Zibby interviews actress and screenwriter Jana Savage about Wildflower, a beautiful coming-of-age film that follows Bea Johnson from birth to graduation as she navigates life with two neurodiverse parents, starring Kiernan Shipka, Alexandra Daddario, and Charlie Plummer. Jana describes her path to screenwriting (she acted for many years prior) and then shares how she, Matt Smukler (the director), and the Morning Moon production team turned a difficult, real-life story into a poignant, darkly humorous, and joyful movie. She also talks about the writers’ strike, her favorite author, her next few projects (one is a sequel to an early-2000s movie with a bit of a cult following…), and her best advice for aspiring screenwriters.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jana. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Jana Savage: Thank you for having me. I’m very, very excited.

Zibby: You are not only the screenwriter of Kyle’s produced movie — not just Kyle, but the whole team effort — Wildflower, which is amazing, but you’re just such an accomplished screenwriter in general and have done such wonderful work. This is such a thrill to chat with you about your whole history.

Jana: And now I’m a mom.

Zibby: And now you’re a mom. Congratulations. Do you now not have time to read books, or did you not really read books that much or what?

Jana: You know, I’m funny. For somebody who’s a writer, you’d think I’d read more. I read a lot of Stephen King books. I have since I was a kid. The first book I ever read was a Stephen King book when I was eleven, which, in retrospect, was probably not great for my psyche, or it was wonderful because they still remain my favorite books to this day. I didn’t have much time for them before, and I definitely don’t have time to read now. I’ve tried. It’s just a good way to get me to sleep, but I love them anyway.

Zibby: How did you become a screenwriter? What happened between you reading your first Stephen King novel and today? Go ahead.

Jana: I grew up in a family where theater and arts were important. My mother was a choreographer. I grew up a dancer. I always had a flair for the dramatic anyway. It didn’t really seem like entertainment was a real path you could do being from a smaller town in Maine. It was something I loved but never really thought I could actually do. Then one summer, my friends had raised money to shoot this independent film. I had this small role in it. I was at Boston University studying economics. I secretly started taking acting classes. Then I weaseled my way into the communications school program out here in LA. I actually interned. I had no idea at the time what amazing shows I was interning on. I knew they were popular. I was interning on The West Wing and Malcom in the Middle. I had such wonderful access. Malcom in the Middle, I was in the writing room. They didn’t let me in the writers’ room, but I was outside. I was an intern.

Zibby: You were stationed right outside.

Jana: I was listening. I came to LA. I did come here solely to act. I did solely act for about eight years. Then I auditioned for a sketch show in which I had to write my own jokes. Had no idea what I was doing. I went in, and I was so good that they didn’t cast me. They liked my joke writing, and so they asked me to start writing with them. That’s how I met my writing partners. I do individual projects, but I write with two partners. They really taught me how to write. People say they fell into something. I really did fall into writing and realized that I loved acting, but I really loved writing. I could lose myself in writing in a way I never really did with acting. You’ll notice I still write myself little cameos.

Zibby: Yes, you did a fabulous job as a policewoman.

Jana: Thank you. I credit my writing partners for teaching me. I totally lied when they said, “Do you want to come write with us?” I was like, “Yeah, I’m a writer. I am a great writer.” Then I turned in my first script in Microsoft Word. I thought if I did the tabbing correctly, they wouldn’t notice I didn’t have Final Draft, which shockingly, they did. That’s how I came to be a writer. I love it.

Zibby: Wow. What are some highlights from the acting part of life?

Jana: I had some good success in commercial acting, which I loved. Most people might not say, oh, this is the highlight of my acting career. I did a couple of Blue Buffalo dog food commercials. I do dog rescue. One of my shots was literally just a menagerie of dogs. I showed up. It was funny because they were all these beautiful purebred dogs. I was like, “Can I have the mutt? I do rescue.” They gave me the mutt, who was not trained. I had the longest monologue. I got all the way to the end of it, and the dog would just slowly — I had my arm around it — slowly lean out of frame right at the end after I had done the whole thing. Then he ended up getting replaced by this beautiful golden retriever. I loved acting. I got to act in another one of my movies that I got cut out of. Wildflower is the first movie where it’s out there. I’m so proud of it, to tell people to go watch it. For one small scene, it was nerve-racking because the tone of the scene totally changed from the time I wrote it to the time we shot it. I tend to write a lot of comedy. It was kind of a comedic scene.

