Interview: James Schamus (INDIGNATION)
James Schamus could rest on the laurels that come from a successful run as CEO of Focus Features, Executive Producing BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and being the screenwriter of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and THE ICE STORM. Instead, Schamus challenged himself to step out of his comfort zone and into the director’s chair.
INDIGNATION is pure Schamus: masterful, elegant and intricate in all its detail. His screenplay and cinematic vision succeed on screen in a way that is not often achieved with adaptations of Philip Roth novels.
OnWriting spoke with Schamus about his first experience as a Writer/Director, his writing process and the challenges of adapting a Roth novel.
What attracted you to INDIGNATION as your first project as Writer and Director?
Well, I had the luxury of having been fired from my studio job running Focus and had a certain amount of additional free time on my hands. To be honest I hadn’t planned on jumping into the director’s chair, but my friend Ang Lee, for whom I tend to write, was otherwise occupied. I thought it was as good a moment as any to try something new in my advanced middle age.
Did you work on your screenplay differently knowing you were going to direct the film?
No. I tend to be a bit of an under-writer by Hollywood standards. I like to leave a lot of room for directors and other collaborators to maneuver, while giving as strong a backbone as I can to the story and to the characters. I did not change my method this time around.
As a director, did you find it challenging working with a script that was under-written? How did you use that to your advantage or disadvantage?
I had the benefit of having about three decades of producing under my belt. I had a pretty good idea of the kinds of questions that a screenplay should spur to a creative team, as well as the inevitable logistical and budgetary issues.
It wasn’t so much that my perspective was different as it was that I was faced with the rather fun challenge of an entirely new job. I now had to answer questions which before I had never been asked to answer. I’d only been asked to pose and sometimes to help solve.
Can you give me an example of a question that came up that you had never dealt with being asked?
Nobody ever asked me where to put the camera before. It turns out you can put it anywhere.
That’s a good question to answer.
Let me tell you, it’s a truthful answer. It’s scary the first time you realize, “Oh, we actually have to make that decision every single day. Many times.”
How did you end up adapting Philip Roth’s novel? Did you seek out the project or did it come to you?
I actually came across the novel at the airport. I read it primarily for the pleasure of reading a Philip Roth novel. I had no instrumental intent when I picked it up.
Was there a point where you knew you wanted to turn this into a film?
Yes. By the time I finished it, I thought that the characters had come so to life for me. I found the book led me to believe that I might be able to overcome some of the rather famous difficulties in adapting Roth for the screen. Primarily, the difficulties that have to do with the particular tenor and voice of his work.
How do you go about adapting a book to a screenplay? What is your process of breaking down the book?
I have a very specific and advanced process. I try to transcribe all the good dialogue I can from the book. Then wrap sluglines and character descriptions around that. Type the end and pray that that works.
And that works?
Never. It’s a disaster. That’s when the next two years of just making stuff up starts to happen.
What other kinds of materials do you like to surround yourself with when you’re writing?
I have an academic background. My day job is teaching at Columbia. This is what is called my nerdist predilections. I love to surround myself with as much other material as I possibly can. I read a lot of work both fiction and nonfiction from the era. I did a lot of research, especially audio-visual research. I looked at history, material culture, pop culture and music of the era. I try to enrich myself in the world.
What kind of environment do you like to be in when you are writing? Do you surround yourself with these different materials or do you just kind of work off of the knowledge that you’ve acquired and see how you can fit it in to scenes?
The research is organized pretty extensively and in a way that I can access remotely. With my assistant I create a Dropbox that has thousands and thousands of items in it by the time I finish the script.
Do you feel that there were certain scenes that translated from the page to the screen?
Although it took a lot of work, a lot of shaving, a lot of elision and transitional work, but there is a scene that is essentially a scene I transcribed from the book that did survive intact. It is a central scene in the movie and seems to be getting a lot of attention. It is a discussion between our young hero, Marcus Messner, and the dean of men, Hawes Caudwell, played by Tracy Letts.
The scene blows past what is usually considered a maximum length for a scene between two characters in American movies. As your readers will know, they’ll often start getting marginal notes back from their studio producers once they start crawling past page three or four. This is a scene that when we shot it ran 18 minutes. I let things play. I crafted the scene and developed it to have a structure that I thought would work dramatically. And so far for audiences, it seems to have gone over pretty well.
Have you heard from Phillip Roth about his thoughts on the film?
I did something very stupid before we started pre-production. In good conscience, I couldn’t not do it. I had sent the screenplay to him knowing that if he had disliked it, I probably would have called off production.
Luckily, he did me a great favor. He refused to read the screenplay. That was a great relief. It’s actually a gift to me to say, “Go make your movie.” When we finished the shoot and had some time in the edit room, I did share a cut with him and it was great. He was really engaged. We had an amazing conversation. He even wrote some very beautiful words about the film that my producer was able to read out loud at our world premiere at Sundance. I get to claim to be one of the lucky Roth adaptors.
What was it like being the person receiving notes as a director and as a writer? Was it a different experience for you?
The good news was we made the film for such a low price and so under the radar that the notes process was really more an ongoing discussion with my creative team. I never got official studio notes. Having given them out as the head of a studio and head of a production company for a combined total of close to 30 years, I have no fear of notes, good or bad. I simply didn’t have occasion to receive them on this movie.
Are there fundamental steps you apply to your own writing based on notes you may have given to other writers?
As I often say, “When you finish writing a poem, you have a poem.” When you finish writing a screenplay, you basically have a certain number of pages begging for money. It’s a rhetorical as well as an aesthetic document. That’s the form. Screenplays are appeals to people to do a lot of things in order to make a movie. With that said, I do my best not to have an internal dialogue while writing with the powers that be. I think once I set course, and if I believe the course makes sense, I try not to self-censor.
What is your view of how screenwriters are valued today by studios?
I think the challenges for writers remain… Let me put it this way, it’s changed because the industry continues to change. That always throws up new challenges for creative people, including writers. Yes, it is different now than it was when studio heads would walk through the writer’s building on the lot and listen for the sound of typing to make sure people were working. It’s certainly different now.
