Their comedy pilot, Big Boy, was circulated by Script Pipeline to Mosaic execs after the script’s top 10 placement in the 2017 TV Writing Competition.
Their comedy pilot, Big Boy, was circulated by Script Pipeline to Mosaic execs after the script’s top 10 placement in the 2017 TV Writing Competition.
Script Pipeline met director/producer Jay Silverman (The Cleaner) in 2015 and connected him and producer Bethany Cerrona with Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest finalist Jen Goldson (Everything’s Gonna Be Okay). Jay went on to produce Jen’s romantic comedy Off the Menu in 2017. The film premiered in 2018 and stars Santino Fontana and Dania Ramirez. It’s available on Amazon and iTunes.
You started your career as a photographer. How did you make the transition to the film/TV industry? Was it a logical next step given the types of connections you were making and the work you were doing, or did it take sort of a leap?
Yes, I started as a photographer doing advertising. My speciality was working with people and celebrity endorsements. The transition into film started in the 90s when I began doing what I called hybrid filmmaking. It certainly seemed natural to offer live action along with my photography when a famous person’s time on commercial sets are always so limited. It was a huge leap at the start, but my clients enjoyed the synergy and the creative control I gave them. I decided to make the move to feature directing with Girl on the Edge (2015), which was a very personal story. The motivation to make it was one of wanting to share my experience of healing and to show others who have children who suffer trauma and PTSD that there are answers. . . there is hope. Everything I had done in my career and life up to this point prepared me for the opportunity to tell this story. It felt like such a natural transition, and now telling purposeful films has become my calling.
What were some of the early hurdles in becoming a director (for TV, commercials, or otherwise)? When crossing between different formats, which of course can be a challenge creatively speaking, what drew you to each? And now, with decades of experience, has a preference emerged? Or is directing just directing, no matter the medium?
I always enjoyed problem solving throughout my career, especially when a client would ask for the impossible. Universally, most challenges for TV and commercials involved trying to retain a focused creative vision while dealing with limited budgets and quick turnaround. In the 80s, I got my first studio and was fortunate to solve creative challenges without having to go outside of a studio. This control proved invaluable working in independent filmmaking and selling TV shows. Hence, the reason in 2000 I acquired my stages in Hollywood.
One huge hurdle I had was trying to sell The Cleaner to AMC after developing it for five years. It came as a shock to learn that even though this was my baby, I would never receive “created by” credits. The fact that we had offers for this show twice in two months proved it was a great idea, but not being treated fairly was a lesson I had to learn the hard way.
To be a good director in both TV or film, you need to be a good listener–so many creative people are involved in such detail on a film that it’s important to be open to their expertise and knowledge. It’s about taking all the best ideas to make the project better and to collaborate. Also, it was very helpful that I am knowledgeable in every trade on the set. I’m very hands-on and am never afraid to lift a hammer or hang a light or learn to compromise with budgets.
You met writer Jen Goldson at our 2015 Script Pipeline event, and it seemed like her screenplay Off the Menu was optioned instantly. What was it about the script that stood out?
First, I believe a person’s passion is the most critical to sell anything. Jen not only had a great pitch that made her stand out, but she totally displayed a desire to want her project in the hands of a filmmaker with equal passion. My producer Bethany Cerrona brought the script on the heels of my last film, which was a serious drama. Timing is everything, and I was excited to jump into this contemporary love story, as Jen’s writing style was very engaging, funny, and inspiring.
Off the Menu went from Jen’s initial pitch to you and exec Bethany Cerrona, to production, to finished film in about two years. Quick, certainly, relative to the frustratingly slow-ticking industry clock, where it can take a while get a project produced. Naturally, it’s easier for a lower-budget indie to hit that fast lane, however what were some of the crucial pieces that had to fall into place? Or was it fairly straightforward? If anything is ever “fairly straightforward” in filmmaking. . . .
Every film is different and presents its own set of challenges. After optioning the script, we met with Jen several times about small changes. Just coming off my last film with new wisdom and experience, we had to figure out a way to get this wonderful script produced affordably without sacrificing the story.
Will Newman, one of my producers, had warned about the cost of having too many characters and locations when making a indie. We mandated early on that to keep the authenticity of the story, it had to shoot, at least partially, on location in New Mexico, so that decision pushed many other decisions into the forefront. Being that Javiara’s kitchen was a character itself, our Production Designer Bonnie Bacevich was able to have full creative freedom on my stage. This decision not only saved us loads of time and money but helped me fulfill my creative vision without all the distractions of using a practical restaurant location. Careful thought and consideration was made to the changes needed to be made to the script to scale down for the budget, which kept faithful to Jen’s original story.
The cast of Menu really seemed to click on-screen. Especially the leads. How did Dania Ramirez and Santino Fontana come on board?
We had an amazing casting director, Nick Anderson. The script went out to Dania and we both met for coffee, and she was excited because she too loved cooking. I knew she would make a perfect fiery chef, and she loved the script, so the timing was perfect.
Around the same time, we were introduced to Santino via Skype from NYC and he also loved the script. And as luck would have it, he was able to fit us in between his show Crazy Ex Girlfriend and his Broadway opening. Once we had Dania and Santino, the rest of the cast fell into place fairly easily.
Every director and producer is different. Everyone leans toward certain themes. But what motivates you to continue directing and producing? What excites you most about the future of the industry?
I’m totally drawn into filmmaking by my desire to share inspiring stories. It’s beyond words how fortunate I was that my first film Girl On The Edge has changed so many young people’s lives.
I’m committed to working on purposeful films with social messages. It’s critical for me to make films that matter. Films have the ability to cross all borders, to bring hope and unite people. Off the Menu gave me the opportunity to tell a hopeful, sweet story about love and family that unites people from opposite worlds through food.
Along those same lines, where do you see us headed as an industry overall? Thanks to the emergence of more platforms seeking content, are you beginning to see a shift in the type of content distributed, or that has a strong chance at getting distribution on an indie level?
I think all these new digital ways of sharing content are likely how most small films will survive, but it’s a bit of a wild west. . . with so many new films/TV shows getting made, it’s harder to cut through the clutter and get noticed. With Netflix and Amazon changing the game, we are seeing so many interesting voices that wouldn’t have been possible before in the traditional models.
