Conversations with Writers: Sam Caton

Sam Caton is a poet, screenwriter, novelist, and actor from Fargo, ND. His screenplays have received awards in international festivals, and his most recent work is currently in production with the company he founded, Quiet Minds Productions.

Caton’s writing is an ongoing journey of learning about himself and how to be a part of this changing world.

He finds both peace and turmoil in writing, just as all passions and work, and believes that, just as stories in myth and fiction and history are the maps we have to follow as we work on growth and piecing together a future of peace, his own writing is a means to a similar end.

“So get started. Write. Go to bed. Wake up. And then get started again.”

When did you first express an interest in writing?

The first time I remember writing for pleasure was when I was six years old. I was a bit of a geek in my early years, and I had just finished a family road trip visiting historical sites, including several battlegrounds from the Civil War, such as Shiloh and Gettysburg. My Grandfather, Pap, was a huge influence in my life at that time and remains as one to this day, although he passed a few years back. It was his birthday, and, being the six-year-old geek I was, I thought a six page essay on the Civil War would be a great gift for him, so I wrote one for Pap. 

You write an array of genres—how do you go back and forth between screenplays and poetry?

It’s hard to say. I have a pretty wild imagination, which isn’t always a good thing, and whichever world I’m writing about at that time I get fully immersed. However, all my work, whether it be a black comedy screenplay, a psychological thriller, my novel (which is a western that entails the lore and mythology of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Faeries), or my simple “non-fiction” poetry, all my writing is a direct result of how I view the world, how I view myself. What I mean is that I think I, in a way, write in just one genre, and that genre is Sam Caton, and sometimes I’m in good moods and sometimes I’m in foul moods, and sometimes I’m anxious, for in all writing, the basic humanity of the writer lies present within the breakdown of his or her own characteristics into the splintered caricatures of the characters being written.

Printed out versions of screenplays and books that Caton has written.

You are a founder (and writer) of Quiet Minds Productions—what is your mission for your company and where do find inspiration?

Quiet Minds Productions is a film production company focused on using fictional narratives in movies to bring to light the struggles that we all so often hide from others, such as addiction and mental illness. We, as artists, know that if we are going to tell stories, there must be purpose, and if we can bring about awareness and change in the stigmas of addiction and mental illness, then it’s our duty as artists to do so—to have a purpose with our imaginations. As the writer of our team, I find inspiration, as many writers often do, in the stories and struggles and hardships and suffering of people I know, have known, have met, whether it be for an hour or a lifetime, and, as always, from myself, for I, too, struggle with a difficult amount of mental illness.

Do you have a writing routine?

One of my favorite poets is William Blake, and one of his “Proverbs of Hell” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is: “Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.” I tend to follow this to some degree. The morning is for poetry, the afternoon is for other projects, screenplays or novels, a big meal, and then bed. On top of that, and although it may be odd, I have written three full notebooks of poetry almost entirely at The Empire Tavern as a regular for a period of my life. Maybe not typical for 2020, but I feel if you time-traveled to a Greenwich pub in the sixties, you’d find quite a few people enjoying a whiskey as they write poetry.

Caton has two writing spaces; one in his apartment and one in his garage (pictured).

What advice do you have for writers?

I guess my advice to writers is to write. Just write. Write because you long to write. Write because it’s therapy, it’s hope, it’s activism. I know many people who want to write, or perhaps want to want to write, and I know how this is because I have had many dry spells as well. But, as with many things, one of the hardest things to do is get started. So get started. Write. Go to bed. Wake up. And then get started again.

Conversations with Writers: Oscar De Leon

Greetings, New Rivers Press fans! I hope you are doing well and finding the opportunity to express creativity amidst the chaos.

Our first conversation is with Oscar De Leon. De Leon is a Mexican-American filmmaker based out of Fargo, ND. He has been working independently since the age of 18, eschewing film school to pursue his passions. He has since gone on to write, direct, and edit award-winning short films and documentaries.

De Leon often operates under his artist name, “Guero,” which roughly translates to “white boy,” a nickname he grew up with.

As an artist, De Leon changes styles depending on the subject he’s working on. His portfolio includes a vast array of work ranging from personal music projects, podcasts, commercial writing, and screenplays.

In 2014, he and Kevin Ackley created Chamber Six Media, a media group doing both commercial and artistic work that serves as a form of expression for both artists. Together they have had success as independent filmmakers with their work being accepted into international film festivals. 

Let yourself fail. What failure teaches you is that every mistake opens up a new road.

When did you first express an interest in screenwriting? Was there a specific event, person, film, or epiphany that inspired you? What inspires you now?

I knew I was a storyteller when I was about 12 or 13. I had all these elaborate scenarios in my head that when I figured that I could write them down, it was like opening a secret door or something. I quickly started writing little scripts for my stories and basically taught myself how to format by finding stuff online or watching movies with subtitles on so I could understand the rhythm of dialogue. As I’ve gotten older, the process has been refined but for the most part it’s the same as it was back then. 

You are of Mexican-American descent—how does your heritage play a role in your writing/directing, and overall involvement in the film community?

Being Mexican-American is something I’m really proud of and something that I consciously try to incorporate in any film I make or screenplays I write. Most of my main characters are Latino and are morally and emotionally complex people—like human beings. My artist name is “guero” because that’s what I was called growing up and I think it’s important to show that any art coming from people (especially Chicanos) as being multi-faceted, complex, and worth diving into is because that was my experience growing up and feeling like I don’t really belong on either side of the cultural war. 

How would you describe your writing, directing, and editing aesthetic? 

I like to think that everything I make is coming from an emotional point of view. Whatever I do, I ask if it is speaking or communicating a specific feeling or emotion. To me, a lot of art falls flat if you can’t sense the emotional framework of the creator’s mind. There’s plenty of stuff out there that rings hollow because a character will say something that they (the writer) thinks should be said as opposed to what they actually feel should be getting across. I like to think that anything I create is a pure reflection of what’s in my heart/soul at the moment and that communicates for better or worse. 

An excerpt of an unfinished screenplay of De Leon’s called WOVEN.

Do you have a writing routine?

My routines are changing with age but I have a little “ceremony” I perform before I write: I typically wait for around 11pm-1am, play some ambient music, turn down all the lights, and “allow” myself to “open up.” It may seem like new-age bullshit but I really do think that we’re not in full possession of our ideas and sometimes we need to let them pour in from “wherever” that is. I think everyone defines it differently but I think it’s all the same. 

How much do your screenplays change during filming? 

In my experience, you’re always adapting what you write. You’ll almost NEVER see what you wrote on screen as is. What’s so great about filmmaking is that you adjust to fit the flow of the movie. The movie will become its own thing in three separate ways: there’s the movie you’re writing, the movie you’re shooting, and the movie you’re editing. You basically have to let go of any sort of preciousness you have about the word and be willing to let it adapt to the people who are helping you make it. 

“WOVEN is structured like a braid where the past and present interweave seamlessly throughout the picture. I think the excerpt I included is a pretty good example of the type of mood I write in which is sort of a shiny-somber combination.”

What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters or writers of any genre?

What I’ve learned is that you have to write it all. Even the bad stuff. Let yourself fail. What failure teaches you is that every mistake opens up a new road. New solutions present themselves if you get stuck and all you can do is keep it going, sometimes you will surprise yourself. And, all things considered, I’m a terribly lazy writer: I only work when I have something to say. I will spend months just THINKING of an idea and won’t write. This is a bad approach. In order for you to find solutions to the problems you might be facing, you have to strike while the iron’s hot and write, write, write!