From a young age, Cristina Pippa felt emboldened by the power of storytelling. She wrote and performed plays for any captive audience, even when her puppy was the only co-star.
In more recent years, she developed a talent scripting for screen and stage. Her resume now boasts more than 30 theatrical productions.
“For playwriting, the writer must convey so much through dialogue and action. The audience’s attention can’t be directed by a close-up,” said Pippa. She’s the graduate program director of Missouri State University’s MFA in dramatic writing and screenwriting certificate programs. “So even for screenwriting, I’ve always leaned on dialogue, but I like to write between the lines, too.”
Telling a fully developed beginning, middle and conclusion of a story arc within the confines of 20 minutes is the challenge short film writers must tackle.
“I think specificity is really important in a script. You can really see the details and feel like you are welcomed into their world.”
Pippa has excelled at that. For her 2022 film, “Unmanned,” she won top awards at five film festivals, including Best Direction and Best Narrative.
“Cristina comes up with these amazing notions,” said Kate Torgovnick May, a lifelong friend and writing group companion. “She decides, ‘I’m going to write a play about a family that switches places with a 1950s PSA.’ ‘I’m going to do a musical about the star of the high school musical who’s been murdered.’ ‘I’m going to do a young adult spin on ‘Lady MacBeth.’
“And then she actually does it, in a process that, from the outside at least, seems very swift and effortless.”
“Unmanned” was born out of creative coincidence.
Pippa was circling the idea of a female drone operator character for a future project she had named “Unmanned.” When Pippa ran into Jonathan D. Mabee at an industry event, he mentioned he had been conceptualizing a military story incorporating unmanned aerial vehicles.
Together, Pippa and Mabee wrote “Unmanned,” which Pippa called, “edgy, kind of dark, but also really fascinating.”
The collaboration showcased Mabee’s military experience and familiarity with its situational jargon. “Unmanned” also underscored Pippa’s ability to write and direct vulnerable and complex characters.
“What draws me into a new project is possibility. What could happen?” asked Pippa. “I love finding a character – whether it’s inspired by a real person or a job – who defies expectations.”
A moral conundrum, existential questions and life-altering choices are central conflicts within the script. Each scene raises the stakes for the protagonist.
Throughout the film, viewers see a bird’s eye view of the lead character running away from an unknown force, building a sense of foreboding.
“I liken it to a waking nightmare,” Pippa said. “We show her anxiety ramping up, then cut to this drone footage, adding to that feeling of being watched or targeted.”
Filming on and around the Missouri State campus, and including alumni, faculty and students in roles both on screen and behind the camera, simplified the filmmaking process, even in the difficult filming season of COVID-19.
“The incredible situations women are put in continue to draw me in,” Pippa said, whether that’s a stressful military scenario or pivotal moment in history.
This specificity is one of the top lessons she teaches her students. She also believes it helps set her work apart.
“I want it to feel like you’re watching something that you’ve never seen before or that it’s a day unlike any other,” she said.
In Pippa’s short film “Amelia,” a preteen girl with polio sits at the center of the action. The character hears a distress cry from Amelia Earhart on the day of her infamous disappearance.
“I tend to hear a story or learn about something real, then let it be a seed for the bigger tree that grows out of it.”
The character then builds a short-wave radio to broadcast that message to the world.
“The film toys with this idea of a young, vulnerable girl who is confined to her house due to illness. And it asks ‘what if she finally has a voice herself?’” Pippa said.
“Amelia” was developed for Spark, a series of short films to inspire girls in science, technology, engineering and math. Pippa co-founded Spark due to her personal interest in empowering and inspiring young women in all fields.
At the 2018 Mumbai Film Festival, “Amelia” won the Gold Gateway Award for Best Short Film and was the official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival.
It’s a highlight of Pippa’s career.
“She doesn’t just have the ideas,” Torgovnik May said. “She gets her butt in the seat and writes it. She has just an embarrassment of riches when it comes to great, completed projects.”