I’m optimistic that if you have a good story and solid production values, your film will find an audience.
Jay has excelled as a leading director and producer specializing in award-winning film and television. In addition to directing and producing Off The Menu, Jay directed and executive produced the award-winning feature Girl on the Edge, starring Peter Coyote, Taylor Spreitler and Gil Bellows. The film premiered on Showtime. Jay also co-created and executive produced A&E’s The Cleaner, starring Benjamin Bratt, an hour-long drama based on a real life interventionist who uses unorthodox methods to save lives of those who battle addictions.
Jay lives and works in Los Angeles and has three daughters.
Writer Jen Goldson placed as a finalist in the 2015 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition with her screenplay Everything’s Going to be Okay. At the Script Pipeline writer/industry event in Los Angeles that summer, she was introduced to producers Jay Silverman and Bethany Cerrona of Silverman Productions. Her pitch to them for another script, a romantic comedy, stuck. It was optioned right away and produced a little over a year later. Off the Menu was released on February 6th, 2018, starring Santino Fontana (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Frozen) and Dania Ramirez (Once Upon a Time, Devious Maids). Jen continues to write for both film and TV, with several projects in development.
Your screenplay Everything’s Going to be Okay (aka egbok) was selected as a finalist in the 2015 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition. At our industry event that year, you met Jay Silverman and Bethany Cerrona. A couple years later: your first produced film. And a charming one at that. Fill us in on that journey, from initial interest to production.
First of all, thank you for calling Off The Menu “charming”—my first review!
I should add that I met three pivotal contacts at Pipeline’s event: Jay Silverman and Bethany Cerrona plus Jeff Faehnle at Nasser Entertainment. Both of these companies optioned a script of mine with the clear understanding that they were greenlit to go into production. And it happened! Jay directed Off The Menu and Nasser Entertainment produced a thriller I co-wrote with my husband, Robert Foulkes, called Snatched (starring Dina Meyer and Corin Nemec). So I can’t say enough how Pipeline rejuvenated my writing career and am extremely appreciative.
So to answer your question, for Off The Menu, I worked closely with Jay and his team, and did about three or four drafts. The last draft was a pretty solid one and got the stars attached—and then things with the script were further condensed for budget. I felt good that the script drew the caliber of stars such as Santino Fontana, who was just coming off the first season of the fantastic Crazy Ex Girlfriend, and Dania Ramirez, who was great in Devious Maids and now in Once Upon A Time. And not to mention, Maria Conchita Alonso (if you haven’t seen Vampire’s Kiss, it’s a classic), and rising young star Makenzie Moss (who played little Lisa in Steve Jobs).
Writers often wonder what their role is once the final version of the script is locked in, and it typically varies depending on the film. What was the extent of your involvement during the shoot? Were you on location? Were there on-the-spot script edits to make?
Yeah, every movie is different, and on this one, I did a set visit and everyone was really lovely. They even had my name on a director’s chair, they were very sweet and thoughtful. And they also invited me for the music composing session which was really an education for me—they had a live orchestra for the score, and the film’s composer, Dave Holden, is such a talented guy. But for most of production, I really wasn’t that involved. Perhaps things will change as more feature writers come in with a TV background (where writers are often required to be on set). I do find that in the long-run, if the writer is available and willing, it would behoove production to have him/her on set. But hey, I’m hardly impartial.
I always think it has to be such a surreal experience to finally see what you wrote on-screen with real people. . . . At the premiere of the film, what was on your mind? When did it all start to feel “real” to you?
Santino and his lovely wife, Jessica Heshberg (who’s a talented Broadway singer and actress, and also appears in Menu), wrote and performed this really fun, Doris Day type of opening number for Menu and that’s when it became really real. I kept on playing it over and over again. It’s really perfect.
Tell us about the other films you have in development, including your contest-winning script Everything’s Going to be Okay.
So Everything’s Going to Be Okay is currently set up at EMA (Envision Media Arts) with Andy Tennant set to direct. The producers are hopeful that it will go this year! So that’s been a real rewarding outcome on that front. And then I have this LA-based indie film called Rent Control that Theresa Bennet is attached to direct. That script is a personal favorite of mine. My manager, Sukee Chew, has been instrumental in packaging and pushing these projects forward. She was always my first choice to work with and is amazing. And then I’m almost done with a biopic about a famous painting that’s set in Swinging London—that script is killing me. For research materials, I’ve been working with 40 plus books, 200 articles, documentaries, youtube clips. . . I am so sick of these people! (just kidding).
You’ve written a mix of genres, including a TV pilot. Do you think the range is important? Has it made you more “marketable,” in a sense?
Pretty much from the beginning of my writing career I was labeled as a “character comedy writer.” And you know what: I pretty much stayed true to this. Everything I write has some form of humor, even the biopic I’ve been working on, though it’s a drama, I have three witty characters. I will say, as you mentioned, I have that one sci-fi pilot, but even that has humor. My least favorite writers are the earnest ones. I think it just reads false. But as for “range,” I think what’s most important is knowing who you are as a writer. A writer who thinks they can write every genre is not going to perfect any one genre. So know who you are—and that takes time to figure out.
As far as the feature market in general, what are the types of stories you feel are lacking, or do you wish we had more of? Both on an indie and studio level? What themes do you usually gravitate toward?
I wish we’d get away from “female driven” as a genre when women are 50.8% of the U.S. population (yes, I just Googled it). So I’ve recently started calling Dunkirk “male driven” [laughs]. I’m hopeful about the representation of interesting female characters, with recent films such as The Florida Project, Mudbound, Lady Bird, and last year’s The Edge of Seventeen, American Honey and White Girl (and heck, let me throw in the wonderful HBO series Insecure and Amazon’s Marvelous Mrs. Maisel).
I’m more attracted to interesting and flawed characters than themes. I don’t write to themes as I find it too limiting, and it feels like a book report.
Getting a spec produced is still, relatively speaking, a rarity. Beyond the typical advice writers hear all the time—write something low-budget, write something broad that appeals to a large market, and so forth—what else can someone do to increase their odds? We know in your case the introduction to a producer helped, but is it all about the script? Are there intangibles writers should keep in mind?