We’re seeing many Writer/Directors who have worked for decades in feature films moving towards television. Is that something that you could envision yourself doing in the future?
Of course. Remember the 1950’s, when so many great screenwriters came up through television. You know, the Paddy Chayefsky-s and folks like Walter Bernstein.
INDIGNATION takes place in 1951 at the height of the blacklist era. The House Un-American Activities Committee was engaged in an assault on the screenwriting community in particular and the American film business. It’s an honor to be able to pay homage to some of the people who have come before us, who’ve fought to preserve precisely the kind of creative freedoms that we’re still in the trenches fighting for today.
Early in INDIGNATION, there’s a scene in a synagogue. In the front row, I placed a certain extra by the name of Walter Bernstein, who was himself in 1951 a blacklisted writer.
Are there films you recommend to other writers or directors that you find inspiring?
As a first-time director, I refused to do that ritual that first-time directors often do, which is screen their favorite movie for the crew. I allowed for a multiplicity and heterogeneity of influences to work on me in this project. I hoped that most of the most powerful ones remain subconscious, even to me, because I think that allows you a certain kind of freedom. That said, it doesn’t mean that I’m not completely indebted and inspired by many other films and filmmakers. For my first film at least, I tried not to cordon off one or two inspirations in particular.
Is there a line of dialogue from INDIGNATION that you think really encapsulates the film and why?
Yes. It’s taken directly from the book so I can’t claim any originality to it. It’s when our hero turns to the big authority figure on campus, the dean, at the end of the movie and says “Fuck you, it is!”
Follow James Schamus on Twitter at @
Interview: Derek Cianfrance (THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS)
BLUE VALENTINE and A PLACE BEYOND THE PINES established Derek Cianfrance as a Writer/Director with a distinct ability to draw out the most human aspects of intimate relationships.
His latest project is THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, which stars Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz. The film follows a World War I veteran and his wife whose lives are forever altered when they decide to raise an infant they rescued from a rowboat that washed up to shore, only for fate to lead the couple to meet the child’s biological mother.
OnWriting spoke with Cianfrance about his approach to developing characters, his thoughts on adapting a best-selling novel and his views on rewriting a script in search of its sweet spot.
How did you get into the film industry? How did you get your start?
When I was six years-old, my brother got an audio cassette recorder for his ninth birthday, which I promptly stole from him. I used it to do skits, interview people and instigate my family. I’d get my grandma to tell me dirty jokes and get my uncle to do strange voices. I’d hide it in my jacket and get my brother to say something disparaging to me, then use the tape as blackmail against him.
My family rented this VCR player to celebrate my brother’s birthday and I became obsessed. I used to record movies off of HBO, like CREEPSHOW, and watch them every day after school when I was in the fourth grade. My VHS collection became my library as a kid. I had three movies per tape. Every day I would watch movies, study them and memorize them. When I was 13, my school library had a video camera that I would check out and use to make home movies. I did that every three months, from age 13 to 18. I’m in my 40’s now and it’s been 35 years of pretty much doing the same thing.
When you were making these films in your youth, were you actually writing out stories or did you work off of an idea and go shoot?
I worked off ideas. I came to writing later. I didn’t actually start writing my scripts until I got into college. The first script I wrote was my first feature, BROTHER TIED. I wrote it with a good buddy of mine, Mike Tillman. We’d work on it at his office after school. I wasn’t doing my homework at school; I was only writing this script. We taught ourselves to write. I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t understand screenplay structure. We finished the script and then we raised money and made a movie.
I cut my teeth on BLUE VALENTINE. I started writing it in 1998 and I didn’t shoot it until 2009. That’s 11 years of writing BLUE VALENTINE. I wrote 66 drafts. It was over the course of my failure with BROTHER TIED that I realized the failure came from the script. The script didn’t work, so we couldn’t make a good movie out of it. With BLUE VALENTINE, I stayed stubborn and engaged and hammered away at it every three months. Finally, I had a script that was good enough to attract high caliber actors.
When you wrote those 66 drafts, how did you go about shaping and editing your own work?
The process of rewriting is crucial to me. It’s what I do on set when I’m shooting. You have to adapt to evolve as a filmmaker and as an artist.
I remember when I was a kid, I would watch Bob Ross on TV. Ten minutes in, I always had this feeling that he needed to stop painting. I’d think, “It looks good; don’t do anymore.” Then he’d keep going for another 15 minutes on that painting. With every move, he would make you realize that he was taking it further and further towards its ultimate destiny. That’s how I approach writing.
I don’t think I could ever write something the first time and have it be done. There’s a process of evolution. You write the first time, try to get to the end and then you show it to people you trust. You read it for your own reaction. You live your life a little bit, get some distance from the script and then come back to it fresh. You can then find where it’s true and where it’s lacking in truth. I never have a problem going back and wiping the whole slate clean and starting over.
Not to sound like a hippie, but the universe was not ready for BLUE VALENTINE in 1998. I wasn’t ready. The universe was telling me it wasn’t done, so I kept working on it. That’s what ends up happening with my scripts; I work on them until it is undeniable that they have to be made. They don’t get made if they’re not ready.
THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is the first thing you’ve adapted for the screen. Was adaptation a different process for you?
I loved it. After I had made THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, I was so sick of myself. I had spent five years working on that with my co-writer Ben Coccio. I was two weeks out from shooting the film when I gave it to my good friend Darius Marder. He is one of my great collaborators, and he tore the script to shreds. I asked him to rewrite the script with me. All of a sudden, I’m scouting locations for a film that I’m completely rewriting at the same time. By the time I shot that film, on day one, I was literally finishing the script. It still had the base of everything that I had worked on with Ben, but its evolution continued right down to the last possible moment. That was a crazy example.
Honestly, after that process, I wanted to do an adaptation. I had the hardest time finding something that made any sense to me. I read a number of scripts, and they didn’t speak my language. I was at a meeting at DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg, who had been a huge fan of BLUE VALENTINE, and his folks gave me all these books for which they owned the rights. I picked up THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS thinking it was about a lighthouse keeper. What’s more cinematic than a light shining through a lens, projecting into darkness? I thought that I could work with that idea.
