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Exclusive Interviews

Jason Kaleko

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Kaleko

– Jason Kaleko, Writer of Hold Up! (2012 Script Pipeline Contest Winner). Jason is currently developing new material with Script Pipeline development execs and other Pipeline industry partners.

Your winning script was touted by some of the judges as one of the best comedies that came through Script Pipeline in years—why do you think that is? Is writing comedy tougher than people think?

Comedy writing is tough because it’s such a fine line between the ludicrous that makes us laugh and the ludicrous that makes us roll our eyes. Comedy is rarely universal and even more rarely timeless. Austin Powers had people rolling in the aisles in the late 90s, but now, many people consider those films to be silly and corny. There seems to be a “you had to be there” element to all humor—but comedies like Tootsie or Dr. Strangelove persist because there’s a structure and wit to appreciate in addition to the laughs. I defy you to watch a film like Arsenic and Old Lace and not at least acknowledge the cleverness of the idea and execution.

I am greatly humbled to hear that my script was considered to be funny—I suppose if I had to pinpoint why I personally think it’s funny, it’s because each plot point and character starts as only slightly ridiculous, but ends up having major implications for the rest of the story. Soon, scenes that were initially smirks have been built upon until they become small laughs and eventually big laughs. . . kind of like a cycle of compounding ridiculousness. . . if that makes any sense.

How much success have you had in circulating your scripts in the past? Have you entered other contests?

I have had minor successes with previous scripts in contests—quarterfinalist and semi-finalist rounds for various other submissions, but never far past that. I submitted Hold Up! to a few contests and received similar results, but was elated at the response from Script Pipeline. Perhaps it speaks to the subjectivity of comedy that Hold Up! garnered a Grand Prize at Script Pipeline and only a quarterfinalist or first-round finish in other contests.

Alternatively, I believe it speaks to the need for writers to get their work out there and always keep writing, keep submitting. You just need one person to laugh out loud toget that foot in the door.

Do you stick to one genre, or write whatever you feel “clicks” at any given time?

I have ideas for a variety of genres—I’ve written horror, sci-fi/action, and like most writers, have a whole book of loglines for stories of all types. I think for writers like me, in their early stages, it’s important to find a strength and stick to it. Maybe you want to write that Grover Cleveland biopic or animated torture porn you’ve had your heart set on, but if you’re great with action or great with comedy, stick to that for now. All your bizarre writing dreams will be there waiting when you have the means to make them bizarre writing realities.

The Jason Kaleko writing process: how does it start? With the premise, with a single scene that spawns a completed script, a character. . . ?

My process starts in all varieties of ways—sometimes I have a moral dilemma I want to explore. . . sometimes a crazy character. . . sometimes I might be watching a movie and think, “What if that character had taken a left instead of a right turn there. . . .” Good ideas can come from anything. Hold Up! came from spontaneously watching Airplane! and Ocean’s Eleven in the same week, and realizing how Ocean’s Eleven was a bad pun away from being absolutely outrageous.

What spurred you to write Hold Up? Any influences? TV shows, films?

I took the Tarantino approach to film and stole from everything I loved. Aside from parodying films like Dog Day Afternoon, The Inside Man, Reservoir Dogs, etc., I lifted my comedy stylings from classics like Airplane! and The Simpsons. We are only the sum of everything that has influenced us, and in that vein, writing is stealing, plain and simple. I always thought if I didn’t pursue screenwriting, I’d love to be a thief or crook of some kind. Maybe a counterfeiter—I hear there’s good money in it (rimshot).

In capturing humor and comic timing, which is no easy feat, what’s the number one most important factor, to you?

To me, comedy is about catching the audience off-guard and also rewarding them for ‘getting it.’ Most educated audiences these days can figure out the punch-lines to jokes before they’re even said. With this in mind, anti-humor is a great tool (“A dyslexic man walks into a bra”). As for rewarding the audience, Family Guy‘s success suggests referencing pop culture is so rewarding that you may not even need a punch-line, but I believe a good recurring or running joke gives a bit of ‘reward’ that standalone lines don’t.

Marc-Andre Samson

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Samson

– Marc-Andre Samson, writer of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2011 Script Pipeline Contest winner). Marc’s horror film Where the Devil Dwells will be released in 2015.

What do you think clicked so well with I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, making it one of the top scripts we received in 2011?

Hopefully, it’s because of the characters. . . and people seem to dig the non-stop action in the third act. I think the script has a nice balance of mystery and action.

How many scripts, roughly, have you written? How long have you been writing?

I started writing stories when I was in third grade and never stopped. I wrote about a dozen scripts so far. . . some good, some not-so-good. However, I had fun writing all of them.

Do you stick to a certain style or genre? Are there certain themes running throughout all your screenplays?

Crime and horror. I’m attracted to characters who avoid facing problems, and must eventually step up. I’m also fascinated by the power of corruption. The contest-winning script is such a rich, vivid study in character.

What inspired you to bring this gritty, female protag to life?

I was talking to a friend about writing a revenge story. His family is from El Salvador, and we discussed how it would be cool to have a Salvadoran character. I read about El Salvador and the civil war in the 80s-90s and everything came together this way. This country is so rich in history and drama—it was the perfect starting point for a crime story.

Is your goal to be a professional, working screenwriter, or do you have directorial or producing aspirations as well?

Writing is my first love of course. We produced a (very low budget) feature called Interstate with Shiloh Fernandez back in 2007. I learned a lot from this feature, and from my recent writing, so there will be a follow-up movie. Not a sequel, but something completely different.

You’ve been a long time writer to the Script Pipeline Workshop. What advice would you give writers who are hesitant to send their script out to contests or for third-party feedback?

There’s no way you can evolve without feedback. That is true for music, painting, writing or any other art. The thing to keep in mind is to not be discouraged by criticism. Sometimes people are right, and sometimes they are not. It’s your job to take this feedback, interpret it, and make it your own.

If marketability was of zero concern, what would be your ideal script to write (or have you already written it)?

I only write what I feel like writing. Marketability is of zero concern to me. That being said, I’m not a big fan of writing period pieces or existential drama, so I guess that helps a little. I’d like to write a story for a graphic novel. That’d be interesting.

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Tyler Burton Smith

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tyler

Tyler Burton Smith, writer of Henchman (2011 Script Pipeline Contest Winner). In addition to working as a writer for video game content, Tyler is in development on multiple feature film projects. He’s repped by Chris Goble at Grandview.

Henchman is an animated comedy. Given the fact Pixar and . . . well, Pixar has such a stronghold on the mainstream, studio world of animation, did you see this script as more of a writing sample, or something that had a legit shot at the big-budget animated market?

I definitely saw Henchman as more of a sample when I was writing it. I knew there were a lot fewer opportunities for optioning an animated script, but it was a story I really wanted to tell. Sometimes, I just have to go with my gut and write the stories I’m excited about, because those are the ones that come out the best, whether or not they sell.

The script was considered one of the best we’ve ever received in the contest, mainly due to your ability to craft such an engaging cast of characters. What films did you draw from to create this humorous, colorful world?

I studied all of the Pixar movies extensively. They’re incredibly well-structured and have such vibrant characters and powerful dramatic moments, so I drew a lot of my inspiration from there when I was figuring out how to frame the story. Also, strangely enough, Glengarry Glen Ross. I wanted to create a world where super heroes and evil villains were all part of organized corporations. The heroes were more like greedy salesmen, fighting with each other for leads to the big crimes, more concerned with spinning a story to look good rather than actually doing good. Movies like Glengarry are great inspiration for that.

Had you been a screenwriter a long time prior to entering the competition?

I’ve been screenwriting for just under two years, so I suppose I’m still pretty new to this whole business.

What are your plans as a writer? Stick to features, branch off into TV, or do a little of both, ideally?

Right now I’m working in TV, on the show The Listener in Toronto. Ideally, I’d love to do both. I think my heart is more in features, but I’ve really enjoyed writing for television, and working in a writing room is an incredibly inspirational experience.

Tell us about how quickly you landed a manager and an agent. What was the experience like?

I had been talking with my manager for a while and we signed shortly after the contest ended. I just recently signed with WME. We had met with a few different agencies in LA and really took some time to figure out which one would be best suited for me. So far, it has been great, it’s incredibly helpful to have those resources to send out your scripts and let you know what’s going on in the industry.

What advice would you give the writer who wants to do something both creative and original, yet marketable?

I may be naively optimistic, but I think you should always write the movies that you personally would want to see. I think the creativity and originality come from your unique voice, so if you try to focus too much on writing something marketable but your heart isn’t in it, then it’s going to show. I forget the source of the quote, but somebody once said, “Every story has been told before, but not from your voice.” I think that’s true. There’s definitely value in keeping up on what’s in production, or being optioned, but you can easily waste a lot of time trying to follow trends of what’s hot. Life’s too short to write stories you don’t want to tell. If you hate vampires, then why are you wasting six months writing a vampire movie? Somebody who loves vampires will inevitably do it better. I think the best way to approach a new script is to sit and think to yourself, “What would I really like to see that I’ve never seen before?” And then write that and hope other people agree.

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David Love

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DavidLove

– David Love, writer of Unorthodox (2011 Script Pipeline TV Writing Contest Winner). In 2014, David wrote an episode of the FX show Partners and is continuing a career in TV writing and development.

What was the motivation behind writing Unorthodox? How long it take from concept to finished product?

