Michigan alumnus Angus Fletcher (class of ’98) has just become the envy of screenwriters everywhere, nabbing himself, along with writing partner Vineet Dewan, an esteemed Nicholl Fellowship for his screenplay “Sand Dogs.” Out of a record 6,380 scripts submitted to the fellowship, five were selected this year by volunteer Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members to receive a $30,000 grant.
In celebration, Fletcher spent seven days rubbing shoulders with Hollywood elite during the week of the offical awards ceremony.
“It’s basically a whole week of you being celebrated,” Fletcher said. “You spend a couple days surrounded by people responsible for the greatest movies ever made in the past 40, 50 years. At dinner we were sitting next to the guy who made ‘Beverly Hills Cop,’ which blew my mind when I was a child.”
“Everyone you look at is sort of a hero,” he added. “All these people say very nice things about you and your head gets real large.”
Awarded to new writers who haven’t sold a screenplay for more than $5,000, the Nicholl Fellowship operates under the Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, otherwise known as the Academy. The Fellowship is known for being the most prestigious screenwriting competition in the nation. Notable Nicholl fellows from the past are now heavyweights in the industry. The group including Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”), Mike Rich (“Finding Forrester”) and Andrew Marlowe (“Air Force One”).
“The Nicholl Fellowship started when a woman named Gee Nicholl — the widow of Don Nicholl, a TV writer best known for ‘The Jeffersons’ and ‘Three’s Company’ — brought the idea of helping new writers to the Academy in 1985,” Greg Beal, director of the Nicholl Fellowship, said. “There have now been 113 writers who have won the award. This is the 24th year of the Fellowship.”
Fletcher’s own initiation into the film industry started a little more humbly.
“A couple years ago, Vineet won a lot of awards for a very good short film called ‘Clear Cut, Simple,’ ” Fletcher said. “I saw the movie and I was very impressed with his work, and we talked for a little bit and we made a connection.”
For the next year, Fletcher and Dewan would work together on the script now known as “Sand Dogs.”
“I would write a draft and Vineet would take the draft and make changes … Each of us would add different things. I’m more interested in plot and he’s more interested in design and detail,” Fletcher said. “We kind of kicked it back and forth like a ping pong ball.”
Fletcher and Dewan originally intended to submit “Sand Dogs” to the Sundance Screenwriting Contest, but missed the deadline for this year.
“We thought, ‘The Nicholl is such a big fellowship we probably don’t have a chance of winning, but we should give it a shot,’ ” Fletcher said.
A few months ago, Fletcher and Dewan were notified by Beal of their finalist standing. Since then, it’s all been a dream. They’ve been bombarded by e-mails from production companies that want to sign them and phone calls from agents and managers who want to represent them.
“Sand Dogs,” the winning screenplay, is about a young, idealistic American who travels to the highly volatile war zone of Gaza as a Red Cross ambulance driver. He befriends a slightly older Palestinian and starts taking part in border crossings, eventually getting sucked into a smuggling ring.
Although neither writer had direct experience with the story’s events, both Fletcher and Dewan were attracted to the concept of an outsider entering into a world about which he knows nothing.
“Because I’m originally from England, I’m an American, but I’m also watching it from the outside. I think when you’re outside a culture you think you can fix it because you think you know things that people in the culture don’t see,” Fletcher said.
“But the situations are so complicated that the more you get involved, the more you find yourself compromising your own ideals,” he added.
“I was attracted by the fact that a good person wants to help people but he gets put in a situation where the more he gets involved, the more he’s forced to compromise.”
Reception to the script has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s a thriller, a war movie, a character study – it was described last night at the awards ceremony as a coming-of-age story,” Beal said.
“Believe it nor not, my major (at Michigan) was actually cellular and molecular biology,” Fletcher said. “I had this desire to go and study literature because I had so much science background.”
Still, even in his undergraduate years, Fletcher immersed himself in literature, and even won a Hopwood Award for his poetry.
In his freshman year, he was also a member of the Marine Corps ROTC, going down to boot camp for 10 weeks.
“But then the University of Michigan gave me a full scholarship — I think it was actually an astronomy scholarship, even though I never did any astronomy,” Fletcher said. “So in the end, I didn’t need the military money, (and) I didn’t need to join the armed services. And so I thought, I’m kind of a nerd; I probably wouldn’t have done well in the military anyway. I’ll take the astronomy scholarship.”
Following his graduation from Michigan, Fletcher went to Yale to get his PhD in English. He became a fellow at Stanford University teaching in the English Department and then made the transition to theater a couple years ago.
Fletcher is currently a tenured assistant professor of theater at the University of Southern California. He believes his theater background helped him construct a screenplay with strong characters.
“(Theater) is such an amazing actor’s medium. There’s a sense that people always want to watch other people,” Fletcher said. “And the more you learn about them, the more interesting and powerful and eclectic their personality is.”
Fletcher cites Michigan as one of the best experiences of his life.
“(Michigan) leads you to believe you can do anything you want,” he said. “It’s such a big school, and there are so many talented and interesting people and you kind of have to find your own way. When I left Michigan, it made me feel really empowered because I had this whole community of people to fall back on. My whole sense of openness to new experiences – that all comes from Michigan.”
In the future, Fletcher and Dewan both want to continue working in the film industry. “Vineet actually wants to direct (‘Sand Dogs’), which would be kind of exciting. I love writing for film, so I want to continue with that, but I’m also interested in writing for TV,” Fletcher said.
Already, Fletcher has finished writing a new script about a woman who steals a drug that treats AIDS from a pharmaceutical company and then smuggles the medicine into South Africa. Still, he says he would like to stay on at the School of Theater at USC.
“The great thing about theater is that it’s is fun and experimental and recharging,” he said. “I love working with students and all the energy they bring. The thing about writing is that you’re by yourself, in a dark hole. It’s like two sides of your personality.”
Fletcher believes that to truly write, one must experience other things first.
“If anyone’s thinking about being a writer, you can’t really be a writer at 20 because you haven’t really done much. You may think you have, but I’m now in my early 30s, and I spent a lot of my 20s doing stuff — I was in the military and science and I’ve been doing things overseas. You just see a lot of different things and it gives you a deeper sense of the world,” Fletcher said.