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My interview with Dan Kay posts to Creative Screenwriting magazine

29 Sep

Pay the Ghost: Playing to Every Parent’s Worst Nightmare | CreResearch about the origins of ancient Celtic myths and his own childhood memories of Halloween led rising Hollywood screenwriter Dan Kay to pen the script for the recently released Pay the Ghost.

The horror/thriller stars Nicolas Cage (Ghost Rider and National Treasure) and Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead) as parents of a child abducted by a centuries-old revenge-seeking ghost witch. Kay sets his story in New York City, and leaves clues in the graffiti along the walls of back alley haunts of homeless people.

The plot focuses upon a woman and her three children who burned at the stake during the 17th century. Taking his cues from the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials, Kay drew upon the history of witchcraft hysteria and superstition that spread throughout New England in 1692.

This horror/thriller is based on a short story written by Tim Lebbon that originally appeared in his October Dreams anthology. Why did you choose to adapt that story and how closely does the film follow Lebbon’s version of the tale?
Well, actually, Tim’s short story was given to me by one of the producers on the (Pay the Ghost) movie, Ian Levy. He had optioned the 10-page story and said to me ‘I think there’s something really cool here; I don’t really know what it is, but just take a read and see if it sparks anything.’ I read the story and it’s a real cool story. There wasn’t much in it that I thought would make a feature film, but I really liked the story and I loved the title, Pay the Ghost, and there was a beat in the story that I really, really liked where – again, it’s been years since I read this story. If memory serves, the father in the story is out at a supermarket with his daughter and his daughter out-of-the blue says ‘Daddy, can we pay the ghost?’

So the child character was a girl instead of a boy in the original story.

It was a girl instead of a boy. If I remember correctly, the girl then vanishes – I believe later that day or later that night. The story itself doesn’t really have anything to do with Halloween.

You embellished that aspect of the tale, adding the carnival on Halloween in New York City.

Yes. Everything in the movie is invented; but it was all sparked by reading that story. That beat in the story just really inspired me to make the whole world that I created.

On Halloween, a child-stealing ghost witch takes the only son of a loving couple. The kidnapping epitomizes every parent’s nightmare of child abduction.

I was absolutely playing to every parent’s worst nightmare, particularly just the idea that you’re out with your kid and you hit a store or wherever you are and you’re keeping him right by your side, but you get distracted for a second and then if you turn around and you don’t see your kid, extreme panic sets in. So I was definitely tapping into that.
Within a New York borough, you juxtapose a dream-like carnival against a sinister realm of evil.

Originally the idea was that there was an abandoned warehouse that Nicolas Cage’s character comes to and he goes into this back room and he sees ‘Pay the Ghost’ and all these different hands and handwriting scrawled on this little wall.

The graffiti is so interesting; it’s like a doorway that leads to a portal for the underworld.

Right, so that wall where you see ‘Pay the Ghost’ scrawled over and over and all these different hands and different handwriting, that is supposed to be the spot where if you went back in time, Annie’s house stood.

The film’s flashbacks were riveting, especially when Sawquin hides her children beneath the floorboards of her home, when that angry mob with burning torches comes for her.

So basically Annie each year is taking kids to the other side and she’s putting them in her basement where her kids were taken from her. So the conceit was just that. It was relatively easy to write once I figured out how Annie was operating and why logically she would keep those kids in her basement. It was an extension of what happened to her own kids.
How did you research the details of the backstory for the antagonist, Annie Sawquin?

I had wanted to write a Halloween movie for some time. I’d never really come up with something that I thought was worth writing and then when I read Tim’s story I think I simultaneously did some research into the original mythology behind Halloween. I learned some things that I never knew about. It goes all the way back to this ancient Celtic festival, this harvest festival.

I read about the harvest festival and this idea that the Celts were basically celebrating a rebirth. The harvest festival came about at the end of the fall every year and they believed that as you got closer and closer to the end of the festival, the door to the spirit world opened wider and wider. That concept was pretty cool. I did a lot of invention myself, sort of elaborating and extrapolating from what I was reading, but just thinking about the Celtic festival and Halloween and how you can trace Halloween back to that was enough for me to sort of take that and run with it as far as creating my own mythology on top of this Celtic mythology.

Your antagonist, Annie Sawquin is so compelling. New York City colonists held witch trials modeled after those in Salem, Massachusetts, but one woman wasn’t burned at the stake, she was found innocent.

I was playing with that in the script. For sure. In an earlier version of the script, the movie actually began with a very sick little boy being run into an infirmary in 1692 in New Amsterdam. The idea was there was an epidemic and these colonists were searching for scapegoats. So they blamed this Pagan woman, Annie Sawquin and they took a cue from their colonists in Massachusetts who at that time were burning suspected witches at the stake. So I took a cue from that for what the colonists do to Annie.

You also created several haunting moments without the need for special effects. For example, something as simple as the scene when the protagonist Mike Lawford lets go of his son’s hand in a crowd.

You just really have to rely on your own tastes. For me, I just have to have the most strict bullshit meter that I can. Whatever it is, if I write something, if I even think it sounds hokey or if it plays hokey, I just cut it and a rewrite it until I feel like the beat can play organically. It’s really just instinctual and you hope that your instincts are right. At the end of the day, you rely on everyone else who’s reading it. If I turn in the script to a director or to the actors and the producers and if there is a certain beat that they don’t think is working, then I adjust it to try to make it work.
The visual images delight as well, such as when Cage dons a cowboy costume and his son, Charlie, played by Jack Fulton, dresses as a pirate. However, this is not a children’s movie. How did those costumes kind of fulfill your own feelings about Halloween?

Well, as most Americans who grew up celebrating Halloween, it was the greatest night of the year. I loved dressing up, I loved going door-to-door, I loved just gorging on candy. So it was always a night growing up that had a special meaning for me. I was really just tapping into memories of my childhood when I was writing those scenes of dressing up and going out trick-or-treating. It was just something that has always been a special memory for me.

The release of the movie in theaters and On Demand precedes the month of Halloween, serving both the plot and the theme of the movie. There are advantages to writing a favorite holiday-themed movie that might be shown during the same month again year after year.

Yes. Definitely that was part of my thinking. Like I mentioned before, I really always wanted to write a Halloween movie because growing up every Halloween me and my friends would get together and we’d watch Halloween, the movie. I thought that it would be really fun to write something that kids today – every Halloween when they get together – that this might be a movie that they might watch. That was definitely in the back of my mind when I was creating this.

You also wrote the horror/thriller, Timber Falls. How different was writing that script?

I guess the writing process was not all that different. The biggest difference with Timber Falls was that it was the first horror movie that I wrote. So it was a lot of fun just to sort of play in a new genre for me. I hadn’t written anything like that before, but creatively, the process was probably pretty similar.
You also worked on the Disney’s screenplay, Tinker Bell. What did that writing experience do for you in terms of your writing career?