I guess I’ve always had some pretty major hang-ups with religion. When I was very young, my parents put me in an after school program at Chabad, where they approach the Bible as the literal word of God. This made absolutely no sense to me, but they were my teachers, and I had been taught to trust them. It created a cognitive dissonance in me that would one day lead me to write Unorthodox, so for that, I guess I should be thankful. I had originally conceived the show as Malcom in the Middle with Orthodox Jews, but the more I researched, the more I realized that this was going to be a much darker cable show. Before working on Unorthodox, I had never even heard of this ultra-conservative sect known as the Satmar. The more I learned, the more I realized that this was the story that needed to be told. The whole process took me about six months.

The contest judges agreed that the script was funny “without trying to be funny.” Do you think this is the best way to write comedy? Or just the best approach to this type of concept?

First of all, thank you. I have always loved situational humor. I know this may be blasphemy to some, but I tend to think about funny situations, even before thinking about character. Once I have a funny situation, I think to myself, “What kind of person would have the funniest reaction to this situation?” Once you have a funny situation, and a character who will exploit that situation to its maximum comedic potential, you don’t need jokes. I’ve written multi-camera sitcoms before, and it is really hard to make them feel real. The whole set-up/joke thing is not how real people talk. It comes across false. I think today’s audiences are too mature for that. But then again, Two and a Half Men is still one of the highest rated comedies on TV, so what the hell do I know?

You also were a finalist of the 2010 Script Pipeline TV Writing Competition with a Curb Your Enthusiasm spec. Is TV comedy your preferred genre? Why TV?

It is, and here’s why: I have ADD. It takes so much effort for me to sit down and watch a one hour show. Sitcoms are half-hour, self-contained stories that are pure escapism. That is not to say I don’t like dramas. In fact, my fiance is a drama writer, and since we started dating, I have gotten hooked on Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland, and Game of Thrones. But I would much rather write something that is first and foremost funny. If it has some kind of message, or speaks to the human condition, bonus points, but more than anything, I think people just need to laugh.

Do you feel that more “edgy” writing (e.g. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Louie, or even Modern Family) wins in the current television landscape? In other words, in your opinion, is this future of TV sitcoms?

Although I enjoy “edgy” shows like It’s Always Sunny, I don’t think they’re the future of sitcoms. I think more than anything, audiences want characters they can relate to. If you can relate to Frank, Dee, Dennis, or Mac, stop reading this and check yourself into the nearest mental health facility. With shows like Sunny, audiences laugh at the characters, not with them. Modern Family, on the other hand, is a completely different story. If you can relate to Mitch, Phil, Alex, or Claire, congratulations, you’re human! I think this is a show that will be around a long, long time.

What are some of your TV influences, past and present?

There’s too many to name. From The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, to Seinfeld, to Community. I will say that I believe South Park to be the greatest example of social satire since Charlie Chaplin. South Park is the only show I can think of where they put out a movie and the show just got better! If you watch South Park from the beginning you can see an amazing progression. I can imagine Matt Stone and Trey Parker getting together around season three and saying, “Whoa! People are actually watching this show about fat kids getting anal probes, and elephants f’ing pigs. Maybe we should throw in some kind of message.” And for a while they did, and it was very obvious. At the end of each episode, Stan or Kyle would look to the camera and say, “I learned something today…” And that was their time to get on their political soapbox. Around season seven, they did away with this technique and wove the messages seamlessly into the comedy. It has been amazing to watch that show progress. In my opinion, it’s the only show in history that gets better and better every single year.

Any feature comedies in the works?

I have a couple ideas in the back of my mind, but right now I’m really focusing on my play. It’s called Survivor’s Guilt. It’s about a struggling writer who can’t get his novel published. After several rejections, he tries submitting it as a memoir and ends up getting some interest from a big time publisher. The only problem is the publisher thinks he’s the 90-year-old Holocaust surviving protagonist, from whom the story is narrated. The publisher wants to meet the man who he thinks is the author, and so the novelist must find an actor to play the part of his Holocaust survivor. Look for it in a tiny black box theater near you!

Matthew Bozin

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Bozin

– Matthew Bozin, writer of Granite Falls (2011 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest winner; 2012 Screenwriting finalist)

What was one of the main motivations to become a screenwriter?

I remember watching movies at a very young age and just thinking to myself that I wanted to be a part of that in some way. I wasn’t really sure how, and I think that stayed in the back of my mind over the years until I got to high school and took an interest in writing. I’m not sure when I put the two together, but I do recall reading an article about Fight Club, where Brad Pitt said how he met the writer and told him it was the best damn script he’d ever read, and thinking, I want to do that.

Early on, what was one of the more challenging aspects of writing? Coming up with a concept? The execution itself. . . ?

Early on, I read as many scripts and books as I could get my hands on, and structure and dialogue came fairly naturally to me. I guess the most difficult thing, personally, was finding compelling stories and characters that would keep people turning the pages. That’s actually gotten harder over the years as well, trying to find a story or concept that the industry wants. I find myself trying to write something I think the industry will buy instead of something I want to write. Also, I’m a really bad speller. . . so that’s always a challenge.

How long had you been writing screenplays prior to entering the contest?

I attempted my first screenplay my junior year in college, so I’ve been writing for a little over 12 years.

Had you circulated the script to anyone? If so, was the process difficult? Any bites?

I’ve had the benefit of working in this industry for a little while, and had also been a semi-finalist in another contest, so I had relationships and contacts to send the script to. That being said, I think the process is fairly difficult for the most part. But I’ve always believed, once you write something everyone wants, everyone will call. The most typical response for Granite Falls is, “Love the writing, not sure the concept is for me. What else you got?”

The recognition of winning Script Pipeline has been a great avenue for the script as well. I’ve caught the attention of some creative executives and have had a couple meetings out of it, which leads to more relationships and more people I can send my next script to.

Granite Falls is an action/thriller with a younger cast—what were some of the influences in coming up with the premise? Had you written similar scripts before?

I would consider myself more of a character-drama writer. I’ve written a couple supernatural thrillers, an action adventure, 2 book adaptations (both dramas), and a couple character-dramas before writing Granite Falls.

But to be completely honest, Granite Falls was written after reading an action thriller, with a young cast, that sold for a million, and getting so mad because I thought the script was horrible! I kept thinking, if this is what sells, I can do it a hell of a lot better! I won’t reveal the name of that script, but it was made. . . and it bombed! Am I allowed to say, “I told you so?”

What’s next on the screenwriting front?

I have a couple features in the early outline stage and have a few first acts written, but my focus is a new feature that’s also my first attempt at a comedy. So far it’s going pretty well. . . until I get stuck, at which point I will consider it to have gone horribly wrong.

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Sean Fallon / Charlotte Barrett

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Fallon-Barrett

– Sean Fallon and Charlotte Barrett, writer of Denny Delivers (2008 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest finalist). Sean and Charlotte went on to write and direct the indie dramedy Virgin Alexander and are actively developing new feature films.

How long have you been writing screenplays? Did your writing start with scripts, fiction. . . ?

We started writing full length scripts in 2004 and have been writing as a team since 2005.

Were either of you “formally” trained in film and screenwriting (i.e. through a university film program, extension classes, etc.), or were you more or less self-taught?

We actually met at our first day orientation at NYU. We both transferred into the undergrad film program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and immediately began working on each other’s short films. Our senior year we wrote a short together that Charlotte directed.

What do you think is the best way to go about becoming a professional screenwriter?

Write every day. That’s what helped us the most. It can be tough to balance that with a day job, but your day job shouldn’t be taking over your life. While living in LA I worked in the machine room at a company that made movie trailers. Because I was behind a locked door with high tech equipment I convinced others that my job was really complicated so they left me alone. The truth is I only had to burn copies of DVDs so I had plenty of free time to write. At the same time, Charlotte was working as a dog walker so in between her appointments we would constantly be talking and emailing each other scenes. That’s how we wrote most of Denny Delivers.

Tell us about your 2009 Script Pipeline Finalist script, Denny Delivers. What did the placing in the contest do for you?

Denny Delivers is an action comedy/family drama. It’s about a 57 year old, recently fired mailman who takes an overnight delivery job from the mob when his daughter forces him to start paying rent. [The script] being a 2009 Script Pipeline Finalist was huge. After the competition we were contacted by a producer and we pitched him our script, Virgin Alexander. He read it, loved it, and we last week we wrapped principal photography.

So Virgin Alexander goes into production soon. How did that come about? Who’s directing? The cast? The story?

At the end of December 2009 we pitched Virgin Alexander to our producer, Houston Hill. He read it over New Year’s, and by January 5th we were putting together our business proposal. When Charlotte and I pitched Virgin Alexander we were always going to direct it. Luckily Houston loved our vision for the film.

The film is about Alexander, a 26 year old scrap hauler, who is about to be evicted. In a last ditch effort to save his house, he turns it into a brothel—even though he has never had sex before.

The film stars Rick Faugno (Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys), Paige Howard (Adventureland), Mika Boorem (John Carpenter’s The Ward and Blue Crush), David Dastmalchian (The Dark Knight), and Bronson Pinchot (Perfect Strangers and True Romance).

How does a young filmmaker actually get their film made, from your perspective? What needs to happen? Does genre matter?

