By Nick Hawks
When Bethanie Steele’s screenplay, “The Marigold List,” came across the computer screen, it was by complete accident. Typically, the “People You May Know,” section on your Facebook homepage is reserved for people you didn’t want to speak with in high school or your weird cousin that used to have a nickname for you that rhymed with a certain part of the male anatomy (you know, hypothetically). But there was Bethanie, holding up her published screenplay, presenting just enough intrigue to do some deeper digging. A Google search revealed that the script is listed on Amazon for $7.99, was published independently on June 19, 2019, is 131 pages long and other random facts, like that the shipping weight is 14.4 ounces.
Bethanie, who goes by B.A. Steele artistically, agreed to meet and even sent over a free copy of her script to read. Bombarded with two jobs, a handful of unwritten papers, lines to memorize for an acting class and final exams to prepare for, reading a feature-length script near the end of the semester felt like more of another obligation than something fun to spend free time doing. After the typical procrastination, the reading of the script began, and to much surprise, it flew by. It’s easy to get lost in the writing.
“People are always telling me that,” Steele said. “It’s easier to read than a novel because it’s just direction, action and then dialogue. It lets the reader kind of fill in the blanks.”
For some reason, the male protagonist, John, gave the impression of one of Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriends in “Sex in the City,” the charming and thoughtful Aidan (men can watch “Sex and the City,” too). Steele laughed at this assessment, noting the projection is not at all what she had in mind for the romantic interest of the female protagonist, Emily.
Steele, who was seated comfortably at Starbucks in a pink Cleveland State University hoodie and a matching pink caffeinated beverage of some sort nearby, is a 2018 graduate of Cleveland State. Sitting on a napkin is a half-eaten piece of coffee cake, which she did not take a bite of during the entire interview. The 23-year-old majored in film and communication while minoring in marketing, writing her script because of an assignment she had in Salvatore Cardoni’s screenwriting class. The assignment was a 25-page script of a feature film, and Steele was stumped.
“I pitched last because I just couldn’t think of any ideas,” she said.
Even though she could not think of a complete story, an idea for a scene stuck in her head, so she went with it.
“It’s this girl, and she’s depressed,” Steele said. “Her doctor tells her he’s cutting off her medicine until she tries group therapy, except the therapy group ends up becoming a cult.”
She admitted that she was not super invested in the idea, but her classmates were, which got her thinking. With the help of Cardoni, she not only completed the 25-page assignment, she decided to stick with it and turned it into her first ever published work.
“I probably went through 20 drafts of it, which honestly isn’t even that much. Sal told us that for ‘Get Out,’ Jordan Peele went through like 35 drafts,” Steele said. “Any time I was ever stuck, I would just keep writing and would come back and revisit it later. You don’t want to lose your momentum.”
Without giving away too many details, the script is about Emily, who joins a support group on her doctor’s orders. She encounters Abe, the leader of the group, who comes off as charming but has more sinister motives. She develops a romantic interest from within the group, and her life gets turned upside down. As Steele puts it, the script would not be popular in Hollywood because it “doesn’t follow the formula.” She wanted her script to be different. The ending was particularly divisive, getting negative feedback from screenwriting contests and even from her own boyfriend, which did not discourage her in the slightest.
“It definitely doesn’t have a happy ending,” she said. “I welcome negative feedback. I don’t find it discouraging at all. I want to know your honest opinion.”
Despite writing her protagonist to be depressed and suicidal, Steele herself has no experience with those emotions, to the relief of her loved ones.
“People were reaching out to me concerned,” she said. “It’s like no! That’s just the character, I’m fine!”
Steele was zealous and charming, somebody easy to lose track of time in conversation with. What had planned to be a 30-minute interview turned into a 2 hour conversation about writing, family and even, amazingly, how we had the exact same premise for a comedic screenplay — about a protagonist that dies in a car accident, ends up in purgatory and, because of a sinful past, must mentor somebody else as a ghost in order to gain access to Heaven. Hijinks ensues. You get the idea.
She’s an experienced writer, with tips on everything from how to make characters more three-dimensional (“make them spunky!”), to never using placeholder names for characters because they eventually stick. Evidently, she isn’t a big fan of the name “Steve,” as she used profanity to describe having to name one of her characters Steve after using it as a placeholder name for too long and getting it stuck in her head (sorry to all the Steves out there).
Steele, who works two jobs, was off to her late-night shift after our interview. Just a weekend job to make ends meet. After working on several films as a student from everything from acting to directing, she now has her sight set on just writing, as she carries around a small notebook filled with notes on how to edit her upcoming novel. She hopes to one day make it as a writer, but isn’t overly concerned with it.
“Whether I make it or not, I just want to write,” Steele said.