Then I started reading more of the book. It’s about a lighthouse keeper who’s isolated. The book was one of the few things that I read that I felt like I related to, so I fought to convince everyone at DreamWorks, and David Hayman, to give me a shot. By the time they did, I had memorized the book. I found the book to be so emotional. It was in line with so many ideas I’d had about paternity and there was an epic quality of intimate details. I loved that the characters weren’t good or bad; they were human.
When I sat down to write, I didn’t have to deal with my usual angst, because I had a structure that I knew worked. All I had to do in the writing of the script was to try and make the book truer to me. I wasn’t going to go out and film a book, because I think the literary medium and the cinematic medium are completely different.
The project was like a gift. It was the first thing I ever wrote on my own. I never talked to the author of the book while I was writing, though I felt like I had a relationship with her. I trusted her words and trusted the feeling I had when I read them the first time.
How did you go about adapting the material?
I still have the book; I’ve read every page dozens of times. I have notes in the margins, it’s highlighted and filled with cocktail napkins and bookmarks. There’s tickets from trips to different lighthouses.
I began by creating note cards of every scene that happened in the book or the things that I thought were important. I had two full bulletin boards filled with note cards, which showcased story beats and character beats. It took about six weeks to notate it longhand. Then I’d take each one of those notecards and start on a blank page working with the ideas. Eventually, I had a script that clocked in at 135 to 140 pages on the first draft. It was a little long but when people read it, they had the same emotion they had with the book. I was able to distill the book down to its essence through this process of writing.
One of the greatest compliments I’ve had about the movie was from the author. She told me after she saw the first rough cut of the movie, she spent the day weeping because she felt that she was understood. She said that to her that was the greatest gift in life.
That’s an intense compliment.
Yeah. It was great.
How much direction do you have in your screenplays? Do you include your director notes since you’re going to be director?
I’m seeing everything as I’m writing. I don’t put in camera movements. I’ll put in things like weather or colors sometimes. I’ll put in emotions because I want it to read well. I don’t want to be so self-conscious that I’m talking about what music is playing or what the shot is doing, because I also don’t want to kill inspiration on set. I want to make a script full of feelings, ideas and instigations so that when you get on set with that script you’re inspired.
I write so that I can make movies. I’ve taught myself and gotten better at it because I’ve done it so much. Writing is always a means to an end. To me, a script that doesn’t get shot is like a thought bubble in a comic strip, it’s an idea and there’s nothing more frustrating to me than having an idea. I speak from experience because BLUE VALENTINE was this 12-year idea bubble. I know a lot of writers can relate to that too. A screenplay is not done. I can never be satisfied with just a screenplay. I have to see it through.
Give me an example of a scene that you felt really translated from the page to the screen; how you envisioned it or better than you envisioned it and why.
When I watch movies, so often I see pages turning. On set, I’m always trying to let everyone know that the script has to be an inspiration and instigation point.
The best example of that is the moment after Isabelle and Tom make love for the first time, when Isabelle explores the island. What you see on screen is this moment where you have this human being having an experience for the first time. We took Alicia Vikander, who’s playing Isabelle, to the island blindfolded. She had never been to the island before. We got her into a tent and into costume. We waited to let her out of the tent until the sun was rising on this incredible epic landscape and then, what we filmed, was Alicia/Isabelle experiencing it for real. The crew followed her for two hours as she wandered the island. That made, to me, one of the most beautiful moments in the movie.
It happened because the script was open enough to allow her to have new experiences that I couldn’t necessarily write. That’s the magic and beauty of cinema. That’s why I’m not only a writer. I love the full chemistry of movies. I love what happens when you put a bunch of collaborative artists together and see what you can discover together.
My first film, BROTHER TIED, didn’t embrace that idea. The script wasn’t inspirational enough. It was too locked into what it needed to be. What I realize now, is that the script has to be strong enough to attract everyone to it—to make actors want to do it; to make financiers want to give money to it; and attract great DPs and get the crew involved.
The last thing I’ll say is that film is not theater. Theater can change every night. When I’m making a movie that’s scripted, it’s there simply to get the actor on set and to get them to show me something they’ve never done before. I’m trying to capture a moment that can’t be replicated. The script is an instigation point for that.
What does it mean for you to really bring out human qualities of a character in a script?
One of the reasons I love THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is that there were no good guys and no bad guys; there were people. I had an experience a few years back, when serving jury duty, that was so confounding to me. When the prosecution was speaking, I was absolutely certain that the defendant was guilty, until the defense started speaking. Then I was certain the guy was innocent. I had the same feeling while I was reading the book. I discovered the author is also a lawyer. It’s something I’ve been trying to do in my movies, which is present people that are full of flaws, but you empathize with them.
There’s a dangerous thing that’s happening in Hollywood. I hear about it all the time. It’s this likability clause that everyone has in their movies. Everyone has to be likable, The villains have to be despicable. In my life, the people that I’m closest to, myself included, are jerks sometimes. People are flawed. People are inherently flawed.
One of the issues I’ve always had with the culture of Hollywood is that everything is black and white. I don’t trust it when I go to the movies. I don’t feel like it represents me. I don’t trust game show host teeth. I don’t like makeup. I like to see people’s skin. I’m trying to show the imperfection of human beings. There’s a great line from this song Lou Reed and John Cale wrote in memory of Andy Warhol, “Can you see beauty in ugliness, or is it playing in the dirt?” That’s always been a north star of mine.
Interview: Jill Kargman (ODD MOM OUT)
New York’s Upper East Side has been the geographical backdrop of I LOVE LUCY, THE JEFFERSONS and THE NANNY. You can add to that list Bravo’s excellent first foray into scripted television, ODD MOM OUT.
Created by and starring Jill Kargman, ODD MOM OUT chronicles the laugh out loud misadventures of a woman who lives in one of Manhattan’s most posh neighborhoods, but never quite fits the mold of an Upper East Side momzilla.
