Screenwriter does L.A. job from Wilton home

For 29 years, Edithe Swensen has been creating screenplays for television from her home near Saratog
Edithe Swensen writes television screenplays from her Wilton home.
Edithe Swensen writes television screenplays from her Wilton home.

Cold-blooded murder, cheating spouses or other human dramas are always on Edithe Swensen’s mind.

And sometimes her mind is out of this world, in the realms of sci-fi and fantasy.

For 29 years, Swensen, who is also known as Edie, has been creating screenplays for television from her home near Saratoga Springs.

She was the writer for the movie “Romeo Killer: The Chris Porco Story,” which aired in 2013 on Lifetime, seven years after Porco was convicted in the 2004 ax murder of his father and attempted murder of his mother in their Albany County home. The 31-year-old Delmar native is serving a 50 years to life sentence in Dannemora Correctional Facility.

Swensen’s other Lifetime movies include “Bond of Silence,” “Who is Clark Rockefeller?,” “Governor’s Wife,” “All The Good Ones Are Married,” “Too Young To Be a Dad” and “Student Seduction.” She has also written movies for Showtime and Hallmark.

In the sci-fi genre, she’s worked for the Showtime series “Odyssey Five,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Xena: Warrior Princess,” and “Charmed,” the critically acclaimed series that aired on The WB for eight seasons.

Swensen grew up in Brooklyn and holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Wheaton College in Illinois and a master’s in English from Penn State.

She is trained as a yoga instructor, and leads classes at the Wilton branch of the Saratoga Regional YMCA.

Swensen and her husband, Stephen Swensen, have two grown children and a 4-year-old grandson. Their son, Matthew, is an English teacher at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Delmar. Daughter Katie works as a microbiologist in Atlanta.

Q: How did you get started as a screenwriter?

A: I was young, I was married. I had two babies. We were dead broke. My husband is a Phd. in anthropology and we started our married life living in Tangier, Morocco. Life was so amazing and exciting, but then we came back to this country and he couldn’t get a job. I turned on the TV and there was this half-hour horror anthology that reminded me of “The Twilight Zone.” And I said “Hmmm, I could do that.” I got out a book on screenwriting format, and I sat down and wrote a screenplay.

Q: The first screenplay you wrote was accepted by Laurel Entertainment, a company co-founded by horror director George Romero. Then what happened?

A: The first year I sold four screenplays. The second year, I sold so many things to Laurel, they said I better get an agent. I had my very first network pitch meeting ever and I sold a series concept to CBS.

Q: What’s the screenwriting business like?

A: It’s all about money, unfortunately. You don’t write screenplays because you’re going to write something that people will read 100 years from now. You write it because it’s a great way to make a living.

Q: Did you work in Los Angeles?

A: We didn’t want to raise our kids in Los Angeles. So we opted to do something really ridiculous. And that’s trying to conduct an L.A. career from a tiny upstate New York town. And we did it! I always had to fly out there to pitch. Companies would fly me out there for meetings. Occasionally, I be on a TV series, so I’d have to live out there. But what I would do is rent a furnished apartment and the kids would come out for a while. They had fun and it was exciting.

Q: Is screen-writing a free-lance job?

A: Basically you work for yourself, under the auspices of your union. Everybody is free-lance.

I’m invested in the writer’s guild now so I don’t have to worry about things like health insurance and pensions.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I heard about this book on NPR, a book called “Anything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You” by Laurie Lynn Drummond. I’ve taken a year off to spec a pilot for a TV series based on Laurie’s book, which is a memoir, short stories, drawn from her experience as a female uniformed officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The themes are about the struggles that women have in a job that requires them to suppress what it is to be a woman. It’s kind of like a metaphor for being a screenwriter. You’ve got to operate in a man’s world.

Q: How did you get the Porco movie job?

A: I sold it. I called up my agent and said “my family in Delmar has known Christopher Porco since he was in kindergarten. And now he’s accused of murder. And it’s not just murder, it’s an ax murder.” I had to wait until the verdicts came in before it would sell but then I pitched it. It’s not like I got the assignment, I went after it. It was such an unbelievable tragedy. I just felt I had to tell it, so I did.

Q: Your parents lived in Delmar when the crime happened?

A: Yeah, my mother used to go to grandparents day at his [Christopher Porco’s] school.

There was a certain familiarity with the milieu because my family were Delmartians. I didn’t know him [Porco] but my whole family knew him. My family believed in his innocence for a long time until he couldn’t explain where he was that night.

Q: Was it difficult to write?

A: When you do a true-crime movie, and I’ve done a number of them in my career, you’ve got to substantiate every single line. Seriously, you annotate it. And you say where you got this from, and is this character real, based on fact or fiction, and did this happen or was this inspired by fact.

Q: And Porco tried to stop the movie?

A: He sued us. His lawyers said they were really impressed with Chris’ knowledge of the law. It didn’t go anywhere but they were very impressed with him.

Q: Did you try to be accurate?

A: Very much so. My goal was to tell the story and show the effect on the community and to leave it at “I still don’t know whether he’s guilty or innocent.” Now I guess I know he’s guilty but at the time it was impossible for me to believe he was guilty.

Q: Did you talk to Porco or his family?

A: Nobody would talk to us. It was really hard. One of the wives of the cops talked to us at great length but she ended up not being happy with the movie. I interviewed the DA. I read The Times Union.

Q: What did you think of the movie?

A: I had serious creative differences with the director because I was trying so hard to tell the story the way it happened. And I really felt that there were aspects to the sociology of the story that were so fascinating, and she said to me “I don’t care about facts, I care about drama.”

Of course, the writer is low man on the totem pole. The director wanted him to hobble into his bail hearing in this jumpsuit, with chains on. I said, “it wasn’t like that. He was wearing a three-piece suit. He looked incredibly suave.”

Q: What writing are you most proud of?

A: Some of the things I’m most proud of haven’t been made. It’s an interesting reality of a screenwriter’s life. My favorite produced thing is probably a Lifetime movie, “Who Is Clark Rockefeller?” which is another true crime movie. That was a fun movie for me because the director didn’t tinker with the script, and the actor actually spoke the lines the way I heard them in my head . . . Eric McCormack of “Will & Grace.” He’s really a terrific actor.

Once you write a screenplay, you really have to detach yourself from it because it’s someone else’s property when they pay you for it.

Q: Your movies can air any time?

A: Yes. It’s always nice to walk down to the mailbox and open it up and have that residual check there. Some days you’ll walk down there and you’ll open the check and you’ll go “ah, $3.50.” And then you’ll open it up and it will be enough to buy a new car. You never know. It’s fun.

Q: People all over the world see movies that you wrote?

A: Yeah. There’s a movie also that I did for Lifetime called “Too Young to Be a Dad.” Lifetime has this thing where viewers vote for what they want to see and the one that keeps getting put up there on Saturday night is “Too Young to Be a Dad.” It’s about a teen pregnancy from the point of view of the father. People love that movie.

Q: What’s the toughest part of your job?

A: Probably that you are free-lance and every time you start a project, you get a whole new set of people, a whole new set of bosses, a whole new set of underlings.

Q: What gives you the most joy?

A: Writing. Writing is like meditation.

Q: What was your favorite TV show growing up?

A: Beyond a shadow of a doubt, “The Twilight Zone.” Nothing came close to that. And I loved “The Rockford Files.”

Q: What are some of your favorite TV shows now?

A: TV is really undergoing a renaissance. I love “Game of Thrones.” “The Walking Dead” is brilliant, especially the first season. “Downton Abbey” is terrific, melodrama at its best. “Justified” is wonderful. “Breaking Bad” is brilliant.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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