We’re always looking for opportunities to highlight alumni with cool industry credentials but who are also relatable to current students. Well, it doesn’t get more relatable than someone who describes themselves as “a full-time Ace Hardware cashier by day and a screenwriter by night.” For this alumni interview, we chatted with Caledonia Hanson, a recent Film Production graduate.
Interviews these days tend to start in the same place, “what have you been up to since the pandemic and how are you staying sane?” Caledonia is one of the few people who have had the elusive and productive pandemic.
In the last six months, three of her scripts have won international awards. Even so, she describes the last year as the hardest and best thing that has happened to her. When the film industry shut down, production design jobs dried up (that is unless you’re in the guild with connections). Out of work, Caledonia had a difficult decision to make about her future. “I evaluated where I wanted to go. ‘Do I become the person I want to be and humble myself?’ or ‘do I crash burn?’” So she said goodbye to her apartment in Atwater Village and community in Los Angeles and moved back to Northern California to live with her family.
“I moved home after eight years, my ego took a hit,” she says, “I had to admit I couldn’t live in L.A. anymore.” Once she was home her background in production design lead her to a job at Ace Hardware “It’s right up my alley!” she says, “There is nothing more satisfying than construction building and design.”
“I know carpentry, I’ve built my own furniture,” she tells us confidently. After a few months of living at home and working retail and she thought “Hey, if I’m not getting film production jobs, maybe I’ll just start submitting my scripts and see what works,” From there she made a pivot from hands-on production to focus on her writing and it has paid off.
For our interview, Caledonia greeted us in true, 2021 Zoom-call chic with a bold red lip and her bouncy blonde waves styled under a flower crown. And not even the one-dimensional effect of zoom could not dampen Caledonia’s vivacity. She’s fun, no-nonsense, and casually says things like, “I’m an idiot with nothing to lose,” and “I decided to go for it because why not?” The California girl and award-winning screenwriter sat down with us to discuss her journey to The L.A. Film School, her writing process, and the projects she’s working on.
Interview with Caledonia Hanson
What made you want to work in film and how did you come to The Los Angeles Film School?
How I knew I wanted to work in film is my favorite story to tell. In middle school, we had to do an art project based on the book And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, and for the project, I wrote a short parody film. I was 13 and it was godawful, but there was nothing more satisfying than seeing my teacher in the corner reading my script and giggling to herself. And I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to see that reaction, I want to see people laugh and cry and see how stupid my sense of humor is.
A friend suggested Orange County High School of the Arts for Film and TV, it’s a prestigious school, you have to audition to get in and I gave it a shot with my Agatha Christe parody script. It was the only thing I ever wrote and it was the only thing I ever filmed. But it got me in. During the application process, the director of the film and tv conservatory told me I had a passion for storytelling and that’s what they looked for in students. The school was very nurturing and I spent 4 years of high school studying film and TV.
From high school, I didn’t go to L.A. Film School right away. I went to Sonoma State for two years because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do film, I wanted to check out journalism and it was the worst mistake of my life. I wasn’t getting anything from the school, I didn’t have friends, I was struggling in my relationships. I missed films. I realized journalism was interesting but it didn’t give me the same rush I got working on a set. I missed the camaraderie. I was recommended The Los Angles Film School by an alumna. My two passions in film are production design and writing but I was always told that writing is the hardest thing to break into because you need a good story and good writing. So I put it on the back burner, focused on production, and did writing on the side. Eventually, I graduated with a degree in film production.
Set design and scriptwriting are two pretty different subjects, what is it about both of them that you like?
The same thrill I get from writing I get from set designing. The production design is the visual storytelling component that a script doesn’t explicitly say. I like to look at a script, talk to the director, talk to the photographer, see what they had in mind then take the idea and make it real on camera. The movie Fight Club is a great example of visual storytelling. The narrator’s apartment practically looks like an Ikea showroom because he’s completely blank. Then you meet Tyler and he’s grimey and dark and it’s a side of the narrator we didn’t know. It’s the storytelling of the psyche. The movie shows the character having a mental breakdown, not through the people acting but the background. You can tell a lot about a person based on where they live and their surroundings. As a production designer, the most fun is sitting down and getting to know these characters. I get to make it so their lives are real and aren’t just thrown together. Because the evolution of a room is the evolution of you.
My stories write themselves and I have the images in my head that I have to get out. I see a character in my head and I ask ‘Who are these people and why do their stories matter?’ I use a lot of my experiences in my storytelling now because it’s meant to be relatable. The stories I write are about the people you don’t twice about, I love giving a story to the people who don’t normally get it.
I realized to myself that I write stories of the people we often overlook. Not necessarily the underdogs, just the people we wouldn’t offer a second glance at. People who aren’t just wallflowers, but the wallpaper in life. The people who you hear about in passing, maybe on the TV, or in a small clip in the newspaper, but not much else. It’s the people we often overlook that have the stories that are the most compelling because we never stop to look at just how much detail is in the wallpaper of the world around us. We focus on the stains, the tears, the brick walls and wood paneling. But the wallpaper is often the last on our minds, and that’s why my characters and their stories mean the world to me. Because they’re not the underdogs, they’re the people we forget exist. And it’s an honor to bring them to life outside of the passing conversations and barely-there news clippings the world has to offer.
Even though you didn’t focus on writing at The L.A. Film School you’ve had a lot of recent writing success, can you tell us about that?