We spoke to Jill about the origins of the series, the ODD MOM OUT writing room and the awesomeness of Molly Ringwald.
What was the genesis of ODD MOM OUT?
I’ve been writing trashy novels my whole adult career. All of them have been optioned. I used to get really excited, but none ever got made into series or films. They’d just languish in development Hades. My novel Momzilla got bought by NBC and actually was percolating up the food chain. I thought something would happen with that one and ended up even more disappointed when it went into turn around.
I had a meeting with Andy Cohen a few years later and they were talking to me about doing something on camera in the reality sphere, which I had no interest in. I said, “I’m a writer. I want to create things. I don’t want a camera up my sphincter. Why don’t you rehabilitate my little Momzilla that Bravo’s parent company, NBC, owns?”
They looked into it. They read the book and an essay collection I wrote called Sometimes I Feel Like a Nut. I came back for a second meeting and spitballed the concept of taking both of those books and putting them in a blender and creating ODD MOM OUT. At the time, Bravo was breaking into scripted and they liked the idea of a half-hour comedy in the world of Momzillas, but told in my voice.
I didn’t have to do the traditional pitch process. I worked with Lara Scott, an executive at Bravo. Even though it says created by me, I feel like Lara really co-created the show. We developed it together.
It was a true collaborative effort. She was the sounding board. She gave notes and helped sculpt the show.
Sometimes people say to me, “The show has more of an HBO or Comedy Central voice.” My reply is, “They never would have given a 39-year-old mom who hadn’t acted professionally a chance. Only Bravo would have taken that kind of risk.”
With your book and magazine background, how did you feel about the process of writing for television?
I had been writing for TV with a writing partner, Carrie Doyle. We had done a number of screenplays and pilot scripts together. I had never been in a writer’s room until this experience with ODD MOM OUT. Julie Rottenberg and Elisa Zuritsky, our show runners, taught me how you don’t do one script, but 10 scripts, how you build a seasonal arc and work in a group. I like being in a writer’s room and the instant gratification of everybody laughing at a joke.
I’m a mother who shot out three kids in four years. All I wanted was to carve out time to be alone. My identity was submerged in these kids. Writing books suited me as a new mom for those years. After being in a writing room, I found myself lonely and isolated writing my new book. I couldn’t wait to come back to the season two writer’s room.
Tell me about creating the narrative arcs and episode ideas for season two.
I had a bunch of ideas that I put on index cards and we fleshed them out together. Even though my name is on four episodes, they were all collaborations. Everybody brings in ideas and then we individually break off to write a script. I’m the one writer on staff who actually lives on the Upper East Side. I have a little file of anecdotes that are specific to living in that area. That said, we need everybody’s voices to make it relatable for everybody.
What’s one of your favorite ideas you brought to the table for the second season?
The first day I came in and said, “I want Brooke [Abby Elliott] to be a business leader.” All these Upper East Side moms have their kids go off to school and then they start handbag lines or jewelry companies. They all have husbands who don’t care whether it’s successful or not. They just fund it. It’s something for them to do and it keeps them from stressing about stupid shit like gossip or the husband boning the secretary. I was like, “If I get one more trunk show email, I’m going to have to write about this.”
I thought it would be funny to set it up like Brooke was just another mom starting a handbag company, but it actually winds up in every store and a huge success. The twist is that Brooke does have business acumen and style chops.
While we were writing this, I threw a boat party for my sister-in-law, Drew Barrymore, and in walked the owner of Hayward, a legitimate handbag line and a beautiful, beautiful store. She said, “I love the show. If there’s anything I can do.” I was like, “Be careful what you offer. I want to have Brooke start a handbag company.” We ended up using all her bags and her store. For the store opening scene, that’s the actual Hayward store. It was the perfect coincidence that I happened to meet her.
How do you feel writing guest stars into your show? I ask only because the second season features so many excellent guests.
We wrote the show as is and try to plug in free cameos, like Javier Muñoz, the new Hamilton. We said to Cindy Tolan, our casting director, “We want to shoot for the moon here.” She laughed at us for some of them.
Blythe Danner was a huge fan of the show and said, “I want to do anything. I’ll sweep the studio. I’ll sweepthe floor.” I was like, “You can do more than sweep the floor. How about playing my mom?”
Molly Ringwald, who was in our season finale, is so amazing. That was, for me, the craziest. She’s an icon and teen idol for me. Being able to act with her was the most surreal, bizarre and incredible experience.
Let’s dig into your love of Molly Ringwald.
I worship her. I missed my prom and felt like a communist because it’s such an American rite of passage. I said to my husband, “I want to have a fortieth birthday prom and right this wrong.” He was Ducky and had a little bolo tie and I was Molly. Our friends went all out. People went berserk. There’s actually a shot in the finale of season one that’s an overhead establishing shot of my actual party. I invited the crew. It was awesome.
We had written the role of Joy Green because there are so many books on happiness and I feel like a lot of these people are really miserable. Joy is like one of those people who becomes a life coach, but has no business being one. It’s the funny contradictions in people. We wanted to have it so everyone comesback from wherever quoting Joy Green’s Joy Manifesto. We needed somebody awesome to play Joy Green. We sent it to Molly and crossed our fingers. When she accepted, we died and went to heaven.
She’s never played a villain. She’s never played someone hateful. She’s so lovable, but she nailed Joy. She was great in episode nine, but wait until you see the finale. She was way beyond. She’s incredible. She loved doing it, so I felt really lucky.
On set, how much do you feel you keep to what’s written on the page?
We always shoot as it’s written. If we have time, which is not always, we do a fun run where we mix it up. I probably do more of that than the other actors. I take more liberties in terms of making up shit on the fly.
You don’t shy away from making controversial jokes.
I feel like most of our viewers are very, very smart. They get that when a character says something inappropriate we’re not making that comment ourselves and that we are making fun of people who make that comment. You have to be smart enough to get that. It’s a satire.
