Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith
Posted on April 12 2017
Today’s interview is with inspirational screenwriter, novelist, poet, director and producer Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith. Kirsten has written/co-written a number of Hollywood blockbusters including 10 Things I Hate About You, The House Bunny, She's the Man, and Legally Blonde which was nominated for two Golden Globes.
Newnham: Can you tell us a bit about your background; what were you like growing up?
Smith: I grew up on a sailboat in LA, before moving to Oregon and then spending my formative teen years in Washington State. I'm an only child and didn’t have TV as a kid, so I spent a lot of time reading and making up stories and writing stories. Then I fell in love with movies with the advent of VHS. I worked in a video store and a library all throughout high school.
Newnham: How would your family have described you?
Smith: Hopefully they would’ve described me as a fun and friendly girl who loved writing, music, movies, books and people.
Newnham: You have co-written hugely iconic films - how did you get into the industry?
Smith: I had a college internship at CineTel Films, where I read scripts and wrote coverage on them (which basically means writing a book report). Then I was hired full time as a development executive at CineTel, and that’s where I met my writing partner Karen McCullah. We wrote a script together that didn’t sell, but then we persevered and wrote another script and we were thrilled when it sold to Disney. That was 10 Things I Hate About You.
Newnham: How has the industry evolved?
Smith: When we started, there was a desire on behalf of studios to make teen films and also $15-25M comedies. In the past 10 years, that appetite has dwindled, but now I’m feeling it hopefully start to come back — the only difference is, your “original” comedy idea ideally should be attached to a built-in property or title. So we can tell amazing female-driven stories, but we have to back into them through source material.
When we started, the trend was more towards fictional material, as opposed to the past five years, where we’ve seen the rise of the “based on a true story” genre. That's a huge thing when pitching TV - base it on your own real-life misadventures.
Newnham: How has your role evolved?
Smith: I’ve gone from a plucky upstart to a big sister/mentor/leader. My friend Joy Bryant calls me “The Consigliere” which I take as a compliment.
Newnham: A lot of your work involves strong female leads and empowering girl power themes - how do you come up with your ideas and characters, and what does Girl Power mean to you?
Smith: Girl Power means freedom, and no limitations. It means stories about unexpected heroines in unexpected situations. It means sometimes working within the system and sometimes bucking against it with passion and excitement and moxie.
Some of my ideas are originals and some come to me from producers or studios. For me, the only litmus test is “does it have a female lead character that I’m excited by, and if not, how can I create one?”
Newnham: As a female screenwriter, producer and director, what, if any, obstacles have you faced and how did you overcome them?
Smith: I’ve been very fortunate in that I had a strong support system coming up in the industry — an amazing veteran agent Lee Cohen, and a great young manager Seth Jaret, and a wonderful writing partner in Karen McCullah.
It was also important to me to create a community of writers. When you face obstacles, having the ability to talk it through with another person — whether it’s a representative, a writing partner or fellow creative allies — makes it much easier to handle adversity. Doing it alone sucks.
Newnham: What advice would you give other women looking to break into the film industry?
Smith: Come at this job with joy and perseverance, and a willingness to work really hard, and to rewrite yourself. Balance your belief in your ideas with an openness to collaborate. And if you have a great idea, write it NOW - not later.
Newnham: What are the most important lessons you have learned?
Smith: Never burn a bridge. Save your money so you can weather tides and trends that might not go your way. Be grateful to the people who believe in you, and reciprocate with offers to help them out too.
Newnham: What is next for you?
Smith: I’m developing and pitching on a number of ‘girl power' ideas — I’ll let you know more as they’re made official. One fun thing that’s coming out in the next few months is a comic book series for BOOM! Studios called MISFIT CITY. I wrote it with my fiancé Kurt Lustgarten. It’s a female Goonies, and the first issue comes out May 10. There is a gigantic demand in the comic world for female-driven stories, so it’s pretty cool to be part of that movement.
Newnham: Finally, what advice would you give a younger Kiwi, just starting out in her career?
Smith: I would tell her not to get too worked up about stuff, because it’s a long-ass road.