As we went to shoot it, Dash Mihok, who is in the movie, he said, “I don’t think this is a funny moment to my character. I think this is a really dramatic moment for him. I think we should play the scene more dramatic.” I was like, “Yes, of course. That totally makes sense.” It went from, supposed to be a little bit of a gag, almost Kramer vs. Kramer gag of, “Don’t you open that back door to the police car. Don’t you do it,” and then he does it, to him really showing up and being very, very nervous about why his wife is in the back of a police car. This is out of context of the movie. I ended up having to manhandle him and cuff him. I was like, gosh, even more respect for actors. It’s one thing to be behind the camera, but in front of it is whole nother ballgame. That was really, really fun to see. Watching people say your words is so thrilling. It’s a different kind of thrill to be in front of the camera. Then I was like, okay, I’m done. This is great. I’m glad I don’t have anything else to do. I’d say that was a pretty good highlight.

Zibby: Tell me about the process of writing the script. Matt had this family story to get across. You linked up with Matt. Tell me what happened. How did you take that story and turn it into what it is? It is a dark comedy. Maybe talk about how you would even summarize the movie.

Jana: Matt and I had worked on another project which hadn’t seen the light of day, but we just worked so well together. We had such a similar weird sense of humor. Also, as a director, he is so supportive of the writer and always there to push you along, but just allowing you to create and then really taking your vision and then making it his vision while still maintaining your vision. That is just such a gift, especially for film writers. I could tell through that first project — I was like, “We should find something else to work on.” It’s funny because we have different kind of memories of how Wildflower came to be. Mine is — of course, it’s right because it’s mine. We were talking different projects. I said to him, “What are you most passionate about directing?” He had said, “A narrative version of this documentary that I did on my family.” I was like, “Great. Send that to me.” I watched Wildflower. I started, and I was like, this is going to be nice. It’s going to be sweet. I get what this is going to be, this documentary. I was wrong.

As I watched it, it was sweet and all those things, but it was so much more. It was so funny and sad and real. I was like, this is actually something I would really love to do. I knew I didn’t want to do a straight drama just knowing the way I tend to write. I said, “I’d want to do this as sort of a dark comedy coming-of-age. Are you open to that?” He was like, “Yes.” He said, “I think it has to be that way because there’s too much serious subject and sadness to just make it a straight drama.” I think in doing so, it allowed us to really pull out a lot of the joy and humor that you saw in the documentary. It was a challenge because you’re always trying to walk that fine line of laughing but not laughing at. That’s something that we tried very, very hard to do. Once we decided we were doing it, admittedly, at the time, it wasn’t very busy. We’re working on another script together now. He’s like, “So you’ll be done in two months, right?” I’m like, oh, different time. We wrote it super quickly. We had no attachments. I very much credit your husband for reading it and seeing something in it. I think from the time we wrote it to being in production was a year and a half or something, which is nuts.

Matt is a very prolific, celebrated commercial director. I was like, “Don’t get used to this.” He had such a vision. The pieces just fell together so quickly. First time I sat down with Morning Moon producers, I was convinced. I always tell the story — I’m a screenwriter, and so I’m so used to being rewritten. I was like, I know what these guys want. They just want to get this script, and then they’re going to take it and give it to their big-time Hollywood writer. I’m going to be kicked out of here. They were like, “We don’t want to do that.” I’m like, yeah, right. They really didn’t. It’s funny that we laugh about it today now that I know them and really how supportive they were of me and my script and the process and Matt. It was just a dream come true. Again, as a screenwriter in film, so much of the time, you’re not involved all the way through. Something I had said to Matt, “This is so important to you. It’s so important to me. I want to be a part of it in a supportive way throughout.” I got to be. It was the coolest experience I’ve ever had. I’m so excited for it to come out and for people to see it.

Zibby: It’s amazing. The script really brought to life the complicated nature of what it’s like to be a neurotypical child of two neurodiverse parents. I know you worked with RespectAbility on all the terminology and making sure everything was great, which it is. There’s so much respect for every single person in this film. It’s so moving and really makes a difference. It really shows a side of, what is it like to live with all different types of people? What does it mean for self-care and all of that? I have to say, after my younger daughter saw the part where Bea is making herself cereal and then cleaning up the kitchen and doing all of that — I literally used to pour her cereal. From then on, she would go in the kitchen. She’s like, okay, got it. It was so powerful. I’m like, she was taking care of both her parents and the household. I’m just asking you to put your dishes in the sink.