Sometimes people get offended and they don’t realize that we are actually mocking people that are small minded. For example, during snow apocalypse, our blizzard episode, Lex’s hotel is essentially shut down. There is room service piling up in the hallway. He’s like, “My God, it’s like the Superdome out here.” Most people were cracking up and some people were offended. The joke is that Lex is a pampered character who lives in a bubble and to him the room service being down at a luxury hotel is the Superdome. You have to get that extra step.
The episode where you travel from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to Brooklyn is a classic. Tell me about writing neighbors with completely different world views and exaggerating their perspectives.
Weirdly, not that much of what we wrote is an exaggeration. I didn’t drink placenta but people –Brooklyn people – do it.
The way that I observe different communities is always through a comedic lens. There are people who are saying “Down with a man,” but have $24 artisanal mustard and they’re five year-olds. That all does go down. SORRY. THIS PARA DOESN’T QUITE MAKE SENSE.
What I decided in my real life, when I was thinking about moving to Brooklyn, is that I would rather be the chill mom in an uptight world than the uptight mom in a chill world. That’s why I stayed on the Upper East Side. I’d rather be the loosey-goosey one in that world. I would be an “Odd Mom Out” in either world, to be honest.
What kind of environment do you like to be in when you write?
Tony Hernandez was our producer and he started Jax Media. He’s really the King of New York comedy and females in comedy. He produces BROAD CITY and INSIDE AMY SCHUMER. I feel so lucky to be part of the Jax family. He has a writer’s room in the Jax Media headquarters. BROAD CITY moved out and then Julie Klausner’s DIFFICULT PEOPLE moved in. When they moved out, we moved in. I’m not a spiritual person, but it’s a happy room and it’s a happy office. It’s right in the heart of the West Village. I feel like I’m extricated from my life and I’m in a really vibrant neighborhood on Bleecker Street. I’m so happy there. He keeps piles of wine for our 4 o’clock and tons of coffee. To me, that’s my dream environment. I feel really creative there.
I also get ideas in the shower or walking home. I walk everywhere in New York or take the train and put my headphones on. I get ideas all the time and just put them in that notes app on my iPhone. I’ll come in and start rambling about things and we all build off each other.
What is your go-to film, series or book to recommend to other writers or comedians?
I love reading all of Woody Allen’s books. Everyone has seen his movies. I’ve read every word he has ever written, every New Yorker article. I think he’s a fucking genius. When people say, “I love ANNIE HALL.” I say, “Go read his books.”
You’re almost closer to his brain because there aren’t all these variables and other people involved in the project. I love his movies, but there’s something really intimate about his writing. That would be my number one.
I love SOUTH PARK. That’s my other extreme. I’ve seen every episode. I think Trey Parker and Matt Stone are geniuses. When I meet people who don’t watch SOUTH PARK, I feel like we can’t truly ever be friends.
I saw a documentary about how they make SOUTH PARK and they turn around an episode in 6 days. They have no fear. Some people are tiptoeing and don’t want to offend, but Matt and Trey have balls. That’s so hilarious. They slay me.
What is a line of dialogue from ODD MOM OUT that you feel captures the essence of the show?
There’s a part in one episode I wrote, The O.D.D. Couple, where Meredith Vieira plays our therapist. She says, “Your son has O.D.D.” By the way, that’s a real disease and my real son has it. In real life, I started laughing when the kiddie shrink said that my son has ODD as my show is called ODD MOM OUT. It felt like fate—or a joke for CANDID CAMERA. O.D.D. stands for Oppositional Defiance Disorder, which means you can’t take no for an answer. I said, “Isn’t that just being a K.I.D.?”
That is my perspective of parenting. There is this label that they put on my kid. I’m dealing with it even though I refuse to accept it, but I have to. I talked back as a kid. My husband was like, “You totally have that.” It is hereditary, so maybe I do. Whatever, I’m fine with it. The show’s not about parenting. It’s about fitting in.
Interview: Mike Birbiglia (DON’T THINK TWICE)
Mike Birbiglia knows how to tell a great story, as displayed in his acclaimed one-man shows, THANK GOD FOR JOKES or MY GIRLFRIEND’S BOYFRIEND, as well as his numerous appearances on THIS AMERICAN LIFE and with THE MOTH. In 2012, he wrote and directed a feature film adaptation of his solo show SLEEPWALK WITH ME, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
In DON’T THINK TWICE, Mike has written and directed his first feature film that is not directly based on his own life, but is no less personal or heart-wrenchingly beautiful. The film follows a group of aspiring comics whose improv group is as much a career launching pad as it is a family. The film currently has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
We spoke with Mike about DON’T THINK TWICE, his own experiences with improv and what it means to succeed in the entertainment industry.
How did you get your start in the industry?
It was a circuitous route that got me writing films. I studied screenwriting at Georgetown. I was in class with some excellent screenwriters: Jonah Nolan, Jordan Goldberg, Brendan O’Brien (NEIGHBORS) and Jordan Ardino. I thought I would be a screenwriter right out of the gate. I quickly found out that’s not a job that anyone’s hiring from a listing online.
I was working the door at DC Improv in Washington, DC. I was doing stand-up, opening for comics and realized that I could pursue a career in stand-up comedy. I was hopeful that I would circle back and eventually make films. That’s what I did. I thought it would take about three or four years.
It took me 12 years to make my first film, SLEEPWALK WITH ME. That is how long everything takes—about 8 years longer than you think it will take. I always viewed myself as a writer. I became a director in the way a lot of people become directors, as a defender of my own vision for my writing.
I started writing as a kid. The first impulse I had when I was a kid was to write poems, little plays and jokes.
SLEEPWALK WITH ME was the first thing that I had published and made into a film. I guess I would say it was a hobby for a long time. Only now has it became a profession.
Your new film, DON’T THINK TWICE, follows an improv group who all dream of working on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Is that the career arc you envisioned for yourself?
