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Write On

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.

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