Tripper won the 2009 Screenwriting Competition with his comedy Henry the Second. Soon after, he signed with manager Jake Wagner, leading to several studios projects sold and writing assignments with major companies. His action-comedy Stuber stars Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, and Iko Uwais. As his career continues to burn a path through Hollywood, he’s juggling multiple projects in both film and TV.
It’s been almost 10 years (…I know—that went fast) since you won the 2009 Screenwriting Competition with what was, and still is, one of the best grounded comedies we’ve read in Henry the Second. A lot has happened over that span, but everything seemed to get rolling when you signed with manager Jake Wagner. What was it that clicked? What do writers, of all levels, need to keep in mind when considering representation?
The goal with representation—and this applies to a manager or an agent—is finding someone who actually wants to represent you as a writer and not just one piece of material you’ve written that might have a chance of selling. Unfortunately, when you’re starting out in the industry, you don’t have much choice in who reps you. You take anyone you can get, and oftentimes that person doesn’t share your vision for what your career path should look like.
I’ve enjoyed working with Jake because we have a very candid relationship, so even when I disagree with his opinion, we can have a healthy debate about it. The cold truth about representation is that when you book projects and generate income, your reps work harder for you. So the trick is finding reps that will work their ass off for you even if you’re in a slump because they know you can write your way out of it.
After winning the contest, you took part in the Fox writing program. The Ambassadors and Winter Break followed. Both were picked up. How did the program help push you forward, both in your development as a writer and your knowledge of the industry?
The Fox Writers Studio was an unbelievable experience, and I’m still friends with (and even working with) several people from that program. I’d say the most educational part of that job was working directly with studio execs at Fox, pitching them feature ideas, developing the script with them, getting their insights on a weekly basis. . . . When you’re writing a spec, you’re alone on an island, and you have no idea what producers or studio execs will think of your work. So at Fox, getting a constant window into their thought process was invaluable and definitely changed the way I think about movie concepts from a macro level.
Regardless of the fact you’re able to make a living off of writing, there’s surely a bit of frustration when a project is sold but goes unproduced, even if that’s a reality every writer recognizes. Is it easy to brush it off and move on?
No. It’s never easy to brush off a project that dies on the vine. You spent an extraordinary amount of time writing and rewriting it. A lot of times it can be really heartbreaking because there are a million ways for a feature project to fail and it’s almost never for the reason you might think. The only thing I can do is remind myself how fortunate I am to get to do this for a living, so if/when a project gets a green light, I can consider it a huge bonus. I also find it helpful not to dwell on projects after you hit send on the email and turn it into the studio. At that point, it’s out of your hands and up to the movie gods, so all you can do is move on and focus on the next thing.
Henry the Second has had some veterans (Shawn Levy and 21 Laps) shepherding it for years. What have been the diversions in getting it made?
21 Laps is still on board. It’s been a long, strange trip and I’m still hopeful that it’ll get made one day. I can’t tell you exactly why it hasn’t been made yet. We’ve come very close several times, but I think it has a lot to do with the tetris game of finding the right piece of talent for the right price who’s available at the right time and that has the right potential upside for the marketplace. Any original project that’s not based on IP has a tough road ahead, so the obstacles we’ve faced on Henry are not that uncommon. Some pretty amazing films took forever to get made, so who knows?
You sold the feature action-comedy Stuber to Fox, starring Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, and Iko Uwais. What was the process like from idea, to finished script, to getting such stellar talent attached?
Around December of 2015 my manager, Jake, sent me an email with a title (Stuber) and all he knew was maybe there was a comedy version of Collateral about an Uber driver named Stu. I have a deep love of 80s action comedies, and the characters, storyline and structure hit me immediately.
The next morning, I put together a three-page treatment and then a month or so later I had a draft of the script. It took a minute to find the right producers, and then in April of 2016, the script went out to every buyer in town, which led to Fox buying the script. After that, I did a couple of passes for the studio, and then our director, Michael Dowse, came on board, had some more notes, and then it was a matter of finding the right cast for it, which is its own rollercoaster.
I give all the credit to Dowse, the producers, and our exec at Fox for believing in the project and helping Kumail, Dave, and the rest of the cast see how much fun this movie could be. Most things in development at studios will never make it into production, which really makes you beyond grateful when it actually comes together.
Adapting a book to a screenplay with The Art of Fielding: is it a different beast, or not necessarily? How closely do you work with the author of the material, if at all?