If you want to be a feature writer, the climb will likely be a long one—and may take you about 5-8 scripts to really master feature writing and land you representation (which is more difficult these days). The nice thing about television is there is a ladder of progression. You can start off as a writer’s assistant (if you can get that position, most writer’s assistants have agents—I know!) and then you can go on to staff writer/story editor and so forth. You don’t have any of that in feature films. BUT, and there’s a big but in this, it is very difficult for television writers to creatively make the leap to feature films because they tend to write episodically which you don’t want to do in feature films. So, if your heart is in features, they’re still getting made and go for it!
As for “intangibles,” a producer or director will think a writer is completely green if they get defensive about notes. My best advice for any emerging writer is to work in development and see first hand what producers or film/TV execs go through. You will have a better appreciation for the craft and will have more confidence as a writer.
*Just wanted to thank Script Pipeline again for their support and advocacy with getting two scripts of mine off the ground and actually produced! I think they’re the best in town, and in this day and age, when it’s harder to land representation, screenwriting contests like this are more vital than ever. Go Pipeline!
As of 2018, Jennifer has two films produced: the romantic-comedy Off The Menu starring Santino Fontana and Dania Ramirez, directed and produced by Jay Silverman (available on VOD and all other platforms), and the thriller Snatched starring Dina Meyer, Jen Lilley and Corin Nemec (to be released). Another project, Rent Control, is currently being packaged with Theresa Bennett set to direct and Sukee Chew producing. Her feature screenplay Everything’s Going to be Okay was a Script Pipeline Finalist in 2015 and has since been optioned by Envision Media Arts (EMA). Andy Tennant is attached to direct, with Sukee Chew also producing.
She works as a development consultant for MOST Resources, and has also worked at NBCU, in business affairs, and in feature film development at various production companies and studios.
It’s been two short years, and you went from runner-up in the Script Pipeline TV Writing Competition to staff writer on a CBS comedy. What pieces had to fall into place to get there? What was the process like?
I’m not sure if this is a good thing, along the lines of hopeful or inspirational, or a sad thing, a little more disappointing to hear. But all the clichés are true. Keep writing. Keep networking. Keep improving.
There is no singular route to a room, or a sell. What continues to prove effective for me is making time to write and being receptive to notes. If you do that, you’ll get better. If you get better, your odds of taking a leap forward will also.
Certainly, participating in the 2016-2017 CBS Writers Diversity Program was a critical piece in your career puzzle. How much did it change your perceptions and knowledge of the industry?
It was everything.
When I moved to LA in the summer of 2013, I knew I wanted to transition from my career in advertising as a creative director. But I didn’t know how. Worse than that, I didn’t know anyone. Oh, and did I mention, I also didn’t have any material, yet?
Through family connections and friends of friends, I began to meet working television writers at various levels. The one suggestion that continued to pop up; “Apply to the diversity programs.” But that is rarified air. Eight spots per program and applicant fields ranging between 1,300 to 2,500.
That pursuit is where my education really began. So, I have to mention it. It’s not as simple as 1-2-3. I used a further-developed version of the script named runner-up at Script Pipeline with a brand new Brooklyn Nine-Nine spec to get into the CBS program.
The program reinforced things I already knew from a long career as a creative professional. But the true discovery came in the importance of telling personal stories in conversation and on the page that only you can tell. It educated us about what the industry is looking for, what is expected of a staff writer, and it made it clear that “I can do this.”
The experience on Superior Donuts: what has met your expectations, and what hasn’t? We’re sure there was some degree of hesitation early on, but did you get comfortable with this new environment right away, or did it take some easing into? What’s been the biggest hurdle?
My expectations were surpassed the moment I got the opportunity to step inside the room. The best thing about being a staff writer is that the success of the show has almost nothing to do with you. You are there to learn and contribute to the direction of the showrunner. It’s that simple.
As far as comfort, you have to feel out the room. In sports terms, play your position. I’m still finding my footing after 30 weeks. It takes time. But I happen to be in a very welcoming, encouraging space with seasoned, proven pros. The only hurdle is learning to be on for 10 hours a day with the same people at the same table, for 9 ½ straight months. I wasn’t ready for such a never-ending dinner party.
No secret that writers are flocking to TV. We started reviewing TV material in 2008, and it’s incredible to see the number of pilots now compared to then. What are key points a writer should keep in mind when developing an original pilot? Do they really have as much creative flexibility as they think they have, or should they take a more rigid approach to what types of concepts they pursue?
I’m no development expert just yet. But I’d suggest making damn sure you love the premise and the characters, write it with purpose, and be ready to write it as many times as it takes to get it just right. Then, take notes and rewrite it. Then, scrap it and start over again, if needed.
I do believe the field is wide open. Write what you love. There are so many outlets looking for content. If you write something that can sell, someone will buy it. Or at least I hope that’s the case. I’m kind of depending on it.
In 2015, we asked where you saw yourself in 10 years—you said having three sitcoms on-air simultaneously. Has that changed? Have you been able to balance writing your own scripts with the demands of writing for the show?
It hasn’t changed one bit. That’s still my end game. Why not.
The commitment to the room comes first. It’s hard to do, for sure. It takes time management and a very patient spouse. But if you want it, there’s always time to push something forward or explore something new. You make it. You find it.
Keep writing. Keep networking.
Superior Donuts airs on CBS Mondays at 9pm.
– Ashley Locher, runner-up of the 2017 Script Pipeline TV Writing Competition with End of Life.
End of Life deals with some heavy topics, but what struck us is that you very wisely–and very carefully–avoided drawing too fine a point on the message behind the story. Was it difficult to keep things grounded while avoiding the risk of melodrama and “taking sides,” so to speak, on the issue of medically assisted suicide?
I believe the only way to construct a substantial argument is by exploring the counterarguments. Consequently, I was insistent upon creating characters to represent both sides of the debate. Because of this, End of Life never sought to take sides–it sought to pit the inherent value of human life against the right of a terminally ill patient to die. Hopefully, this does as you said and avoids “drawing too fine a point on the message,” therefore expanding the target demographic and engaging more people in the conversation.