Well, actually the experience of working on Tinker Bell is what led me to writing Timber Falls, because I enjoyed working on Tinker Bell, but I was living in a sort of little girl’s world for however long it was, six months to a year, I don’t remember exactly. However long I was working on that, it was every day you try to capture the voices of Tinker Bell and her friends and I had never written anything like that before. So after living in that kid’s space for so long I think I really wanted to have a polar opposite experience and that’s what inspired me to write Timber Falls. If I never wrote Tinker Bell, I don’t know that I would have ever written Timber Falls.

You also wrote the TV pilot, Diabolic, that also focuses upon the supernatural. How different did you find the experience of writing scripts for television as opposed to writing a script for a movie?

Well, the difference is that for television, especially when you’re writing a pilot, you want people to read that pilot and have a really great sense for what the show could become, but you’re also holding a lot of your cards close to your vest because you want to hint at certain mysteries and mysteries behind certain characters and plot points, but you don’t want to reveal too much because you want the audience to be intrigued and to come back and watch next week, and the week after that, and the week after.

With a movie, you don’t want too many loose ends that would frustrate the audience; you don’t want them to leave the movie with loose ends where they go ‘Oh, my gosh I wish it would have tied it up. I’m dying to know how that story line ended or where that character ended up.’ So, in a movie you really have to bring the whole thing to a close. You have really bring some closure. Whereas in a TV pilot it’s the opposite, you don’t really want closure at all, you want the reader – in a sense that you’re writing it – and later obviously the viewer of the pilot to say ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait until next week when I can watch the next the episode.’ So philosophically, it’s pretty different.

You grew up in New York and received a bachelor of sciences degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania. What breaks did you receive early in your career that helped you to get started in the movie industry?
I guess the biggest break for me was that I wrote and directed a movie, when I was living in New York. The movie was called Way Off Broadway, it was a character-driven coming of age movie. After making that movie I got to travel the film festival circuit on and off for about two years with the movie. That eventually led to me getting representation out in LA and then I moved to LA. That was probably my first break, writing and directing Way Off Broadway.

You also serve on the staff of the New York Film Academy. What is one tip that you have often given your students about writing?

One tip in particular?

What’s one tip that you always give them?

That’s a good question. There are so many tips. I think the biggest tip that I will always stress to a student is that the business of screenwriting or television writing can be brutal and challenging and just very, very hard. So, you’ve got to love it to do it. There’s got to be nothing else in the world that you think you would want to do. If you feel that way and you’re passionate about it, you’ll get there, but if writing is not necessarily the thing that you’re absolutely compelled to do then maybe you should reconsider. Maybe that’s one of the tips that I give my students most often.

Also please see my story posted on the Creative Screenwriting website at:


My Alec Berg interview posts to Creative Screenwriting magazine

8 Sep

Alec Berg on Silicon Valley | Creative Screenwriting MagazineScreenwriter and producer of HBO’s current smash hit series Silicon Valley Alec Berg, who formerly worked on television sitcoms Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, unabashedly admits to using other people’s real-life stories. In fact, he has built a lucrative career writing TV scripts about the real things real people say and do. And since 2013, Alec, co-creator Mike Judge and a team of writers have scripted true stories to fit Silicon Valley’s fast-paced and funny comedy series about an incubator start up company, Pied Piper.

“We get credit for a lot of things that happen on Silicon Valley that are not things that we made up. There’s a joke in the pilot about how Peter Gregory drives this very narrow car. People would say that it is hilarious that we made up the car. We didn’t make up the car; it’s a real car. It’s a funny real thing. Those real things are always the most interesting, the funniest, and trying to think of what’s going to be funny is never as funny as funny things that have actually happened.”

Silicon Valley’s tall tales focus on a geeky computer genius, Richard Hendricks, played by Thomas Middleditch, who accidentally designs game-changing software known as a compression algorithm. The fantasy data compression tool makes texts, files, music and movies smaller and easier to transmit across the Internet. Hendricks leads a band of unkempt sidekicks, coder Bertram Gilfoyle, played by Martin Starr, programmer Dinesh Chugtai, portrayed by Kumail Nanjiani, and business development expert Jared Dunn played by Zach Woods. The four men live and work together in disagreeable harmony inside the home office of a cocky pot-smoking con man and philanderer Erlich Bachman, played by T.J. Miller. The sitcom’s story lines blur between leisure, video game play, and indulgence in food, alcohol and drugs.
Establishing Trust

The writers of Silicon Valley rely upon the tech community of Palo Alto, interviewing experts who help to provide content. “For Silicon Valley, it’s all just about research, meeting with a ton of different people. We’ve met dozens and dozens of different people – venture capitalists, lawyers, founders, coders.”

Initially, the writers faced some difficulty getting local tech people to talk openly about their covert and somewhat controversial activities. “People were very suspicious because there was a really not very done well reality show set in Silicon Valley a few years ago, and that’s what people kind of think of when you say you’re going to do a TV show about Silicon Valley. But since the first season aired and people kind of know what they’re dealing with, it has become massively easier to get insiders interested in sharing their stories.”

And maintaining accuracy has fostered a level of trust. “They know we’re not going to tell these fake salacious stories and we’re not there to undermine or take shots at anybody. I think we’re poking loving fun at that business. And it’s a nice thing to have story-wise where if you get stuck, you can always just ask, ‘What would really happen if?’ and talk to some people who actually lived things like this and steal their lives.”

Berg at SXSW 2015Art Imitates Life

One such example of art imitating life occurs in season one, episode five, “Signaling Risk,” when Bachman hires a graphic artist to paint a logo for Pied Piper. The finished mural painted on the outside of Bachman’s garage and home office featured the likeness of one company programmer sporting an enormous genitalia while simulating intercourse with the Statue of Liberty. Writers framed the episode after David Choe, a street artist who painted murals inside Facebook’s offices in exchange for stock.

“It’s actually a famous tech story. Choe spent a few days painting murals in the Facebook offices and he ended up making — I don’t know what it was in the end — a few hundred million dollars. Because Facebook didn’t have any cash to give him, they just gave him stock options.”

The fictional mural artist in Silicon Valley, identified as Chuy Ramirez, wants Pied Piper stock options as payment in exchange for his contracted artwork, but instead receives a cash-only 10K deal. “That’s a prime example of where we get our stories. We’ll take a few tech stories and we’ll kind of twist them and expand them and build them into stories for our show.”
Coping with Loss

The show suffered a great loss during season one, when actor Christopher Evan Welch, died at age 48 following a three-year battle with lung cancer. Afterwards, the writers had to figure out how to address the loss of his popular character Peter Gregory, Pied Piper’s eccentric investor.

“He was a great guy, he had a wife, kids and it was awful. He couldn’t have been more lovely. Also, we lost a brilliant character and an actor that we could have written about for years.”

Silicon Valley’s writers had to rewrite the series without Welch.