A great script. This was a very low budget film. It was made under the Screen Actor’s Guild Ultra Low Budget guidelines, so no one was doing it for money. Most of our cast and crew probably lost money making this movie, but they all loved the script and wanted to be a part of it. It was the script that opened all the doors for us. From our producer, to our investors, to our cast and crew, without a great script nothing else matters.

What’s next after Virgin Alexander?

Months of editing. But while we are editing we also have some investors interested in Denny Delivers, and we are writing a new script. Now that the shoot is over, it’s time to get back to work and write every day.

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Brian Watanabe

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– Brian Watanabe (Script Pipeline “Recommend” writer), writer of Operation: Endgame, formerly Rogues Gallery.

CC: What was the motivation behind Rogues Gallery?

BW: Back in 2001, during the dot-com bust, the ad agency I was working at in San Francisco started some massive lay-offs. It was pretty brutal. Cubes emptied, factions developed, paranoia spread—it didn’t feel like we were getting fired, it felt like we were getting whacked. When I was finally let go it was almost a relief.

I started to think: What if an office full of spies got downsized? What if instead of firing you they killed you? What if these trained assassins started killing each other to save their jobs? The idea had a lot of cinematic elements I loved: action, comedy, satire, a Ten Little Indians, who-will-survive structure. That was the start of the Rogues Gallery.

CC: How did the project get off the ground, and how long did it take from concept to sale?

BW: I started writing Rogues at the end of 2003, finishing in spring of 2004. I entered the script into a bunch of contests. It was a finalist in Scriptapalooza, won 2nd place in Screenplay Shootout and tied for best comedy at Screenwriting Expo 3. As a result of the Expo win, I landed a literary manager, Andrew Kersey.

I also won a script analysis package from the Script Pimp competition, and after a few rounds of revisions, Chadwick Clough called to tell me he wanted to produce Rogues with Sean McKittrick from Darko Entertainment. Rogues was officially optioned in early 2007, and production started in July of 2008.

CC: What was the #1 motivating factor in becoming a screenwriter?

BW: When I was a kid, going to the movies was like Christmas. I’m in that generation of film geeks whose first big movie experience was Star Wars. Instead of pursuing film I went to school to become an advertising copywriter, which allowed me to tell stories in radio spots, TV commercials and web videos. But like most ad guys, I knew I had a few scripts in me. I always wanted to pull a Lawrence Kasdan or John Hughes and move from advertising to film.

CC: What’s your current attitude toward the entertainment industry?

BW: I think the entertainment industry is changing. The emergence of online entertainment and the ease of shooting digitally are giving more young writers and filmmakers the opportunity to tell their stories and hone their skills. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a whole generation of filmmakers emerge from the new media sea change of the last five years, with new visions and unique points of view. It should be exciting.

CC: Overall experience with selling your first script? Was it what you had anticipated?

BW: Selling my first script has been a roller coaster ride. There have been surprises, celebrations and compromises but overall it’s been an amazing experience. The cast the team put together for Rogues was incredible. Getting to hang out on set and talk to Maggie Q, Rob Corddry, Bob Odenkirk, Adam Scott, Joe Anderson, and Odette Yustman was unforgettable. The crew and producers were all great to me, and Chadwick Clough, who was there with me from the beginning, was especially supportive throughout the entire process. I consider myself very lucky.

CC: How has Rogues helped you navigate Hollywood for another sale?

BW: The success of Rogues has helped me land some meetings around town. As a result, I’m currently developing a script with a major studio-based company. It’s been a fun ride so far but hopefully—if I just work hard enough—this is just the beginning.

CC: What are you working on now? Are you staying in the genre?

BW: I’m currently working on another action-comedy. Similar to ROGUES, this script also tries to subvert genre and deals with the theme of identity. I think it’s a lot of fun, and I’m excited about finishing it up.

Evan Daugherty

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GP-Winners-2008-(Evan)

Evan Daugherty, writer of Killing Season (a.k.a. Shrapnel, 2008 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest winner), Snow White and the HuntsmanDivergent, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and numerous studio and television projects. Due in part to his Script Pipeline win, Evan went on to become one of the most in-demand screenwriters in Hollywood. He’ll make his directorial debut in 2015 with the Dimension Films feature Ink and Bone.

How long have you been writing screenplays? Did you start with scripts, fiction. . . ?

I’ve been writing in one form or another for a long time: short stories, poetry, etc. But to be honest, from an early age, I was more interested in “making movies” than just “writing scripts.”  Most of my creative energy went into filming backyard movies with a digital video camera. I think I started to write my first feature script as a senior in high school. I didn’t know how to write a screenplay and was clueless about formatting, so it was kind of a disaster.

I didn’t write a “real” screenplay until I started at NYU Film School the following year. I wrote four feature screenplays while I was at NYU. Only one of them was for a class; the rest were extra-curricular. Once I graduated, I wrote three or four more scripts before Shrapnel. It’s essential to keep writing and not be discouraged if your first few scripts aren’t very good. If you keep at it, your writing will improve.

What has influenced your writing most?

That’s a tough one. Shrapnel is a gritty, almost “art house” thriller. It was influenced mainly by films like Southern Comfort, Deliverance, Hell in the Pacific and The Duellists. That said, my writing as a whole is probably more influenced by writers like James Cameron, Scott Frank, David Koepp and, of course, William Goldman. . . with a little bit of David Mamet thrown in for good measure.

Shrapnel: Where did the idea come from? What made you say, “I have to write this”?

I originally wrote Shrapnel to direct myself. NYU film school gives out grants every year to recent alumni to help pay for their first feature films. I wanted to write something cool and unique but also cheap. I thought about writing a typical “cabin in the woods” horror movie, but those have been done to death. Then, I stumbled onto the idea of doing a “cabin in the woods” political thriller. I also thought it would be interesting to explore aspects of World War II that don’t usually get discussed or depicted in most films. But above all, I really wanted to see an old-school mano-a-mano action movie where both of the combatants are grizzled, old dudes.

Had the script been in other contests? What was it like being announced as a Grand Prize winner for Script Pipeline (formerly Script Pimp) and making the 2008 Blacklist?

After submitting Shrapnel for the NYU grant (which I didn’t win), submitting it to contests was very much an afterthought. I think I might have submitted it to one other contest, which I don’t remember the name of. The whole Script Pipeline process was really great. I was still living in Dallas at the time and when I was announced as a finalist, I decided to actually fly out to LA for the ceremony. I had no expectation of winning, I was just using it as an excuse to visit some LA friends. So when I was announced as one of the Grand Prize winners, it was a real shock.

It was the same as the Blacklist. I had heard about it, but would never have dreamed that just a couple of months after winning this contest, Shrapnel would make it onto the list of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. It was definitely an honor.

Tell us about what happened after the contest. Your introduction to Jake Wagner, the meeting with Warner Bros. . . did it feel like just a logical next step, or did it take some getting used to? What was it like in the WB meeting?

Following the Grand Prize win, I was contacted by a few different managers, all of whom seemed to be big fans of Shrapnel, but Jake (then from Energy Entertainment, now with Film Engine) seemed like the best fit for Shrapnel and for me. I quickly moved out to LA, and Jake and Brooklyn started putting me in rooms almost immediately. A few months later, they sat me down with a few different agents, and I ultimately signed with Tobin Babst and Rio Hernandez at UTA.

I worked on a few different takes and pitches but ultimately landed my first job at Warner Bros. doing a rewrite on Grayskull. I have to admit that all of it took a lot of getting used to. For instance, when I was announced as the new writer in the trades, I wasn’t prepared for the torrent of internet discussion surrounding the project.

How was the experience with Warner Bros.?

Unfortunately, Warner Bros. decided not to renew their option with Mattel on the Masters of the Universe franchise. It’s kind of a bummer because I was very proud of the work I did on Grayskull. It was a really fun experience though. Silver Pictures was great. And it was especially rewarding to work with John Stevenson (Kung-Fu Panda), the director who was attached to Grayskull at that time.

As an up-and-coming writer with a new view on the inner-workings of the industry, has it been largely positive? Negative? How so?

To be honest, it’s been surprisingly positive so far. Fingers crossed. I’ve met with hundreds of people in town, and I’m always surprised by how friendly, energetic and creative they are as a whole. That said, Hollywood is a strange place, and I’ve had a few horror stories.

What are your short-term and long-term goals in the industry? Any new scripts in the works?

My short term goal is to just keep writing, and to keep working with cool, talented people. I have a few spec scripts at various stages of completion, as well as a pitch for a TV show and some good prospects on the writing assignment front.

As for the long-term goals, I’m still working those out. . . .

Advice to beginning writers? What do you wish you’d have known about the industry earlier on that you know now?

There is a perception amongst young writers or writers who haven’t broken into the business that people in the industry want you to fail. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Everybody wants you to succeed. They want to work with you on a great idea that will take the town by storm.

In terms of advice, I’ll go with the cliché answer and say, “Write.”  As I mentioned, I wrote seven or eight screenplays, some good, some bad, before I wrote Shrapnel, the script that earned me a manager, agent and my first job. Beyond that, I would say that it helps if you’re basically a nice, friendly, open person, who can engage with the people you meet on a real, human level.

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Sean McKittrick

By | Exclusive Interviews

– Sean McKittrick, producer of Donnie DarkoThe Box, and Bad Words

What did you do after UCLA?

