COM Grad Student Wins Humanitas Prize College Screenwriting Fellowship
Annual awards honor film and television writing that illuminates the human experience
A man obsessed with symmetry meets and falls for a female coworker who has a rare form of body dysmorphia. To achieve her ideal body, she dreams of removing one of her legs. He wants to support her, but he worries that she will soon become asymmetrical.
That’s the premise of Paul Coleman’s feature-length script Odds, which has won the 2021 Humanitas Prize College Drama Fellowship; the prize comes with a $20,000 grant. The Humanitas Prizes are awarded annually and honor film and television writing that illuminates the human experience. The nonprofit also awards college fellowships for drama and comedy.
“Odds is such a bizarre story, I wasn’t sure how it would land,” says Coleman (COM’21), a graduate student in film currently enrolled in BU’s semester-long Los Angeles Program, which helps COM students find internships and industry connections. “I’m kind of stunned by the whole thing.”
Past Humanitas winners include Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Larry Kramer (The Normal Heart), and Abraham Higginbotham (CFA’92) (Modern Family). While the awards tend to go to established screenwriters, two fellowships are earmarked for up-and-coming writers: the David and Lynn Angell Student Comedy Fellowship and the Carol Mendelsohn College Drama Fellowship, the award Coleman won. Carol Mendelsohn is a television writer and producer best known for her work on the crime drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
Humanitas program manager Daniel Plagens says every element of Odds stood out to the judges, specifically citing its unique subject matter and Coleman’s confident and empathetic voice. “Paul’s creative choices organically lead to a bold conclusion that is sure to stir deep conversations,” Plagens says. “His work offers unique insights into the human condition and evokes strong, visceral reactions that signal to readers they are in the hands of a talented writer with a very bright future ahead of him.”
Coleman nominated himself for the award. He first competed against 20 international semifinalists this year, and then 3 finalists. The other screenwriters came from schools such as Columbia University and the University of Southern California.
According to the College of Communication, its students have been among Humanitas Prize finalists in the past, but Coleman is believed to be the first winner. His work has been honored before—another script he wrote was a Fleder-Rosenberg Short Screenplay finalist at this year’s Redstone Film Festival.
Coleman says he started working on Odds as an undergraduate at Fitchburg State University, and he’s returned to it several times. He finished the 100-page award-winning version as part of COM’s Screenwriting IV class, but says he plans to keep tweaking.
The film is a “rom-com at its heart, but a very strange one,” he says. “It’s about a guy with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), who falls for a woman with a rare form of body dysmorphia, called body integrity identity disorder, where people want to remove an otherwise healthy limb and then go on to live normal healthy lives,” he says. “So it’s built on the bones of a rom-com, but instead of a snowstorm that cancels the guy’s flight, it’s the couple’s own internal mental illness that’s the obstacle between them and happiness.”
Coleman says the story was influenced by another romantic comedy, the 1960 Oscar-winning The Apartment, directed by Billy Wilder, about a man who lets his boss have extramarital affairs in his apartment in hopes of a promotion. Coleman, who has OCD himself, wanted to write a character with body integrity identity disorder, which he always found interesting, although the screenwriter is careful to say that both conditions take on a heightened reality in his script.
“I read all the literature before I knew I would even start a script, then when the character started to emerge, I did even more research,” he says. “Body integrity identity disorder is pretty rare, it’s not easy to find someone to talk to, but there are message boards where you can talk to relatives who have been impacted by the experience.”
Coleman is spending his semester in LA interning for Raime Productions, Sam Raimi’s (Spiderman) production company, and Thunder Road Films, a film and television production company founded by producer Basil Iwanyk. He has previously worked as an assistant director and production assistant on commercials for Target, Honda, and Best Buy.
And how does he plan to use the $20,000 prize money? “I’m broke, so I could do something responsible with it, but I think I’m going to make a short film with one of my previous scripts,” Coleman says, adding that he also hopes to keep working on Odds, in case a producer asks to take a look. “Part of the reason I prioritized Odds was that it could be made without a lot of money,” he says. “If in a few years there isn’t much action, I’ll try to cobble it together myself.”