“As a writer, that was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do – to go through those scripts and to delete that character from the script. It was so heartbreaking. There were a couple of scripts that we had already read with the actors at the table and so we heard a sort of table read version of what Welch was going to do with those scenes, and they were great, and I was really looking forward to shooting them and having them as part of the show.”
An Alpha Female

In season two, then, writers introduced actress Suzanne Cryer, who portrayed Laurie Bream, the idiosyncratic managing partner and numbers cruncher for Raviga Capital, Pied Piper’s newest investor. Bream’s robotic-like movements and failure to make eye contact portray her as a woman who behaves unflatteringly like the stereotypical version of a corporate man.

An associate partner, Monica, played by Amanda Crew, also grounds the show with beauty and brains while portraying the smartest female tech in California.
10 Episode Seasons

HBO has a policy of running only 10 episodes per season.

“We do the same number of episodes as Game of Thrones. They do 10 because their production is so sprawling and so massive; I think they’re killing themselves to do 10 episodes of that show a year.”

“HBO also need to have a certain number of shows on the air, so that when you buy a subscription to HBO, you’re not subscribing to one show or two shows, or three shows. You’re buying a subscription to the 12 or 15 or however many different shows they have on the air. These shorter order shows serve them because it just means that they have time to air more shows in a year. It helps the value of their subscription packets.”

Formerly, networks had to create 88 or 100 episodes before they could sell them in syndication in order to recoup their money. “Now, you know what? If you make 10 really good episodes or eight or six episodes of something, you can sell it. Look at True Detective. That was a phenomenon. That was a very short order and because it was short, HBO got better people to work on it. Oscar winning actors were willing to work on it because it’s not that big of a commitment.”

“People who used to say ‘I’m not going to get locked into shooting a television series for nine months a year for the next seven years.’ Now, the caliber of performers that you get who are willing to do these say ‘Oh sure, I’ll shoot a TV show for two and a half or three months every year and for the other nine months of the year I can off and shoot features and do whatever I want to do. I think you’re getting people who used to live in features where they could spend time to really craft something and get it right and now those people are coming to work in television.”

Short seasons means that Berg and his team can write the entire season before shooting begins. “So, if we come up with something in episode eight or nine, that affects or plays off of something from an earlier episode, we can actually go back and we can say ‘Oh shoot. We should have set this moment in episode nine up in episode two.’ There’s plenty of time to address that. It means that we really handcraft every episode to get it right.”

This is in sharp contrast to times when he did not have such luxury, writing multiple episodes for Seinfeld simultaneously while production crews shot two or more others. “Those earlier episodes were already locked and shot, sometimes edited, and sometimes aired already, depending upon how crazy your schedule was.”
Not Writing to Rule

“We don’t have a diagram on the wall that represents what the shape of each show should be. We certainly don’t conform things to any kind of rule of how they should look or how they should feel. That’s part of the joy of the show; we’re just finding it out every week.”

That said, by coincidence, several episodes last season ended with cliffhangers. “Somebody said ‘Boy, you’re sure doing a lot of cliffhangers as endings this season,’ and we hadn’t really thought about it. Somebody pointed it out and I said ‘Oh, are we?’ I hadn’t really thought about it. It’s certainly not by design. One of the unique things about Mike Judge is that he was a musician for years. So, a lot of the way he writes is very similar to the way a musician would play; he plays a lot of stuff by ear.”
Berg compares Judge’s writing style to music.

“It’s a little bit like jazz; it’s free-form. You know it when you hear it. You play certain notes and they don’t sound right, so you change them until they sound right. Then you go ‘OK, that sounds right.’ That’s kind of like how the show has always worked.”

Berg organizes all of the discussions on a white board, while the team decides structure and ideas for the season. Afterwards, he types the key words into a document and projects them onto a screen. Using the key words projected, individually selected writers create scripts for each episode.

“Having more than four people in a room tends to kind of water things down and you write jokes that 10 people think are funny with different comedy beats rather than what two or three people think are funny. It starts to feel ‘sitcomy’ and ‘jokey.’ Whereas you can do more nuance and more sophisticated stuff in smaller groups. I think if you’re doing stand up in front of 20 people you can do much more interesting stuff than you can if you’re doing stand up in front of 500 or 1,000 people. The sound of 20 people not laughing at a not sophisticated joke is lots less deafening than the sound of a thousand people not laughing at the same joke. It tends to affect the writing process the same way.”
Executive Trust

HBO executives don’t mess with the writers’ scripts. “It takes a certain amount of courage as an executive to read a script and not feel like you have to give notes on every page. They’re just smart. If there are big problems, they have a lot of suggestions and if things are working they pretty much leave them alone. They are smart enough to know the difference.”

Please see my article with photos posted to Creative Screenwriting magazine’s website at:

My story about Arquette and Linklater posted to Creative Screenwriting magazine

11 May

Linklater and Arquette: Boyhood’s Twelve Year Martini Shot | CTexas attracted the world’s attention with Boyhood, the movie written and directed by Richard Linklater, after being nominated for six Academy Awards including best picture last February.

Today Linklater and one of the most recognizable faces from Boyhood, leading lady Patricia Arquette, have quickly become Texas spokespersons regarding the state of the industry.

Arquette won an Oscar for best supporting actress in her Boyhood role as a divorced, single parent working part-time while putting herself through college.

The two joined other “A list” Hollywood actors, directors and producers as panelists at a press conference inside Austin’s private Gibson Texas Showroom just hours prior to the Texas Film Awards.

Rebecca Campbell, executive director of the Texas Film Society, introduced Linklater and Arquette as well as other panelists Louis Black, Guillermo del Toro, Tommy Lee Jones, and Bonnie Curtis.

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“Community is what makes Texas a special place for creatives,” Campbell said. “It’s something like lightning in a bottle and we are going to capture it.”

Arquette who began her acting career by appearing in primarily alternative, low-budget independent films, talked about how movie financing has changed over the years.

“As these big movies like the Spiderman and the super hero movies made more money, studios went from green-lighting a bunch of $10 million movies and $100 million movies to three $150 million movies and then no $10 million movies,” she said.

“At the same time cable came in with a vengeance so we have like 500 channels with no content and it’s just a recycling of the same content and three different big movies from each studio and no one is able to get any money for anything else.”

“I’m a fourth generation actor. My great-grandparents were in Vaudeville, so the concept of entertaining the masses for 5 cents a ticket was always appealing to me.”

“With Netflix and all these different people who want original content now, I think the pendulum is swinging back to where people are now going to turn off their cable because there’s really nothing on,” she said.

Arquette said while portraying herself as a struggling mother in Boyhood she became a role model.

“One thing that was planned from the beginning was not to have a Hollywood concept,” she said.

“I mean I don’t want to be something that I’m gonna cry ‘bull sh*t’ at. I want to look like a real human being on Earth – and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

She said she loved the Boyhood project from the moment that Linklater told her about it. He kept the project real by shooting scenes on 35mm film with his cast once a year for one week over a span of 12 years.

IFC Films executive president Jonathan Sehring approved the film’s funding in the meantime. The risk paid off for both IFC and Linklater who both received their first Oscar nominations for best picture. The movie has earned more than $444 million since it opened at box offices nationwide.

