screenwriter to watch
Lena Khan is a writer and director who allows her work to be an organic blend of her varied experiences, the multi-faceted elements of her identity, her witty outlook on life, and her rich emotional aptitude. Lena graduated summa cum laude and received undergraduate degrees at the University of California, Los Angeles in Political Science and History, after which she went on to graduate from the prestigious UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television.
Since then, Lena has been directing short films, commercials and music videos for international artists. Her videos have placed in major festivals, broadcast on major network television channels across the world, and received over 30 million hits on YouTube. Lena has also gained experience working at noted production companies such as Participant Media and she and her work have been featured in media outlets such as The Guardian, The New York Times, and USA Today. Lena’s recent first feature, a comedy-drama entitled THE TIGER HUNTER that she wrote and directed, has been winning numerous awards across the festival circuit. Lena is now developing two television shows, a feature projects and a children’s book.
Credits: Co-wrote/directed THE TIGER HUNTER (2017), now developing a feature and TV show.
How did you break in of get your start in screenwriting?
I got into it out of requirement — I had stories I wanted to tell and wasn’t ready to put them in the hands of others. I ultimately wanted to direct, but found screenwriting in the process. There were always nuances that I knew I had to be the one to pen, so in my quest to get my first feature, THE TIGER HUNTER, on the screen — I just started writing it.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
I’ve learned where I need guidance from mentors and story editors, and also where I need to trust myself. When writing THE TIGER HUNTEr, I was always second guessing myself — valuing the opinions of so many others over my instincts. And then, when I started actually shooting the thing, I realized when I needed to just trust myself, and when we just reverted back to what I had in the first place. And other times, I needed that second opinion. I think I’ve gotten better, and hope to continue, at honing that instinct — of knowing when I know what the hell I’m writing about, and when I need somebody to bounce ideas off of or give me constructive criticism to propel me forward.
What’s the hardest scene or project you’ve ever had to write? How did you navigate the challenge?
In my current project, I’m writing about an African American mother who loses her son in a police shooting. I am writing about a community I am not from, and an experience I will never probably live through. I tried several things — I went out searching for people who have lived through this to interview. That was harder than it seems to do, so I started watching their interviews. I read their articles. Ultimately, it was a combination of dogged research, and also the passing of my uncle — which, although not a result of injustice even close to what these women experience — gave me a more direct window into grief
What was a major turning point in your career?
The debut of my film, THE TIGER HUNTER, on the festival circuit changed my career entirely. As soon as it premiered and even before its general release this year, I got signed at CAA with a heavy-hitter agent. I got sent all around town, and with encouragement from others and people supporting me, I’m now working on two features, two television shows — one with a really esteemed showrunner, and a kid’s book. It’s been amazing, but it’s also been an exercise in me finally believing in myself more than I used to and a testament to how much mentors who help you early on can really push you forward.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on feature drama, a feature comedy-drama, two TV shows and a children’s book. A lot of them are currently confidential in terms of their content, otherwise I’d love to share!
What are some of your favorite movies?
I love Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption, of course. Those are brilliant films, but most people love them. I also adore films like Requiem for a Dream, Children of Heaven, and Whiplash. I love Requiem as a director, but Children of Heaven and Whiplash are examples of tight, incredibly well executed storytelling. This is especially the case for Children of Heaven — it’s an Iranian film about a couple kids who are so poor they have to share a pair of shoes…but they made an entire compelling narrative out of it. It is storytelling at its best and also shares some of my goals — using storytelling to subtly raise awareness about social issues.
Who are some of your favorite screenwriters?
Shane Black, Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, the Coen Brothers — they all have such a command of the art, but made it fully their own and took risks to create their own style. Billy Wilder, of course. And I’ll probably read the next many things Dustin Lance Black churns out.
Share a memorable experience at Austin Film Festival:
I remember sitting at the awards lunch, with a bunch of colleagues from HBO, Participant, and other companies. And I asked them what made them come here all the way from California. They told me — “This is where the writers are.” And I remember, after having gone to at least a dozen festivals in the past few months alone, that it felt so cool to be at a writer’s festival — and where everyone knows it.