An Important Antidote to Stress: Curtis Smith Interviews Carol Sabik-Jaffe

Carol Sabik-Jaffe’s scripts have been recognized in numerous screenwriting competitions and optioned by producers. The International Family Film Festival awarded her three Best Screenplay prizes. #BCarefulWhatUWish4 and The Devil’s Due won Best Comedy honors and Living Again, Best Drama. The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts granted Carol a Fellowship in Theatre/Scriptworks in 2008.

Carol holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College and a BFA in Communication Design from Kutztown University. Her previous career was in advertising as an Art Director. She has taught Screenwriting at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia and Screenwriting and Writing for TV at Rowan University in New Jersey. She served on the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference Board of Directors from 2009 – 2019.

Carol is currently working with Nancy McKeon (The Facts of Life) to bring Victory Lane, a 1hr family drama to TV. In addition to seeking homes for several of her scripts, Carol is also at work adapting a few into books. FIRST NIGHT is her debut novel.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on First Night. Can you tell us about the novel’s origins? Did it start with an image? An observed moment? An imagined scenario? Once you had this starting point, how did the narrative unfold?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: Thank you! And thanks for the opportunity to discuss this project!

Originally, I wanted to attempt to tell a story that took place, start to finish, in twenty-four hours. (Yikes!) And, for my first pass at writing this concept I decided as an exercise for myself I would try to write this as a screenplay AND a novel at the same time. I probably wrote the first fifteen or so pages of the script and the beginning of the novel, switching between the two forms. But each is such a very different way of writing I found it incredibly hard to do both at the same time! I quickly abandoned that idea and finished the script. The script received some positive feedback from Hollywood folks as I shopped it around. As some stories and characters do, these characters always stayed with me. I came back to this idea and finished adapting it to a book much later. As I was writing the novel, the script became a very helpful “outline.” (Just add words they said!)

The narrative itself came together as I explored the twenty-four-hour restriction I’d given myself. New Year’s Eve for many is usually fraught with grand expectations and some disappointments, and New Year’s Day in Philly is completely unique… so the setting and time frame became especially intriguing to me.

The importance of midnight and the tie in to the Cinderella trope evolved as I explored the relationship Maria had to her family, the family’s tradition of Mummering, and her wanting to live her own life. The Mummers Parade and the chaos that the characters are challenged with, and overcome, gave me the plot to keep them tenuously moving through predicaments. The common goal to save the day propels them through to the resolution of the story…  of course, it’s a ridiculous twenty-four hours filled with dilemmas and madcap moments that (hopefully) keep you laughing as they reach their triumphant conclusion.

In this story I also wanted to explore the idea of two lives colliding — the idea that people are destined to meet at certain times — Maria and Hunter’s paths crossing seems “serendipitous” but what if it was destiny?

Curtis Smith: The Mummers are in here! It doesn’t get much more Philly than that. I talk with my writing students a lot about place—its importance and what it can bring to a story. So why Philadelphia? What unique aspects of the city and its culture made their way into the novel—and what did these things bring?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: Well… I live in the Philly suburbs, worked in Center City for years, and have spent all of my adult life here. Almost all of my stories are set in Philly or the surrounding area. As a screenwriter I was always looking at place as both character and setting. If truth be told, I was also scouting for locations – mostly because I wanted to shoot in my backyard if I could — so the visuals were important!

The idea of incorporating the Mummers into this story was propelled by the NYE/NYDay time frame. FIRST NIGHT is also about family and tradition and is hopefully relatable on those levels to readers. In addition to Mummers, much of the story is very specific to Philadelphia — Broad Street, South Philly, competing cheesesteak joints, restaurants, and bars, etc. — maybe it’s a way to visit the city right now without leaving home. And, as it turned out, the Mummers could not have a parade this year due to Covid, so a bit of Philly New Year’s Day flavor (maybe) served another purpose unbeknownst to me when writing and publishing.

Curtis Smith: I’m all in on the updated Cinderella vibe—and that brings me to a question about structure and form. I admire works that breathe new life into old stories. Was the Cinderella angle there from the beginning—or did it come later, as you got to know Maria? What were the challenges of using and updating this framework?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: The New Year’s Eve setting and the significance of midnight became a way to “loosely” incorporate a reimagined modern “Cinderella” into FIRST NIGHT. So, yes, the Cinderella angle was there from the start. Her life-of-the-party cousins (a twist on the evil step-sisters trope) talk Maria into attending the NYE First Night Ball where she crosses paths (for the second time) with a handsome “Prince” that she dumps at midnight when an emergency arises.

Her overwhelming responsibilities as the team’s solo costume designer (in addition to her real job) and her promise to salvage her family’s Mummer Parade performance further served the “Cinderella” as overworked character. Maria, though reluctant, takes the situation in her own hands without the use of a “fairy godmother” to solve her problems (though there are a few magical moments and people assisting in the background). So admittedly, I was influenced by the parts of fairytale, but did not stay precisely within the original framework. Maria is her own Cinderella.

Curtis Smith: Can I ask about the general vibe here? I admired the humor and the eventual winning of love, but this kind of positivity can be tough, especially given the shape of our nation and the world. Was this a challenge as you wrote First Night? Or was writing it a kind of catharsis?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: I began FIRST NIGHT long before Covid-19 and the current challenges we are facing. I believe people always need an escape from their day-to-day and a reason to laugh. Humor is such an important antidote to stress… that said, I especially think it’s crucial right now. We all need a little positivity and an escape once in a while in our lives. I am also happier writing comedy or dramedy in general. Life is dark enough. I don’t necessarily want to swim around in bleak subjects for too long… though I have a psychological thriller I’m shopping around…

Curtis Smith: What’s next?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: I’m currently working on the sequel to FIRST NIGHT, titled “A SECOND CHANCE at a FIRST DATE.” I want to explore these characters again… and they’ve been telling me that they have more to say and do.

I’m also working on revising a ½ hour tv comedy titled, MERMAIDS OF MEDIA, PA. — that script has gotten a little attention and I’d love to find a team for it. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu… can you hear me? (Haha.) Additionally, I’m in the process of searching for homes for my other TV and film scripts while deciding on the next one to adapt into a book.

As always, I have numerous ideas in various stages of development!

Interview by Curtis Smith

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