SM: I worked for a temp agency called Apple One. They specifically place you in entertainment related jobs. I became a full time temp at New Line Cinema and floated from desk to desk when assistants were out sick, taking vacations, etc. That actually led to my first job. When a position opened up, they were familiar with me and I hit it off with one of the executives. I ended up staying there for two years as her assistant.

When did you intern for Lucas Foster?

SM: I worked for Lucas when I was a Junior and Senior in College.

How did it go?

SM: The internship was an eye opener, you know, you’re in college, you don’t know anything. You’re working for free, doing the most menial tasks, making copies. You learn the copy machine really well. That was basically it. You’re copying scripts, sometimes your reading scripts because one of the assistants wants a second opinion or something. I remember to get the internship they gave me the first draft of The Truman Show, without a title page. And I had to read it and tell them if I thought it was good, and that was like the litmus test. And I didn’t know anything; I was like, “Oh this is so brilliant, you have to buy it!” They were like, “Yeah, yeah, we know. It sold for like a million two, a year ago.”

So then what was the break? Where did New Line take you and when did you first meet Rich?

SM: Actually an assistant for Lucas Foster, Sasha Alexander, who is now an actress, introduced me to Rich because Rich needed a producer for his graduate film. She was actually going to be one of the stars of the film but she was going to produce it as well. So she didn’t have the time because she was going to act in it. So she introduced me to Rich, and I read his script and it was just this short film that was completely insane. It was like a sci-fi farce of a 1950’s serial sci-fi film. Totally absurd. About a corporation that invents a teleportation machine and teleports a man. The thought behind it is that you can’t teleport a man’s soul, so they inadvertently resurrect God by trying to do this, and obviously it brings about destruction.

Did you guys make this movie?

SM: Oh yeah, we made it, it was 35 mm, it ended up being, you know 48 minutes with 70 special effects shots.

And this was while you were at UCLA and he was at USC?

SM: This was right when we both graduated. So instead of doing the standard Europe trips after school we went and played with all the tools that we had from SC and UCLA – we raided the school and took everything we could and we had all of Rich’s friends from SC working on the crew, Ryan Lewis was actually part of our crew. We were all doing everything.

And then, what happened when you finished it?

SM: We finished it and we just didn’t have the money to properly edit it and do the visual effects so I went off and took the job at New Line and Rich went off and took a job at the post house so he could use the machines at the post house. He was literally serving cappuccinos to J. Lo and Puff Daddy doing their video. And he always jokes about replacing tampons in the women’s bathroom. That was his job.

And then editing at night?

SM: We met our editor, Sam Bauer, there, because Rich was working with him and we started editing it at night. Rich and Sam would stay after work and edit every night.

Did you finally get it to a place where you liked it?

SM: Yeah, we got it to what we liked, and then we kind of just sat on it. It was just kind of our experiment and over the course, I believe it was ’98 – it was the holidays, late ’97, early ’98. Rich showed up with Donnie Darko. It was like 158 pages and he gave it to me. I had been at New Line for 8 months or so and I read the script and I was just blown away by it. It was really long but obviously he was a talent that doesn’t come around very often. So we spent maybe 3,4,5 months kind of just streamlining, getting the script perfect, and cutting like 20 pages out of it and focusing all of his ideas. . .

Did you send the short anywhere?

SM: Well, we didn’t send it anywhere. He still wouldn’t have gotten directing work out of it unless he was trying for commercials or music videos. He knew he needed a companion piece to become a director so he just decided to write his own script.

Did he know that you had already decided that you were going to produce?

SM: Yeah, I mean I think we both wanted to do it all.

So when you guys met? You just hit it off?

SM: We just hit it off.

So who was the first person who saw it after this 4 or 5 month – and did he have an agent?

SM: No, no agent. I had met a lot of people, basically worked for the number two or three at New Line, in Development. That was what I was doing for a year and a half; you know reading scripts, working the phones. All that stuff that assistants love to talk about so much. So when we got the script ready I sent it to 8 assistants that I had made friendships with over the years as an assistant at each agency. You know my favorite person at each agency and said you’ve got to read this. And literally within two weeks it had worked its way all the way up the ladder at CAA and they called and immediately were just like, “Who the fuck is this guy?” And I sent him over and he signed in the room that very day. That was Christmas of ’98 I think.

And he’s still with that same agent?

SM: We’re still with the same people.

Did you do any rewriting? How did you work to keep Rich as director attached?

SM: We never really did a rewrite. Rich sat in the room at CAA and said, “You know, I’d love for you guys to represent me, but here are two things, I’m directing the script no matter what,” and he’s 23 at the time.

With little to show for it besides an incredible script?

SM: He was like I am directing this and that’s that. “And two, Sean is producing it and that’s that.” They said okay fine, and they supported that. Then went the year long process of going out on a thousand meetings with every studio executive and every other producer that they wanted to team us up with. An experienced producer- that was a year long process and it was tough.

What was the break?

SM: Well the break was, Jason Schwartzman had read it and we didn’t know it because he was represented by a different agency. We had no idea that he wanted to do it for about a year. He had been asking his agents, “What’s going on with Donnie Darko, What’s going on with Donnie Darko?” And they were saying nothing because nobody had bought it. We wouldn’t sell it as a spec and we wouldn’t change into the teen horror film that so many companies wanted us to do. So his agents rightfully were telling him well nothing is going on with this. And we finally just heard through the grapevine that Schwartzman wanted to do it. So we immediately called his agent and said well listen, if he wants to do this and we attach him, it’s going to get made. He just came off of Rushmore. Obviously, he is very talented. When Jason came aboard then out of nowhere Nancy Juvonen and Drew Barrymore (Flower Films), they were obsessed with Jason – they wanted to know what Jason was doing or what Jason was planning on doing because they just thought he was great. So Sharon Sheinwold, Jason’s agent at UTA, sent the script over to Nancy, and Nancy read it and just flipped out for it. And accosted our agent at show west, when they were all out there for some other movie. And literally we were there the very next day; sitting in Drew’s trailer on the set of Charlie’s Angels talking with her about the script. And at that point we were in the 2 million dollar range for budget and literally we sat in the room with Drew and Nancy – and if you ever meet them they are just the nicest people in the world and they just loved the script. And literally Drew said I’d like to play the English Teacher – if you let our company come on and produce this with you? And we were like, uh, yeah! So immediately our budget went up to 4.5. In that room we had a start date because Drew had a one week window between Charlie’s Angels and Riding in Cars with Boys, which was July 24 through August 1. So we had that one week window, which was maybe three months away so we were immediately in pre production and we were deciding between two financiers. We went with the one we felt most comfortable with. That was that.

When did Jason leave the project?

SM: I don’t remember what month it was, but we were a few months out from shooting, and Jason had to leave because he had committed to another movie that was literally starting the week that we were going to start, and, or wait, it was wrapping a week after we were going to shoot. And we couldn’t make it work because we only had Drew for one week. And so he unfortunately had to pull out of it.

Was he upset?

SM: Yeah, I mean I’m pretty sure he was disappointed, and we were kind of terrified. We’re like, oh fuck; the guy who got this rolling is gone.

Was Drew worried?

SM: Everyone was worried at first, but it was Drew and Nancy who just said, “Guys, don’t worry about it, we’ll find someone to do it.” So literally over the course of the next two weeks we met with every really talented young actor. There were a lot of guys who were just really, really great. But literally the moment we met Jake, we met him in Drew’s office at Flower Films, Jake walked in and he was like fresh out of his first or second year at Columbia, really a smart intellectual guy. And Rich always said he knew it before he sat down that he was it. Even after talking to him, he is just such a smart guy, intellectual, and just fun guy to be around. And we just started talking about the script and it was really immediately, right after that we had to take a few more meetings because we had already scheduled them, just to be polite. But we knew it was him and that was that, that was the end of it.

So you had the shoot date, Drew was able to bring you up to 4.5? How were the next three months?

SM: They were absolutely crazy, just constant work – 20 hour days.

When did Rich get his DP, or how did that come about?

SM: We met with a few DP’s.

During that three months right away?

SM: Yeah, we thought that since our budget was so low, that we weren’t going to get an A-list DP, or at least we didn’t think so. And our line producer would give us just stacks of resumes of working DP’s that we might be able afford. We really couldn’t afford anyone, to be honest with you, but DP’s we might be able to afford. And we started going through them and we came across one – a music video DP who was this extremely talented guy, and Rich really hit it off with him. We met with him and the financiers just wouldn’t do it. He’d never shot a feature. We’d have a first time director with a first time feature DP and they were just like, no. So we thought, “we’re fucked, we’re screwed.” The guy we want and we think would be great for it, they won’t allow. It was disappointing. So we went back to the résumés and we get this guy’s résumé—Stephen Poster. And he’s got like, Strange Brew, which is a classic, to Big Top Peewee; but the one that really got us was Someone To Watch Over Me, which was, oh my god he shot a Ridley Scott Film. And we were like, “Would this guy even be interested in doing this?” And Stephen came and met with Richard at his place and he’s an older guy, certainly not OLD, but probably mid-50’s. And he sat down and said the first thing I want you to do is disregard our age difference. And the second thing I want you to do is know that I never, ever want to be a director. And they just totally hit it off. Stephen’s a brilliant guy and he’s one of the main reasons why the movie looks like it does. Right now he’s actually the President of the ASC. He just came off shooting Stuart Little Two. He’s just kind of like this living working legend within the cinematography community and he just did a brilliant job. He’s the nicest, sweetest guy you’ll ever meet in your life. He was just a Godsend. Sometimes things just completely work out and that was the biggest of them all.