It wasn’t. It was for a lot of improvisers and comedians. I never had that skill set. I never did voices or impressions. There was a point in my life where I thought I’d love to write for SNL or CONAN or THE DAILY SHOW, but I never really saw myself as being on camera in those places. Somewhere I thought, maybe I’ll end up with my own sitcom. I created a network pilot for myself 8 years ago. It didn’t get picked up to air.
In retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened to me, because I ended up making all these projects outside of the system. I made three one-person Off-Broadway shows and two feature-length screenplays and films. I feel sort of lucky.
Tell me about the difference of writing from the point of view of a storyteller, as you did with SLEEPWALK WITH ME and MY GIRLFRIEND’S BOYFRIEND, versus writing about improv, like you do in DON’T THINK TWICE.
DON’T THINK TWICE is the first fictional piece of writing I’ve ever had produced. Everything I’ve done prior to this is autobiographical. Improv is certainly a world I know. The six characters are people I know. They are amalgams of things I’ve seen, witnessed and experienced. In my freshman year in college, I was cast in an improv group and I went from having no friends to having these 10 people who were my best friends.
There’s something about that moment in your life when you’re 18, 19 years old. It’s an impressionable age. What you do in that period of your life really sticks with you for a long time. Learning the rules of improv, which I show in the beginning of the movie: “Say yes,” “It’s all about the group” and “Don’t Think”— were imprinted in me and have stayed with me.
After I directed SLEEPWALK WITH ME, I realized that it was actually learning improv when I was 18 that taught me how to direct a film. There is no way to train to direct a feature film other than directing a feature film. You can go to film school, read all the books, but it’s so much harder and more taxing than you can possibly imagine. A lot of the rules of improv teach you about collaboration and listening more than you talk, as well as handling other people’s ideas. I don’t really know anything about costumes, but I can listen and learn from the costume designer. Same thing with music or photography. You try to learn as much as you can on the job.
After I directed SLEEPWALK, I veered back towards improv and started doing a regular improv show. I did that with Tami Sagher, who is also in the film, and a rotating cast of people in any given week. My wife made this observation at one point that “It’s so interesting because in your improv shows, the cast is all equally talented and funny, yet that person’s on SNL, that person’s a movie star and that person lives on an air mattress in Queens.”
Not only was that a good observation, but I thought it was a whole movie. I could see a BIG CHILL-type comedy set in the world of an improv troupe. That’s how it started. 12 drafts later, here I am. I made the movie.
How scripted was your movie about improv? Did you leave room for the actors to improvise?
If we had shot the movie exactly word-perfect, I think it would have worked. It would have worked in a different way. It’s a surprisingly written film for a film about improv. I wanted the actors to – I always want the actors to – say things in their own words. The script is plan A. I’m happy to go to plan B if an actor says “I’m not feeling this or I feel like I would say it like this.” I’m really open to that. Occasionally, it is important that a moment be word perfect.
When you hire five brilliant actors like Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher, Gillian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key, you’re in good hands. Four out of the six actors had improv backgrounds, which was a real asset to the film. You have these people who are thinking of the movie in a 3-dimensional sense. They’re thinking about the whole universe.
I said to everybody, “In rehearsals, you guys can ask to do things differently, but on the day we shoot, you may not be able to because we can’t afford it. Literally, we can’t afford another 20 minutes, never mind another hour.”
As an example, we rehearsed a scene where the group confronts Jack (Keegan) at the bar and Samantha (Gillian) said, “I don’t know if I’d go into the bar.” We rehearsed the scene that way and then I put that in the script because it worked much better than what I’d originally written.
Is there any scene in particular that really stands out for you as translating really well from the page to the screen?
There’s a big argument scene where the group is really at each other’s throats. That one was an exciting scene to see come to life. There’s another scene with me and Keegan having brunch and we’re expressing our frustrations with each other about our friendship.
Probably the best execution of the writing is the final scene. I don’t want to give it away, but it’s sort of a romantic scene between Keegan and Gillian. Whenever I see it, it breaks my heart. They give so much of themselves to it, which heightens it to a level that I strive for on the page but couldn’t have dreamed of the execution.
There is another scene in the movie where you deal with the issue of joke stealing. What was your thought going into that scene and trying to illustrate this issue?
A friend asked me if I was thinking of the Jay Mohr incident when I wrote that. I think in his book he talks about how he stole a joke from a stand-up comedian he saw in New York and turned it into a sketch on SNL. I actually wasn’t thinking of that specifically. Joke stealing is a constant source of debate and conversation—did so-and-so steal such-and-such a sketch? I actually think most of the time they’re not. SNL has some of the best writers and performers in the country. I really don’t feel like they have to steal stuff. I think that is the nature of the collective unconscious. When you have 5,000 comedy writers working, people are going to hit some parallel developments. It’s the nature of it.
Then there’s stuff like in the film where someone develops something with a group, then they go to SNL and they want to do that sketch. I know that’s been the case with Second City over the years. You’re like, “Well, whose is that? Does that belong to Bob Odenkirk, SNL, Second City or Chris Farley?” It’s a grey area.
DON’T THINK TWICE gives improv a level of respect that it is not often shown. You seem to have a great respect for the people who truly commit themselves to improv as an artistic endeavor.
You know, it certainly wasn’t my intention other than to be respectful of the art form. In some ways, I feel insecure about making a film like this, because the greats in New York are Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh and Matt Bessler. They created UCB, which has this massive influence on the entire comedy world. Then, it owes homage to Del Close and Charna Halpern, who started ImprovOlympic in Chicago. You can date that back before that to The Committee in San Francisco. This movie owes a great debt to a lot of the trailblazers of this art form. I’m just trying to be respectful, knowing that I’ll never do it complete justice. I can try my best.
In the film, you also show how long and hard people must stay with their artistic pursuit to achieve, maybe, some success. You talked earlier about how it took you 12 years to get your first project produced. What do you say to people that are still striving to make this their career?
It’s a great question and the hard reality of any creative pursuit. My friend Eugene Mirman gets asked how to become a successful comedian all the time by aspiring comedians. He always says, “Well, start doing it. Keep doing it. Call me in 10 years.”
