– Michael Toay & Travis Mann, writers of Red Hats (2012 Script Pipeline Contest winner)
Many writers go about their screenwriting career solo, but for writing teams, what do you think is the most difficult thing to overcome? Agreeing on concept? The details of a scene?
Michael: I think it’s hitting on that right idea that we both spark to. There are some ideas that I’m passionate about that don’t interest Travis, and some ideas that he loves that I don’t get that excited about. It’s kinda like that famous Supreme Court Justice’s quote—something to the effect of, “I can’t tell you what pornography is, but I know it when I see it.” That’s how it is with our ideas—some are really great, and some don’t excite me as much, but I know a terrific one when I hear it. That’s how it was when Travis pitched me the ideas for both Red Hats and Nuclear One. He’s great at coming up with exciting and high-concept ideas. I think the other challenging (and rewarding) part of the relationship is that we both have strong opinions on some scenes and we both think we’re right (or as a friend of mine puts it, “I’m not always right, but I’m never in doubt”). We try to work so that neither of us is being “over-ruled” on anything. We both have to be happy so we’ll keep working on a scene or dialogue until we’re both satisfied.
Travis: The most difficult thing to overcome—once you’ve decided on an idea to write together—is what to cut. “Killing your babies” is hard for any writer, but having your writing partner try to kill your beloved moments is even worse. Most of the time, Michael and I end up agreeing, but if there’s no consensus, we’ll let trusted readers chime in to break the impasse.
How long have you been writing as a team? Individually?
Michael: We’ve written three feature scripts together and I also write on my own. I’ve written or co-written 11 feature scripts so far.
Travis: Michael had been writing for a long time before I started writing with him. There was an idea and outline I had, but I didn’t see myself as a writer, so Michael was going to write it. Then, as we collaborated on the project together, it just sort of naturally evolved into a writing partnership by the time we had finished. We each have different strengths and weaknesses as writers, so it’s been a good fit for both of us.
Do you stick to a particular genre, and if so, do you feel it’s a requirement for writers to have scripts in different genres and budget ranges?
Michael: As a writing team, we tend to stick to action and action-thrillers. I also enjoy writing drama. I just really appreciate good storytelling. As far as what genres should writers write—I think, and this is just me, they should stick to what they enjoy and work to get really good at that. For example, I love comedy, but I don’t write it really well. The one action-comedy I wrote several years ago, I worked with a guy who’s naturally very funny and can write that way. That’s another strength Travis brings to our relationship—he’s really good with dialog and comes up with some great one-liners that really work. That said, I think writers can learn any genre they want to—how to hit all the beats, the expectations of each, and so forth. The skill can be learned and honed. I just prefer, generally, to play to my strengths and work within those areas I tend to be good at.
Travis: I love big, fun, high-concept films. So I naturally gravitate to those. Before I started writing with Michael, I set up several pitches, then watched as other writers did the heavy lifting to turn those fairly simple ideas and concepts into full-fledged screenplays. Now, writing on my own and with Michael, I realize it’s a lot harder than it sometimes looks and takes a lot of discipline. As far as different genres, I say write whatever type of movie you love. It’s too much work to grind away on a script you’re not absolutely excited about getting made into a film. And on the budget question, I always opt for “bigger and more expensive is better.” Huge set-pieces can always be whittled down later when budget realities hit.
How much do news and present-day events influence your writing? When writing in the broad action genre, do you think it’s important, or even crucial, to have a premise that’s current and socially-relevant?
Michael: Current events and news are huge for me. I like to keep things at least somewhat grounded in reality, and having events in our scripts tie into what’s happening in the real world helps that. I also love doing research. I’m a big reader. I think that drives Travis a bit crazy at times because, like in Red Hats, he’ll want to crash a plane a certain way and I’ll say, no it can’t be that way because the Burner Can on the engine is over here not over there, or whatever it is. I love accurate and realistic detail,and I’ll consult with people I know in the military and government to get it right. Travis sometimes has to remind me not to let the details get in the way of a good story.
It can also be a bit tricky to navigate some of the politics and the realities of the real world and Hollywood today. For example, in Red Hats, Chinese, North Korean and Iranian military capabilities and ambitions play a prominent role in the script. Now, we’re not bashing the Chinese by any stretch, but we are using a Chinese stealth fighter because currently only they, the U.S., and Russia have the capability to field a stealth fighter in real life. For our story, we can’t use a U.S. stealth fighter, and the Russian angle was done in Firefox and could make the story seem like something from the 80s, so we went with a Chinese plane, and it works and makes perfect sense for this story. The challenge is that some people in Hollywood are afraid of offending the Chinese government since China is an emerging market and that’s where they get some of their funding from. Which I completely understand. Our hope is that when people read Red Hats and see it on the screen, they will get that it’s (a) just a movie and (b) understand that we are in no way bashing China, we’re just telling a really fun, exciting story that happens to feature a Chinese plane.
As a final thought on the subject, it is rewarding when current events actually catch up with what we’ve written. Last year, we finished a script called Nuclear One, in which a nuclear reactor is taken over by terrorists who threaten to melt it down. People said, “oh they could never take down a reactor that way” or “there’s no way someone could get into a nuclear plant that way.” And then news came out about the Stuxnet Virus and also the FBI arrested a guy in Yemen who actually worked inside a U.S. nuclear plant for 6 months using the same methods we described in our script. That tells me I’ve done a good job on my research.
Travis: Several of my ideas have been spawned by current events and news articles, but I don’t think it’s required that you be topical and timely. If you do your job right as a screenwriter and tell a compelling story incredibly well such that a film gets made, the motion picture itself will drive the public’s conversation. The big caveat to this theory is that you never want to be behind the curve with a story that’s seen as stale or yesterday’s news.
Also with regards to writing high-concept action: in the end, are the characters or the plot the most important element in a successful script? Obvious answer would be characters, but in your eyes, what’s the balance there?
Michael: I think it’s both. You have to have characters people care about or can relate to and they have to be doing something interesting or that matters. I don’t think every story has to be—or can be—a “hero must save the world from imminent destructionÆ story. I mean, how many of those can you watch without going “oh, the hero has to save the world again?” I also get tired of characters’ motivation being “the money.” I think we’ve all seen villains “doing it for the money” to death. I think it’s more interesting when the villains want to achieve something for some reason other than money. But I do think there need to be stakes for the characters. Something has to be at risk. And I love good plotting. I love complex plotting. I enjoy movies that make you pay attention and make you think such as Inception, Michael Clayton, or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Travis: You definitely need both. Intriguing characters who don’t do anything is a wasted opportunity. And characters that audiences don’t care about racing around the world doing the amazing things is also a waste.
Some advice for new writers: is it integral for them to write something geared toward a studio market, like Red Hats, or should they go with whatever is in their wheelhouse, whatever they’re comfortable with?
Michael: For me, I’d say write what you want to write, what interests you. The studio market is really pretty small, unfortunately. Your chances of winning the lottery may be better than selling a spec script to a studio. It’s just that competitive. It’s kinda like that question Travis has asked some actors in the past: do you wanna be an actor, or do you wanna be a star? There’s no right or wrong answer—it’s just how do you define success for yourself? Because actors can act in community theater or wherever and be very good. Being a star may be a whole different deal. Same thing with writing. If you want to write, then write. Even if it’s only in the indie market or online, or whatever, if you’re passionate about what you’re writing and you have talent eventually you will get noticed.
Travis: I agree, and to reiterate: write what you love. Personally, I realized a while back that I’m really not crazy about most indie dramas. They’re just not my thing. I went to Sundance several times and found myself wishing I could sneak away from the festival’s dark and edgy fare to take in some big-budget studio extravaganza with lots of car chases and explosions. So in that regard, I’m not trying to write a script that I think will be most likely to get made. In many respects, I’m writing scripts least likely to get made. It’s a bad business model, generally speaking, but these are the projects I love.
What have been the lessons you’ve learned in navigating the industry?
Michael: Don’t Lie. Take Risks. Form Alliances with people you know, like, and trust.
Travis: Don’t quit your day job! If you’re a writer, then you should be writing, and your day job is not an excuse.