Alumni Blog: Shailyn Cotten

UPDATE: After Oil wins Best Web Series and Screenwriter of the Month awards at the Direct Monthly Online Film Festival.

Dusty winner (Outstanding Achievement in Screenwriting) Shailyn Cotten has big plans for her thesis film. Here, she writes about creating the first episode of her 10 part webseries. You can now view the first episode of After Oil by clicking HERE.


I knew that I wanted to direct a film for my thesis. I also knew that I had never directed a big production before, and could really use the guidance of one of my more experienced peers. I was at a loss for what to do. Partnering between directors and writers seems to happen so seldomly within the department, and I began to worry I was going to have to stick it out on my own.

“Why don’t people partner up more?” I asked my friend Jess at one point, as we were sitting in a Writing and Directing class. “It seems like a smart move.”

Jess agreed. We quipped back and forth about all the pros and the strangeness of not having seen it before. After a while, we had to stare at one another a moment.

“I’m a writer. You’re a director. Maybe we should just… work together.”

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We met together that next week to brainstorm. I poured over my writer’s notebook for a short form idea we could develop. We were on the same page from square one. Whatever our thesis was, it had to have a life after college. In our minds, that left us two options: a short film that could be adapted into a feature film. Or a series.

We ticked through a handful of ideas before we landed on After Oil.

“I’ve had this idea,” I told Jess, “of writing a series, like a webseries, that takes place in Appalachia. And I had the idea recently that it could take place during an oil crisis. And be about these kids who are, like, running an underground bicycle market.”

From there, the idea took off. A character started taking shape, a young woman who lived in a small mountain town, a leader of a troupe of kids, all struggling to keep their families and their town afloat in the aftermath of a global oil crisis. I felt straightaway that our character, Briar, had a girlfriend who she was running this bicycle gang with. But ironically, it was some time before both Jess and I even realized that we were both bisexual. Then it kind of seemed obvious. Briar was bi too.

Shooting the pilot for After Oil was going to be a massive undertaking, plus my first time ever co-directing, and I needed to stay focused. Though thesis for screenwriters is typically reserved for feature films, writing the first five episodes of After Oil seemed like the smart thing to do. Jess and I met several times to flesh out the entire first season – all ten episodes – and to really fill out our main characters. Meanwhile, we workshopped the pilot script and cracked down on pre-production.

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Writing can normally be such an isolating process. But it doesn’t have to be. After all, every other facet of filmmaking is a collaboration, and screenwriting doesn’t need to be removed from that process. I had no fear of faltering in writing the After Oil episodes. I always knew, diving into a new episode, that I had Jess to call up and bounce new ideas off of – a collaborator who knew these characters as intimately as I did, and yet with a much more objective perspective on the story than I, the writer, often did.

If I have any takeaway from writing the first half of the After Oil season, it’s that if you have the chance to collaborate another writer, you need to take it. Even as just critique partners. Maybe a writing partner isn’t the right thing for you. But in my experience, partnering with a director who is as invested in your work as you are in theirs is the best thing that you could do for your writing. Art doesn’t come from a vacuum, and neither should your screenplay.

I want to give yet another huge thanks to Joan Brooker, the entire screenwriting department, the Dusty team, and of course, my thesis partner Jessica Naftaly. Receiving the Award for Outstanding Achievement in Screenwriting has been an incredible honor, but it certainly wasn’t accomplished alone. Thank you for making my journey as a screenwriter a little less lonely.

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