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My story about the Texas Film Awards posts to Creative Screenwriting magazine

20 Apr

It is a golden age not only for television but also for independent films. At least, it is according to the Austin Film Society’s founder and artistic director Richard Linklater, speaking at the press conference for the 2017 Texas Film Awards.

At the panel of this year’s Hall of Fame Honorees, Richard Linklater, together with Honorees Hector Galan (Children of Giant), Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse), Jeff Nichols (Loving), and producer Sarah Green (Midnight Special), discussed a wide range of issues related to filmmaking and screenwriting.

Creative Screenwriting was fortunate enough to attend.

Sarah Green kicked off the panel with a discussion about her work on Song to Song with Terrence Malick.
Green: It’s about sex and drugs and rock and roll. There’s this just unbelievable young kid named Ryan Gosling, you’ll like him. Rooney Mara – she’s incredible. Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop – there’s so many – Bérénice Marlohe, Val Kilmer…It kind of just goes on and on. The Black Lips, the Red Hot Chili Peppers – some of these are performing and some are interacting with other actors.

Jeff Nichols then talked about his Oscar-nominated film, Loving.
Nichols: It wasn’t until I got behind the curtain with Loving, that I realized just how far away all my other films were from ever being considered in that world.

And that was illuminating for a lot of reasons.
And Tye Sheridan talked about his new movie, Ready Player One, directed by Steven Spielberg and due to be released in 2018.
Sheridan: The film is based on a sci-fi novel written by Ernest Cline. It takes place in the future. And when I read it I just thought “wow, it’s such an honest depiction of where we’re headed in our world right now. It’s the technology and the kids playing video games – that social world.”

If you work in film, it’s everyone’s dream-come-true to work with Steven Spielberg. I was working with the best of the best.

Talking next about funding, Green said that more companies such as Amazon, HBO, and Netflix are providing funding for movies.

Green: More is better when it comes to financing opportunities. We want every opportunity we can get, and then it’s a question of “what’s the best distribution company for that particular movie, that will get it seen more on television, that will get it seen more in the theaters?” I love that there are more opportunities.

However, panel moderator Steven Gaydos said that a gulf still exists in Hollywood between large budget studios, and mid-level independent or specialty film companies.
Linklater: It’s excruciating to talk about, but I think it’s kind of true. But with that said, we’re sitting here with a guy who got that rare film made – and I’m talking about Jeff NicholsMidnight Special.

Nichols: I feel like I live in a bit of bubble though, because I’m a rare exception in the year 2016 to get a film like Midnight Special released. So I know my experience is unique. It took somebody at the top to reach down literally and give me that opportunity.

That’s what’s so great about Rick’s [Richard Linklater’s] career. I use it as a model because he’s been able to move back and forth between those worlds. He seems to be having fun in all of them.
Linklater: I think you have to be really practical in your approach. You know, it’s storytelling. You ask “what does this story need?” Well if it’s a period film it needs a bigger budget, so I’ll try to take this one to the studio. Or if this one’s a really intimate little story, let’s just keep that at home.

I think a filmmaker gets into trouble when they take that personal indie film and get a huge budget – that’s where careers go off the rails. So, you have to just be humble and try to not to spend any more than you have to.

It’s the golden age of television, but if you really think about it, it’s also the golden age of documentaries, you know? I think that’s clear. And if you really think about it, it’s the golden age of indie cinema.

Take the Oscars and the recent recognition for a film like Moonlight. If it had come out in 1985, back then indie films didn’t hit the mainstream awards shows. A couple did: there were nominations for John Pierson [who produced some of Linklater’s first films, along with those created by Spike Lee, Michael Moore and Kevin Smith]. But it was weird for an indie film to break through at that time or to receive recognition.

Green: It also matters how much they’re spinning it, how they’re releasing it. It’s not just about the most money, but it’s about the money that’s spent, and how much they can put behind it, and whether they actually know how to release a film of a certain type.
Galan said Latinos have become one of the most under-represented ethnicities in American cinema today.
Galan: There are more Latinos in America than there are Canadians in Canada. But you just don’t see that represented on the big screen, even on the small screen, to the degree that reflects the population.

It’s true that a lot of people look at us in LA as gardeners, maids and people who take care of babies. It’s real complex because we do have Spanish-language networks. So, some of us speak Spanish and some of us don’t. It’s very very complex.

When there are a 25 million eligible Latino voters in a 54 million population, with 18,000 Latinos turning 18 every month in this country, there’s still a lot of representation that needs to happen.

A member of the audience asked Linklater if he knew what might happen to The Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, that has provided incentives for filmmakers to make their movies in Texas since 2005, but is now at risk.

Linklater: I just shot a film [Last Flag Flying] in Pittsburgh. So it’s a real issue, but I think there’s some hope to getting us back to where we were.

And we’re a good industry. We moviemakers bring hundreds of millions of dollars in to Texas, we bring in the jobs, clean industry and that’s just the business.

But I worry more about the cultural representation. If you tell Texas stories you’ve got to tell them in Texas. It’s kind of sad; last year, Hell or High Water, a story set in West Texas, was shot, as the producers for the movie have said, “as close to Texas as we could.” They shot it in New Mexico.

We would feel a lot differently about The Last Picture Show, if they had shot that in Colorado. So culturally, for our own stories, our own borders are important.
When a member of the audience asked what the future holds for documentarians, Galan responded with an impassioned plea to filmmakers to tell the stories of undocumented immigrants in Texas affected by raids conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Galan: Now is really an important time for documentary work. At one time, people were predicting the death of the documentary. I think today it’s more important than ever, especially for us Latinos.

I have so many friends out there right now who are hiding, people that I know. It’s like when I was in Germany – and I’m kind of telling you some history – but I would go to Munich or Heidelberg or some of those places in Germany that were still standing after the bombings in World War II. I imagined what it must have been like for those people hiding and knowing that the Nazis were coming for them. That’s happening now. A lot of people don’t know.

People are afraid to go out of their homes. People need to report on this and the division that is happening.

Finally, this reporter for Creative Screenwriting magazine asked Green what the future holds for women screenwriters and filmmakers.

Green: It’s our responsibility as producers, and the studios’ responsibilities as financiers, and everyone’s responsibility, to ensure that all voices are heard.

Whether it’s people of color, whether it’s different genders, whatever those stories we need to be telling are, we need to make sure that we are training those people, that we are providing those opportunities.

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

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 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 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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