Talent is kind of the cost of admission to even try it. Then it takes years of doing it and trying to get better before you arrive at a place where you can make a living doing it.
This movie also toys with the idea that maybe there’s a point at which you don’t do it anymore and you try to be great at any number of other things. I feel success in this country is often quantified in the wrong way. Americans think of success only in relation to exposure or visibility. I feel like success has more to do with how you’re helping people, affecting people or contributing.
The thing that I would say is that, whether you’re in Phoenix or Detroit or San Francisco, you can create on any given night the best written, best performed, most provocative, timely piece of theater in the world. It can be for 30 people or 60 people. To me, that’s more powerful than starring on a mediocre sitcom being half watched by 7 million people.
I’ve come to realize—in my late thirties now—that it’s so much more about connecting with people than it is about being seen.
To promote DON’T THINK TWICE, you went on an improv tour.
Instead of giving out t-shirts. I thought it would be fun if we gave out improv workshops. I called Liz Allen, who coached part of the cast on improv, and she was game for it. I sent out a Facebook post, saying, “If you want to submit your improv group to be coached for a free improv workshop, email here.” We got about a 120 theaters and were able to go to about 30. It’s been a fascinating experience. You realize that there’s really talented people all over the country and there’s a lot of really inspiring work happening.
Chris Gethard came to the workshops in Phoenix, Philadelphia, DC and Boston. He’d give this history lesson about how improv is a very young art form. It started in the 50s and 60s. He would explain to the groups that they can and should be trying new things—that they should be experimental and really go outside their comfort zone. When you’re in New York or Los Angeles, people get reticent going on stage when they’re wondering who’s in the audience—is a casting director or producer here? Chris has a really powerful message that you don’t really have to impress people, you can take chances with the work.
I always say that to anyone who is an aspiring writer, director or creator. I think that the heart is more powerful than cleverness. There’s 6,000 people at Princeton who are cleverer than me, but maybe not as many who are putting their heart and soul into their writing.
What’s a line you wrote for DON’T THINK TWICE that really stands out to you?
The line that gets quoted a lot is when Chris Gethard’s character says, “If your 20s are all about hope, then your 30s are about realizing how dumb it was to hope.”
It’s a laughs line, but it’s also sad and somewhat true. It reflects these characters at that moment. I don’t 100% agree with the statement, but I think it’s an interesting and provocative jumping-off point for a conversation.
When my friends and I were in our 20s, we all wanted the same three jobs. When you’re in your 30s, you realize, we don’t all have to have the same dream. We can’t all get the same dream anyway. The person who ends up getting the dream often isn’t so happy after all. I like to poke holes in this notion that we all have to get the same thing out of life. The movie tries to ask the question of what is success exactly.
Follow Mike Birbiglia on Twitter at @
Interview: Ingrid Jungermann (F TO 7TH, WOMEN WHO KILL)
Ingrid Jungermann became a member of the WGAE with her acclaimed web series, F TO 7TH, which was recently picked up by Showtime to be developed into a television series. Soft spoken and precise, Ingrid translates her feelings of being an outsider into stories that are celebrated for writing that is inquisitorial, efficient and well-decorated with wry humor.
Ingrid’s first feature film, WOMEN WHO KILL, was named Tribeca Film Festival’s 2016 Best Screenplay in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film.
At a WGAE Digital Caucus event, Ingrid spoke with OnWriting about how she began her career as a professional writer and filmmaker.
How did you come to create your web series THE SLOPE and F TO 7TH?
Desiree Akhavan and I didn’t know what a web series was when we made a short film for her class project. That short film became THE SLOPE. I had the same class the following year and Desiree and I made another short film. We started to see that we could make a few of these shorts.
I don’t know how we had heard about web series. Not a lot of people were making them. Issa Rae already made THE MIS-ADVENTURES OF AWKWARD BLACK GIRL and it was doing quite well.
We kept shooting THE SLOPE on weekends and did it really cheap. We had one camera person, who also did the sound.
We did two seasons of THE SLOPE. It got some nice traction and then we broke up. Desiree wanted to make a film. I wanted to make more web series. THE SLOPE was more about a couple. F TO 7TH allowed me to get into a person who felt alone both within the LGBT community and outside of it.
Can you talk about your writing process?
The first two episodes of THE SLOPE were short films that we edited. The first season we would write whenever we could. It wasn’t all that structured. The second season became more structured. We wrote all the episodes at once and shot them all at once, which is what I prefer to do.
I continued to do that with F TO 7TH. That first season was more like LOUIE, which has self-contained episodes. You don’t necessarily have to watch them in order. I pushed myself with writing and directing on the second season of F TO 7TH. I developed some sort of through-line. It started with the mother character asking me if I’ll try men again. My character listens to her and tries to date men again, thereby going back in the closet and figuring out that process. It’s a really silly idea.
How do you edit your writing on each episode of F TO 7TH? I feel like you’re good at letting go of the story at the right moment.
It’s rewriting and rewriting. I kept the scripts short. An episode would be four to six minutes. I was more interested in erring on the short side. When you have a four to six page script, you should be able to rewrite that a bunch.
Going back to the beginning of THE SLOPE, and if you’re going to back to the beginning F TO 7TH, what would you have done differently in the beginning for each series?
With each season, I did things that I didn’t do before. THE SLOPE was really off the cuff and it felt visceral. I think that people responded to its honesty and lo-fi quality. I wanted to improve upon that with F TO 7TH. I wanted F TO 7TH to look and sound better, but still hold on to that authentic personal quality.
What I would change? It’s always nice to have more money. We shot each season of F TO 7TH for ten grand. At this point, you’re getting budgets of $350,000 for that kind of stuff. You want people to volunteer their help, but there’s a certain point where you can’t ask for anymore favors. I want to be able to employ people. That’s what I try to do. I try to improve upon that with each project.
What do you think is important to consider when you have minimal resources to produce a web series?
The main thing that is so exciting about web series is that it’s your personal story. If you start thinking about web series as a way to get a TV show, then you have your goals set. It’s always going to come back to if you are being your most authentic self. This medium is where people are finding new voices. You don’t have to go crazy with locations. You don’t have to go crazy with budget. You do have to focus on making your character really yours, and that’s free.
