Carnegie Mellon University recently announced the winners of their 2015 Sloan Script Competition, with four science-themed screenplays awarded Sloan grants. One of the winners was Julianne Jigour, receiving her second Sloan grant with her tv series pilot Arkansas Auguries. Julianne was previously a winner in the 2014 CMU script competition, where she received a grant for her tv pilot Antarctica. Sloan Science and Film spoke with Julianne about writing Arkansas Auguries, ornithological phenomenons, and what's next in taking her pilot to series.

Sloan Science and Film:Can you tell our readers a little about yourself?

Julianne Jigour: I grew up in San Jose, California, and like many writers, I was a very shy child. As an adolescent, I discovered in books, film, music, and other arts the sense of human connection I desired but felt inept at developing with my peers. By 13, I knew I wanted to pursue some form of writing, and by the end of college, I felt most at home with playwriting. I think this form clicked with me because, growing up, my tendency to be the quiet observer made me pay obsessive attention to what other people said and how they said it. I was interested in the distance between the words people used and what they meant and what they felt, and I was painfully aware of the gap between what I wished to communicate and what I was capable of speaking. For me, the stage has been the perfect place to explore the beauty and limitations of language as we try to connect with one another and give voice to our experience.

I just completed my MFA in dramatic writing from Carnegie Mellon University, where I studied screenwriting as well as playwriting. Film was one of my first loves as a child, and it’s been a joy to explore that form. I’m now particularly interested in television. As consumer models change and the variety of content increases, the quality of writing and the possibilities for new, exciting material in television seem to be taking off.

SSF: What’s Arkansas Auguries about?

JJ: On New Year’s Eve in 2010, thousands of blackbirds fell dead from the sky in Beebe, Arkansas. The same phenomenon occurred, though on a smaller scale, the following New Year’s Eve in Beebe. The public reaction, of course, was one of bewilderment and alarm. And though mass animal deaths are not uncommon, the cause of the Beebe bird kills baffled even scientists. In the absence of a clear answer, wild theories erupted—was the mass death a sign of the impending apocalypse? a government conspiracy? a message sent from UFOs?
Arkansas Auguries is a television series inspired by the 2010 New Year’s Eve bird kill. It follows the fictional ornithologist Eva Smith, who researches blackbird ecology in Texas while attempting to forget her past in Beebe. Eva’s estranged mother is on death row in Arkansas for the murder of Eva’s two younger siblings, and her final appeal has been denied. When Eva receives a call from an old friend of her mother, asking her to come home, Eva adamantly refuses. But as the New Year’s Eve countdown falls, and so, too, do thousands of dead birds, Eva decides to return to Beebe, where more than one mystery awaits.

Birds have such a rich symbolic presence in culture and art, and on a scientific level, they convey a great deal about the health of the environment. While brainstorming the series, I was compelled by the relationship between bird as cultural/artistic symbol and bird as scientific indicator, between the narratives we impose on natural phenomena and the story that phenomena is trying to tell. Ultimately, Arkansas Auguries is not just about Eva’s journey but about the journey of a community that’s struggling to understand what seems inexplicable with the narratives they have at hand.

SSF: What kind of science are we going to see in the series? Are you working with science advisors?

JJ: We see scientists at work to investigate the bird kill—gathering specimens, performing autopsies, observing habitat, examining weather radar. As the series continues, we see the protagonist at work beyond the particular event in Beebe. Dr. Steven Latta, Director of Conservation and Research at the National Aviary, has advised me on the initial drafts of the pilot, and I will continue to seek his expertise as I develop the project further.

SSF: Tell me a little about some of the challenges you’re anticipating in bringing the pilot to series.

JJ: I'm still very early in the process, but I'm looking forward to the next stages and the challenges to come. Just today I signed a lease in Los Angeles so I can be in closer proximity to the world of television, which should benefit me as I prepare the script for pitching.

SSF: What are your next steps to get there? How have the funds from Sloan helped?

JJ: I plan to do another round of revisions on the pilot and to solidify the “show bible,” which contains detailed information about how the series unfolds. I’m looking forward to further work with my science advisor to explore more possibilities throughout the series for portraying the scientist in action.

The Sloan grant will allow me the means and time to develop this project. And, of course, it’s heartening to have the support of an organization whose mission you admire. Writing is hard work, and giving up is tempting. But the Sloan grant is a push to keep on keepin’ on and to do so with dedication to stories that provide value and education to audiences.