Is there anything else about Darko we didn’t touch on that you would want to talk about, from a writing standpoint?

SM: Well, it was a little bit different, because he was a writer/director. But, when and if a script goes into production, the script is completely malleable. And one thing that Rich did as a writer, and director – he and Jake literally sat down for a week and went through every line of dialogue that Donnie said. And a lot of subtle changes were made. He did that with all the actors. So you’re script is going to change and get better. And we also, because of budget constraints, had to really condense the script. We shot about 108 page script. When it was green lit it was 128. So it was good for that kind of movie because it made us really focus the story. If not, I think there would have been a lot more confused people than there already were, after it came out.

So why don’t we go on to, tell me what’s happened since Darko – you started Darko Productions, with Richard.

SM: Yeah, well Rich has 6 or 7 scripts that he’s just sitting on. Most recently we’re doing a project called Knowing for Escape Artists and Columbia. We’re casting a lead right now, and once we get the lead we’re in pre production. It’s our first studio-backed film. It was based on a really good script, not a great script – and Rich just totally, page one rewrote it and made it his own. He took all of the good ideas out of that script and just put it through his head. So that’s what we’re doing now, he’s going to direct that.

Are you guys still looking for other material right now?

SM: Always. We have a couple scripts that he has not written and that I have not written that we’re just producing. And using our experience over the past two or three years helps when working with young writers.

And what would you say specifically you’re looking for, if there is anything specific?

SM: You know, I don’t think there is really anything specific. It’s just originality. There is a great question in here about marketability.

How much would you recommend a writer to go with his/her most commercial or sellable idea?

SM: I think that’s a fine line. When I’m looking at a script, I think marketability is the wrong word for it. I think originality is the word for it. Obviously, a more independent film would be more difficult to put together. But as long as it’s original and well written you’ll be able to find other ways to make it marketable. Because if it’s really well written and it’s a really original script, no matter how dark or how light, you’re going to be able to cast it, and that’s what they market. They’re going to market the cast. Whereas, one trap with a lot of first time writers, including myself when I wrote my first script, is to fall into trying to write a script that is based on one kind of running joke, or running premise. And it ends up just being the entire thing . . . the same joke . . . the same running idea. And it’s not good writing. If you want to be a working writer, I would suggest writing something original. And if it just happens to be something that a studio exec would happen to find marketable great. If not, it’s still going to prove that you’re a great writer. Never try and write something only because you think it will sell. That’s the trap.

What do you think makes producers keep reading? Or you keep reading?

SM: It would be something original. Originality is everything. That’s how Donnie Darko got made because it was so original, and mind you one of the most difficult films to get made was Donnie Darko.

How hard was that decision regarding the money and not just selling your script a long time ago?

SM: Well, that was tough. We could have certainly sold it off and made money, but we wouldn’t have careers. We could have let somebody else take it and do what they want with it. Turn it into something its not. And we could have walked away with a lot more money. We took the bare minimum to survive during Darko. We had control over the budget so we dictated what we were paid, and we were paid just enough to get by while we were shooting, I mean it was nothing. As far as the control goes, we kind of got lucky in a lot of ways. Since we had Flower Films, and they had a few movies under their belt, and the fact that we were at Pandora/Gaylord . . . We were their first green light and they hadn’t really set up an infrastructure on how to deal with production. We really were left alone to do our thing. There was really no intervention until editing, when they came in and just demanded it to be shorter. That’s where the problems came about, although its problems that come about with every movie, every director and independent film- it’s too long. But we were left completely alone. We were on schedule all the time and we surrounded ourselves with a tremendous crew, an A-list crew across the board. As long as you’re on schedule and not wasting money. We were just completely left alone, which was great, I don’t think they had time to bug us. They maybe visited the set once or twice.

Let’s talk about advice for writers going into meetings with agents, managers, producers.

SM: Do your homework, I would say. It is the number one thing I would say, with any of those; agents, managers, producers.

Take criticism well?

SM: Always take criticism well. That’s the number one thing that a writer has to be able to do. You have to realize this is the most collaborative business there is. Everybody has their opinion, right or wrong, and if you’re not allowed to listen to it you’re never ever going to make it.

And everybody needs to respect the fact that once you finish the script there’s people out there that are trying to sell it and make it happen.

SM: Yes, and getting in the business with agents, managers and producers – its subtlety different for each one. Good agents work for you. That’s what they do; they make 10% of what you make. And good ones revel in that. They just want to help you. There are a lot of really great agents out there, but certainly there are a lot of really bad agents as well- just as there are bad producer’s bad writers, and bad director’s and so on. It’s doing your homework, talking to people. If it’s an agent, what other clients do they have? Do you get along with them? Do you like them as a person, not that that’s completely necessary – it just depends on your style. But really do your homework on that. Managers are on a different frame; they kind of guide your careers a little bit more than agents do. Certainly I think there are more bad managers than there are good managers. I happen to know a lot of good managers, which is lucky. Rich doesn’t have a manager and we just don’t plan on having one, simply because we don’t need one. When you’re a writing, directing, producing team you don’t need a manager to take another 15%. Some writers really do benefit from a good manager that can help you continually adapt your script and make it better.

Explain for aspiring writers how difficult pitch meetings are? Why new time writers don’t go in and pitch a project.

SM: I’ll start with the back end of that question first. When you go in to pitch something and you’re pitching to an executive or whoever, you’re not going to be able to really pitch an idea and have then buy it for you to write if they don’t even know if you can read. If you don’t write something to show that you can write, how can they pay you to write something? Even if you have a great idea, you can go in and pitch something and they’ll buy the idea and hire a writer to do it, but you won’t be writing it. Writers need to write and that’s the bottom line. Even if it doesn’t get seen by people you need to keep writing. But in order to be effective and sell a pitch, to get them to pay for your writing, you have to have something to show people.

Would you agree with the saying that if you write something good you could drive down on the highway in LA and throw it out the window and somebody will recognize it? In the sense that for writers who are so attached to their project that they still believe that it’s something that needs to be told and it’s a story that has potential?

SM: I never subscribe to the theory by writers that I’ve written something so brilliant that nobody will recognize it, because “I don’t know people in this town.” I’m not the son of so and so or the daughter of so and so, I don’t know anybody – I don’t subscribe to that at all. I think that if you write something great it will find its way to the top, no matter what. It honestly will. If you write a great script it’s going to find its way into the right hands- unless you lock it in your room and don’t show it to people. There are a thousand people in this town that are hungry, from interns to assistants. I mean an intern, even when I was an assistant, if an intern walked up to me and said, “my god, this guy wrote this brilliant script and you’ve got to read it,” I would read it. And then I’d give it to my boss. And that boss would give it to that boss, and it would get up there if it’s good.

So it doesn’t matter if its agencies, production companies, just get it out there?

SM: Just get it out there. If it goes into a studio or production company first and they’re interested don’t go into anything without getting an attorney and having an attorney draw you up a deal. Because that’s the only way you can get screwed. As long as there’s interest you can find attorney’s out there, just the same way you can get your script out there. And they don’t work on hourly rates; entertainment attorneys take 5% of what you make, so they’re working for you, just like your agent or your manager is working for you. They don’t tell you what to do; they work for you. It always upsets me when people say, “oh I’ve written this brilliant script but nobody will give it a chance.” I just don’t think that’s true.

And how about living in Los Angeles or New York?

SM: Obviously the majority of everything film and television happens in LA. There’s no doubt about that. But as a writer, you can live anywhere. I have writer friends who are extremely successful . . .

But if you had a script from somebody in New Zealand and somebody said I can’t come meet, I’m living here – would that at all change things that somebody’s living in Venice . . .

SM: It depends on what they wanted to do . . .

But I mean if you wanted to make the movie?

SM: If I wanted to produce and make the movie? No, it wouldn’t have any effect on me. I think the only time they would run into a problem was if he wanted to go pitch a story of theirs to all the studios, you can’t really pitch over conference room tables out of a speaker phone. But as far as writer, you can live anywhere really. As long as what you write is good, you can live in Iceland and it won’t matter.

How have things changed since Darko? For you personally and in terms of what your vision is for future projects?

SM: Personally, it’s a lot easier to get people on the phone, that’s for sure. Nothing changed financially; we’re still struggling like we were before. It was an independent film; we didn’t make any money off of it. Certainly people as . . .

Did the bank make money? Who financed it?

SM: A company called Gaylord Entertainment. They’ll make money in the long run, certainly.

Are they happy, can you go back to them?

SM: I don’t know. Personally, probably not. They don’t make the kind of movies that we want to make. They made A Walk to Remember. That is not really our taste and I think both of us know that. They kind of inherited our film when they acquired Pandora, which was the French finance company that distributed movies like Shine.

But you and Rich are looking to go big next, I mean bigger?

SM: Certainly, I think when people talk about going to “bigger” films; I think that’s kind of the wrong way to look at it—

Twenty-five million and up?

