Vivian Schilling vividly remembers her family's summer vacations, when they would travel from her home state of Kansas to Newton County, Arkansas, where her mother was born and raised.
"I always tried to stay awake but would fall asleep for most of the journey," recalls Schilling. "Through a groggy slumber, I would start to feel the curves [of the road] when we got on Highway 62, because everything was fairly straight before then. By the time we hit the steepest mountains, it was night. I always seemed to wake up at that point and see the stars and the Joy Motel sign in Eureka Springs gliding past. I still remember the thrill of that as it meant my grandparents weren't that far away."
Sacred Prey (2004)
Bonobos: Back to the Wild (producer)
Toys in the Attic (writer, director, producer, principal cast)
Ambrose Bierce: Civil War Stories (actor)
Soultaker (writer, actor)
Her summers were spent roaming shady, green forests barefoot and breathing in lessons of the past from her relatives, who had lived in Mount Judea for generations.
"It was very much like going back in time," she says. "My grandparents lived very simply. They lived off of the land. It was such a different way of being, and it always felt like home. The best part of summer was knowing we would be going down to Arkansas. I would take off my shoes the day school let out and wouldn't put them back on until it started again. I used to run barefoot through the woods and all over my grandparents' mountain."
Schilling, now a novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker and actor, would eventually leave Kansas for Los Angeles, but she didn't stop visiting her family in Newton County. When she decided she needed a respite from the big city life and stressors of L.A., Arkansas was her first choice for a move. The way she came to land on Fayetteville as her new home is so picture-perfect, it could have come from one of her own screenplays. She was traveling from the airport in Tulsa, Okla., to see her family when she got lost and found herself on the Fayetteville square.
"It was the Christmas season, and there were all of these beautiful lights, and all of these happy people and families," she remembers. "I pulled over and watched for the longest time. I thought, 'Who are these lucky people who get to live in this beautiful town?'"
For nearly 20 years now, Schilling has divided her time between Northwest Arkansas -- a house in Fayetteville and a cabin, tucked farther into the Ozark Mountains, where she goes to write -- and Los Angeles or New York, depending on what project she's working on. Despite a successful career that has had her attending glittering events like the Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Globes, Schilling says Arkansas never stopped feeling like home to her.
"There's a quote by French novelist Gustave Flaubert: 'The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe,'" she says. "And for me, that's my life.
"From the time I was a tiny kid writing and adapting old classics to perform for my mother, I've tried to remain open to where the next thought or inspiration would lead me. As a writer inspired by nature and seclusion, I spent years escaping to the mountains outside of L.A., without ever considering the stunning mountains of my own heritage. But then what started as a second home where I could be close to my godchildren has become the perfect place for me to create."
Schilling was young when she first started displaying a talent for writing and performing. Her childhood home featured a ceiling-to-floor velvet curtain that divided one large space into two living spaces and seemed tailor-made for performances. She would write and perform skits with her best friend.
"I remember putting on Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'," she says. "I had on this ridiculous black wig and was holding a candle in front of my face. At the end, my mother sat intently staring at me for a moment and then said, 'That's what you should be -- you should be an actress.' That was the first time she had ever said anything like that to me." Schilling is careful to point out, however, that it was just a suggestion. "My parents gave me and my brothers complete freedom to pursue whatever profession we wanted; they didn't put pressure on us in any way. And I'm grateful for that -- they were very much about, 'You're on your own journey, and you need to make those decisions yourself.'"
Her parents' support would be tested when they said goodbye to their daughter as she set out for the bright lights of Los Angeles shortly after high school graduation.
"I remember my mother, she was standing on the porch step, crying," says Schilling. "I regret that I didn't grasp the gravity of the moment at the time. I just didn't understand. I had no true concept of time yet, nor how painful such a distance between a mother and daughter could be. But she had faith in me. She never said, 'Don't go.'"
On to LA
Once in Los Angeles, Schilling wasted no time immersing herself in the study of her new craft. She immediately started taking classes at the famous Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, which counts renowned actors like Sissy Spacek, Angelina Jolie and Steve Buscemi among its alumni.