Adapting a book is a slightly different process than working on an original idea. For starters, you have to determine how much the producers/studio execs love the material. Sometimes a place might own the rights to a book, but they’ll tell the writer: “All we really like is the basic concept, so feel free to use creative license for the rest.” The Art of Fielding is one of my favorite books of all time—I read it several years before it even became a potential job—so the producers and director and I all agreed that we’d try to stay as true to the novel as possible.
Novels don’t always have a traditional three-act structure, which is more common in features, so the first major decision is figuring out how to structure it as a movie. I spoke with the author a few times during the outline phase, which was super helpful, but then with each draft, I found myself needing to distance myself from the source material. At some point you have to ask yourself: “Am I writing the best adaptation or the best movie?” And that might mean cutting things you adore from the book or creating an extra scene here or there to bridge a storyline.
With a novel like The Art of Fielding, the characters are so rich and so layered that the most challenging obstacle for me was figuring out how to keep the thing under 125 pages.
There have been a number of other scripts—Hacker Camp with Hasbro, Stranded for Sony—all features. All comedies or a variation thereof. Is TV on the horizon? Directing?
I think every screenwriter hopes to direct one day. I will likely cross that bridge down the line, but director jobs don’t grow on trees, so I will have to wait for the right opportunity. I actually feel like producing is a kind of a parallel skillset to screenwriting, since you’re almost always wearing a producer hat, asking yourself if a particular assignment is a good fit for you, or if a spec idea has a strong enough concept to find a studio home, having to interface with studio execs, managing expectations, etc.
TV is definitely something I’d like to get into and I have one project now that’s in its early stages, but just like features, it’s not easy to get a project off the ground, so we’ll just have to see how it goes.
Dream project to write. . . .
I love writing comedies, but I always find myself gravitating toward more serious subject matter. I’m currently writing a spec that’s pretty much a dream project. It’s based on a true story and it’s not remotely funny. Will it be any good? I’d like to hope so, but who the hell knows? It’s pushing me out of my comfort zone, which is something all writers should try from time to time. Be willing to suck every once in a while!
I guess for me a “dream project” is defined as anything that I’d be pumped to see on screen, so it’s a bit of a moving target as my tastes change.
Million dollar question—and we probably know the answer. There’s no real secret to all this, right? Part timing, part skill, part luck? Should be noted, too, that you’ve always been the most gracious and modest writer we’ve come across, and that truly goes a long way in maintaining and growing a flawless reputation in Hollywood.
However, beyond the intangibles, how does a writer get noticed and stay noticed? Meaning, we always hear about the ways writers can break in, whether it’s through a discovery platform like Script Pipeline or by catching the attention of someone in an influential position, but how do you keep the fire going once you have that spark?
No simple answer here. Work ethic is a huge part of it. There’s that famous quote: “I hate writing, but I love having written.” I’ve seen that with a lot of aspiring screenwriters. They fall in love with the romantic notion of being a screenwriter more than actually being a screenwriter. It’s a job. It’s a grind. And if you aren’t willing to generate new ideas and write new pages, you’re susceptible to having a short career.
Another part of the equation that helps is if you can avoid being an asshole. I know that sounds obvious, but the notes process on a script can be daunting and exhausting, and you’ll feel like people are trying to tear down all the great work you’ve done, but you have to keep your composure and keep the debate constructive. Remind yourself that everyone involved wants the best version of this script, so if there’s a disagreement, find a polite way to get to the heart of it without making enemies and burning bridges.
Lastly, I’d say you have to find a way to put yourself in a mental state where you’re willing to absorb the ups and the downs of the job. Don’t celebrate too hard on the highs, and don’t get too depressed with the lows. Be humble and recognize that anyone who’s willing to cut you a check is helping you extend this absurd fantasy of being a screenwriter.
After working in the Fox Writers Studio in 2011, Tripper has gone on to write comedies and dramas of all shapes and sizes for Columbia Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Fox Animation, Paramount Animation, Hasbro, Amazon, and studios abroad. His original spec script, Stuber, sold to Fox in April of 2016 and stars Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista. He is also adapting the New York Times’ bestselling novel, The Art of Fielding, for producer Mike Tollin and Mandalay Sports Media, with Craig Johnson directing. Tripper has written two foreign language films, including Wolfgang Petersen’s German bank heist comedy, Four Against the Bank, which released in 2016.
Tripper lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Maggie, and their daughters, Olive and Ruby.
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