“I’ve said this a million times, but I continue to say it a million times — you can’t have a contract that long in America. Even though it was (funded for) $4.4 million dollars, still any of us could have left,” she said.

“It was an incredible risk that will probably never be done in this system again. I mean some kid and his camera might make a movie over 12 years, but I don’t think most people would gamble money like that; so that was rare.”

She had wanted to work with the cast and crew long before Arquette accepted her Boyhood role.

“I’d always wanted to work with Rick (Linklater.) I’d always wanted to work with Ethan (Hawke) and then I sat down and we had that first conversation about this woman and this family and the changes that they were going to go through,” she said.

“We were both parents; it just was (a story about) the beauty of life and the simplicity of life.”

Arquette feels a personal responsibility to help redefine a woman’s place in the world. She said she hopes that someday members of society will end their sexual objectification of women.

“It’s such a subconscious thing, this indoctrination that we do to our daughters; it’s constant. When you hear 11, 12, and 13 year-old girls judging themselves and their bodies and trying to think who they are supposed to be in the world,” she said.

“Or what’s of value and that they have to lead with their beauty or it’s demanded of them and expected of them. The more we have these conversations, the more we write about these things we are continuing that cycle. I just really wish we would get past that for our daughters.”

Her outspokenness has inspired fans. On stage at the 87th Academy Awards in February when she accepted her Oscar for best supporting actress in Boyhood, she demanded equal pay and equal rights for women in America.

At one point during Arquette’s acceptance speech, legendary actress Meryl Streep jumped out of her seat, to point her finger in the air and shout “yes, yes.”

“I thought about my character, this woman moving her kids from place to place and trying to put herself through school, and picking them up from school, doing homework and everything, and my own mom who never really had her own economic independence, Arquette said.

She said her mom felt safe in her independence.

“On a subconscious level I think women often put their kids first. I don’t know. My mom passed away from breast cancer. I don’t know if she put off going to the doctor because of whatever, for how many times, for how many years,” she said.

“Instability is very dangerous for women and Latina women are severely affected by the big ‘IF.’ I thought about my character and how different my life would have been as a white woman if she (Arquette’s mom) had made 22 cents more to the dollar, how a Latina woman’s life might be different if she made 40 cents more to the dollar. It would be very different.”

Arquette said she empathizes with the struggle Latina women face.

“Latina women are the least likely to start their own businesses and less likely to put their kids through college, but we need more Latina businesses. We need to see that happening. The impact of not having the capacity to do that well has affected our economy and our society, for decades. So we have to do a radical switch and reset the balance,” she said.

Arquette also talked about her efforts to promote equal pay for women, which she considers a non-partisan issue.

“I personally believe that Republican women should be paid the same as their counterparts. I don’t know what’s wrong with that,” she said.

“I am more radical than a Democrat or Left Wing. I’m more radical, but I also have a lot of friends who are Republicans and I see their point of view. I don’t always agree with them, but I don’t have an adversity to them as people. They could be my friends; I do respect them as human beings and other Americans, but I think this is really a non-partisan issue.”

Linklater talked about how he managed to keep Boyhood’s actors committed to the project for 12 years.

“Like any cult, it’s not usually contractual, but you can just sign on and drop out any time, but I was hoping it would mean more to them,” he said.

“Yes, people could drift away and some did, but for the most part — for people who had worked on it – it had this cumulative effect. They got more and more invested in it. So by the end, some said ‘hey, I’ve worked, eight or ten, or 12 years on this thing; I really care about it.’ It was cool.”

He said the actors worked about one week each year on set. Some staff put in one month every year and ultimately hundreds of people worked on the movie over the course of its dozen years.

“It was very special.”

“You know the last shot of a movie, they call it ‘the martini shot.’ It’s the last shot. Even if you do a one-day shoot, the martini shot is the last shot of that day. The last shot of a film that’s been say — a 30-day shoot or a 50-day shoot, it’s like a big deal to have a martini on the last day. So you can imagine the martini shot after 12 years.”

Shooting the martini shot on the last day for Boyhood spent in Big Bend National Park, transcended reality, he said.

“It was the last shot of the movie and we were doing like a magic hour shot and we were kind of floating. It was amazing. I’ll never forget it. It was probably the most intense, most beautiful thing ever,” he said.

He said he wrote the script for the movie in segments over a 12-year period and often saw story potential everywhere around him.

“Endless. There are miles and miles of Texas — a lot of stories — it’s a big state. Stories are everywhere,” he said.

“It was kind of a year-to-year endeavor. It was designed to incorporate whatever was going on in the world at that moment.”

Linklater drew on his memories and recollections of news events that occurred in his own childhood.

“There are things in our culture that I thought (someone) would remember as a child. So we’re sort of filming a period piece, but we’re filming it in the present — which is both unique and low budget,” he said.

“So, I was always thinking ‘oh, presidential elections.’ I remember my first presidential election year was (Lyndon Baines) Johnson/(Barry) Goldwater (U.S. Presidential Election 1964.) I was like three or four years old at the time, but I still remember it, so I thought I wanted to put in the elections. We kind of got lucky in the ’08 elections – they were pretty vibrant, so we shot that before the elections. We thought oh that will be an interesting footnote, you know?”

Directors often make spontaneous decisions to interject real events from American culture into movie scenes, he said.

“We were always making these little subtle choices and you always have to kind of live with it. You can’t go back and reshoot it, but it was always kind of curating what was going on and what could be included,” he said.

“Like the Harry Potter book give-away. I don’t remember that kind of thing when I was a kid, but that’s a pretty interesting phenomenon, so I thought kids that would age would remember that.”

He took an opportunity to shoot a scene during a Harry Potter book giveaway inside a retail bookstore. Because the seven novel fantasy book series written J.K. Rowling spanned from 1991 until 1998, Linklater hopes that the scene he included in his movie would elicit personal memories for Boyhood fans.

“Perhaps they’ll say ‘oh, we used to dress up and go at midnight.’ That could be 30 years from now and that would be a thing of the past, or it could go on with other books too. You just don’t know,” he said.

“Either way, it just works for the movie. You just don’t know, but it was a fun way to go through life all those years and to fit it all into the movie.”

Linklater also talked about how additional tax incentives for moviemakers might bring future film productions to Texas.

He said the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program (TMIIP) provides qualifying film, television, commercial, visual effects and video game productions cash grants based on any project’s total eligible state expenditures.

The Texas Film Commission awarded about $95 million in grants over the last two-year period of the TMIIP program created in 1971 by former Governor Preston Smith.

“Our figures are good, but then you need money in the pot, because that can run out between TV shows, movies, and video games,” he said.

“Other states have hundreds of millions. So it’s just economic development. I think we’ve proven ourselves over the years as far as spending that money wisely. They designed a very smart system.”

However, he said the state can always offer more incentives.