Switching gears a bit, comedy was key in keeping End of Life grounded. That sounds counterintuitive, but had I leaned merely on dramatic tension to drive the story, the script would have been nothing more than a low-budget mumblecore. Besides, I don’t know many people excited to grab a bucket of popcorn and cozy up to watch a dying woman try to expedite the process unless you throw in a little comedy. Moreover, death remains a taboo subject. How better to approach a taboo subject than with humor?
One of the big draws in the script is the straightforward and charismatic lead. For us, it was refreshing to see things from a different perspective—through the eyes of someone older as opposed to, say, a teenager dealing with death. Both are heartbreaking, both get the point across on controlling one’s own mortality. But what influenced your decision to feature an elderly woman as the protagonist? Or does POV matter in this case? What would change, if anything, in the story’s roots had the protagonist been a different character entirely?
Well, the obvious reason I chose an elderly woman as the protagonist is because there are too few roles in Hollywood for women over 40. But, as mentioned above, I recognize death remains a taboo subject. And it becomes even more taboo when discussed in reference to someone without age spots. Since I already planned to address a controversial issue, I felt it best to approach the story from a more digestible angle.
So yes, I think the POV would absolutely change since an elderly woman with a terminal illness has very different considerations than a teenager with a terminal illness. Plus, I also wanted to explore the way death affects a strained mother/daughter relationship, which looks very different when written from the mother’s perspective (like I did) than the daughter’s perspective. One imitates the natural progression of life while the other is reminiscent of tragedy.
Oh, and also: a crass old woman is so much funnier than a crass teenager.
Are you sticking to certain genres or themes? How important do you think it is for writers to develop a niche?
While I believe writers should have the freedom to explore whatever material they connect with, I also believe creatives are frequently drawn time and again to certain genres and themes–often without recognizing it. For example, a new writer might have samples ranging from dark comedy to action/adventure. But if they all deal with dysfunctional families, you have a niche. Being self-aware in this way allows you to quickly assess any given situation and find a way to assert your value.
You received a Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting, which is no simple accomplishment. How important do you feel post-graduate education is in improving one’s skills as a writer? Whether it’s in a formal university setting or otherwise? What advice would you give to screenwriters starting out?
First and foremost, an MFA in Screenwriting is absolutely not necessary to become a successful screenwriter. But for a young girl from the Midwest with a Bachelors in Psychology and no connections in LA (such as myself), an MFA in Screenwriting is definitely worth considering. Not only has it allowed me time to build a polished portfolio, it has provided me with valuable opportunities and a built-in network. Moreover, attending an MFA program has fostered my creativity by providing an environment where I can be surrounded by talented classmates and experienced professors who constantly push me to better myself.
Of course my writing has improved, but much of that comes from something you can do with or without a post-graduate education: practice–write as much as you can, as often as you can. And read! Every script you can find. Whether you’ve been writing for years or are just starting out. Even before moving to Los Angeles, I spent most of my time studying the industry from afar.
Writers are always asked what their ultimate plans are for the future. But it’s so difficult to look that far down the line, especially in an industry where opportunities can change in a second. What are you aiming for in the near-term? What do you feel is the best route for you personally, and how might that be the same (or different) for other writers in your position?
Since I’ll be graduating soon, my immediate goals consist of polishing samples and networking as much as possible. Because there are so many people vying for jobs, vacancies are filled almost immediately, which means not only do you have to be in the right place at the right time, you also need to know the right people. Furthermore, there is no one way to break into the industry. Therefore, the best advice I can give is to be ready when the opportunity presents itself.
On a grander scale, I hope to find work in a writers’ room (either as a writer’s assistant or staff writer). Although film is my first love, television is a close second. Especially with the quality of content currently generated by streaming services and the like. Moreover, television is a writer’s medium and provides the opportunity for (somewhat) stable work.
On the business side of things, writers should possess an awareness of market trends, on all levels. From experimental indies to, naturally, big tentpole films. If not only on a general level. Did that come into play when developing End of Life? Was there ever a hesitation to write a story revolving around this subject matter?
While writing End of Life, I knew (if anything) it was bound to be a sample–something for creative execs to read to get an idea of my voice. That being said, I quickly realized that my voice is synonymous with mid-budget, character driven indies. However, with streaming services generating a desire for content, there seems to be more and more room for niche material.
So to answer your question: No, I never hesitated to write End of Life. Because at the heart of it, I love what I do, and I hope to continue doing it until I can no longer tell stories I love. Besides, if I wanted to make money, I would’ve become a psychologist.
– Joshua Paul Johnson and Jamie Napoli, winner of the 2017 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition with Getaway.
Co-writing relationships can be tricky. It’s always impressive when a script turns out so tonally consistent when there’s more than one writer involved. How do you iron out who plays what role? What’s sort of your general dynamic? It’s a safe assumption that your instincts and styles fall in line, but what are some of the challenges in writing a feature with a partner?
Jamie: I think we’re very lucky that we have similar, and perhaps similarly immature senses of humor. We’re often just trying to make each other laugh with each pass of the script. We can’t really have any ego or preciousness with our writing, because the only way this works is if we’re completely honest and brutal when things aren’t working. And I think often the biggest hurdle for us is staying confident that each new draft will be better than the last one. Writing can be a bit of rollercoaster, and the fact that there are two of us can be really helpful for keeping up our passion and momentum. One of us is always moving the ball forward.
Josh: But as far as delegation goes, we don’t have strict roles. Both of us eventually do everything. We always outline the entire story together—which can run upwards of 50 pages. Our outlining process is similar to doing “notecards.” This is the most collaborative part of our process. When that’s ready, one of us opens Final Draft and begins “draft zero.” We call it “draft zero” to remove any expectation of it being remotely good. After that is completed, we re-outline the entire story re-evaluating character arcs, plants/playoffs, and suspense. With that new outline, the other person does the real first draft. We repeat the process over and over until we have a “girlfriend draft”—the one we send out to get torn apart by our significant others.
In general, the challenges involved with any creative relationship necessitate being respectful of each other’s ideas and being able to navigate disagreements. You have to feel OK blurting out an idea even if you’re not completely comfortable with it. When diagnosing a problem we often say “we need a solution, the bad version of which is…” And so we can work through problems together without judgement.