Jana: That was the thing that was so beautiful about the documentary. There is such an, obviously, independence that she had because of the situation that she was in. She was able to do certain things that maybe other kids couldn’t. There’s pros and cons to that. We really just wanted to show a family. This is a family. These are their challenges. These are their joys. It wasn’t easy for anyone involved. We want people to walk away from the movie, first and foremost, saying, we just watched a story about a family. This was this particular family, but the universality of it, we’re hoping that really shines through. The drama, in-laws, intergenerational, all those things exist in almost every family. This was another, obviously, very big layer that was added onto it. That’s what we really wanted to highlight. I hope we did. We wanted people to be able to feel like they could laugh even though it was such a difficult subject. We hope we accomplished that.

Zibby: You totally accomplished that. It was so funny. It’s all from you. It’s really awesome. I feel like I’m having a funny week. I’ve read two really funny books. Now talking to you about this funny script and the way you write comedy, it’s great. It’s that dry humor, very witty. It’s hard not to laugh. It’s great.

Jana: kind of sarcasm, dry humor, which got me in trouble a lot as a kid. I was like, I’m just being honest. I don’t know why I’m getting in trouble. Then you come to LA. Everybody’s so nice. Then you start throwing your sarcasm at them. I’m like, no, no, I’m very nice. I swear. I have a very large family that’s all back in Maine. When it came out on VOD, they rented it and all sat down and watched it together. That was something they were saying. Oh, that’s you. I’ve heard you say that before. It was really fun to be able to infuse that in a bunch of different voices. Again, I credit Matt and I having the same kind of dry, weird sense of humor. People don’t always get it, so you appreciate it when you find someone that does.

Zibby: I think most people are getting it. People are loving the film. It’s so great. Even just contrasting the two families — I know you said this is so universal. Even just having siblings and seeing how — most siblings don’t have identical families or identical child-raising things. My brother was always getting in trouble as a kid. Now if any of his kids misbehave at all, it’s like, hey. I’m like, are you kidding me? Do you remember what you were like?

Jana: Way worse stuff.

Zibby: Everybody has their own style. For anyone with a family.

Jana: It’s for anyone with a family. I was gifted with such amazing people to base these characters off of. We did take liberties and fictionalize things, but the spirit of the characters are these real people. So many of the stories and scenes came from somewhere in the documentary. A lot of them were stories that I had heard. I had to, obviously, imagine, what would that conversation have felt like or gone? I was gifted with such amazing people. There is a scene in the film where one of the grandmothers busts out singing. I think it was an outtake from the documentary where one of the grandmothers did it. It was a Frank Sinatra song, which we couldn’t afford on film. I saw that, and I was like, who is this person that unironically busts out into song when nobody asks them to? It was those kind of gifts that I was able to just explore. It was obviously very nerve-racking because there is a character in the film that is representative of the director and his wife, who I know. I really leaned into it. I really leaned into the Santa Monia-ness of them and their family and the world that they’re in. When I first sent the script, I was like, oh, my god, are they — of course, it’s a fictionalized version of them, but I was kind of nervous. They loved it. They were so supportive. His wife was. It meant everything to me for her to read it and feel like I had done her family justice. That was really, really exciting. It was a huge gift, but also very nerve-racking.

Zibby: What is it like when you’re doing a script like this on your own versus when you’re working with your partners? Do you have a preference? Which stress level is higher?

Jana: I think different parts of the process are more stressful. I love working with my partners. The process looks a little bit different. When there’s three of us, we sit down and we outline everything together, all the characters, all the outlines. Then we break off. We kind of break the script into thirds based on, oh, I really identify with this part of the story. Then we come back together, and we just rip it apart. It’s a lot like a TV room type thing. The outlining process is very — we need to be on the same page before we go off to write. That’s my least favorite just because that’s so intensive. There’s so much debate. It can be fun, but it’s exhausting. By the time you’re done in that process, you’ve had three people really run it through the mill. There is so much fun and joy in that. It’s exhausting because you’re fighting for things that you believe in. You’re constantly having to check yourself and say, why am I pushing so hard on this? Is it because I wrote this page, or is it because I really feel that this is important? It’s tiring. When you’re doing it on your own, obviously, you have more freedom. I can go into an outline much more fluidly because I don’t have to be on the same page. I am by myself. Then you don’t have the outside notes yet, so you are constantly having to check yourself during that process. I find both processes very challenging. I love them. I think it’s nice to be able to go back and forth. I was able to produce Wildflower as an executive producer. That was just another thing where it’s nice to be able to take a beat away from writing and be on set and practice that muscle and that kind of stress. I’m very lucky that I’m able to move between these different experiences. I love them all.

