OTTER TOWN – The jinxed journey of my pilot

I did it! I finished my comedy pilot about a cursed town.

And it just took me about two years, 17 drafts, and a fucking huge amount of hours of rewriting.

But that’s how it is, right? You work your way through the rewrites and the notes from trusted writer friends. You sit down your ass and do it.

This script and the story have been with me for a while. And even though it wasn’t consistent over the last years because I work on more than one project simultaneously, this was the one that always made me laugh and feel good.

Because the characters are so freaking weird and I could always go a little bit further with it.

But how did this journey start and what sparked the idea of a cursed town that is obsessed with otters and can’t function when their only detective isn’t there to control everything?

Source: giphy.com

THE SPARK

Well, it all started with this:

script screenshot

A 10 pages comedy assignment I needed to write while I was attending the Vancouver Film School in February 2020.

And by all the Gods! I read it again! … the good thing:

Damn, my writing has improved a lot!

The other thing:

What the fuck did I write!!?

I was thinking of publishing this script, but no. No, no, no …. nope.

Sorry, but I can’t. First of all, it’s super personal and fucked-up because there was definitely some family trauma I needed to write down. And secondly, … just no.

But hey, this assignment sparked the beginning of Otter Town. I knew there was something there, hidden between the lines and underneath the characters that are basically just my brothers and me having a family crisis while cursing and making inappropriate comments …

Source: giphy.com

The BRAINSTORMING

So, I knew there was a hidden gem in that fucked up script.

What now? How can I get it out of there?

My first instinct was that my brothers and I already have a fantastic dynamic. We are all so different, but we all share a dark sense of humour that leads to inappropriate comments when things get too emotional.

Great stuff for comedy! But how can I package that into a show?

The first attempt was really uncreative. I simply rewrote the assignment into a pilot script for a show called “Siblings“. Yeah, I know … woooow. What a creative title!?

With about 14 pages of feverishly written words and an idea in my head, I went to one of my instructors to ask her what she thinks.

We had a super fun session together. We brainstormed story ideas and dove deeper into the characters. She asked me a lot of questions, like “Why this story?”, “What’s your story engine?”, “Will there be a mystery?”, “What are your experiences living in a small town? How could you use that for that script?”

It was amazing because she guided me through my own story process, but we both knew that I found something that could become a show one day.

Filled with so many ideas and extremely excited about all this, I went home and researched. As you do.

source: giphy.com

The First ATTEMPTS

I need to give you a little backstory here.

So, I mentioned that I got the idea because I did an assignment for VFS. And so, keep in mind, while I was working on Otter Town and finding my story, I also was working on another pilot script “Witch Heart“. That one was my official film school pilot script that I wanted to finish before I graduate.

As I said, I am someone who works on more than one project at a time.

The thing I knew from the beginning was that this small town needs a weird obsession. Something that you can find on every corner and in every shop. Something that makes this town unique, but also creepy in a cute sense. And because I love otters, well, you can guess it …

I called my show: Otter Town.

And I wrote my first draft in June 2020.

Otter Town Header
script excerpt
©JuleJessenberger

These are the first lines of my first draft. My first teaser for Otter Town. Of course, this has changed A LOT throughout my journey. The teaser now is one of my proudest achievements because I believe it’s a brilliant introduction to the world and characters.

But you know what hasn’t changed at all?

  • The first line “It’s a picture-perfect day.
  • Birds shitting on statues. Only now, it’s a pigeon.
  • Golden Otter statues
  • Val being my cynical badass protagonist

The first line thing really made me chuckle when I looked back at this draft. I mean, how funny is that? I haven’t noticed that at all. Not that I am super attached to this line, but somehow it stayed there.

Weird …

The characters were already there. Most of them. But they all still needed some work. And the most important part was that Otter Town wasn’t cursed yet. It was more like “big city detective gets transferred back into weird small town”.

I asked a lot of instructors at VFS for notes and feedback and rewrote a lot, while also studying and writing my other assignments, of course. Then after graduation, I started a writing group with some lovely writing ladies and with their help, I rewrote a bit more. And more.