Like co-writing partnerships, comedies, too, can be difficult to execute. But Getaway seems like it could easily hit a global audience, given the setup and attention to detail when it comes to establishing the characters. Comedies sometimes go awry when the humor doesn’t translate, or feels too specific. Was this ever a concern? What advice would you give writers who are attempting to write something similar in this vein, as far as tone and approach?
Josh: To be honest, we never had a conversation about Getaway as it related to global audiences. We just set out to write something that we wanted to see. Our aim was to ensure it was a quick read, had an unconventional tone, and contained themes we believed would make for an interesting debate. It’s been fascinating to see the differences in how men and women react to the story. Issues of masculinity and femininity was something we felt was in the zeitgeist. I’d say that’s the most culturally universal part of it.
Jamie: We’re big believers in writing what you know. That doesn’t necessarily mean writing your life story, because every script can’t be about some under-appreciated artist with writer’s block, but rather taking the fears, neuroses, settings, and characters that you’re familiar with and blending them in unique and surprising ways. We love really desperate characters because they let us laugh at the things we find most embarrassing about ourselves. Josh and I have written a number of comedies about deeply insecure men who desperately want a woman’s respect. I’ll let you come to your own conclusion about what that says about us.
Do you typically write together, or you have your own separate projects? Is it important for writers who team up on scripts to branch out and do their own material? It seems obvious writers can have it both ways, but we see examples where that’s not always the case—in other words, where the partnership itself is the brand. What’s your stance on that?
Josh: Writing partnerships are just like any other type of relationship. What works for one team might not work for another. What we know is our collaborative process and that it works for us. Whenever one of us has an idea, the other person is always the first to hear it. Though we occasionally have differences in terms of taste, interest, and personal experience, we have not yet encountered a need to branch out.
Jamie: We really just enjoy writing together, and I think we complement each other’s skills and shortcomings. We have similar aspirations to write and direct features where we have a large amount of creative control, and most importantly, I feel like we can be a lot more productive when we’re working together. We’re currently wrapping up our first draft on our next feature, and we have a number of feature and pilot scripts on the horizon that we’re really excited about.
What are your backgrounds when it comes to writing? How did each of you get started?
Jamie: I’ve been running around with a camera and screaming, “Quiet on the set!” to my family for pretty much my whole life. By high school, I was reading and writing feature scripts and shooting everything from short horror parodies to a feature adaptation of The Death of Ivan Ilych. Seriously. There is a full length movie on a hard drive in my parents’ attic that reimagines Tolstoy’s 19th century novella about a dying Russian bureaucrat with a bunch of teenagers in suburban New Jersey.
Josh: Similarly to Jamie, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker at a very young age, but I was far from Hollywood. I was in the sleepy suburbs of Iowa, and I would stay up all night re-watching behind-the-scenes DVD extras of The Lord of the Rings. I didn’t have the money to make what I was seeing on TV and in theaters, but you know what—writing is free. So I teamed up with my friend, and we spent years writing these fantasy and zombie novels which have since become kindling for my fireplace. But because we spent so much time together writing, outlining, and discussing ideas, I learned that my strengths are in talking out ideas with a partner. So ever since I’ve been writing, I’ve been co-writing.
Jamie and I didn’t set out initially to be co-writers. We met at USC’s graduate directing program and would often discuss and critique each other’s projects. Those note sessions would start as a few hours, but eventually turned into days and even months. By that point, we realized we had accidentally become co-writers.
Regarding your contest-winning screenplay Getaway, one of the comments during judging: “shades of the Coen Brothers. . . a no-brainer for a fun, darkly comical genre hybrid.” Whether or not you’d agree with that particular assessment, you managed to pull off a true (and rare) page-turner. When it comes to this genre, what trends do you see emerging? It’s certainly subjective, but where are films getting it “right” and where are they getting it “wrong?”
Josh: Neither of us are stand up comedians or joke writers. We didn’t set out to write a comedy. We set out to write a thriller that made us laugh. It’s a bit of an odd goal, but we’re attracted to those kinds of movies. Audiences today are extremely cinema-literate. Because of that, we don’t tend to do straight-genre pieces. We’re always looking for ways to pull the rug out from under the audience. We call those “Oh shit!” moments. For us and our work, it’s important that the audience walk out of the theater not just entertained but also itching for a rich conversation.
Jamie: We’re fans of movies like In Bruges, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Visit, and Get Out that are able to move deftly between really tense moments and scenes that are absolutely hysterical. Making a film that can do that and also be about something of substance is a tall order, but that’s always what we’re aiming for. The success of Get Out was really exciting to us because it means there’s an incredible appetite for that kind of smart, impactful genre film.
– Penelope Chai and Matteo Bernardini, winner of the 2016 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition with Cinderella Must Die.
Regardless of the fact 2016 turned out to be our best year for screenwriting, with so many fantastic finalist screenplays, Cinderella Must Die was a unanimous pick for the grand prize. Personally, when I read during the quarterfinalist round, 30 pages in I stopped immediately to text Chad (Script Pipeline’s Executive Director) and our development assistant to tell them they have to read this immediately. Part of this was due to the unique spin on the fairy tale, but mostly because of your writing style.
Is style and crafting a unique voice—which is something we constantly emphasize for emerging writers—an area you feel can be refined through “deliberate practice,” meaning an element you can specifically work on, or is it something that simply comes from years of experience? What has helped each of you the most when it comes to basic writing ability?
Matteo: My first job in the industry in Italy was as a reader for a production company. And almost nothing can prepare you for how bad Italian amateur screenwriting can be (it’s a country in its infancy, craft-wise). And almost at the same time, I started reading masters–scripts by Goldman, Coppola, Gilroy. . . . I think what helped was studying the classics, to learn how high this art can fly, and (almost as important) reading a ton of garbage scripts to learn what not to do.
Penelope: I started out writing short stories and found that to be a good way to experiment with voice. There’s a flow to prose writing that helps me ‘drop’ into a character or story. Sometimes I still revert to prose to help me untangle a specific idea or character in a script. I agree with Matteo (and many other writers) that reading screenplays helps identify and develop voice, particularly scripts that are well known for being vibrant and distinctive, like Lethal Weapon. I’ve also started listening to the Blacklist Ear Movies podcast. It’s really great, and a good way to combine script ‘reading’ with grocery shopping or exercising!