Zibby: Multihyphenate. Actor, writer, producer, everything. What are some of your next projects?

Jana: It’s an interesting time right now.

Zibby: Oh, right. Of course. We’re in the writers’ strike.

Jana: We’re in the writers’ strike, so all writing has halted. I’m very lucky. Before the strike, I was able to finish up a project, which I can’t say the name of because it’s IP. It’s a sequel to an early 2000s teen movie. That’s a solo project I’m doing. I’m really, really excited about it. I think it’s going to be so fun, nerve-racking again because it’s a movie with a bit of a cult following. I’m hoping I do that justice. Then with my team, I’m doing a first-ever animated film that I’ve done. Again, that’s another idea which I can’t say the name of. It’s a spinoff of one of the characters in that universe. It’s very, very, very fun. I look forward to being able to pick up on that after the strike. I’m also doing a basketball film with Chris Tucker which after the strike we’ll be able to pick back up on, which I’m super excited, with my team. One thing about a strike which is, I wouldn’t say nice, but it does allow you to have time to work on some specs. You don’t always have time when you’re under contracts.

One thing I’m really excited about is Matt, the director of Wildflower, and I are doing a coming-of-age horror film that I’m very, very excited about. That is a challenge. With Wildflower, we were always kind of walking this line of, what is the tone of this movie? What is this movie? We were like, trust us. It’ll work. It’ll work. They were like, is this going to work? This is one where there’s a lot of humor, family drama. It was really inspired about my experience growing up down the street from Stephen King and being influenced by his books and how that kind of shaped the way I saw the world around me. I’m super, super excited about that. We’re looking forward to hopefully having a resolution to the strike. It’s been a long time coming. I’m very supportive of it but also eager to get back to work doing what I love.

Zibby: Amazing. Do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters or writers of any kind?

Jana: In this business in general, I think it’s such a hard, at times, lonely venture. From a holistic level of a human, I’ve found that what I think allowed me to persevere and stay was just having a full life, so having things outside of this that made me feel good and helped with my feeling of self-worth so that I could charge my battery to not only do the work, but then also sustain the long road. Unfortunately, there are a lot of rejections. There’s a lot of challenges. I do animal rescue. For me, having that outside love and passion was really, really important to me. That’s not specifically in writing, but that was something that was very, very important to me. Then the other thing with my path of writing is just being open to your success or path being a little bit different than you think it might look. I started as an actor. I think if I had been shut off to the idea of writing because it wasn’t acting, I, funny enough, would’ve gotten less acting opportunities than I’ve gotten since writing. I think just being open to it looking different.

Within writing, there’s so many different ways. TV writing is a whole different world than film writing, as novel writing. You might fall into another version of writing than you really expected, but to be open to that because you might love it even more than you imagine. It’s the same thing everybody says. Just don’t stop. Again, in anything that’s very, very hard, you have to really love it. If, really, this is what you want to do, in those times when you want to give up, you won’t because there’s no other option. Some people find out, hey, this isn’t for me. That’s totally fine too. I think that’s what keeps you going. It’s like, well, what else would I do? It’s a good thing when you have those moments of, yeah, I could quit, but then what else would I do? I’d be miserable. That’s a huge gift. I have a friend who said, “That’s amazing.” She’s never felt a passion like that for any sort of job. She has in other aspects of her life. People don’t always think of that as a gift. I think it is a gift to go — you wouldn’t allow yourself to do anything else. That makes it kind of simple, in a way, to get through those really hard times.

Zibby: Just do it. You got to get through it.

Jana: There’s going to be really great times and really crappy times, but man, the good times are good.

Zibby: You could say the same thing for your new motherhood as well.

Jana: For sure. So worth it. The end product is so worth it.

Zibby: Jana, thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for writing such a fabulous movie in Wildflower. So exciting. It’ll be on Hulu June 23rd. Can’t wait to see what you do next.

Jana: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me and so much for your support of our project. It means so much.

Zibby: Of course.


WILDFLOWER by Jana Savage

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