Rachel Koller Croft landed her first major script deal after a sexist comment went viral. She hasn’t stopped writing about complex women since. “Torn Hearts,” her first feature-length film with Epix and horror juggernaut Blumhouse, is a wonderful blend of country girl-band glitz and grimy psychological horror grounded in feminine conflict.
Koller Croft, the Illinois-raised, Los Angeles-based writer has carved her own, odd path in the creative world since graduating from the University of Minnesota in 2008. From selling luxury floral arrangements to reporting for Perez Hilton, the former Gopher now has her first novel on the way and a movie under her belt.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Were you always interested in taking a creative path, becoming a writer?
“Yes, but I didn’t always know I would become one. I think I, like most people after you graduate college, are just faced with reality. Start paying your bills, paying your loans and you get a job. I was writing stories from the time I was a very little girl, even before I could read I was telling my mom little stories and stuff. That was always very much apart from who I am. But it wasn’t necessarily what I pursued.”
What did you pursue, then?
“After graduation, I did get my English [literature] degree and then my minor was studies in cinema and media culture. So obviously, [writing] was on my mind, but I was like, ‘I’m gonna get a liberal arts degree because then you can get a job doing anything.’ So I had all sorts of weird jobs before.”
What sorts of jobs?
“I did my junior year abroad. So I went to the University of East Anglia in England, and I was gone my entire junior year and I had a wonderful time and I took a screenwriting class. They’re very well known for their creative writing. I was traveling and I met a guy and fell in love, but then we broke up. We were really young. Like, it just got really high stakes really fast. And I was like, ‘Well, fuck that, I’m moving to California.’ I packed up my Honda Accord and drove out here. And the first job I got, believe it or not, was at perezhilton.com. So I worked there for about a year and a half. Celebrity gossip just didn’t turn out to be my calling. I actually ended up moving back to Chicago for a couple years. LA kind of chewed me up and spit me out.”
How’d you get back into creative writing?
“[In Chicago] I got into sales, which I really enjoy. I was really good at it. I worked for travel and hospitality companies for a little while, and then I moved to this startup company where I sold luxury floral arrangements to hotels and residential buildings in places that spend, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars on flowers every year. So I ended up becoming a top salesperson in the company and they moved me back out to Los Angeles. So when I got back here, I just got that writing bug again. And I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna take this really seriously,’ and kind of went from there and started writing scripts and looking for representation.”
Definitely sounds like you didn’t have a linear path, getting to where you are now.
“I had a really strange path. I think when you end up pursuing a creative career, that’s sort of just how it goes. You could ask anyone that’s working in Hollywood, everyone’s different. So it’s actually really hard sometimes [when people ask], ‘What would you do if you were me, how do I get there?’ It’s like, shit, I don’t know. Believe in yourself and keep going and take little opportunities when they come because you never know what they’re going to turn into.”
How much of it do you think is luck versus hard work?
“I think it’s a very fortuitous combination. I actually have a really good example of this story, of how I sold my first script, and I decided to leave sales because as much as I like making money, it was a very stressful job.
I wrote a script and entered it into — there’s a contest called the Nicholl Fellowship, which is associated with the Oscars — it’s like if you’re gonna win a screenplay competition, that’s the one you want to win. I entered it with a big buddy comedy about four girls, and it ended up advancing… you could purchase the reader comments, so I did. Most of them were very helpful, like telling me what they liked and what could be improved, but the last one, the last sentence was, ‘With some judicious alterations this might make a good porno.’ I was so pissed, so I went on the Facebook page for the contest and was like, ‘I’m gonna stand up for myself,’ and I just posted a little something. It was one of those weird things that went viral on Twitter, and then all these articles started coming out so wherever [the script] was in the pile at this company, it moved up to the top. After that, all these agencies start calling me and they’re like, ‘What else do you have?’
And this is where I’m going to answer your question. I couldn’t have planned to be in the news. Like, that’s like the luck element, right? I do think, with writing specifically, the only thing you can control is the quality of your work, how much you put out there. And then of course, there’s the networking element, which I do think is important, and not every writer likes to do it. You just have to be ready when the opportunity strikes and have all your ducks in a row so you can pursue it wholeheartedly.”
I want to get into “Torn Hearts” a little bit more. What inspired you to write that script? I read something about a friend of yours, but I want to hear from you.
“Yes, and I regret to inform you that my best friend in question is a [University of Wisconsin-Madison] Badger! I should put it out there. We actually met as adults, and we started to take road trips to Nashville when we lived together in Chicago. We just really loved country music and dancing and singing, so after our first trip down there, we were like, ‘Wow, that’s gonna be a regular occurrence.’ We made up this whole alter ego called ‘Tattered Hearts,’ the original name of the film. I had started writing scripts and combined my love of country music and scary movies, so I was like, ‘This was fun, I don’t think there’s really been anything like this before,’ and it just kind of snowballed from there.”
I actually wanted to ask — since you brought up earlier, just getting that awful comment, obviously a very blatantly sexist comment about something else you wrote — how has the feminine root of the story impacted its reception?
“There’s a lot of stuff you see over and over again [in horror movies], and I felt like this was something you don’t see a lot, especially with three women at the center who aren’t related to each other, and just kind of driving the whole story. I know there’s a couple guys in it and they have, you know, their time on screen or whatever. But it’s largely a story about women and I think that’s a really cool development.”
That’s probably what I enjoyed most about it, it definitely passes the Bechdel test. I enjoyed having a conflict between them that it’s like, just them. But, I wanted to ask about some of that conflict. Obviously, it’s a horror movie, it’s uncomfortable. But when writing scenes involving emotional manipulation or abuse, is it mentally taxing?
“Honestly, very honest with you, I just like creepy stuff. So it’s not that hard on me like, I don’t know, they’re characters and it’s fiction. I have my first novel coming out in February, which is also really twisted and weird. I’ve liked scary things since I was a little kid, but I think I have a really good sense of, this is fiction and I’m working on my craft and you want your characters to have a strong motivation for what they’re doing, especially in a horror thriller situation. If some of that darker stuff isn’t there, and they’re making these insane decisions, the logic doesn’t track. Even if it were emotionally taxing, it’s important to work to make sure the characters’ motivations are there and that the payoff is there for the audience at the end, even if the payoff is upsetting.”
Can you tell me more about your book that’s coming out?
“It’s called ‘Stone Cold Fox’ and it is a psychological thriller, basically about a hot-girl-con-artist that marries into the 1%, but her dark past threatens everything. And, she was raised by a crazy woman con-artist as well. So it’s a lot of fun. I’ve been calling it like ‘American Psycho’ meets ‘Legally Blonde’ because she is monstrous, but I feel like people are gonna love her and have fun with her. So I’m really excited for the book to come out — really, really excited.”