“We want more obviously,” he said. “So, I think that’s a big issue going forward, but the state of Texas always has to decide — do we want to be in the business or not and if we do, here’s what we need to do.”

Please also see my article posted to Creative Screenwriting magazine at:

My article with Scott Frank’s advice posts to CS magazine

9 Apr

Write Every Day: Screenwriting Advice from Scott Frank | CreativScreenwriter and director Scott Frank has one hard-and-fast rule that he says has led directly to his success: he writes every day — for at least 10 minutes. Some days, that effort stretches into two hours or at the most, four hours.

“I am at my desk or in my chair or wherever I am, but I write probably two hours a day. I mean if I’m really under the gun, I’ll write four hours a day,” he said. “I burn out after that. I burn out very hot and very fast.”

Frank spoke to an audience of Texas screenwriters March 1 at the “On Story” conversation about “Sustaining a Writing Career,” sponsored by Austin Film Festival at Holiday Inn on Town Lake March 1.

He shared his insights about how he became a writer, how luck has played a part in building his successful career, and how to improve the craft of screenwriting. He also talked about his upcoming project.

Frank has written several original screenplays as well as a string of novel adaptations by crime writers Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block.

He became a director after working as a writer with some of the biggest names in Hollywood such as Steven Soderbergh, Out of Sight (1998); Steven Spielberg, Minority Report (2002); and Sydney Pollack, The Interpreter (2005).

Last year he directed A Walk Among the Tombstones, starring Liam Neeson, adapted from Lawrence Block’s novel.

How Frank became a screenwriter

   During the Iran hostage crisis from Nov. 4, 1979 to Jan. 20, 1981 as a college student attending the University of California Santa Barbara, Frank felt inspired to write his first original screenplay, Little Man Tate.

After graduating college in 1982, Frank began to focus writing more about the boy character, Fred Tate. It took eight years before the story became a film project but in the meantime, Frank established himself as a screenwriter.

How luck has helped his career

Looking back over 30 years, Frank said he did not have a career plan at 24 years old.

“I don’t know that there was a conscious design for my career as much as it was blind luck,” he said. “I was incredibly lucky.”

He happened to meet someone who had the ability to alter the path of his entire career.

“I was very lucky that the first person that I met early on in my career was Lindsay Doran (actress and movie producer best known for The Firm in 1993, Sense and Sensibility in 1995 and Stranger than Fiction in 2006,) for instance. That’s just luck. There’s no reason for it,” he said.

“I could have met (producer, Jerome Leon) ‘Jerry’ Bruckheimer (best known for the television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation since 2000, and The Amazing Race since 2001,) and I might have done something else, but I met Lindsay Doran and she actually took the time and taught me how to write.”

He also met late film executive and producer Ned Tanen, best known for Sixteen Candles in 1984, The Breakfast Club, and St. Elmo’s Fire both in 1985. Tanen brought Frank to Paramount and gave him a desk on the studio’s writing floor.

While at Paramount, Frank met other writers and movie producers, including Dennis Feldman, best known for Just One of the Guys in 1985, The Golden Child in 1986 and Species in 1995.

“One day I wandered into his (Feldman’s) office to play Nerf basketball and I said ‘I have this title in my head and I have no idea what the movie is about. I just like this title, it’s a weird bumbling of words – Dead Again.’ And he said ‘huh’ and by the end of the basketball game I had the plot for the movie,” he said.

“Weird stuff like that just happens. I didn’t go in there to talk about a movie. I had no agenda, just luckily that’s what happened.”

He worked on the screenplay for over two years before it became the 1991 movie directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.

To further his luck, he often becomes “the dumbest guy in the room.”

   “I’ve made a career – no joke – out of being the dumbest guy in the room. Writers tend to want to be the smartest guy in the room because they don’t want to take anybody’s notes, but if you’re the dumbest guy in the room, you’re surrounded by those people who make your work better and ultimately you get credit for it,” he said.

“The best stuff in The Lookout (2007) came from (David) Fincher and in Out of Sight, (1998) the best stuff came from (Steven) Soderbergh, and the best stuff in Minority Report (2002) came from Steven Spielberg.”

Crucial conversations with influential people have often changed the direction of his screenplays. As an example he described a phone call he received from director Barry Sonnenfeld during pre-production for the 1995 movie, Get Shorty.

“Barry (Sonnenfeld) called me up in the middle of the night and he said ‘I think Chili (Palmer, played by John Travolta,) should rent a minivan.’ So I wrote the scene and there was this whole scene with the lady on the bus who calls it ‘the Cadillac of minivans.’ I never would have written that if Barry hadn’t called me up,” he said.

Frank’s tips for improving the craft of screenwriting

Think like a director

Now that he also directs, Frank writes more sparingly and he includes critical visual details in his screenplays.

   “Now when I write a little paragraph, I think ‘Ok. That’s eight hours of shooting. Do I really want to do that, to be outside in the snow again? How about interior, girls’ locker room, day.’ So you’re constantly thinking about stuff you’re going to make, all the time,” he said.

“There are things not in your script that you need in your script – things that were very non-specific and stuff that you just hoped someone would work out and now you’re the someone.”

Writers will write better scenes if they think like directors, he said.

“Even if it’s two people sitting at a table. It makes you want to make something happen,” he said.

“If you just write a scene with two people sitting at a table, guess what? You get on the set and there are two actors sitting across from one another at a table and there is nothing for them to do but say your lines. Unless your lines are like My Dinner with Andre, — which is spectacular dialogue — nothing is going to hold your attention.”

Writers should write dynamic scenes as visually interesting as possible and think about who might interrupt, or what unexpected bit of business may occur.

“You want to start thinking about these things and you only start thinking about them as a director,” he said.

“I had a little of that as a writer because I worked for so many directors from the get-go, so I was always aware that something always has to be happening. Still, if you don’t create something, a director will fill in the vacuum. Sometimes it’s not good.”

Write great openings

Frank has a reputation for creating compelling openings for each of his screenplays; he uses that same writing device at the start of every scene throughout his screenplays.

   “People who are happy are boring,” he said. “Unless it’s somebody who’s really happy and then something horrible happens to them – that’s awesome.”

In order to enjoy a movie, a viewer must be invested pretty quickly. Writers must write their scripts with that rule in mind.

“We are also writing for people who read the script,” he said. “Our writing is a factor. Sometimes people write these things when translated are really good, but they read horribly. I would argue that you have to do both, especially early on in your career and especially if you aren’t directing,” he said.

“It has to read great and it has to be great. My thought process ranges from ‘What do I need to know to care enough to go on this ride? What do I need to know? Is there a mystery or a question that I can ask that’s waiting to be answered?’”

Frank said that every scene should answer the same questions three questions.

Develop great characters

   Readers must care about a script’s main characters right off the bat and writers must reveal them as authentic and multifaceted people motivated by passion, Frank said.

As examples of solid characters, Frank cited those created for: Raging Bull, the 1997 book written by authors Jake LaMotta, Joseph Carter, Peter Savage and Nick Tosches, and adapted for the 1980 movie by screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin. He also likes the characters in Nightcrawler, last year’s screenplay by Dan Gilroy, loosely based upon the comic series by Chris Claremont.