"If someone were to ask who influenced the creative path of my life the most, I would say Amnon Meskin," she says of the Strasberg Institute instructor who first mentored her. "He was an amazing man from Israel whose Russian father studied with the Moscow Art Theatre. He had a robust mind and a passion not only for the arts, but for life itself. At Strasberg, there was a lobby where all the students and instructors would hang out and talk and exchange ideas. In the long afternoons of deep philosophical discussions and heated debates, I learned so much from Amnon. He was not only a brilliant teacher who took me under his wing, he became a great friend who guided and inspired me over the years."
Perhaps she didn't realize it at the time, but Meskin's training would serve Schilling well later, when her primary focus became writing. Also helpful in that arena was the training she would get from another well-respected institution -- the Stella Adler Studio, where acting greats like Marlon Brando and Robert de Niro studied.
The training was soon paying off: Schilling was getting cast in plays, movies and television roles fairly quickly. Her first part was in a play at the Strasberg Institute, and, later, she appeared on the soap opera "General Hospital." Film roles would soon follow.
"Back then, you had a lot of really young filmmakers and actors, this whole little stewing pot of creativity and excitement and energy and fearlessness," she says. "I did several things just within a year or so. Those were crazy, fun times."
Close friend and colleague Kami Asgar worked with Schilling in the years right after she moved to Los Angeles. He describes a can-do, no-holds-barred atmosphere in regards to filmmaking.
"Back then, we didn't realize how hard it is to get movies off the ground -- how hard it is to shoot a low-budget movie, let alone big movies," Asgar says. "For all of us, it was the not knowing and forging forward. [We made] these cool, iconic movies. Maybe it's because they're the first movies I worked on, but they've really stuck with me all of these years. The first three movies that I worked on starred Vivian and were written by Vivian.
"I'm working with [actress and producer] Elizabeth Banks now -- she's directing 'Charlie's Angels,' and she's starring in it and wrote it and is producing it. Vivian did all of that 30-something years ago, when it was unheard of to be a producer, writer, actor, involved in the editing, all the post-production," Asgar says. "She was hands-on with all of it."
Soon after arriving in Los Angeles, Schilling started working on her first screenplay. She had always been a good writer, but now she started taking it more seriously as a potential vehicle of success in Hollywood. Her first screenplay, "Soultaker," was inspired by a traumatic car accident she had experienced when she was a senior in high school.
"[My friend and I] accepted a ride home from a boy we didn't know very well, not realizing he was really drunk," Schilling says. "We ended up tearing out a bush and then slamming into a tree at an estimated 65 miles an hour. I was in the front seat without a seatbelt, yet I escaped with only a few stitches and a lot of bruises. The paramedics and the doctors at the hospital all said what a miracle it was that I was alive. It was a harrowing experience for an 18-year-old to have come that close to such a violent death and to have inexplicably survived.
"Later, when I was living in Los Angeles, this became the inspiration for a teenage film about a group of high-schoolers who miraculously 'escape' a violent car crash, only to be pursued by an angel of death."
Schilling would draw from her own life to fuel her work more than once. When her parents died suddenly when she was only 22, weaving themes of mortality and loss in her writing helped her work through the anguish she was feeling. "Quietus," her second novel, contained these themes. Writing novels also helped her see her work become fully realized when an idea, in the form of a screenplay, got stuck in what she calls "development hell" -- the period between when a screenplay is optioned and when it is made.
"Frustrated with the tedious journey of taking a script to film, I took a shot at novelizing 'Sacred Prey,' and it actually did well," she says. In fact, it would ultimately receive the Golden Scroll for Outstanding Achievement in Literature. "With my first taste of writing novels, I was hooked. As the sole creator, I not only became the director, but I could step into the shoes of every character and bring their thoughts and feelings to life. And I could create any world that I wanted without depending on a big production or worrying about budget or lighting or location. I still love making films though, and I can't help but approach novels visually, like a filmmaker."
Part of her approach to writing is conducting extensive research -- one of the most pleasurable pieces of the puzzle, she says.
"I love location research," she says. "By searching out and visiting the physical environment of my characters, they become more real. It is easier to think as they would and to make decisions about their fate. When you see a real fisherman hauling in heavy lobster traps, you suddenly realize how that affects the body year after year. You suddenly understand why your character has that extra beer at the pub and why he doesn't sleep well at night. It is a physical part of my process as a writer, which goes back to my roots as an actor."
Friend Eve Agee has had firsthand experience that proves how impressive Schilling's research for her books can be.