Cinderella Must Die contains some universal underlying themes that helps elevate the screenplay beyond the typical adventure/fantasy. What was it about the source material that compelled you to develop the script? Did the ingrained commentaries—the sometimes conflicting relationships between sisters, the ease of abandoning ethics and family for the promise of higher social status—come about naturally, or was it something you kept at the forefront while plotting the story?
The original idea was about propaganda and how storytelling can be used as a form of power and coercion. As we began to explore this idea through the prism of Cinderella, other themes very naturally came to the surface, like social envy, sisterhood, and representations of gender. Then it was a question of what to draw out and foreground and what to leave in the background: how much of this, how much of that? Our first draft pushed the propaganda angle a lot more–there was a whole underground network of fairy tale characters who’d been written out of their stories, Stalin-style. It was fun to write, but, according to our first readers, a hot mess to read! So we focused subsequent drafts on the personal story between the sisters, which is its heart and soul.
The process of writing the actual script: it reads so smooth and effortless, structurally sound, vividly drawn. . . but how long did it take for you to finalize a draft you were 100% comfortable with?
It took 18 months from our first conversations to submitting to Script Pipeline, but that wasn’t anywhere near full-time. We were both working on other projects so squeezed in CMD whenever we could. And we go through phases of being 100% comfortable with it! Right now, we have a whole bunch of revisions we’d like to do to make it better.
How long were you sending out Cinderella before winning Script Pipeline? Was it a newer project you were testing the waters with, or had you been searching for a production company or representation for a while?
Script Pipeline was the first place we sent it–the ink was still wet. It’s now also our favourite place!
What are some of the keys to maintaining an efficient and productive writing relationship?
The landscape has changed so much over the last 5-10 years, we’re seeing more and more non-US writers rising to the top in terms of the quality of writing (for whatever reason, Australian writers especially). But writers outside of the US with their sights set on the US market typically ask if they’re at a disadvantage because of their location. Do you feel there’s some truth to that? As you both live in Australia, did you have any reservations about submitting to this or other competitions?
From what we’ve heard and been told–in meetings, from friends and contacts, on podcasts like Scriptnotes–there is an advantage to being based in LA. We’ve also heard that, if you have your sights set on Hollywood, and have the talent and good fortune to get you there, there will probably come a time when you need to be based in LA. We’re certainly hoping to join that posse of screenwriters, and are both keen to make the move at some stage, but right now we’re managing to get things done with Skype, FaceTime, emails, etc. We also have Australian projects underway so, right at this minute, we need to be here to see those through to fruition.
We had no reservations about submitting to Script Pipeline because it’s a US comp. Firstly, we never expected to win; secondly, LA is only a plane-ride away–17 hours may seem like a long flight, but compared to flying from Australia to Europe, it’s a walk in the park!
Script Pipeline was a gift from the gods: it allowed us, two unknowns from Australia, to come to LA, meet people in the industry, and begin relationships that can now be fostered with the aid of technology and some well-timed return visits!
In addition to the industry interest Cinderella has drawn thus far, you two have projects you’re working on independently of one another, both of which are (I think) based on or inspired by true stories. Is utilizing source material easier, in a sense? Or does it present a host of other challenges?
Penelope: I’m working on a couple of adaptations, but they’re based on fictional source material (a short story and a novel), not real life events. For one, the strength is the premise and the author was happy for us to play fast and loose with the other elements. For the other, I want to preserve as much as the source material as possible. That said, I am needing to dial up the protagonist’s drive just a little–characters in novels can meander aimlessly in a way that characters in films can’t. Even characters who seem to be meandering, like in Badlands or the recent American Honey, have very clear driving forces.
Matteo: Writing stories based on real people and events creates two equally compelling but conflicting impulses. On the one hand, you want to write a story that engages, thrills and surprises, with a beginning, a middle, and a climax. On the other hand, life doesn’t follow the three act structure, so you need to massage the real life events to make the story worthwhile and satisfying. Striking the right balance between respect for the actual facts and people, and making their story worth telling, is the hard part. Everything else is a joy.
– Nir Paniry, runner-up in the 2015 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition with The Coyote.
What pushed you more into writing than any other field within the film industry?
Besides the love of writing itself, I think it’s the autonomy of it all. Every other job in the film business relies on moving parts. If you’re a director you need a script. If you’re an editor you need a film, etc, etc. . . . You’re reliant on others in order to start creating. When you’re a writer (unless you’re on assignment) you are completely dependent on your own mind and gumption to put pen to paper. It’s insular, like painting a picture. I can think of a story tonight and start writing it tonight. There are not many jobs in this business that function that way.
And yes, ultimately if it moves up the pipeline, your story will change and morph and become a much more team-oriented endeavor, but there’s something so interesting about it all starting with you and a computer, and that’s it.
Part of the reason The Coyote fared well in the Script Pipeline competition is because it took a fairly basic action premise and a put a unique, character-centric label on the story as a whole. What was the basis for the plot? What made you feel this would be a good setup for a script in the genre?
Being a foreigner myself, I’ve always had a fascination with coyotes and how assisting people across the border was a job in and of itself. I hadn’t seen too many movies where they were front and center and thought exploring the mentality of someone who does this for a living would be fun new territory. It wasn’t until I read a story about Rene ‘Boxer’ Enriquez (a high-level and extremely dangerous member of the Mexican mafia) that the inspiration started to take shape and a two-hander started to form. What if you had to escort a guy like that over the border?
I’ve always been a fan of films that explore unconventional jobs. And bonus points if that job is dangerous! I feel those type of films have the drama and conflict baked in so your concept does your work for you. Look at films like The Transporter, The Hurt Locker, every Hitman film, Nightcrawler. . . . All different types of films centered around dangerous, unconventional jobs. I felt like an action movie centered around a coyote that has to perform his toughest assignment would live comfortably in that genre as well. Then once the characters started coming to life, the story begins to write itself, and you know you have something.
Reading produced screenplays, as well as “hot” unproduced scripts, is huge for any writer at any level. What types of scripts appeal to you the most, from a writing standpoint? How much does reading other scripts influence your own writing, if at all?
