so far, what do you think are key elements that make for the best writers’ room environment where everyone feels included and empowered?

Sheila: I’ve been very lucky in that I have yet to have the “writers’ room from hell” experience. So far, every room that I’ve gotten the opportunity to work in has been full of lovely people who are passionate about the story we’re all trying to tell together. From my perspective as a writer, I think all of those good vibes come primarily from the showrunner. If the showrunner treats everyone with respect – including and especially the assistants – and encourages the room to pitch and make mistakes and learn from each other, then I think that gentle energy will permeate the room and create a positive workspace.

AFI: In 2019, you created The Black Book to amplify Black writers in the WGA. What was the catalyst that caused you to create this resource in the first place?

Sheila: 2019 was a really interesting time in the WGA because that year we enacted an agency action. All of the writers essentially mass-fired their agents to force them to become better fiduciaries and to end the practice of packaging. Ultimately, this turned out to be a very good thing for writers overall, but at the time there was a lot of apprehension, especially among minority writers. Everyone was afraid that in an industry where it’s already extremely difficult to find jobs as a black writer – and when many black writers and projects were finally breaking through and seeing some success – having those writers fire their agents at crucial points in their careers would slow progress – and it could also create another excuse for studios not to hire us on projects. Hearing “we don’t know where to find black writers” from studio execs was a fear many of us had.

In the midst of all of this, I had just joined the guild in the fall of 2018 and signed with my agents about two months before this action commenced. I was immediately affected as a young black writer who was just getting my foot in the door. At the time, the WGA’s Committee of Black Writers was helmed by Michelle Amor, who was one of my former professors from my first year at AFI. I was in committee meetings and absorbing all the apprehension, and I had the idea to make a list of black WGA writers to send around town, to make it easier for studio execs to find us for projects in the absence of our agents. I brought this idea to Michelle and the other committee leaders, and together, we made the first iteration of The Black Book. It’s one project I’m so proud and honored to have gotten a chance to work on, and I’m so thankful that it helped me and other writers find work during a super difficult time in the industry.

AFI: Since graduating, you have also come back to AFI to serve as a AFI Writer’s Room Ready mentor. Can you talk about that experience and any advice you have for emerging writers?

Sheila: It was a huge honor for me to get to be a Writers Room Ready mentee when I graduated in 2017 – and it was even more lovely to get to come back as a mentor for the incredible Haley Bartels [AFI Class of 2019]! I feel so lucky to have gotten to be on both sides of the program, and I think the one thing that has stuck with me throughout this whole experience is the realization that nobody really knows anything! There are no real rules in this industry. And honestly as an artist, that’s so incredibly freeing. Nobody knows anything – and that means anyone can be successful. To emerging writers, I would say, write with reckless abandon. Stay true to yourself. Tell the stories that you want to tell. The ones that burn inside you. Never lose sight of the original dream that led you down this path. I know it probably sounds corny, but I truly believe that if you can hold on to that nugget of love that you have for this art form, that love will be the thing that helps you navigate the ups and downs and uncertainties of this industry.

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