   Frank also likes writing about men suffering from a serious mid-life crisis. He particularly likes bank robbers as characters.

“I’m so glad that I’m not them,” he said. “I have a very boring life and I like it that way. My childhood wasn’t particularly fascinating, but I had a great imagination and I’m very curious. I have weird friends and I know that I collect weird people and I just like that,” he said.

“I like people in crisis. Also I think good stories are about people who ‘in extremis,’” a Latin phrase that translates “at the point of death.”

He also looks for ways to endear a complex character to his or her audience.

“I’m always thinking I just want you to care about this guy. I just want you to care more about her or him in any way that I can to get you there. So by the end (of the screenplay) you have some type of emotional connection, even if it’s a dark, dark story,” he said.

Writers must find “the hook” that makes a character interesting. Mistakenly, most writers spend too much time on exposition, Frank said.

Don’t set the scene at the beginning of a screenplay

Drop brief descriptions about the setting throughout the script, he said.

“The big mistake people make is they feel that they need to set the scene. So they spend a lot of time in the beginning of their script setting the scene – telling what the apartment looks like, introducing you to their kids and their dog and their car and their life,” he said.

“Nothing is more boring than that.”

A screenwriter entertains; he does not explain, Frank said.

Set the tone immediately

Frank created the tone for his movie, Walk Among the Tombstones, loosely based upon the tenth book in a series of novels written by Lawrence Block about an alcoholic and former private investigator Matt Scudder.

In order to write the adaptation, Frank had to change the original setting and borrowed a different opening scene from one Block mentions in another book in the thrilling detective series.

“So I wanted something that started off with a bang where you saw this man and you kind of got one sense of him,” he said.

“I thought what would be really interesting is if the guy you met in the first five minutes was different from the guy that you meet after the credits.”

Write concise dialogue

Screenwriters must learn to say much with very little.

“That’s exactly what a script should look like,” he said.

Make the script your own

   While writing an adaption for a novel, Frank does not collaborate with the author.

“I want the author to like me; I don’t want them to help me,” he said.

For Get Shorty, Frank had to invent at least half the story for his script, a huge departure from the novel.

“I realized for the movie, for the story that I wanted to tell — not all of it’s in the book,” he said.

The same rule applies for his current project.

This year he plans to direct a movie loosely based on a German children’s novel, set inside a little village in Ireland.

“It’s about a flock of sheep who solve the murder of their shepherd. He has read to them every night from Agatha Christie because he’s a lonely, sad guy. They’ve heard every Agatha Christie story there is so they believe they’re up to the task,” he said.

“One or two of them may be smart, but the only person dumber than the sheep is the town constable.”

Frank hopes to cast Liam Neeson to play the shepherd and Emma Thompson to voice the smartest sheep, Miss Maple. Craig Mazin wrote the adaption for the 2008 book, Three Bags Full: a Sheep Detective Story, written by Leonie Swann and translated by Anthea Bell.

“The sheep can choose to forget things and any time something bad happens, like death, they all choose to forget. So they never realize that through our memories is how we actually keep people alive,” he said.

“My wife says ‘Well, you finally do a real family movie and it’s about murder.’ So I said, ‘I did another family movie and killed the dog; it’s perfectly in keeping.’”

To see my article as it appears on the website of Creative Screenwriting magazine, please follow this link:

My interview with Bill Broyles Jr. posted today to CS magazine

10 Feb

Cast Away for Real: Taking Research to the Extreme | Creative ScIn an exclusive interview with Creative Screenwriting magazine, writer Bill Broyles Jr. talked about why he feels he must always first walk in his main characters’ shoes.

   “You have to ground things in an honestly felt experience of your own. Sometimes that is an experience you’ve had yourself; other times you have to talk to people and try to get into their heads and try to experience what they did,” he said.

He also said the concept for Cast Away in 2000 came from reading Daniel Defoe’s book, Robinson Crusoe and that The Odyssey by Homer helped him to write the plot lines for Apollo 13 in 1995.

Cast Away

In 1999 Broyles called upon Mormon survivalists in Utah to deliver him to an isolated island in Mexico and to teach him how to make fire; then they left him there alone for ten days without food, tools, or shelter.

“I had to learn to make a spear out of rock and I had to spear a fish – or a stingray actually and eat it raw. I had to lick water off of leaves. Everything he (Noland) does in the movie, I did,” Broyles said.

Alone, Broyles discovered his own metaphysical need for companionship.

“I went down to the beach the next morning and there was a volleyball washed up on the shore. It was a Wilson. I put some shells and seaweed on it and talked to it,” he said. “That became like the core of the movie.”

Bill Broyles tall

Broyles called upon his five senses — and then some — to tell his Cast Away story without voiceovers or a musical score.

“What was so powerful was just the sound of the ocean and the silence. I didn’t want the audience to experience anything but what the character did,” he said.

He also recalled the isolation he felt when as a first lieutenant in the US Marine Corps returning to the United States in 1971 after earning the Bronze Star and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry in Vietnam.

“I realized that all of the things that were important to me back in the civilized world meant nothing to me anymore,” he said.

In Cast Away, as in all of his films, Broyles used symbolism.

“There is the feeling that the ocean represents both birth and death,” he said. “It’s not human; it’s this other being. It’s kind of a mystical whale. That is all kind of biblical in a way.”

Broyles called Cast Away his favorite film because the character shows what he thinks by doing.

“A lot of it is beneath kind of rational thought – there’s just this kind of instinct,” he said.

“Everything he does, everything he handles – every piece of wardrobe is in the script.”

An everyday object such as a Port-a-Potty became a vehicle, while a FedEx box represented a spiritual totem.

“The thing that ultimately saves him is the painting (image) on the FedEx box that he doesn’t open. That one box that he does not open gives him the image of the wings and he realizes that’s how he is going to get out – on the wings of this Port-a-Potty.”

“I just really enjoyed the visual storytelling of that.”

Broyles stripped away the most elementary of his writer’s tools – words – to create a character – the Wilson volleyball – that he called “my favorite character.”

“Because he is made out of the blood of Tom Hank’s character. In a way, it’s a creation story,” he said.

Broyles said he inevitably experiences a sense of loss every time he watches Tom Hanks character release Wilson to the ocean.

Apollo 13

Broyles’ initial research for Apollo 13 began as a youngster growing up in Baytown, Texas. Later as journalist he wrote about the programs designed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

“One of my favorite scenes from Apollo 13 was when the crew is trying to make the filter and the guy dumps everything. He says ‘You have to take this and make that.’ I think there’s a kind of fascination with tapping into that primal thing we have,” Broyles said.

“This survival instinct and our ability to improvise and to learn – that’s really fundamental.”

Like the character in Cast Away, the main characters in Apollo 13 get into trouble, they figure out a way to survive, then return home.