SM: Yeah, I mean our next film will be twenty-five million or up. There’s no doubt about it. Studios can only make movies for a certain amount of money. And they need to spend money to make money. That’s how the studio system works. We have a film that we’re sitting on for another few years, because it’s going to cost $75-80 million to make and we know we couldn’t get that amount from somebody right now. But I think that a film should only cost as much as it should and if we were to spend $20 million on Donnie Darko it would have been really, really bad. It would have been unfair for us to try and get that because what your film is should dictate how much you should spend on it. And Donnie Darko was a film that all the actors worked for scale. All the crew worked for scale as well. And that’s how it should have been. When you have a movie like Men in Black II, that’s 120 plus, that movie should cost that much because they know how much they’re going to make, it’s already built in. There are films out there where I hear their budget and I’m like, “Well, where did it go because it certainly didn’t end up on the screen.” So if I were to go into a studio and ask for $50 million for a very small character piece that takes place in a house that would be very irresponsible of me. And you need to be very responsible with your money. Certain films should be made for $5 million and certain films should be made for 100. And certainly we would love to have all that money to play with but this is a business, and I don’t want to lose money for anyone.

But the goal is to keep your vision just make bigger movies, or spend more money?

SM: Well, we want to make movies that more people will want to see. Nobody saw Donnie Darko. Thank God for DVDs, now people can actually see it more. But we want to make bigger films in the sense that, “I want to make that film that comes out on 2500 screens.” That’s a step that you strive for but we have other films that are big ensemble pieces and it would be irresponsible for us to try and make a big ensemble for $40 million. You make it for 15, and that’s just how you do it. You have to understand everybody wants to make money, but that’s not the only thing for us.

That’s what I was trying to get at.

SM: If you’re doing that, I respect that too, but it’s just not really our thing.

But it’s for your fans?

SM: Yeah. There are certain filmmakers out there that make the big budget, really awful blockbusters that make an enormous amount of money, and more power to them. I respect them for that because most of them know what they’re doing. I don’t respect the guys that do big blockbusters and then claim they should be up for Oscars. Those are the ones that you’re not making art, you’re making popcorn films. It’s equally valid, just don’t try and cherry coat a popcorn film.

Do you think it’s easier to make a popcorn film than Darko, for instance?

SM: I think it’s easier to get made. It’s certainly not easier to make.

Right now would there be other scripts you guys could have passed down that would have been easier to go with?

SM: Certainly.

So, its not “We made Darko, now we’re successful, now we’re going to make one big one that’s going to make tons of money?”

SM: No, absolutely not. You have to build a career. If we were to do that we would lose the very few fans that we already have. And plus, I wouldn’t put my name on something that I wouldn’t be proud of, just to buy a cool car, you know? It’s just not how we work, and I understand some people have to do that. But we’ve learned to live on Top Ramen, and we’re okay with it. I don’t think it’s the sell out factor for me, and you always get upset when someone does a really daring first film because they could get a guaranteed first film for such a small amount of money and then they go off and do the big studio comedy where literally they could phone it in; phone the direction, producing, writing from where they are. Just to up their quotes or whatever, it’s the wrong way to go.

How many producers did it actually take to get Darko made?

SM: The producers on Darko who did something know that they did something. The proliferation of producer credits is one of the most horrible things in this town. You look at the credit list of these films, and mind you I have this lithograph of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in my bedroom. And it says, produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, and nothing else. And you look at other movies and there are 13 credited producers. And I guarantee you 10 of them did nothing. It’s just in their contracts, they’re either managers of one of the actors or writers or they’re the Executives at the studio, although most of the studios don’t do credits. There are attachments here and there.

But people know that.

SM: Sure, but that still doesn’t make it right. And it takes away from the very few producers that actually pour their heart and soul into the film.

Describe how much you and Nancy actually had to do. What producing an independent film means.

SM: It means everything. Your job is to make everything go smoothly. So you have to be on top of every single department. Whether its costume or just the script itself, everything goes through you. And your job is to make it possible and easy for the director to direct. And do their job. And stay on top of the director and let them know if you think they’re doing something wrong or whatever. It’s different for me because Rich and I are business partners and we do so much more collaborating than the standard director, producer relationship. For Darko, the independent film it was two years nonstop work. For one tiny little film that you’re getting paid nothing for. It was full time and beyond.

And tell me now what it’s like to be bouncing around back and forth between studios, what that whole world is like.

SM: It’s a difficult world, just because we’re kind of like the Darko guys. Ooh, these guys are dark and they’ll never do anything that we can sell. It’s so not the truth. We could go out there and just sell a bunch of Rich’s scripts but we’d lose control over them and we’re all about control, because we know how quickly a good movie can turn bad . . . And get sucked up in the system, with too many people adding their opinions. There are a lot of really untalented people out there. And it’s your job to find the talented people within the executive ranks, producer ranks, writer rinks. That’s your job. All the way down to the crew. If you hire a bad DP or a bad line producer who can’t handle the crew or the budget, that’s your fault. You need to be on top of everything. And that kind of functions into being a writer too. You have to realize these other people around you are just trying to help. You’ll know the people that aren’t trying to help, you’ll know right away. People that aren’t trying to help show their spots very quickly.

Also, as a writer, you have to write so that it is easy for all these other people to come in and do their job?

SM: If there’s something in the script and someone says I don’t understand this, then you need to look at that. If somebody doesn’t understand this, then an audience member is not going to understand this, so you need to address that and you need to be willing to be collaborative. And if you can’t do that, you are not going to work as a writer, mark my word. You will not work as a writer if you are a not a collaborative person.

Especially for writers who don’t have representation what are some other guidelines you could suggest? In terms of, don’t add music, or go attack the story.

SM: Just don’t regurgitate is the big one in terms of stylistically and format wise. As long as you’re writing in a script program the format is going to be good enough. I would suggest reading a lot of scripts, this helps. But do not every try to regurgitate another writer’s writing. People are going to respond to your writing style and you have to develop your own style. And I don’t adhere too much to these unwritten rules that I learned in school that are just like, “don’t add music, or parentheticals, or notes to the reader. I personally don’t like it when a writer adds in a ton of shots, “Cut to,” or close up, etc.—unless that’s a style ingrained in the actual story . . . But if its unnecessary, if you’re directing your script as opposed to writing, that’s bad. You shouldn’t be doing that. Let the director direct.

Would any of this be any different than big studio films?

SM: No, no. People work their rate as readers, whether their agent’s executives or anything, they’re not going to be too stuck up about the standard original format that you’ll learn about in the screenwriting books. In my opinion, a lot of those books just throw out. There are certainly good ones: William Goldman’s one is really good. I don’t subscribe to screenwriting books telling people how to write screenplays. As long as you know the format, and you can learn that by reading one script that you can go buy or get from a friend in town. You can even order them on line. Just as long as you know the format and the basic rules. Just develop your own style. It’s like if you’re a novelist and someone is telling you that you can’t start a sentence with a preposition, when every other great author in the world had proven that you can and should sometimes. I don’t subscribe to that. I think in order to be original you have to write original. Rich actually puts lots of different stuff in his scripts to make it more visual. Sometimes he’ll put little diagrams of a drawing that he can’t describe perfectly, just so they’ll get it right. If there’s blood written on the wall, he’ll do some format thing where he’ll show it, he’ll have it inside the script. I don’t subscribe to these rules, because those rules are made to be broken as long as you’re not just going against the standard format. And it would be hard to go against the format if you’re writing in a script program.

But Darko had a lot of structural issues.

SM: But that’s how it was written in the script. That’s exactly how it was.

But Rich went to film school and so that seeped out obviously, in more than one sense.

SM: Well Rich, obviously you’re going to learn from reading and writing other things, that’s exactly how you do it. I don’t think writers . . .

But would you say to the point where the three act structure is the key?

SM: I think if you’re telling a good story it naturally has a three act structure. I don’t think you should freak yourself out if you’re writing and say, “Oh my God by page 35 I have to have my character hit the first wall.” I think that just naturally comes out. If you’re telling a story you know how long it is. Your three act structure will come out of it naturally. And I think over outlining and being concerned with where you’re at in the story – it’s just going to hold you back. You can always go back and condense it to meet a more typical three act structure. Or if you’ve ran long, you can go back and read it and my god I’m really not getting into the story until page 50, well then condense those first 50 pages, and there will be your act one.

Do you or Rich use Outlines, Treatments?

SM: Rich certainly does not. He does not outline very much at all. He outlines in his head.

So when he sits down to write a script, I know you said he can write a script in three days?

SM: Yes, he just shuts himself off and writes and it makes me insanely jealous because I haven’t been able to do that. I’m trying to learn, but it’s tough. Literally, we would be over at his house watching the Laker game and 20 people are drinking and eating and having a great time watching the Laker game. And he’s writing a script with all this noise around him and he’ll write ten pages right there. You literally have to shake him to get him out of it. He just concentrates and just gets in the groove. Outlining works for certain people, I think, but I found that speaking from personal experience, that over outlining is probably one of the worst things that you can do. You end up spending more time outlining that you do writing. And it won’t feel natural when you’re reading it. I wrote a really horrible script because I over outlined it. And it was like I knew where I was going and the next page it was like, ‘get there real quick, get there real quick . . . it was a terrible script. I never showed it to anyone. Literally, you should know where you’re going, but you don’t need to necessarily write it down. I think writers who incessantly outline, over-write their own story.

How about advice for letting writers knows when to put a script down, say you’ve been working on it for six months, or a year, when do I start my next script?

SM: Oh, that’s a tough one. That’s a case to case one I think.

