Writing Dreams into Reality
April 09, 2020
Close your eyes, and imagine the most amazing gift you could ever receive …
Is it a unicorn? Of course it is! What could be better?
Let’s be honest, seeing a unicorn is one of those magical moments we have all wished for at some point in our lives. It sounds impossible, yet we would probably do anything we could for the rare chance to experience it. As a creative soul who has had to face the heartache of a few crushed dreams before finding success in television and film writing, Southwestern theatre alumna Samantha Montgomery McIntyre ’97 understands the importance of uninhibited hope against improbable odds. Thankfully for us, she captures that shimmering hopefulness in her delightful debut film, Unicorn Store, which is currently streaming on Netflix. McIntyre is hosting a Netflix Party for the Southwestern community at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, April 10, so I sat down with her (from the comfort of home, over the phone) to learn about her journey from Southwestern student to Hollywood screenwriter.
Discovering her dream at Southwestern
McIntyre did not arrive as a first-year at Southwestern with the hope of becoming a screenwriter—or even a theatre major for that matter. In fact, she had envisioned a much different route for herself, planning to study biology for a pre-med degree. It was an acting class for nonmajors during her first year that sparked her penchant for the performing arts, and she decided to get involved with the campus theatre productions. “The thing that I loved so much about Soutwhestern was that I got to audition for the plays even though I wasn’t a theatre major,” McIntyre says. One of her favorite memories was preparing for her role in Dancing at Lughnasa, which was being directed by the late professor and chair of the Theatre Department Richard Hossalla. “He was such a special person, and it was such a special show,” McIntyre reminisces. Hossalla made the training memorable by hosting a retreat at his home, where the actors strengthened their “sisterly” bond and were challenged to speak only in their Irish accents the entire time. “We even went to fraternity parties in full accents, trying to get ready for the play,” McIntyre laughs.
By her junior year, McIntyre was fully enchanted with the theatre program. She flipped her degree plan, choosing instead what she calls a “funny combination” of a major in theatre and a minor in biology (which, in regards to the University’s Paideia-focused mission, is a very Southwestern thing to do). “I think it was awesome that I got to be exposed to all sorts of departments, classes, and people that I don’t think I would have if I had not been at a liberal-arts school,” McIntyre says. She credits her diverse Southwestern experience for guiding her toward an unanticipated and exciting creative profession.
Ambitious adventures postgrad
After graduating from Southwestern, McIntyre was ready to embark on the thrilling enterprise of being an actor. She decided to gain further training by pursuing an MFA in acting at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, and then she moved to Los Angeles to start auditioning. What she had hoped would be a quick transition into the life of a working actor instead commenced with around six years of unavailing auditions. She cofounded the Meadows Basement Theatre Company with some fellow SMU graduates, but the business of running and funding a nonprofit theatre on top of maintaining their day jobs proved to be extremely exhausting for the troupe. Although the beginning of her creative career had its fair share of rainbowless days, McIntyre believes what kept her going was a silver-lining optimism about all the possibilities on the horizon. “I think you have to somehow maintain a blind hopefulness that something good can happen at any moment,” she says.
It was around this time that McIntyre started dating an aspiring television writer (now her husband) who taught her about the world of television writers’ rooms. Wondering whether it was something she could also do, she took a shot at writing a few spec scripts, or scripts written as sample episodes for popular television shows. Much to her delight, she discovered that writing was just as invigorating as acting. It was a spec script McIntyre penned for the hit television show The Office that helped to launch her career. She wrote it while working her day job at a PR office and submitted it to the Warner Bros. Television Workshop, where she was among eight writers selected to participate in the prestigious program. The professionals she met through the workshop helped her land an agent and her first television job.
Since then, McIntyre has found success as a writer on shows including Bored To Death, People of Earth, and Married, and she is the current supervising producer of the recently premiered NBC show Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. Thinking back, McIntyre wishes she had pursued writing, directing, producing, and other creative outlets outside of solely auditioning during her first few years after college. She learned that it pays off to try everything: “you never know where you might luck out, … and you just have to be hungry enough to make it happen in any way you can possibly dream up.”