“I like a structure that’s simple like that because you can tell the character’s story more deeply,” he said.

Broyles channeled both real life astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 much as he did his fictional character, Chuck Noland, in Cast Away.

“There’s always a part of me in every character,” he said. “You have to really try to inhabit each one.”

China Beach

During filming for the television show, China Beach, actors helped to develop the characters that Broyles imagined.

“Just watching these actors, we used to say ‘they think they’re Marines, but they’re really not.’ They become them, convincingly so,” he said.

In China Beach, experienced actors contributed to the show’s success. Actors Dana Delany and Marg Helgenberger and others taught Broyles how little dialogue that he needs to write into his scripts, he said.

“They would say, ‘I don’t need to say this – I can do it with this,’ and so we gradually wrote less and less dialogue. Finally, we would write a scene that just had two words, or we would write a scene that just said ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Or we’d write a scene that said ‘Yes has to mean No and No has to mean Yes,’” he said.

Broyles did more than write China Beach as a multi-dimensional view of the Vietnam War to a television audience.

“Something film and TV can do, besides just entertain, is they can be a way to express and confront those deeper things in life,” he said. “You want it to make people’s lives better and deeper if you can, as opposed to just entertain them,” he said.

Broyles learned to improvise scripts and to use all of his resources in order to save money.

For the episode of “Vets,” Broyles intercut recorded interviews with real veterans talking about their wartime experiences as anecdotes into previously recorded scenes from China Beach.

Writing techniques

Broyles said he interviews and records real people talking about real life events and he also reads a great deal of research before he ever begins to write.

“Often when I start writing, I don’t even look at it (the research.) I put it all aside and just try to feel it,” he said.

“It’s kind of one of those parasite-host situations. If I let the parasite in too much it changes the behavior. So, I am inspired by it – I can’t do the writing without the research. I can’t really write until I’ve done enough research to write.”

Broyles’ attention to detail stems from his formal education at Rice where he earned a bachelors of arts degree in history and from Oxford University where he earned his masters degree in politics.

He also understands the importance of historical accuracy from working a decade as an editor at Texas Monthly and two years for Newsweek. Yet, he admits that he still encounters pitfalls while writing.

“The biggest pitfalls I encounter in writing comes when my writing sucks, or I feel that it does,” he said. “So you have to be able to write things that you know aren’t that good,” he said.

“Then that crappy screenplay is like scaffolding. I build it so that I can see to the next place and then I write the next one.”

During the writing process Broyles often subconsciously includes details that ultimately prove valuable to the success of a script.

“Like those wings in Cast Away on the box. I had no idea why I put those wings there. But when I was trying to figure out how he (Noland) would get off the island, I put in all these different versions – he was rescued by pirates, or by drug dealers. Then I realized he had to get off by himself and he had the wings on the box.”

However, Broyles said he has become his own worst critic.

“I’m rarely satisfied with my work. I’m not motivated by praise ‘this is so great.’ I’m motivated by ‘this sucks; you could do so much better.’ That keeps me going, but because of that I keep getting new ideas. It doesn’t stop.”

Broyles admits that for him, the writing process becomes cathartic.

“I don’t write what I think; I write to see what I think,” he said. “If I don’t write I don’t learn, so I’m always seeing,” he said.

Writing the China Beach television series exercised his talents in a way that helped him to improve his writing process in a non-linear way.

“I was always able to write the future episode even though we were in pre-production on one and filming another and in post-production on another,” he said.

“So instead of going ‘A, B, C, D, E, F, G,’ you say ‘Wait, I can go A, G, and the audience will know exactly what’s so going on.’ So I can cut all that other stuff out.”

Broyles moved from Jackson Hole, Wyoming to Santa Fe, New Mexico recently. He enjoys isolating himself in order to write.

“I like to live away from the business of film,” he said. “I just want to think about doing my job, which is the writing and then if I need to go to LA, or New York or London to get it made, then ok, I love doing that.”

However, Broyles prefers writing film scripts to those for television because he enjoys sitting and watching audiences react to his movies.

“The religious celebration around the fire, telling stories or celebrating rituals in the dark — whatever those things are, I miss that with TV,” he said.

“I just feel so lucky that I’ve got to make a few movies.”

Please see my article posted to Creative Screenwriting at:












My interview with Dana Brunetti posted to CS magazine 2-2-2015

2 Feb

“The camera doesn’t know what it’s shooting” – Produci
Seventeen years ago a chance meeting between actor Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti led to a successful professional collaboration in the movie industry. Today, Brunetti pays the favor forward by giving unknown screenwriters their first shot at filmmaking with Jameson First Shot short film competition.

The Brunetti and Spacey partnership formed Triggerstreet Productions, the company that produced Captain Phillips, Shakespeare High, 21, The Social Network and House of Cards.

In an exclusive interview with Creative Screenwriting magazine, Brunetti talked about what it takes to produce the award-winning House of Cards, one of the first original series ever streamed on Netflix. He also discussed The Social Network, the movie he produced in 2010, and the soon-to-be-released 50 Shades of Grey.

CS: What did you see in the 2009 book, The Accidental Billionaires, by Ben Mezrich, that became part of the movie, The Social Network?

It’s hard to say what part of that book was crucial because we set up the film when it was just a book proposal, a 14-page proposal. It was a weird step away from how that process usually works, whereas Aaron (Sorkin) was writing the screenplay at the same time that the book was being written. So, it’s hard to say what part of the book was crucial to that. I think it was more that we tapped into a bit of a zygote that is both the spirit and the culture of Silicon Valley and its entrepreneurs in general. Mark’s (Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder) character in that film was such a tragic character, but a successful character that I think a lot of people related to him and just what happens in the world right now. You’re connected to everybody, but just like him in the film, he’s sitting there hitting ‘refresh’ trying to see if the girl who he screwed over – or who he ultimately disappointed, will accept his friend request. Some of that same research was shared with both Aaron and the author. Based just on the book proposal and what the movie could be, Aaron kind of went off and did his own thing with the force of it. While it’s a lot different as a process, it sort of isn’t either — because sometimes screenwriters will get a book and we’ll get a lot more from it even than the Social Network did from the book. Aaron had enough to go off of with the shared research and it ended up how it ended up, with the best possible result in my opinion.

jameson-first-shot with Spacey and Brunetti

CS: What options do you feel will become more available to screenwriters in terms of writing for Netflix productions? The fact that Netflix now is doing original content, is fantastic for all creators – writers, directors and producers like myself because A) it’s another place to take material to another buyer; it’s always good to have more buyers out there, and B) it’s also good for the audience because they have more options to get their entertainment and content. For writers specifically, I think the real advantage is that Netflix is going to begin to change up the format a little bit. When you don’t have to do commercials and it’s viewed as we do it, in chapters, for release at once, it gives writers the ability to tell the story or the art by episode or chapter or however you want to refer to it and in whatever time you need to tell that bit. Just like a chapter in a book, some chapters may be 30 pages long and some others might be 60 pages. It’s determined by how much it takes to tell that story. What we’ll eventually see in the future may not be what any of the (House of ) Cards or any of the shows that are on now, but Netflix is going to offer whatever a story needs, whether it be chapters or episodes or whatever. Some of those could be 25 minutes or you could see episodes that are an hour and a half, back-to-back as there are no set formats that they have to fit into. I think that could be really exciting for filmmakers obviously, but also for writers because they don’t have to be wedged into a certain number of pages or fit within a specific time period. They will fit whatever format is required to tell the story.