I try to read anything and everything that’s out there. Watching lots of movies is great, but reading screenplays gets you familiarized with the inner workings of it all. If you’re a writer, you should be reading or writing. Always.
In terms of what type of scripts I love, I’m all over the place, but high-concept genre always gets me excited. Sci-fi, hard action, fantasy, twist on an old tale or IP, good horror (GOOD horror). Something that makes me go, “Shit! Why didn’t I think of that?!” I love when a script makes you feel like the writer loved their material and characters. In terms of influence, good scripts (like good movies) always influence writers. Art propels art. Not in a ‘I gotta steal that idea’ kinda way, but more in a ‘they raised the bar so now I want to raise it’ kinda way. Reading a great script is inspiring, but what I think separates the writers from the WRITERS is that desire to say, “That film was great and all, but now I gotta throw MY hat into the ring.”
You’ve been writing for some time now, working in development, in production. . . . What are some of the takeaways you’ve gained? The “insider” advice you can pass along to those who haven’t been on the ground floor of the industry?
Concept, concept, concept. I used to believe that if I wrote a script, the industry owed me a read. Not so much. Unless your last name is Nolan, getting busy people to read is difficult. Getting them to plunk down money, even harder. So how do you get yourself on top of the pile? A great concept. A great hook. In fact, I’d wager to say that a so-so written script with a great concept will get WAY more attention than a so-so concept that is written immaculately. When you become a seasoned writer, you can afford to go conventional and write yet another ‘hitman with a heart of gold’ story, but if you’re the new guy, you better come up with something new.
The other thing I’d say is to make yourself aware of what’s selling out there. Think like a producer. The market is tough and spec sales are hard, but there’s room for it if you have the right idea. Think of ideas that FEEL like movies. Originality is great, but it needs to be coupled with familiarity, or people won’t get the kind of story you’re telling. It’s a fine line, and if you can show people that you can walk it and entertain them while doing it, you’ll become a force to be reckoned with. You’ll get reads. Always keep in mind that as a writer, the industry ultimately needs you.
Every writer has similar long-term aspirations, but what are your short-term goals? What’s the most logical next step for your writing career?
Right now, I’m working on two super secret, I’d-tell-you-but-I’d-have-to-kill-you projects that I can’t wait to put out there. They’ll most likely be ready at year’s end. One is a big-budget tentpole and the other is a horror indie, so it’s been fun to handle both sides of the spectrum.
I always try to give myself a script benchmark. The last few years it’s been to write at least two to three scripts a year. I think that’s important. In terms of next steps, I’m just going to keep writing. If you love it, you’ll just do it. In fact, sometimes I feel like l have more stories to tell than time to tell them! Other than that, I’ve met a lot of great people this year as a result of Script Pipeline and The Coyote and hope to work with them all in the coming years.
– Howard Jordan Jr., runner-up in the 2015 Script Pipeline TV Writing Competition with the comedy Family Be Like. An advertising industry veteran, Howard is pursuing a career in writing television comedy.
You worked for many years in advertising. Tell us a little about your background and how you transitioned into TV writing.
Technically speaking, my career started at 12. I ripped ads out of magazines, rewrote, and my mother mailed them in. But it officially began when I attended masters program “slash” boot camp for wannabe advertising creatives.
My first job was at a small agency in Manhattan. I worked on anything and everything. I didn’t have time, or money, to do much else. But I managed to take sitcom writing classes at night. I’ve always loved sitcoms. And I’m kind of an unofficial pop culture encyclopedia, so I figured, why not do both? However, as I advanced from junior copywriter to creative director with famous campaigns for State Farm, Bud Light, and Beats by Dr. Dre, to name a few, sitcom writing had to take a backseat.
Then I wrote my book, 101 Reasons to Leave New York. Not long after, I dusted off my sitcom notes, bought a few reference books, and deconstructed all my favorite shows.
My first attempt at a pilot was actually an adaptation of my book. I entered some shows, did well, and I was hooked all over again. I met a few people and began to workshop ideas with some very talented and very patient pros.
Then my wife and I moved to LA.
Good advertising, to me, basically tells a story. On a miniature scale, of course. Was the transition difficult? In other words, creatively speaking, how much did you have to tweak your mindset when it comes to character development, dialogue, building a plot, and so forth, even for something as short as a pilot script?
The transition, as you describe it, was easy for me. I had to tweak my mindset to write ads. I’m able to be more of myself writing sitcoms. It’s more natural to my way of thinking, writing, and creating a world.
I’ve always leaned toward developing more depth of story and character. Having 30 minutes rather than 30 seconds to do that is a dream come true.
The concept for Family Be Like: how did it come about?
I wanted to write a show about a black family that offended every notion of political correctness. No lessons to be taught, no preaching to be done, just, “hey watch this family and listen to how they talk to each other.”
And I wanted to make it funny as hell. Everything else came after.
Were there other TV series or films you modeled the characters after?
I have to assume the characters have been influenced by some of my favorites. As they’re permanently seared into my subconscious, I’m sure. Hopefully people will detect traces of the family dynamics found in Good Times, All in the Family, Frasier, and Modern Family, if I’ve done my job well.
Did the current state of television influence your choice of subject matter and approach, with this recent push toward (thankfully) introducing more diverse casts, a la Fresh Off the Boat, Orange is the New Black, etc.?
Yes and no.
Yes, because there is currently a willingness to recognize stories with diverse representation. Larger audiences seem curious to delve into stories of people who look and live differently.
No. I could’ve written this color blind, as I have so many television commercials through the years. But their race is another layer of the characters. So I had to go there. Ultimately, the content of Family Be Like is drawn from the conversations and opinions we, regardless of color, share at the dinner table that don’t get shared broadly, but are held deeply and motivate our behavior.
At what point did you realize, “Hey, maybe I have a legitimate shot at becoming a writer?”
As far as sitcom writing, I know I have a shot because I made it in advertising. I’ve succeeded as the longshot before.
Why can’t I do it again? I’ve had to learn on the fly. I’ve been in rough meetings. I’ve had to collaborate. I’ve had to cook half-baked client notes and come back with the goods in short order. I’m battle tested.
Was there a mentor, or some voice of encouragement, pushing you in that direction?
