– 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.
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?
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.
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?
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.