In 2020, I wrote drafts 1 – 8. And I pretty quickly discovered that I need a curse to trap Val (and me) in this town. So, after I established a curse, I was like: Ha! I love this idea! That’s great…

But then, it quickly turned out that I had no idea how much this would change my world and the characters. Also, there was a minor thing that I kinda forgot in my thrill:

How the fuck does the curse work?!

So, back to researching, thinking, adapting my story and crafting my new world. Basically, back to the bittersweet beginning to figure out if that curse could really work with my story…

Source: giphy.com

The (fucking) REWRITES

Okay, okay, so I figured it all out! The curse is still in there and actually, my story is way better with it. The characters evolved more and at this point, I’m also pretty sure, I got the theme, wants, needs, and structure down.

Man, I’m so proud of myself.

And that’s how I started into 2021 – full of hope, eagerness, a bit tipsy and with draft number 9.

©JuleJessenberger

Yes, I also got myself a cool title font! And you can still see the first line! I told you!

This version of the teaser is actually pretty close to the one I have right now. So, I totally got that (almost) nailed at the beginning of 2021. Generally, the story and structure were pretty solid. The characters were vivid, weird, and all had their own quirks.

But it still wasn’t there yet. I still needed to do some rewrites. And some more … and some more … and another one. And another one. And again. Again, again, again, ….. AGAIN!

Throughout 2021, I wrote drafts 9-15 until September with an occasional 1-2 month break from the script to work on other projects. At the same time, Otter Town started to get some recognition from different competitions even though I was still working on it.

As you can see on my Coverfly project page:

The screenshot was taken in January 2022

In September 2021, I put Otter Town in the drawer because we both needed some space. At that time, I also couldn’t see what else I should change. One problem that I still had with that comedy-fantasy pilot was that it seemed too long.

A note that kept circling back to me like a fucking boomerang was:

“How about a 30 min version? I mean, it’s a comedy pilot, isn’t it?

I dodged that boomerang for a while, but I knew deep down that it might be good to aim for the 30min and don’t hang around the 45-50 mark. But because I was so story-blind at that point and Otter Town was doing well even on its own, I let it be.

This was it. It’s fine now. Leave it be.

I really thought I was done, but then …

Source: giphy.com

Am I CURSED?! Am I trapped in a never ending rewrite cycle?!

At the end of 2021, I looked back at the year and my accomplishments. And that’s when Otter Town stared back at me like: “It’s time, bitch. I’m back.”

So, with a much-needed break, I looked back at my script. With fresh eyes and the glorious forced motivation that always fills you at the beginning of a new year, I read it and–

What the fuck are you doing, Val?! Nooooo!

Well, Val – my still lovingly cynical badass protagonist – decided to crash into this script, rip it apart and force it into another rewrite …

To be totally honest, my first reaction was: Fuck you! I’m not doing another rewrite. This is madness! No, this is my perfection speaking and preventing me from finishing a script! I won’t allow it!

But after I calmed down with a good cup of coffee and death-glared at the script for a couple of hours, I started to see that this is actually exactly what the story needed.

Funny, eh?

Still grumpy and offended by Val’s audacity, I rewrote. AGAIN. (Fuck you, Val.)

That’s how drafts 16 and 17 were written in January 2022.

But you know what?

It was totally worth it! My story is tighter and on point now. Also, … *drum roll* … I made it into a 30min script! Who’d believe that after I dodged that boomerang for such a long time, it would hit me right in the face at the beginning of this year?

Not me.

Especially not after this long journey of rewrites.

I can’t wait for what Otter Town might accomplish this year and what doors it might open for me. Whatever happens with it, there’s one thing I know:

I learned a lot during the process! This script made me a better writer. And that’s something I’m really proud of.

I’m grateful and proud that I stayed with the story, with the cursed small town full of weirdos, and that I trusted my instincts on it.

source: giphy.com

If you want to know more about OTTER TOWN and my other scripts, you’re welcome to check out either my Coverfly or ISA Network profile below:

COVERFLY – Jule Jessenberger

ISA NETWORK – Jule Jessenberger

You can also follow me on Twitter (@nerdlifeistough) or Instagram (@nerdlifeistough).

Stay weird and keep creating,

Jule.

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