All of my family, friends, and teachers made it clear to me at a very early age that I expressed myself differently than most. And with just a few exceptions, they instructed me to keep doing so. That alone was all the encouragement I needed. Honestly, there are too many to name.
10 years from now. Your career has inevitably progressed. What’s sort of the dream scenario?
I’ve got three original sitcoms on air at the same time. Joss Whedon style, son.
– Henry Dunham, winner of the 2015 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition with the contained crime/thriller Militia, which is currently in production with Dunham directing. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Walking Dead) to star alongside Jack Huston (American Hustle) and Ralph Ineson (The Witch). A Detroit native and Michigan State alum, Henry has written, directed, and produced his own short films prior to Militia.
Prior to entering the Script Pipeline competition, how had you tested the waters—submitting to production companies, other contests, querying managers and agents. . . ?
To be honest, I never submitted to production companies/agencies blindly before because I used to intern for them and spent a lot of the time having to actually read those blind submissions, seeing firsthand how futile a process it is. You’re not getting the attention you think you are, and some kid (like me) who’s probably very tired and probably over-worked is reading your story, and it’s just. . . we’ll just say the cards are stacked against you. So my only real “noticed” thing I’ve done was my short film, The Awareness, which did really well and got me in some doors.
Then as I was writing it, I pitched Militia to some of the people Awareness got me in with. A friend very high up in the industry told me about Script Pipeline and how respected it was and a way to get it in more hands, so I just gave it a shot. I am now, understandably, very happy about that.
When (and why) did you begin screenwriting?
Well, this may not answer your question, but weirdly I realized after I saw Ace Ventura in theaters for the 90th time in 3rd grade, I was talking to my mom about how Jim Carey was so funny, and she was like, “yeah he’s got great writers.” And I clearly remember thinking, “you mean he’s not just making all that stuff up?” So when I realized what a writer does, I was pretty shocked and wanted to learn more.
I started trying it when I was in, maybe, 7th grade? But I had no idea what I was doing. I was obsessed with Tarantino after I read my brother’s copy of the Pulp Fiction script in 6th grade and couldn’t believe how cool it was. I kept writing without any real idea what I was doing, honestly, until I started my internships out here in LA. Learning from people who actually went to film school on what works and what doesn’t, and then wrote a number of horrible screenplays.
The “why” is probably tougher to answer. Maybe because somewhere deep down there’s a need to tell stories, but maybe it’s also because there’s this dumb thing I feel like everybody’s guilty of. Which is “it would be so cool to sell a script for a bunch of money!” My “why” was probably a bit of both in the beginning, and then you do it and very quickly realize it’s one of the hardest, most lonesome things a person can do and demands an insane amount of dedication and effort. You will spend Friday nights at home. You will miss out on things. And some people, it burns them out, which is understandable. But once you get that feeling of actually telling a story that surprises the audience and do good work that you’re proud of, the feeling of fulfillment from that, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t get it anywhere else. And it’s invaluable. And highly addictive.
Militia almost hearkens back to a 12 Angry Men scenario, the idea that a tense thriller or heavy drama needn’t take place beyond the confines of a single location, nor do you need an elaborate backdrop. What other films, stories, or current real-life events influenced the plot, and where did the concept originate?
First off, that’s an awesome comparison, and I’m very flattered, so thank you. Secondly, there are some movies like Death of a Maiden or The Ox-bow Incident, or classic Hitchcock movies like Lifeboat or Rope, that never give that feeling of “okay, when are we leaving this room?” And I think that’s in direct connection with how interesting the situation is and how interesting the characters can be. To me that’s always been a cool challenge, same with The Awareness: to feel that kind of irony of enjoying the claustrophobia. To make the audience feel stuck with the characters, but interested enough in them and the story and the stakes of what they’re experiencing, is a cool feeling to balance between.
As far as the origin or the inception of the idea, it was dumb, unfortunate luck that these public shootings started to happen with more frequency right around the time I finished up this script, and then the whole Ferguson situation and people starting to question police and their use of power. I wish I could say I had some incredible gift of foresight with that, but no, it’s just a coincidence. To me, the story itself is about a man struggling to know whether or not he’s strong enough to be alone, or whether he needs to be a part of something to be happy, even if it’s what’s hurting him. That’s always going to be a relevant question in society whether or not it’s in the news.
Often, we get asked: “Do I need to live in Los Angeles if I want to be a screenwriter?” At what point in your career did you decide to move to LA? Was it the right timing, in retrospect?
I moved out here about 8 years ago, and to be honest I’m not sure. I don’t have an answer to this because I’m absolutely sure it can be done, and I’m sure a lot of working writers actually leave town for a few months at a time to go into a hole and push out a draft. But I can say, without a doubt, I made progress in my ability only because of people I met here. Without them, I’d be useless. I’m an enormous believer in having a trusted community of people you genuinely believe are smarter than you and whose opinion you trust. And it’s tough to find those people for this type of work in Detroit.
When we announced you as the winner of the competition—the $20,000 grand prize, top spot out of 3,500 entries—you seemed stunned. Perhaps rightfully so. Were you confident you had a shot, or did it kind of come out of nowhere?
Let’s not forget the part where I asked if Militia was even close, and you told me not to be the “angry guy” when I don’t win.
Classic misdirection. . . .
So yeah, I was pretty shocked. In all seriousness, I did feel thrilled just to be a finalist with Script Pipeline because of their reputation of taking finalists and introducing them around town, so I was excited to be a part of that group alone. It was a genuine honor. To win on top of that, yeah–it still kind of shocks me.
Though there is no formula a writer can follow to crack into the industry, what do you think are some key components every writer should possess so they at least have a shot at getting noticed? Is it mostly about writing ability, or does personality, the ability to communicate with potential managers and reps, equally as important for long-term success?
Wow, well, I feel like I could give this advice if I was more of a force in the industry. But first, I don’t know if there’s one single thing that makes someone break through. If I had to narrow it down, I’d say two things. One being story over everything. Story comes first. Ahead of every single element, the audience wants to be engaged with a character in a story that surprises them and keeps them constantly asking “oh my god, what happens next?” That’s everything to me.
The other part is just a dose of tenacity. You have to stick it out. Having that drive is essential.