Because she’s a storyteller at heart, Beanie Barnes knows a well-told tale sometimes circles back to its beginning.
That’s why it is so sweet that she recently was shortlisted for a prestigious screenwriting fellowship, 16 years after she collected a journalism degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and headed off to Hollywood to make her name in the movies.
Her story has had many surprising twists over the years – for one, in 2000, she became the first woman to suit up for the Husker football team – and its happy ending is still unknown. All she knows is that she’s back on the path she started in 1999, when she wrote her first screenplay.
“Winning this would be really big,” Barnes said in a phone interview from New York City. “I basically stopped writing, more or less, around 2005. I didn’t expect to go back to writing. But if you’re really an artist at heart you can never leave it. It’s always there.”
Barnes’ screenplay, “Little Toro,” was one of 12 finalists chosen from among 6,915 scripts submitted for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting this year. The Fellowship Committee, composed of 18 writers, producers and other film industry professionals, will meet later this month to select up to five fellows, who will each receive a $35,000 prize. The first installment is to be distributed at a Nov. 3 awards ceremony at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.
Barnes’ given name is KaLena, but her mother nicknamed her Beanie, after the “Beany and Cecil” cartoon, while she was in utero. She grew up east of Los Angeles in Ontario, California, attended Bishop Amat Memorial High School in La Puente, California, and was recruited as a sprinter for the Nebraska women’s track team in 1996.
She loved playing football as a child and was disappointed when she couldn’t follow her male playmates into youth league football. While waiting for the Huskers tunnel walk during a 1999 game, Barnes turned to her best friend and fellow track athlete, Dahlia Ingram, and told her she was going to try out for football. Dwayne McClary, a Husker cornerback and a sprinter on the track team, helped her train that winter. In her only team appearance, the 5’4” Barnes kicked a 35-yard punt during the 2000 Spring Game.
That part of her story caught the imagination of the late film critic Roger Ebert, whom she met while working as an American Pavilion intern at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. (It was Ingram who spotted a Daily Nebraskan story about the internship and urged her to apply.) Ebert wrote a feature about her, “Football player’s story a sure hit,” for the Chicago Sun-Times that year.
Yet football is merely a subplot, one that ended when Barnes joined the Women’s Professional Football League – and tore her ACL on her first game with the Los Angeles Amazons.
The main arc of Barnes’ personal narrative began in the classrooms, where she worked with Nebraska professors who nudged her toward her film-writing goal, even before Nebraska established its Carson School of Theatre and Film with a gift from Johnny Carson in 2004.
“We had a locker with a few pieces of equipment and a closet for an editing bay,” recalled Rick Endacott, associate professor of film. “I had just started teaching courses and along came Beanie, a young woman with a clear passion for film and film writing.”
Barnes describes Endacott as a godsend, a kindred spirit – and the source of her first copy of Final Draft, the screenwriting software. She cites the influence of several other professors as well.
“Gwendolyn Foster (English and Film Studies) had a huge impact on me. I wrote my first screenplay in her class. She and (Wheeler Winston) Dixon introduced me to what is possible with film, especially as an artistic expression,” Barnes said. “Nancy Mitchell (Journalism and Mass Communications) was always so supportive of my interest in film, though I was in journalism school. She just wanted me to succeed at what I loved. And Judith Slater (English emeritus) – I took her fiction-writing class and I just never forgot it because I learned so much about story. The most important thing about screenwriting is not that you’re writing for the screen – but that you’re writing to tell a story.”
After graduating, Barnes left for Hollywood, where she was a development intern with Robert Simonds, who produced “Happy Gilmore” and “The Wedding Singer” with Adam Sandler, among other movies.
She worked as an uncredited intern for casting director Anne McCarthy on “Orange County” and “All About the Benjamins,” and she was a casting assistant and casting associate for Mary Vernieu on movies including “Barbershop,” “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” and “Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams.”
Barnes continued to write and, in 2003, she was selected as a Film Independent: Project Involve fellow. Director Catherine Hardwicke, known for “Twilight” in 2008, was Barnes’ mentor during the fellowship. Barnes would go on to work with Hardwicke as an associate producer on the 2005 film, “Lords of Dogtown” – featuring Heath Ledger and America Ferrera, among others.
Observing that the film industry was changing, with bigger outside investors coming in, Barnes completed an MBA from Yale University in 2008. But her hopes of launching an independent film investment company were dashed by the Great Recession.
Later, she worked as a business strategist, mostly advising clients in the film industry.
In 2013, in partnership with AMC Theaters, she distributed “Four,” starring Emory Cohen (“Brooklyn”), Wendell Pierce (HBO’s “The Wire”) and Aja Naomi King (ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder”). Based on a stage play by Christopher Shinn, the movie features a lonely and closeted middle-aged college professor, played by Pierce, pursuing an intimate connection with a lonely, closeted teenager, played by Cohen.
“It was a challenging film to release, but we were able to distribute it in eight cities around the country,” she said.
That job brought her back to writing. Pierce was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for the role and, in 2013, Barnes attended the awards ceremony in Los Angeles. There, she visited an old friend who urged her to start again.
“He said ‘I can’t believe you stopped writing – you were good. Why did you stop?’ I went back to New York and I couldn’t get his words out of my head.”
Mitchell and Foster said they are pleased – but not surprised – that Barnes is getting noticed for her writing talent.
“I admired Beanie’s courage and confidence when she was a student trying out for a football team and still admire her as she tackles new challenges in the area of scriptwriting,” Mitchell said. “I also admire her gusto for life. She has the courage to succeed.”