In general, a lot of writers I’ve dealt with have been working on a script for the two plus years that I’ve known them. Well, more from a producers mindset what I’m trying to get at is, and from what we’ve just been talking about with Rich, is that maybe that script is good, and there is some good stuff there, but you need to keep writing . . .

SM: Well, that’s where the collaboration comes in. Every writer should have a group of friends or professionals they trust. You value their opinion and you should be willing to show a script that maybe you are halfway done with it, and you’re stuck and you don’t know where to go with it. Sometimes it just takes an extra push. You can give it to a couple of your friends and get their opinion. And you’ve got to give it to people that are going to give you an honest opinion, that’s the biggest thing. And you’ve got to be willing to take that criticism. And sometimes that’s all it takes. Specifically I was writing a script and I kind of got stuck right in the middle of it and I gave it to Rich. And I kind of got stuck in my own foe pas, kind of a one joke thing. And that’s why I got stuck, writing a one line script.

What books and movies influenced you as a child?

SM: Stephen King was probably the biggest author that I read growing up. I was madly obsessed with all of his books. Stephen King’s On Writing, that is a book every writer should read. The moral of it is just sit down and write. It’s a great book for any writer to read, screen writer or not. Movies, God, I’m really influenced by film makers. Spielberg and Ridley Scott, any of their movies or Peter Weir, Fearless. Milos Forman with One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest and Coppola with The Godfathers. Those are the greats, the films I found myself becoming obsessed with . . .

How about more independent stuff?

SM: Christopher Nolan, Memento and Insomnia. That guy can do whatever he wants, brilliant guy. Spike Jonze is one of the next big guys. Sam Mendes—if you can get Tom Hanks in your second film you’re doing pretty well for yourself. Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne—these are the next generation guys. Obviously, Darren Aronovsky with Requiem for a Dream. On the other end, really independent movies, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Todd Solondz. All three of his films are brilliant.

Jonathon Rosenbloom / Justin Merz

By | Exclusive Interviews

– Justin Merz and Jon Rosenbloom (writers of Topsiders, sold to DreamWorks)

Did either of you attend film school?
JR: No. In college I think I took one film class. That was it.
JM: No. I have my degree in education. I was planning on trying to go to film school and had applied a few places but I ended up having a kidney transplant so I was not going anywhere. I ended up taking courses locally, finished my degree in education.

When did you first pursue interest in writing?
JM: When I was six years old and I saw Star Wars. I was making movies in the backyard. I Got really serious writing scripts in the early nineties.

What was the first medium you wrote in? Did you start writing stories?
JM: I wrote a few stories, but I think I was really trying to write scripts when I was a kid.
JR: I was always writing stories growing up. I always a creative writer. Teachers said, “your very creative.’ In high school, I wrote for the school newspaper. That what the big thing, every deadline they would say ‘just report the facts, stop being so creative trying to make it into a story,’ but I knew I wanted to be in the business in some capacity, whether it be writing or producing.

Do you guys write everyday?
JM: I’ve been teaching & I’ve been in education for a long time, so I’ve disciplined myself to write. If I’m writing a script I make myself write. Sometimes it’s not just physically sitting down, a lot of the work is mental, trying to frame scenes in your head before you write them down.
JR: What we do is we talk on the phone a lot. We talk everyday. Then get together a couple times a week. And really, the method to our mayhem has been, when we’re together we never waste time, we’re always talking about ideas, never just staring at each other and saying what are we going to do now.

Are there any screenwriting books you recommend? The Writer’s Journey?
JM: Yes, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler is one of my my favorites. Myth & the Movies by Stuart Voyfilla & Story Sense by Paul Lucey.
JR: Adventures in Screen Trade by William Goldman. As far as nonscript books, I also loved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That hooked me in grade school. A Wrinkle in Time.
JM: We both really like Fantasy.

What scripts and films have most influenced you?
JR: I love period pieces. All the Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis & Columbus stuff in the eighties really made me say I want to do this. Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, more recently, Braveheart, Glory, Tombstone, Last of the Mohicans.
JM:For me the Star Wars films and Raiders of the Lost Ark are the holy grail of movies. I still love watching all Disney films. We both love The Wizard of Oz and constantly refer to that model.
JR: Right.

What’s your advice for writers contemplating film school?
JM: Two of my closest friends went to film school.
JR: Two of our friends have said.
JM: ‘If I had to do it over again I don’t know if it would have been the best choice. Especially with the resources that are available today. Things like, what you guys do at Script PIMP. The Internet.
JR: Right. And you can watch ten dvd’s, watch all the ‘behind the scenes’, all the odds and ends and pretty much get a crash course on how to make a movie. My friends at film school were getting discouraged to write because they were always getting ripped apart.
JM: What I hear from a lot of people is that you become more of a critic and less of a creator. And it’s a lot easier to critique something than to create it.
JR: I went to a four-year school and by luck got a random internship through a friend in the business.

When did you first create the idea for Topsiders? How did it happen?
JR: I was lying in my bed.
JM: Johnny gets into my car and says, ‘Is there a way to do Goonies urban?’ And, I looked at him and said, ‘Let’s get then under the subway system,’ and that was it.

You went home?
JM: Started talking it over.
JR: He was calling me, ‘There’s a couple documentaries on the New York subway system my friend told me about,’ so we watched those.
JM: Yep. Researched them.
JR: Said, ‘Yeah, let’s go to work.’

How did you actually set out to write Topsiders? Dense outlining?
JM: The way we really work is we make a super intense outline. We talk for hours and hours, making notes. We’re really meticulous about, up front, knowing everything before starting any script. We talk through dialogue, everything.

And your outlines even include scenes?
JR: Yes.
JM: Yeah, our outlines are very thick. We probably spent six weeks on the outline and another eight weeks on the script.

And were your character breakdowns built into the outline?
JM: The outline in the blueprint for us. Our character breakdown is in there.
JR: Everybody’s got the next great idea. It’s easy to come up with the beginning and ending but the movie is made in the middle. Reading a lot of scripts at agencies and production companies, any script you read, it’s the thirty-page rule but with most scripts they fall apart in the middle. Most of the time they just try and force it to the end. That’s why middle’s are big for us. We won’t go and pitch something unless we know our middle.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers setting out to write for studios?
JR: You have to write for the whole demographic of the United States. Not just east coast and west coast but all of America. You come up with an idea and you have to say would someone in Los Angeles and someone in North Dakota want to go see that movie. And hook the executive right away. Take you idea and put it in a cool one or two line pitch. ‘Modern day Goonies set in a subway system.’ Everyone in Hollywood was willing to read our script from that type of logline. If we have said you know…
JM: …me and my buddies in college having a kegger. We’ve read so many of those kinds of screenplays. People thinking they had such a great time in college they need to write about it.
JR: It’s all about coming up with an idea, not ridiculous, something with the most demographic appeal. Do what the studio wants to eventually do what you want.
JM: If you can stay in one genre. Don’t try and be all things to all people. Try not to have you know, ‘I’ve got my Citizen Kane here; I’ve got my Porky’s. And my big sci-fi thriller.’ Pick a genre and try to write really well within that genre. Because they’re going to stick you in a mold anyway.
JR: The other thing, with access to the Internet, you can tell what the studios are doing for the next three years. You have the access to find out what they’re buying. Research trends. What are they looking for?

How did you both gain representation?
JR: When I came out here I was working at the Agency for over a year, which is a really good firm. My boss, who is now our agent, got a call from a country music video guy who, recommended Justin to us. You know, I was reading seventeen scripts a week and Nick said, ‘I’ve got the script,’ but Nick really wasn’t in the business of working with first time writers. But I read it, loved it, brought Justin in, we signed Justin and we just clicked. Then, when I left, we started doing stuff together and now Nick represents both of us.
JM: Pretty much when we met we were talking stories and movies together.
JR: Just clicked.
JM: When I met Jonathon and Nick they really changed my mindset and I started thinking about it in terms of a business. Not just, ‘I want to tell great stories. I want to make movies.’ You got to think about things in steps.

The fact that there are people whose job is to turn your creativity into a final product.
JR: Exactly.
JM: You’ve really got to have that mindset. And as far as writing partners, there is definitely something to be said about having someone you can bounce ideas off of. That cuts down the re-writing time considerably. Your taking someone else’s opinion and you sharpen it together.

Can you comment on making tough choices throughout your script?
JR: Right. When you make a decision, go with it.
JM: Make a decision and make it work form there. You can get stuck somewhere in your story and talk yourself out if it. And then you might not even like the concept anymore.
JM: I’ve tried it once of twice to write blindly, without an outline. It doesn’t work for me.

Tell me about the day of the sale?
JR: Alright, well, we had the agent. Nick’s a really good agent. He left The Agency and he was on his own with The Mechanic Company. We figured this script was very commercial. We felt it had a really good shot, we really like our agent, but we wanted to get a management company behind us to help get it to as many people as possible.
JM: The day of the sale was crazy!

Did you get a lawyer that day?
JR: Yes and no. My cousin Fred Goodman is our lawyer. Fred works out of New York. He does a lot of litigation and has a lot of writers, directors and producers. Fred works with the guys that produced O, and work with Julia Stiles. When it’s time to get a lawyer, get one form your own camp. Don’t get one from the manager’s camp or the agent’s camp; get one that’s going to represent your interests. And we knew that. We said, let’s go with my family. I called him up and said, ‘Look the script is going out. He said, ‘Alright, keep me posted.’ I call him up that Monday, the day we got our first bid and he dropped the phone. He was like holy shit.