The magical making of Unicorn Store
It is no surprise that McIntyre’s unbridled hope and unrelenting ambition translates into the magical message of her first feature film. Unicorn Store, released on Netflix in 2019, tells the story of a twenty-something glitter-obsessed artist named Kit who moves back in with her parents and attempts to succeed at a “normal” job after being kicked out of art school. Her underwhelming life takes an unexpected turn when she receives an invitation to a mysterious store offering to answer her childhood wish: a chance to own a real-life unicorn.
McIntyre began crafting the script for Unicorn Store in 2009, while writing for Bored to Death in New York City. Being away from her home and husband and working a fairly light schedule, she started to feel a bit lonely and bored. During her downtime, she took out a piece of paper and jotted down all the things that interested her. “I made this crazy person’s list that was like, Time machines! Portals! Unicorns! Magic! Spaceships! Time travel!” she laughs. The unicorn idea seemed to stick out, and she thought it would be fun to explore a “grown–up” movie that revolved around such a whimsical premise.
Getting the film made took nearly 10 years. After writing the script and seeking out independent producers, McIntyre submitted it to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. The vibrant screenplay was accepted into the workshop, offered financing, and was soon capturing imaginations around Hollywood. After several years of rewrites and an almost-production in 2012 (which would have been directed by Miguel Arteta and starred Rebel Wilson), the film eventually landed in the hands of actor–director Brie Larson. Best known for her titular role in Captain Marvel, Larson had originally auditioned for the role of Kit in 2012. Upon meeting her for the first time, McIntyre described the actor as a “delightful weirdo” who perfectly fit the character of Kit and really understood the script. When reapproached with the opportunity to direct years later, Larson was excited to pick up the glittery, bejeweled baton.
Working with the incredible cast and production team on Unicorn Store was a dream come true for McIntyre. An extraordinary array of big-name actors star alongside Larson in the film: Samuel L. Jackson, Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford, and Mamoudou Athie. The largely womxn-led production team made for a loving and harmonious atmosphere, and the film came together with gleaming enthusiasm from everyone involved. “It was very low budget, so every actor you see was making the least amount you can legally make,” McIntyre laughs. “Everyone was there because they wanted to be there, because they liked the script, or [because they] wanted to work with Brie.”
It was a stroke of luck that McIntyre was able to be so intimately involved in Unicorn Store’s filming process. Unlike in television, where writers hold a lot of the power, she explains that in film, a director has complete control over the production, and the writer is not always welcomed to the set. Larson, however, eagerly embraced McIntyre’s input. “I feel like I maybe had an unusual but awesome first feature experience in that I did feel like my thoughts were welcome and it was an equally collaborative atmosphere,” McIntyre says. Producing an independent film also meant that she did not have to worry about her script being edited by a studio. This was the first time she could fully express herself as a screenwriter given that her writing on sitcoms was always part of a group creation. “We got to just make the movie I wrote,” McIntyre says. “So, as a writer, that part felt like heaven.”
If she had to choose a favorite scene from the film, McIntyre says it would probably be the first awkward dinner table scene with Kit and her parents. “They’re trying so hard to be helpful but just painfully saying the wrong thing at every turn,” she laughs. She also loves the scene where Kit gives her big presentation at work, because it is a perfect example of the film’s creative collaboration. McIntyre’s hilarious dialogue, plus the costume designer’s eccentric outfit, plus Brie Larson’s delightfully outlandish performance makes for an unforgettable cinematic moment. “It’s like, all of the weirdos put together came up with this magical thing,” she says gleefully.
After her fascinating debut film experience, McIntyre is already at work on her next screenplay—this time, for a science-fiction feature. She is writing it as a spec script again because Unicorn Store taught her that presenting a completed screenplay can be much more effective than trying to pitch an ambitious concept. She is also working to sell a pilot script and hopes to have a television show of her own someday. If McIntyre could offer one piece of advice to other aspiring artists hoping to find success, it would be to “create your own opportunities and not wait around for someone else to give them to you.” It seems to be working for her, and we cannot wait to see what fantastic(al) film or television show this impressive Southwestern alumna dreams up next.
You can join Samantha Montgomery McIntyre for a Netflix Party at 8:00 p.m. this Friday, April 10, to watch Unicorn Store and hear more about her adventure with making the film.