CS: I know that screenwriters wrote the entire first Season of House of Cards before you ever began production due to a scheduling conflict with Kevin Spacey. How did the writing for Season 2 change? We went to a more traditional schedule where we tried to get as many episodes written as possible before we went into production, but the production caught up with the writing, so the writing was coming in at the same place that we were ready to begin shooting. In any production, that can be a bit of a problem because it gives everybody in production less time to prepare in advance for it, so it can create some hurdles, but that’s just production in general. When we release, it doesn’t affect anything as far as viewers are concerned. When we release, we release all of the episodes, but within our production schedule, the writing has to be done. The first season, all the episodes were written and ready to go, so we were relaxed a little more. The second and third seasons our production moved pretty quickly, so the writers had to stay on top of it. I would always prefer to have all of the scripts written and available before we start shooting, because then you have more time, more flexibility and more advance preparation, but it doesn’t always work that way. It doesn’t work that way in film either. A lot of times scripts are being rewritten as we’re in production. There are adjustments in every project; there are always adjustments being made as we go along.

photo of Brunetti with Robert Luketic for CS mag

CS: What if any differences exist between producing a television series to be streamed on the Internet and one to be viewed on network TV? The time frame remains the same, because there are countries that restrict the time within that format now. But like Kevin (Spacey) always says ‘the camera doesn’t know what it’s shooting.’ It doesn’t know whether it’s shooting for a TV screen or a computer screen, and iPad or iPhone. It doesn’t know what it’s shooting for, so we approach it the same exact way. We shoot it the same way we would shoot anything.

CS: The Jameson First Shot contest sets seven as the limit for the number of typed pages writers may submit as scripts. How did you come about choosing that limit? Because it’s streaming online for one, we know the format that it’s going to be released in that it has to be pretty short, but also one of the bigger reasons is because when we bring the filmmakers here to L.A., for their shorts they hit the ground running. They go right to casting and then they go right over to production. They only have two days to shoot before the next filmmaker starts to shoot their project. So, basically the limit was set up based more on production limitations and the resources we have. If we started going much longer than that, we wouldn’t have the ability to make a film with the caliber of talent that we get. It’s basically a limitation on our resources. Generally, we would hope that it’s going to be seven minutes or somewhere in that range. We’ve had some shorts that have gone on for over ten minutes, but the story supported that and it kept it going, but generally we shoot for around seven minutes.

CS: I understand that you also prefer that writers use a “less is more” approach, or a “lighter touch” when writing their scripts for the Jameson First Shot contest as it is stated on the website. Explain that. Most shorts tend to be dark. The ones that play the most, or the ones that audiences enjoy the most are a little lighter and so we give preference to those. That doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t take one that is a little darker. We have, but also we have to look at from a production standpoint what we’re capable of doing. If there’s something like an action film, with car explosions or races or things like that, unless the filmmaker has a very unique way of doing it within our limitations, that’s generally going to get it booted from the final list. That definitely factors into what we choose, such as what the tone is, what the production requirements are going to be.

Fifty Shades of Grey

CS: The Jameson First Shot website provides a script template for writers to download that matches the industry standard; it’s really similar to The Screenwriter’s Bible format. However, the contest criteria sets limits of no more than seven characters for the seven-page scripts. Explain why fewer characters are so crucial. Again, it’s for the production restraints. We want avoid a large cast and having to bring them all in and having to create the short outside of the short time frame that we have. The seven pages and the seven characters and all of the limitations that we put on the writers force them to be more creative. It also really tests their writing abilities by having those parameters.

CS: How many screenplays do you plan to produce? We do three every year. We release them online to YouTube video on the Jameson website which gets quite a bit of traffic and gives the filmmakers quite a bit of exposure. I mean they get millions and millions of views. At least the previous ones have.

CS: Define “freshness” as a trait for screenwriters. Familiarity is all right. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be similar to an old film, but with a new perspective or a new angle. We want anything that is unique or gets our attention, whether its fresh or new, or old, or a story that we’ve heard a million times, or it could just be their take and their angle on it. Whatever story someone has inside of them that they’re dying to tell is a good way to do it as long as they can do it within the parameters that we’ve set.

CS: How will the film Gran Turismo differ from other racing movies that already have been released? What we’re doing is including the series of racing video games as a part of the story. They created an (GT Gran Turismo) Academy, and the creator of the game wanted to see if it was possible to move those gamers from virtual to reality live racing. Gran Turismo created a virtual reality competition online and found 32 of the best gamers of this game and then brought them all together and put them in a head-to-head (Nissan) racecar competition. They sent them to Silverstone Circuit track in the UK and put them through a racing boot camp. They took gamers and turned them into actual racecar drivers. We have taken that idea and we’re going to make a movie based on that.

CS: Regarding the upcoming biopic, Life of Evel, starring Channing Tatum as Evel Knievel, how will the movie handle some of Knievel’s life? That’s still in development. That script isn’t done. We’ve had a first draft. We’re still waiting for the next draft to come in. That’s the challenge with any project, particularly with a biopic, you have to decide what part of someone’s life do you take, do you take their entire life or do you take a segment of their life? I think what we’ll do is take a segment of his life and tell that story, but there’s lot of ways of doing it and that’s part of the creative process – figuring out how’s the best way of doing it. Just like the Social Network, it wasn’t a biopic about Mark Zuckerberg, but it was about a small period within time.

CS: What issues regarding script changes were required for the adaptation of the book and production of 50 Shades of Grey? It’s the same as any book that you translate. Basically what it boils down to is a love story. When we said we were going to make a movie about Facebook, a lot of people asked ‘Well, how do you make a movie about Facebook?’ We face the same challenges you do with the adaptation of any book being that a book is a theater of the mind. The way you might read a character or read a story might be a lot different than how I or someone else might read it. The challenge lies in just meeting the expectations; there are so many expectations by so many people. That is the biggest challenge really, making a film that you hope that the fans will enjoy.

CS: What specific changes did you need to make to 50 Shades of Grey or what notes were given and/or relayed to the costume designer, the set designer, or the director. That’s the case with any project; making a movie is a collaborative process. Working with department heads and getting to that point where they’re all artists in their own way and they all fit into the mold that ultimately is going to make the film. It’s a close representation to the book. It may not be exact, but it’s certainly a very close representation. It wasn’t necessarily changing anything – it was mostly just scaling down what was in the book. We can’t put everything that was in the book into a movie.

 Please also see my story that posted to Creative Screenwriting magazine’s website at:


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