How many drafts did Topsiders have?
JM: We did an initial draft. Then we did a polish based on our manager’s notes and a second polish. Structurally, it didn’t change at all. We beefed up the scenes just to make it bigger.
JR: Yeah, zero page one re-writes. We wrote the script, all rewriting included, from September to January, five months.

How long was Topsiders when you sent it out? Under 105 pages?
JR: It was 101.
JM: Now it’s up too 104.

Once you have your idea, you’ve established a possible beginning and ending, what’s next?
JM: A couple of things. We like to do a lot of research. For example, taking something that has happened and building a story or a legend from it. When we get creatively dead, we try and go back, not to rip off, but we go back and look at other movies. See how they pulled something off. We’re all about keeping it moving. We don’t’ ever want it to slow down.
JR: If a scene is not going to push the story forward then drop it. If you’re a director, yeah maybe you need a throw away scene, but with writing every scene has to push the story forward. With Topsiders originally, we had a couple cool scenes, but they weren’t pushing the story.

How long was it until you felt comfortable with your lead characters? 
JR: Getting to know our characters was huge.
JM: We knew it was going to be a gang. And we wanted them to all be very specific. New York’s a very diverse place and we wanted to try and touch on each of those diversities. The characters were big but it’s plot driven and I think that’s what kept the engine running.
JR: It’s a gang so all our characters have specific purposes.
JM: Yeah, what is this character going to do?
JR: And though there is a lead among the gang, all of them are very well developed.

Are there any other specific tools you’d like to mention?
JM: I hand write the entire script before it gets typed.
JR: The way we work is interesting because I like to be able to move around and spit out ideas.
JM: Johnny likes to run around spitting out dialogue and ideas. I on the other hand like to run away and write stuff down.

Would you recommend a writer always go with his most commercial idea?
JR: Absolutely. You have it. Unless you somehow have the connections in the business to get that ‘grandmother needs a new kidney’ project off the ground, either by knowing someone or bankrolling it yourself, you’ve got to go with your most commercial idea.
JM: I resent the kidney comment!

Should a writer ever mention that he or she would like to direct, co-produce or act in their feature?
JR: No.
JM: Not the first. Not the second either. Maybe the third.
JR: The best advice for a writer is figure out what you want to do and consider yourself that. The whole business is about reverence and clout. If you get in as a writer and work up the ladder and you can continue to generate money for the people working for you, then the more people like you and the more leverage and clout you have. Hollywood is a business. If you want to be in the business for a long time, you’re going to want people to like you. Baby steps. Do what gets you in the door.
JM: I’d like to be directing tomorrow, but I’m not ready for it.

What specific things need to be established early to keep executives reading?
JM: Johnny’s probably going to roll his eyes cause I always bring up Star Wars, but what got me right off the bat with that mivie and why so many people got hooked on it, was that giant spaceship riding across the screen. It hooks you right off the back. Indiana Jones, walking through the jungle and he cracks a whip around someone’s gun. I think you have to hook someone and set the scene right away.
JR: I’ll tell you what works for us. They did it a lot in the eighties. We’re a big fan of that sidebar beginning adventure into your story. Hooks you right away. It worked with Topsiders. And if it doesn’t make it to the final cut, but it hooks them right away, hook them in. Because a typical agency and production rule is if their not hooked by page twenty-five, they put it down.
JM: Because there’s a stack of three hundred more right there.

Once you’ve finished a first draft?
JR: We have a couple people we give it to, besides our family, friends in the industry that we trust.
JM:My wife Angela gets a look.

How do you go about processing feedback? And when would you know it’s time to put a script down?
JM: You get your feedback. You have to find someone that’s going to be completely honest with you. And that’s hard too do. If the feedback is, ‘OK the writing’s good, but this isn’t very marketable, I don’t think it’s really going to sell then maybe consider the next project. If your feedback is constantly, ‘this is a phenomenal idea and if you could just get the story down,’ then maybe it’s worth going forward. After you’ve written something and gotten it out, you should start something else. You can tinker around with it but start something else.

How many writers get signed from query letters? What must you get across in a query?
JR: I hate to say it but it is rare that agents sign writers off query letters. It happens. In this day and age it’s much easier to get a manager off a query letter. You’re trying to sell yourself to them to get them to sell you. And that’s pretty much what it is. How are you going to generate money for this individual. You have to know what genre you are writing in. Then seek out those agents and managers that deal with that material. Ones that know how to develop in that genre. You have to decide who is going to be best suited for you.

Could this sale have happened had you both not been living in Los Angeles?
JR: Absolutely not.
JM: It all happens in this town and it’s as simple as that.
JR: You got to be here. It’s all about the right place at the right time. Here’s the thing, if you come here and you sell some screenplays and you’re successful, then it doesn’t matter if you’re living in an igloo in Antarctica as long as your established and your meeting deadlines.
JM: But you have to be very established. Your John Hughes, or M. Night Shyamalan you can live somewhere else. Or George Lucas up at his ranch.
JR: When I was working at the Agency we had clients that weren’t living in LA and it was difficult. It’s very hard because you’re not accessible all the time.
JM: What worked for me? I got some guys at the Agency who read my scripts and brought me in and told Nick, ‘You got to take this guy seriously.’ You have to get a fan. You got to get someone besides yourself to say it’s good.
JR: Every state in the U.S. has an agency and you really need to knock on their door if you’ve got something good. You got to get someone from your state that can help you out.

What have the meetings with DreamWorks been like? Have you been offered first re-writes? 
JM: We’re going to get it.
JR: We’re going to get first and second re-writes, which is cool. Every studio deals with re-writes differently. And DreamWorks allows the original writers two sets. So we’re going to do two sets. And if everything works out, great, if not they will bring someone else on.
JM: We’re going into it knowing up front there are guys far beyond what we’re doing getting re-written. And we’re first timer’s, getting re-written.
JR: Everybody gets re-written.

Your first meeting after it sold. Was it with Mike DeLuca?
JR: Yeah. It’s was really cool. We were kids in a candy store.
JM: When we first walked in there it was like we were in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. You know, we were going through the DreamWorks gates. We were like excited kids.
JR: Right. We were sitting there with DeLuca, who everyone attributes to be. To meet that guy.
JM: For years I’ve carried Steven Spielberg around on my key-chain as a Lego-man. John was worried I was going to like assault the man or something!

Who else was there?
JR: It was DeLuca, the Evolution guys, Mark Burg, Oren Koules, who’s the head of our management company. Mark Haynes, the liaison at DreamWorks who’s going to shepherd to DeLuca. Then, the notes were written by Walter Parkes and Mark Haynes, that was really cool.
JM: And I could tell why writers like DeLuca. Even during the first meeting he was sort of sticking up for our points. Here’s a guy who has written scripts and knows what it’s like to be into them.

What should writers know about proper etiquette in that arena?
JR:Never show arrogance in a room. If there’s one-thing that agents, managers, and producers hate it’s a snotty writer. Someone who defends every point and doesn’t take it in stride. Here’s what you do, you smile, and you say, ‘OK, I see your point, I understand. Here’s what we’re thinking.’ If we’re in a room and even it’s the dumbest idea, we look at each other, we go OK we see where you’re going. We’ll look into it. You’re never going to knock down someone’s idea. Half the game is if they like you. If they like you in a room, then they’ll like working with you.

Has anything changed since selling the script?
JR: Before we sold the script, we worked on our own time. Now you have deadlines. And you have to meet deadlines.
JM: I’m curious about the transition from having a day job to not having a day job. I don’t know exactly how it’s going to play out yet.
JR: We have a new job but it’s fun to go to work now.

Even a few days after the sale I was impressed with how calm you were. 
JR: We’re two guys that are a lot alike. People said, ‘You guys have to give yourselves more credit. What you did was like winning the gold medal and your so chill about it.’
JM: It was the ultimate goal for me. You know, Raiders of the Lost Ark was always the benchmark. To sell to the director of that was really cool. No, but I don’t feel that much different. I still feel like a guy writing. More doors are going to open for me, maybe. But I’m still scared about that next pitch and what they are going to think?

And the writing process is going to have to be the same.
JM: The writing process will be the same. So in a way its like, ‘Oh no, I have to pull it off again?’

 Just a different kind of pressure.
JR: Exactly, it’s a different kind of pressure. I was working at a shoe store for seven-fifty an hour while we wrote this script. We got to meetings and people said, ‘you guys are a success story. This guy sold shoes, this guy was teaching.

Has DreamWorks given you any deadlines yet?  
JR: Soon. We’ll probably get a minimum of ten weeks. Then there’s a two to four week read period by DreamWorks. Second draft will be another eight weeks.

Is the task now just to do everything possible to get the movie made?
JM: Yes, I think the DreamWorks name carries a lot of weight. They don’t make bad movies really. And even though if there’s maybe a direction we really didn’t think about going, we’re going to believe in that machine. I don’t believe in every machine. But I believe in that one. Even if I can’t see it, it’s what they bring to the screen in the long run, they’re usually right.
JR: But as far as getting the movie made, it would help our careers that much more. But until they put it into production it’s all hearsay.

Thanks and congratulations again. Finally, has your luck with the Hollywood starlets changed?
JM: I’m married.
JR: No, we’re just keeping it real.

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