In an age when the film and entertainment industry is becoming more competitive, globalized, and digitized than ever before, breaking through the noise is a Herculean feat. As technology enables unprecedented access to both content creation and consumption, today’s audience is spoiled for choice, often seeking stories that are both compelling and resonant, regardless of their point of origin.
Vee Saieh is a screenwriter who has not only successfully navigated this complex landscape but also made an indelible mark with her unique narrative voice and deep-seated conviction. With a career spanning several remarkable projects, Saieh’s expertise in the craft is palpable. However, it’s her ability to touch universal chords while presenting culturally nuanced stories that sets her apart from the crowd. Among her most noteworthy accomplishments is the screenplay “Magdalena,” which clinched the Silver Prize in Drama at the internationally renowned PAGE International Screenwriting Awards in 2013. This prestigious accolade is a testimony to her adeptness in weaving compelling narratives; narratives that transcend borders and speak to the human condition in an extraordinary manner.
The PAGE Awards, attracting thousands of scripts from all corners of the globe, are no ordinary competition. They are a platform where the crème de la crème of screenwriting talent converges. Given this level of fierce competition, Saieh’s achievement with “Magdalena” is nothing short of remarkable. This accomplishment not only garnered her significant attention but also solidified her standing as a screenwriter with exceptional talent and conviction.
We had the unique opportunity to interview Vee Saieh, where we delved into her illustrious career. Throughout her journey in screenwriting, Saieh has shown a knack for telling stories that are not only intricate and beautifully crafted but also resonate on an international scale. The success of “Magdalena” serves as a beacon, highlighting Saieh’s storytelling prowess, her dedication to her craft, and her distinct narrative voice. It uncovers her capability to blend the universal themes of love, grief, and coming-of-age with the unique cultural tapestry of the Colombian Caribbean.
It’s not just about winning awards, though. Saieh believes in the transformative power of storytelling, of its ability to challenge existing paradigms in the film industry and stir meaningful conversations. Her work stands as a testament to what is possible when a story is told with authenticity and cultural richness, serving as an inspiration for aspiring writers and filmmakers alike.
Vee Saieh is not just a screenwriter; she is a storyteller whose voice reverberates far beyond the final fade-out. As she continues to create, it is clear that her unique approach to storytelling will continue to capture imaginations, shape dialogues, and above all, touch hearts—something the world could always use more of.
Every story has a seed of inspiration. Can you walk us through the initial moments or experiences that led to the birth of Magdalena?
Magdalena tells the story of a young teen who, after falling for a mysterious new woman in town, must decide whether to follow his heart or break it when he learns that loving her has dangerous consequences. It’s a tender coming-of-age drama with hints of magical realism.
It really came about wanting to tell a story not just based in Colombia, but in my small pocket in the north of the country that celebrated our culture with all its idiosyncrasies. It was meant as a love letter to the Colombian Caribbean and an homage to our literary great, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and his magical realism.
The intricacies of a drama script demand depth and nuance. How did you approach the character development and plot progression in Magdalena?
Magdalena was tricky to write because of its large supporting cast. Essentially, I needed to find a way for these characters, who don’t have a lot of screen time, to be memorable while also avoiding making them stereotypical. It’s a feat not easily accomplished as the less prominent a character is, the less opportunity you have to inject nuance.
In the end, I settled for a middle-of-the-road solution where I overemphasized a personality trait in each of them to make them distinctive, but then I also added layers by giving them a collective arc. I found this was really successful in giving them a semblance of depth.
Scriptwriting, especially for a drama, can be an intense process. Tell us, Vee, were there any particular challenges or roadblocks you encountered while penning down Magdalena?
There were many for such an ambitious script. The one that stands out, though, was the question of how to build the town in the story, dramatically speaking, so that it felt vibrant and alive without bloating it with too much detail.
The way I approached it was to distill the town’s essence into its core elements: joy, music, faith, and superstition. I then embodied each of them as a different character who, collectively, would form the town’s backbone: the bartender, the singer, the priest, and the hermit. Lastly, I fleshed out their environments: the bar with its patrons, the town square and its musicians, the church and its flock, and the hermit’s hut.
This way, even though I only featured four different aspects, it still felt like a well-rounded representation of a town. And that’s what a lot of screenwriting is—creating the illusion of reality.
Earning the Silver Prize at the PAGE Awards is no small feat. How did you feel when you learned Magdalena had achieved this recognition?
I was over the moon. And the way the PAGE Awards reveal the winners also makes for a rollercoaster ride. Basically, they hold a virtual awards ceremony that goes category by category, announcing third, second, and first place, in that order. So, when your category comes up, you can go really quick from not wanting to see your name third to desperately wanting to see your name either second or first because you do want to win something.
When my name was revealed in second place, I honestly just felt relief and gratitude because there were thousands of submissions across all categories that didn’t place. Also, I just want to take a moment to give a shout-out to the people running the PAGE Awards because they are just lovely and truly care about helping writers achieve their goals.
The PAGE Awards are known for their competitive nature, attracting talent from across the globe. What do you believe set Magdalena apart from the myriad of other submissions?
I think it was a few things. First, the uniqueness of the culture and the setting. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of narratives set in the Colombian Caribbean though, in this case, it helped Magdalena stand out. Second, some elements of the narrative may be culturally specific, but it’s really a universal story about love, grief, and coming of age, which makes it relatable. Lastly, there’s just a charm about magical realism. I think people want to believe there’s magic in their everyday life, and that just speaks to a very human part of us. Ultimately, Magdalena is a coming-of-age story through youthful eyes that can still see the magic in the world.
Given its success, how do you envision Magdalena influencing or contributing to contemporary cinema? Do you see it as a catalyst for certain conversations or reflections?
I think Magdalena would challenge what a compelling story could look like. In Hollywood, there tends to be a pretty rigid mindset of what audiences want to see, which then dictates what gets greenlit to production. I think Magdalena would really contribute toward changing preconceptions about what is and isn’t commercially viable.
It would also highlight the potential of Colombian cinema and the diversity of stories we have to tell. So many of our depictions in the media are related to drugs or violence when we are so much more. Magdalena would be a chance to showcase to the rest of the world the love and joy that are intrinsic to Colombian culture.
With the accolades received from PAGE Awards, what are the potential next steps for Magdalena?
Ever since winning the PAGE Awards, there’s been a constant stream of interest from several sources. The project’s already been optioned once and, though it didn’t move forward with that particular producer, it’s still very much a project I believe in. I’m also finding there are many other people who are equally as passionate about it, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to share it with the world in the not-so-distant future.
Filmmaking is one of those businesses where you might push a particular script for a while without much happening, but then the film comes together almost overnight. You just have to keep insisting.
Looking back at your journey with Magdalena, from its conception to its success at the PAGE Awards, what insights or lessons have you garnered as a screenwriter?
Probably to write some less challenging stories once in a while. [Laughs] I took away a few lessons from writing Magdalena, with regard to the craft. For instance, I learned how to tackle a large cast of characters in a way that doesn’t overwhelm or confuse the audience. I also learned how to turn a location itself into a character in the story.
Perhaps, the biggest takeaway was how an antagonist isn’t necessarily a bad person, just misguided. It helped me understand in a whole different way the adage that “Every villain is a hero of his or her own story.” But mostly, I just learned to speak with my voice, confident that there is an audience out there waiting to listen.