From Sketches to Screenwriting: A Q&A with Feature Film Makers (and Swarthmore alums!) Marina & Nicco

Marina Tempelsman and Niccolo Aeed met in Elizabeth Stevens’s Intro to Acting class at Swarthmore in 2006. A few weeks later they joined the sketch comedy group Boy Meets Tractor, and they’ve been writing together ever since.

Starting with sketch comedy, they built out to short films and plays, and are now in the process of making their first feature film, “Intervention,” a comedy about the intersection between family, race, and mental health.

Their work has appeared on Fusion, Comedy Central, Audible, Wondery, Radiotopia, College Humor, The New Yorker, Funny or Die, as well as many stages throughout New York. Their pilot, Smüchr, won Best Comedy at the New York Television Festival in 2018, and their four-part audio drama about the #MeToo movement was on The Guardian’s list of Best Podcasts in 2018. You can see more of their work here:

This week, they joined us to speak about the trajectory of their creative careers – and share some advice for Swarthmore students who are interested in the arts.

Comedy writers Marina Tempelsman and Niccolo Aeed on Thursday, June 14, 2018, in New York, NY. (Laurence Kesterson / staff photographer)
Comedy writers Marina Tempelsman and Niccolo Aeed on Thursday, June 14, 2018, in New York, NY. (Laurence Kesterson / staff photographer)

How did your creative writing at Swarthmore help to launch your career?

MT: First and foremost, it’s where I met Nicco – and we’ve now written together for 17 years! I first started doing sketch comedy at Swarthmore, and that approach to writing and creativity was a game-changer for me. Sketch comedy taught me that writing doesn’t have to be solitary. It’s all about a sense of community, and sharing your creative process with others. Nicco and I have brought that ethos to all of our projects, whether they’re plays, TV pilots, audio dramas, and our upcoming feature film (currently in pre-production), Intervention. And it’s what we share with our students at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, where we both work. So many of my closest friendships and relationships have come out of the sketch comedy community – and that all started with Boy Meets Tractor.

Sketch comedy was the foundation of our collaboration – but from there Nicco and I started writing plays, audio dramas, and TV pilots. And now, we’re working on our biggest project yet – our first feature film.

NA: I was a theater major, and the theater department really emphasized putting shows up at the Philly Fringe Festival. (Like alumni theater group Pig Iron!) So one of the first shows we did was in 2009 with some fellow Boy Meets Tractor comedy friends. So, Swarthmore was incredibly instrumental in launching our career.

What advice do you have for getting started as a writer?

MT: Find people to learn and grow with. People you can share your process and share feedback with. There is so much joy in those friendships and those collaborations, and so much solidarity and support to be found when you need it. Having a career in a creative field is a bit of a long game, and having a creative community will keep you anchored in the work you’re trying to do.

NA: Yeah find a community to grow with, find a stage to put your plays up. Writing can often feel lonely when you’re imagining all these worlds in your head.  Sharing your writing, finding actors to read your writing can make those worlds real and help you realize your goals.

MT: Also – be patient with yourself, and get curious about your process. It takes time to hone your craft – which you’re never done honing, by the way! – so try not to see the learning curves as something to get behind you. 

Also – deadlines never stop being hard.

Tell us about a surprising aspect of the job that most people might not expect.

MT: The goal posts alllllways feel like they’re moving. It’s hard to think of your accomplishments as accomplishments. Which is why it’s so helpful to surround yourself with friends and other creative people who have your back and support you.

NA:  A lot of stuff depends on networking which stressed me out, especially after graduating.  But you don’t have to think of networking as meeting powerful people who will green light your work, but rather as meeting people you’re excited to make your creative work with.  When I changed my thinking about that, it became more of a pleasure.  Honestly it’s incredibly empowering to have lots of friends in low places. 

What do you wish you had known early in your career? 

MT: I wish I’d known that it’s normal and okay for this to take time! If you’re pursuing a creative career, you’re probably spending a bunch of time doing other jobs first, and having your creative work happen in the after-hours and on weekends. That’s totally fine! Your day job can become fodder for your projects, or a place where you can day dream, or a place where you meet people who want to support you and your creative work, or where you just meet nice people and get free seltzer. 

NA: There’s a book called Real Artists Have Day Jobs (by Sara Benincasa). I found that title incredibly inspiring. Unfortunately no one comes around in a big limousine and says “You two there! Here’s a TV Show!” 

What are some of the current projects that you’re working on?

NA: Funny you should ask! We’re making our first feature film this fall!! It’s called Intervention and it’s a comedy about the intersection of mental health, race, and family.

For the past couple years we had spent more time pitching shows and ideas rather than producing our own. So post pandemic we decided to take our fate back into our own hands and make one of our scripts ourselves. Intervention has been a project that we’d been working on for a few years and feel excited about bringing to life.

MT: What Nicco said! For the past few years we’ve been trapped in the frustrating spot known (not-so-affectionately) as “Development Hell” – caught in a cycle of developing ideas, pitching to studios and executives, and then having them say no. But we’re done with the gatekeepers, and thanks to our amazing creative community we’re making our own film! If you want to learn more, check out this page!

 And you can also follow our progress on our Instagram, which we’re basically using as a production diary:

What can students take advantage of at Swarthmore to help them explore this industry?

MT: Use allllll the free tools available to you! Podcast booths! Equipment! And a free gym?! Heck yeah! 

NA: Make shows in the Amphitheater! I kid you not, in your entire theatrical career, it will be so incredibly rare to have access to an amphitheater in the woods!

MT: Also, there are some technical parts of the creative field you can learn that will be more easily monetizable than writing for a while. (I’m talking about recording, editing, filming, etc.)  See if you can hone those skills, both so that you can be hired by other folks – but also so that you can self-produce your own work more easily. But also – just enjoy being curious in the company of so many interesting people!

By Claire Klieger
Claire Klieger Assistant Vice President & Executive Director