In the last 6 months, all three of my completed scripts have won international prizes.
The Magician’s Assistant Synopsis: A magician in 1945 France pushes the limit of his abilities to pull off the ultimate trick: bringing his childhood love and assistant back to life.
I originally wrote this when I was 16, and still in high school. I wanted to challenge myself so I wrote a 10-page script with no dialogue. I wrote it in one go and I submitted it to competitions thinking “why not, I wrote this over 10 years ago” And it won one of the most prestigious awards in India and awards in 6 different countries. Follow The Magician’s Assistant on Facebook.
Jonesy Synopsis: When a man finds himself trapped in his apartment after his unfortunate death caused by his cat, Tuna; a new tenant gives him the opportunity to discover his afterlife’s true purpose. Follow Jonesy on Facebook.
It was inspired by my last day at Sonoma State. I had a hard time making friends my two years there and I was lonely. I wrote Jonesy as a way to have a friend. It’s a dark comedy about the expectations of masculinity.
Necropolis Synopsis: A violent and seedy hell on earth, the part of the city everyone warns you about. When 18-year-old Eddie Soreno ventures into this insidious place to uncover the truth of his father’s past, only his sister, Maria, holds hope that he will return alive. Against the clock, Maria goes in after him, willingly risking her life so that her brother won’t suffer the same fate as their father.
The show Necropolis deals with a lot of stuff that I went through. At one point I dealt with homelessness and a lot of the characters are based on people I met.
Seeking Malice Synopsis: Sixteen-year-old serial killer, Alice Parker, must confront her own humanity in order to put her deceased mother’s dark secrets to rest after finding the dead woman’s journals.
Seeking Malice won a pitch fest through L.A. Film School in 2016 with A&E. This one is still in the works though, it’s On the back burner because it’s my baby. The main character is close to my heart because she’s an indigenous woman, and I’m also indigenous, but white-passing. I like to tell stories about women who are thrown into a different world, and underdogs because I want people to see themselves.
You’ve navigated your recent success while also being very open about having a disability. How has that played a role in your career?
I’ve been disabled in my knee since I was 15 and I have a neurological disability, narcolepsy. It took me a while to be comfortable talking about my disability because I was told over and over again, don’t do anything that might prevent you from getting a job. As a result, I had to hide a lot of things about myself. For example, I walk with a cane and I have to wear a medical alert necklace for my narcolepsy. We need to break the stigma, it’s ok to be disabled and a filmmaker.
My biggest pet peeve is that the film festivals aren’t handicapped accessible. We need to focus on captions for the hearing impaired, wheelchair accessibility, we need to be able to include everyone. When people hear diversity they think of race, gender, sexuality, but they don’t think of people with disabilities. Diversity means including the disabled.
Up until A Quiet Place came out people weren’t thinking about ASL and I’m fluent in ASL. I want to be on set with people who can tell the story, regardless if their legs work, or if they can see, or can hear. Filmmaking is a village. It takes everyone to build the foundation, the bones, the inside, the outside, and who’s going to live there.
I’m not only a woman but I’m a disabled woman. You can’t tell people what they can and can’t do. They have to be the ones to decide and tell you. When people see my cane and ask me, “Are you sure you can keep up?” I tell them “Keep in mind, for every two steps you take I have to take four to keep up. Do you know what that means? It means I really want to be here more than anyone else. Because if I didn’t want to be here I’d be in bed.”
Keep in mind, for every two steps you take I have to take four to keep up. Do you know what that means? It means I really want to be here more than anyone else. Because if I didn’t want to be here I’d be in bed.Calendonia Hanson
Students always love to hear about the creative process. When it comes to writing, what’s yours?
I get in my head for a bit. I think about the image my brain won’t let go of. I always have a notebook that I write down everything. Character ideas, quote ideas, synopsis, sometimes I duck under my register to write things down the moment I think of them.
Once I know where I want to go I write it all down. I get everything out of my head and on the paper whether it makes sense or not. Then I organize it all on my closet door with post-its. I arrange it by each act, and I color coordinate it all. I like to be able to stare at it and move things around.
I always knew that if I was going to write scripts I wanted to do it for television, it’s a hard art form. There are four different parts and different chapters. I look at it like this is where it starts, this is where it ends, how do I keep people interested in the middle? My stories are so characters driven, I sometimes ask my characters where they want to go and they point me in the right direction.
What’s next for you?
Currently, I’m just shooting my shot to see what happens. I’m building credentials as a writer and looking for a manager and representation. I want to be in a writer’s room. I also want to quit my day job at Ace Hardware. I want to sell scripts and write my own content and stories. I also want to bring more awareness to disabled communities and indigenous communities.
I want to be an open-source for other filmmakers and I want to bring people up with me as I go. I also want to be a motivator, I want to be someone people look up to, I want everyone to know they’re able to do this too.
In five years, let’s go to the Emmys, why not? The pandemic made me realize that I want to get better, I want to be able to walk up to the stage with my cane and get my Emmy.
Advice to Current Students at L.A. Film School
- Everything about “making it” into the film industry is hard. But nothing is impossible.
- There is not one single way to succeed. You have to find a way that works for you.
- Just have fun with it, don’t take it too seriously, and go with the flow, let the connections happen.
Editorial Update: Since this interview, Caledonia has quit Ace Hardware to focus on her writing for film and TV.
Thank you, Caledonia! You can follow along her filmmaking journey on social media: