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Archive for July, 2013

Alex Epstein, Screenwriter

by Justin Samuels

Alex Epstein is a Canada-based screenwriter. He is also a prominent blogger on screenwriting and TV-writing topics at his blog Complications Ensue. For more on his long career in film, check out his imdb profile.

Justin Samuels: The first film you wrote was Warriors. How did writing that come about?

Alex Epstein: That was originally going to be a William Shatner vehicle. William Shatner is a member of an elite squad of death-squad killers so deadly and so illegal they have to be kept locked up. He gets an encrypted message from his father, busts out and they send his best student to hunt him down and kill him. We had a meeting with Mr. Shatner, who has a really superb story sense. He didn’t like the reason the guy busts out. Which was kind of lame. So my boss, who was also the producer asked me to rewrite the script, since he knew I was a writer. Classic case of having the inside track. In the end, it wound up being a Gary Busey vehicle. I can tell you Gary Busey stories if you buy me a few drinks.

JS: What was your background before you became a screenwriter? Did you study anything like film or theatre formally?

AE: I have an MFA from UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film & Television. It helped me get my first job, and it taught me how to direct a short film. I don’t actually recommend going to film school, not as your first day in showbiz. The irony is that the more you know about filmmaking going in, the more you’ll get out of film school. What I recommend people do is get a mailroom job at Endeavor/WMA. Then, when you know a bunch of people who might be willing to help you make a professional film, and you know what sort of film the market would like you to make (which is a combination of what you’re good at, what you love and what the market wants), then go to film school. Maybe even make some films before you go to film school. Definitely write some short film scripts before you go.

In college, I was a Computer Science major. That helped me learn to write a well-structured screenplay in a top-down process. And finally, now that I’m getting into narrative design for games, the computer knowledge comes in handy. I can speak programmer, even if my C++ is a bit rusty.

JS: You critique other writers’ work. What’s that process like? Do you also teach?

AE: When I critique material, I try to think what it really wants to be. What’s interesting about it? What’s fresh? What’s compelling? What’s fun? What’s special? What would make a director spend two years of his life on this? What gets the audience to come see the movie in theaters? And then, how do you structure the story — not beginning, middle and end, but what are the structural story elements? In my book, a story is:

  • (a) a hero we care about
  • (b) who has an opportunity, problem or goal
  • (c) who faces obstacles, an antagonist and/or his or her own flaws
  • (d) who stands to gain something (stakes)
  • (e) and lose something (jeopardy).

(I’ve refined this list over the years.)

When something doesn’t work, [it’s because] 95% of the time one of these essential elements isn’t strong enough, isn’t there or is confused. Fix them, make sure that all the scenes relate to them, and the script will fix itself. I’ve taught a few seminars. I think teaching a class would eat up all my writing energy.

JS: You’re represented by the Omada Agency. How did you obtain your agency representation?

AE: I’ve been with them for almost a decade. I’m pretty sure I was looking for a Montreal-based agency to represent me in my home province. Québec doesn’t just speak a different language, it speaks a different producer culture. Omada represents many of the top directors, cinematographers, art directors and editors. At the time, they didn’t have a deep English-language writer roster. So it was a good match. I’m intrigued by the idea of having representation in New York. As a New Yorker in exile, some of my projects feel “too American” to some Canadian producers. I’m not entirely sure how to go looking. I suppose I could send out query letters? But like everyone else in showbiz, I want to meet somebody who’s already friends with somebody I trust!

JS: What sorts of things does the Writers Guild do for its members? How important would you say Guild membership is to writers, in terms of benefits and career development?

AE: Crucial. I would hate to be out there in the cold without the WGC. They have gone to bat for me repeatedly, for credit and for money. Every time they’ve stepped in, the producer has wound up giving me what we negotiated, rather than whatever it was that the producer decided they were going to give me. The one time they weren’t able to step in, I got screwed. On a national level, the WGC lobbies Parliament to enlighten legislators what the effects of their proposed culture bills will actually be. They can’t always convince the Conservative government to protect cultural funding — the party is more or less against it — but they can at least help ensure there are no unintended negative consequences.

I was Head Writer for a TV show shot in South Africa. They don’t have a strong guild there. Writers get paid so little there that they can actually make more money writing novels. In consequence, it was hard to find good screenwriters there; they were too busy writing novels. What producers don’t realize is that the Guild helps them by ensuring that there’s a cadre of competent professional screenwriters available for them to hire…. Without a Guild, there wouldn’t be enough of us available to give them good scripts.

JS: Has the Internet changed things for screenwriters? If so, how?

AE: It’s hard to say what the Internet hasn’t changed. Facebook enables me to keep in touch with writer-friends I don’t share a writing room with. I no longer have to print out scripts and mail them. I can Google people before I meet them. I can book an AirBnB in Cannes. I can have Skype meetings with producers in Winnipeg. Any day I don’t have to fly to Winnipeg is a good day. It’s also easier to do research, if you can manage not to procrastinate. Lord knows, it’s much easier to procrastinate.

I think the more interesting change is in filmmaking technology. Today, anyone with a phone and a computer can shoot and edit a film and upload it to YouTube. Everyone has access. The big-budget stuff is still only for professionals, but each year it gets easier and easier to make a film. That means people who can make a great film don’t have to have rich parents. It’s not an accident that someone like Chloé Robichaud can make a film at 25 that screens at Cannes. You could do that decades ago, but only if you were loaded.

JS: What are your latest projects? What things do you have in development?

AE: This year I directed my fourth and fifth professional shorts. I took one to the Cannes Film Market, and the other will screen during TIFF. I’m hoping to transition to being a writer and director. I’m currently working on financing a suspense thriller I hope to direct called Alice Is Perfectly Fine Now. And I’m the narrative designer and voice director on a very cool video game called Contrast that’s a launch title for the PS4.

JS: The last two features you worked on, Happy Slapping and Eddie: The Sleep Walking Cannibal, were released last year and this year. Can you tell us what they are about?

AE: Happy Slapping is about a bunch of suburban teenagers coming to downtown to get into trouble. They’re hoping to shoot video of themselves “happy slapping” innocent strangers, but that doesn’t go so well. It develops that this is all really one girl looking for revenge on her father. Eddie: The Sleep Walking Cannibal is a gory art satire about a painter who can only paint when he’s exposed to carnage, who meets a retarded man who kills and eats animals when he’s sleepwalking. So he encourages him to kill and eat people. I mean, for inspiration, you do what you have to do, right?

JS: What is your favorite genre to write, or do you have a favorite?

AE: I’m probably best known as a comedy writer. But most of my own projects are in some way a subversion of fairy tales, myths and legends. The story itself may be natural or supernatural, but there’s usually a legend in there somewhere.

JS: In some of the films you’ve worked on, you’re credited as writer and story editor. Care to elaborate on what the story editor does?

AE: I ask for a story editor credit when I work with the writer to help him or her realize his or her vision. Basically, I give a lot of notes. If I do it once, I call it story consulting. So long as I don’t do any actual writing in the script, it’s story editing. If I’m asked to do the polish or rewrite myself, then it heads into being a script doctor, which may or may not entitle me to a writing credit depending on the depth of the changes.

JS: As for your future plans, is there anything you want to do professionally that you have not already done?

AE: In the past couple of years I’ve been directing more, and working as a narrative designer for video games. I do love TV, and I pitch TV ideas to the networks; I’d love to create another show.

Dispatch from the Nantucket Film Festival

by Susan Sandler

The second part of an interview with Destin Daniel Cretton. Click here to read Part 1.

Susan Sandler: Can you tell us about your background, when you began thinking about film?

Destin Daniel Cretton: I grew up on Maui. I’m 34. It feels like I worked in theatre because I’m one of six kids and, growing up in a tiny town in Haiku, we put on plays for my parents all the time. That turned into making skits and little movies once we got a hold of my grandma’s VHS camera. My siblings and I got addicted to that. We would make movies as much as we could. It was always a hobby of mine, through high school, but I was never pursuing it as a career. It wasn’t part of my vocabulary. It wasn’t like an occupational option. None of my friends would even think about that. None of my family would ever think about that. It never crossed my mind that filmmaking and screenwriting were even jobs.

SS: When did that change?

DDC: My senior year of college [at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego]. I was a communication major by then, but I went into college to be a nurse.

SS: A nurse?

DDC: Yeah (laughs). I was going for a nursing degree my first semester, but I realized if I took Mass Communication, I’d be able to take this video/film class. It wasn’t like a film major, but it was close. Then during my senior year, I went to a school called L.A. Film Study Center, and it was there that I did my first short: a little black and while silent film that I shot on Super 8. That was the first time that I felt that strange and magical connection between a film and an audience–something that I had made connected with people. Even though it was this tiny little thing, it felt very powerful to me. It wasn’t that I thought, “Oh, I can do this as a career,” but it was at that point that I thought, I really want to continue doing this for the rest of my life. And it had nothing to do with making money at it or anything like that. I just knew I wanted to continue doing it.

SS: Because of the sheer joy of it.

st-12DDC: YES! It’s always the sheer joy of it, right? The wonderful thing about Hawaii, at least in my community, there really is no pressure, no occupational pressure. Growing up, my honest aspiration was at one point to be a garbage man because the hours were good, and I wanted to have daylight hours to do the things that I wanted to do on Maui.

SS: Like what?

DDC: Like surf. And fish and hang out at the beach. And all the things that are wonderful to do on Maui. That’s the thing about Maui–the first question you’re asked is never, “What do you do?” The first question is “What did you do today?” And what they’re asking is, “What beach did you go to? And were the waves good?”

SS: Wonderful. So now that you’ve crossed over to this very ambitious universe where people are asking you what you do and what’s coming up next, do you have a kind of professional drive, or are you holding onto that sense of what’s giving you real artistic pleasure in the moment? That must be a really hard thing to hold on to.

DDC: It is. I can definitely feel the temptation of being caught up in the industry and the pressures to perform and the pressures to perform on somebody else’s timeline. Every morning, I have to remind myself why I think the stor[ies] that I’ve told so far are connecting with people. And it’s because I am carefully choosing things that I really connect with, and would do with or without any kind of monetary gain. I would have done every project up to this point and happily lost money on it, because I see it in the same way that I see surfing, or doing anything else that I love. I hope I can hold onto a piece of that forever. I’m not a crazy idealist. I understand the reality of things, but I hope that I can remind myself of that every day. I feel like that’s where my best work comes from.

SS: I have a feeling and you’re going to continue to surround yourself with people who steer you in the right direction.

DDC: That’s definitely the thing that excites me most. I’ve found that the more open I am in meetings– the more honest I am about the types of stories I want to tell, the things about the industry I think are bullshit–that’s when I’ve found there are a lot of other people I connect with: really incredible, genuine human beings who still remember why they are pursuing storytelling as an occupation, still chasing after that wonder that we had when we were kids, just making stuff up and having a blast doing it.


Susan Sandler is a screenwriter and playwright and lifetime member of WGAE.  She teaches screenwriting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she also organizes the Fusion Film Festival, celebrating women in film, TV and new media.


Dispatch from the Nantucket Film Festival

by Susan Sandler

The first part of an interview with Destin Daniel Cretton. Check back next week for Part Two.

Winner of the Best Feature Screenplay and the Tony Cox Award at the Nantucket Film Festival, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 continues to collect festival honors as it nears its August 23 release. It won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at SXSW, as well as a bouquet of reviews that would have any writer-director dizzy with joy.

The logline: SHORT TERM 12 is the story of Grace, a twenty-something social worker who channels her demons into a passion for helping at-risk teens. Grace’s newest ward forces her to relive her difficult upbringing just as she and her boyfriend are making a life-changing decision. Funny, moving and surprising, the film delivers an emotional punch.


Susan Sandler: You developed this story first as an award-winning short with the startling tagline, “A film about kids and the grownups who hit them.” Who guided you through your early drafts of the transition from your short to the feature?

Destin Daniel Cretton: I wrote the short as my thesis project at San Diego State University, where I got my MA in film. The writing began purely as an exercise. I wanted to explore the experiences I had when I worked in a residential facility for at-risk teenagers after I got my undergraduate degree. I worked there for two years before going to film school. And along with piecing together the scenes that I’d been carrying around in my head, I was also looking for an exercise in writing dialogue for a large cast. All my earlier work had been very lean, so it became an experiment. I set out to write a short without a real story, if that makes sense. That was my goal– to make it feel very much like a typical day in the facility.

SS: So you were primarily creating a world.

DDC: Yes. I was trying not to impose a storyline other than what if feels like to be there over a day. Trying not to have plot points or twists or set ups or payoffs. That was my goal, but my brain just doesn’t work that way, and if you watch the short, you’ll see it turned into something with all of those elements in there.

SS: Why “a day in the life” rather than a plotted film?

destin1DDC: All of my shorts before this one were meticulously pre-planned, every shot carefully composed. Even the acting has pre-calculated performances. For part of my thesis work, I studied films by Lars Van Trier (Dogme 95). I wanted to see how loose I could get without worrying about all the things that my brain typically is obsessed with: Does this plot line make sense? Is there a setup? Is there enough of a payoff? Will I have a meaningful plot twist?  I was trying to turn off that part of my brain when I was writing the short—and I did loosen up way more than I ever have before. I ended up using all of those traditional screenwriting tools, but they’re subtly scattered throughout the short. And that style translated into my approach to writing the feature.

SS: Who guided you through the early drafts of the feature?

DDC: I took that first draft around town (L.A.), and the only producer who embraced the script with no reservation–who basically said, “Hell yeah, I want to do this with you,” as opposed to, “Hey why don’t you go home and do these notes and we’ll see”–was Asher Goldstein at Traction Media. He became my big note-giver on the first major rewrite of the script, which over the course of three or four months brought us to a draft that’s very close to what you see on screen.

SS: What films and what screenwriters have inspired you most as a writer?

DDC: One obvious inspiration–but I did feel it’s a very different movie–is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, primarily because I love the tone of Cuckoo’s Nest and I love the way that it is takes unexpected turns. You think you know a character, and you think you know where it’s going, but it takes you somewhere else. It surprises you. It plays with stereotypes and ends up flipping those stereotypes in a way that is totally unexpected. I love that aspect of the film.

SS: Let’s talk about your writing process. Do you begin with an enormous amount of research? Do your characters talk to you in long monologues? How do you bite into the work?

DDC: I do as much research as I can until I start getting really antsy, and then I start writing. On Short Term 12–aside from my own experience working in a group home–I did a number of interviews with people who work in places similar to Short Term 12. One was with a friend who has worked as a staff member for over 15 years. We sat at a bar and talked for hours, and I just recorded everything. A lot of his stories fed the screenplay. Some of those “Mason” monologues [played by John Gallaher] are very close to a transcription of stories that he told me. That kind of research is really helpful. Once I know the story that I want to tell and get a basic structure for the journey of the main character, I set aside the normal research and let life inform the work. I have my antennae up and just gather information that floats past me, like something someone tells me at a birthday party, or something I see on a bus ride. Once the main story is in my head, it magnetically starts to attract details that relate to the central idea. It’s like a theme in my life during the time that I’m writing the script.

SS: The ideas find you.

DDC: Yes. I usually start off with a page–that’s where I am right now with this next piece–one document with just all of those thoughts all over the place, a journal of what the story might be, and I try to piece it all together.

SS: So you don’t begin with a character? More of a world?

DDC: For me, it typically begins with a character. And once I understand the journey of that character –which can be as simple as a one-sentence journey–then other things start getting sucked into that.

SS: Are you interested in writing for television?

DDC: Very interested. I’m actually going in to talk to my agent about a few things next week. I’m really interested in exploring the world of Short Term 12 as an hour long drama. There’s so much material here, and so many interesting characters to support a show, and so much to learn from that world. It’s still very exciting to me.

SS: Do you allow your actors to let you grow your script on set? Or do you come in with a rigid sense of what you want to shoot in dialogue?

DDC: I hope that everybody helps me grow a script. I welcome notes and ideas from anybody on the set. I do realize the importance of one person making the final call, but I’ve seen situations on set where someone observes something that I’m not seeing, and I feel so thankful that they’ve mentioned it. Once an actor comes into the project, I’m really excited to talk to them about scenes that they feel maybe are too forced, or too on-the-nose, and how we might change that. I love that part of the process. And once we’re on set, I encourage actors to go off script. For this movie, we found that whenever we would go off script, we would end up coming back. But when we came back to the text, it felt fresh. It felt like it wasn’t “written.” That’s what I’m always after, especially for this film. Whenever anything started to feel like a blatant “movie line” or a “movie moment,” we’d try to smudge it as much as we could and make it real.

Continued next week in Part Two…


Susan Sandler is a screenwriter and playwright and lifetime member of WGAE.  She teaches screenwriting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she also organizes the Fusion Film Festival, celebrating women in film, TV and new media.