"One of the settings of 'Quietus' is an old mental hospital in Boston," says Agee. "A few years ago, my husband and I went to a wedding of his high school friend [in Boston], and I recognized [the hospital] within two seconds of walking in that it was the place," says Agee. "I knew it immediately, just from her description of the building. She does so much research -- she goes and stays in the place and does tremendous historical research."
Home in NWA
Schilling had to decide early on in her career to focus most of her attention on writing -- advice that she got from a mentor she trusted.
"She said, 'What are you going to do? You have to choose. You can't do both. You have to have a main focus.' I said, 'Why? Why can't I do everything?' And she said, 'You can, but you'll be much more at peace and happier if you decide which is your main focus.'"
For Schilling, the answer was an easy one: Writing had become her passion. But that doesn't mean she left filmmaking and acting in the past. In 2012, she worked with Eurocine Films on the English language adaptation of "Toys in the Attic," originally a Czechoslovakian stop-motion animated film by Jiri Barta. Schilling served as a writer, producer and director of the project. She also performed one of the voices for the film.
"It was a tremendous amount of work, but a lot of fun," she says. "I felt very comfortable as the director. My only moment of pause was with Forest Whitaker. He is so nice, and we got along well, but when it came time to walk into the studio, I hesitated. Forest is a highly respected director and an Oscar-winning actor, and I thought, 'What if he doesn't trust in me? What if he won't take direction from me?' Then I reminded myself that he had liked my script and had not only accepted the role, but me as his director. My heart was still pounding when I stepped through the door, but the moment he looked to me for my thoughts, all doubt melted away."
"She's very persistent," notes good friend, colleague and, as of a few years ago, fellow Fayetteville resident Jon McCallum. "When we were doing 'Toys in the Attic,' one of the characters in the animated film who was sort of the antagonist was played by an actual human mixed in with the animation and, mostly, in close-ups. It was really difficult to translate the Czech into English [and match up with] the frenetic mouth movements. I think most people would have said, 'That's as close as I can get it,' but she worked on it until she made it look exactly like the guy was saying the lines. People couldn't even tell he had been dubbed. That was quite a feat, and took a lot of time to do. Barta was so happy with what she did with the English translation, he asked her to do another project that's coming up."
In 2015, Schilling was a writer and producer on a project especially close to her heart -- the English adaptation of Bonobos: Back to the Wild, a documentary detailing Belgian conservationist Claudine Andre's efforts on behalf of the endangered bonobo apes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
"The preservation of bonobos and other endangered species is very important to me," says Schilling, who adds that animal welfare issues have long been a passion. "Bonobos are exceptionally intelligent and gentle apes. They're not aggressive or wage war on each other like chimpanzees or even humans. I love that they are a matriarchal species that settles conflict with affection and mating. They share 98.7 percent of our genetic makeup, as close if not closer than chimpanzees. Scientists are just now beginning to understand them and their use of language. They are such a beautiful species, with so many amazing attributes, that it would be a tragedy to lose them from this planet."
And when she's not working on projects with Oscar winning actors and endangered wildlife, she's living a quiet life in Northwest Arkansas -- a contrast that, she admits with a laugh, is unusual.
"I love so much about Arkansas," she says. "It's the perfect balance to L.A. or New York. I love the people. They're so nice. When you live in a metropolis, you respect everybody's space. You don't needlessly talk to strangers; you don't ask them personal questions. That's the last thing you would do in a big city. When I first moved to Fayetteville, I was walking around my neighborhood, and I passed somebody on the street. They just started talking to me, and I thought, 'Oh my god, what does this person want?' and they were asking me all of these personal questions. And now, wherever I go, I'm talking to people and finding myself asking them personal questions. And surprisingly, I've never had a bad experience with it."
Perhaps the highest compliment she can give the state is that, in her most recent screenplay, Arkansas plays a pivotal role and, she says, is spiritually present in the novel she's writing right now.
"I spent two years on a screenplay that takes place in a fictional town deep in the Ozark Mountains," she explains. "It's a period piece about Arkansas set in 1899. I'm currently working on my third novel, which is historical fiction, much inspired by the feel of going back in time when visiting my grandparents when I was a child.
"I love the beauty of Arkansas -- it's just stunning. And when people come and visit, they just can't believe it."
NAN Profiles on 07/21/2019