I’m not saying this because this is the WGAE, but it goes back to the script. You have to know your voice and focus on what you have access to. All my episodes are pretty much two people talking in one location. Going into it and realizing I only had access to certain amount of money didn’t hurt the writing or quality of the show.
Was your goal to make web series or were you looking to get into television? If F TO 7TH wasn’t picked up by Showtime, would you create a third season?
I probably would have, although instead of making a third season, I focused on making my film WOMEN WHO KILL.
I actually sold another web series that I plan to make. I want to make them all; films, TV and web series.
I love short form. It’s fun. It reminds you that you don’t have to be precious about everything. Making a feature was a monster compared to these little vignettes. I think it’s a way to practice and become a better writer and director. It informs any other work you’re doing.
Do you have a favorite episode of F TO 7TH? Was it your favorite in the process or was it your favorite once it was shot?
My favorite is probably the Amy Sedaris episode, because she’s a genius. Hearing her say my words and watching her work was really inspiring. In that episode, my character goes on this lunch date with my aunt, played by Amy Sedaris. Her character is really closeted, based on somebody I know who attacks me for being gay and how I always want to talk about it. She’s really trying to figure out why I would even bother wanting to be a lesbian, but then she shows all the signs of being a lesbian herself. All the stereotypical signs of being gay. She drives a Subaru and all that.
Script-wise, there’s another episode where I’m in this kind of dirty G-chat. In it, I correct myself. I was going to say, “I’d like to fuck you from behind,” but I erase it and I say “I want to respect you from behind.” I think correcting a dirty chat because you’re too polite is funny. That was fun to write.
How did you personally engage your audience and was that pivotal for growth?
For THE SLOPE, we made a spreadsheet. We looked into who was covering web series. We knew that we’d have a niche audience with the LGBT community, so we looked at LGBT blogs. We started really small and built support within niche audiences. We got covered on the blog After Ellen, which was a big thing because you get a lot of viewership from there.
Critics started to notice the coverage, and then they’d cover it. It grew from a very grassroots approach. I did the same thing for my first season of F TO 7TH.
For the second season of F TO 7TH, I hired a publicist, but I don’t think it really changed that much. Our viewership is decent but it’s not viral by any means. When you’re doing narrative short form content that’s LGBT based, the expectation of going viral is not realistic. We had the right views and critical response, which was really good. It’s about building a network and continuing to reach out to people.
Do you like doing that?
I don’t like to do it now, but you learn a lot through it. I like spreadsheets. It was definitely a crossover between the two shows. Some people followed me from THE SLOPE to F TO 7TH, but I was surprised how many people did not. I had to start from scratch. Again, it was really the critical success that helped us out and got people to watch it. IndieWire was really supportive and The Guardian and Huffington Post did some great stuff. You want to build relationships with these people.
Are there obvious mistakes that you look back at and cringe when you think about how you started either show?
It’s all a mistake. I wake up every morning thinking I’m a failure. It’s the understanding that that’s part of it. Failures are where all these stories come from, not through success. Through feeling like an outsider and feeling lonely and like I don’t belong. It’s thinking 2PM sounds like a good time for a glass of wine.
You know how it feels when you write? It’s awful. It’s an awful feeling. Taking that in and realizing that we’re all in this together. Everybody feels this stuff. I don’t think there’s an arrival to any of it. I think that there’s just continuing to do work. Especially when you’re queer or a person of color or you’re not 25. People aren’t really knocking on our door. You keep doing your work, because that’s all you can really do.
Follow Ingrid Jungermann on Twitter at @
Interview: Chris Kelly (OTHER PEOPLE)
OTHER PEOPLE tells the story of a comedy writer (Jesse Plemons) struggling with personal and professional setbacks as he returns to his hometown to live with his dying mother (Molly Shannon). The film opened this year’s Sundance Film Festival, was the closing night film at Outfest and won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Nantucket Film Festival.
OTHER PEOPLE was written and directed by first-time filmmaker Chris Kelly, who works as a writer on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and BROAD CITY. Previously, he won a Peabody Award for his work with THE ONION NEWS NETWORK.
We spoke with Chris about how he got into the industry, his writing process and the making of OTHER PEOPLE.
How did you break into the film and television industry?
I always wanted to be a writer and in comedy. I grew up in a small suburb in Sacramento. I didn’t have any friends or family who were connected to Hollywood or the industry. I stumbled around trying different things until something felt the closest to right for me.
I went to UC Irvine as a drama major and took a bunch of creative writing courses. I was in the improv group and when I graduated college, I went to New York and got involved at UCB. I basically fell into sketch writing. When I got involved at UCB, I had a light bulb moment where I went, “I like this and feel like I’m good at it. This feels like what I should be doing.”
Simultaneously to being on a sketch team and writing and performing every week at UCB, I interned at THE ONION. THE ONION was expanding beyond fake headlines and articles by adding a video component. They weren’t hiring writers, but I thought, “What if I just get in as an intern, do production for a while, then sneakily start writing once I’m there?” That’s kind of what I did. I started submitting jokes and headlines. You would get paid $10 if one of your headlines made it in the scroll at the bottom of a web video. I got more and more on and I got to join the writers group at night. Eventually, I became a staff writer and a director at THE ONION.
How did you get the writing staff job at SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE?
In 2011, I left THE ONION. I had applied to SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE once or twice before and hadn’t gotten hired. I wanted to work there, but I also knew no one gets to work there and I should not hang my hat on this one and only dream.
I moved to Los Angeles, deciding this is where I’m going to live now. I bought a car and got an apartment. I worked for FUNNY OR DIE, which I loved. I submitted to SNL one more time, but I knew I wasn’t going to get it. My head was already in L.A. and I made peace with it. That’s when it happened. I got hired the fall of 2011 and I’ve been there for five seasons.
Your first feature film, OTHER PEOPLE, is quite different than what people might expect from a SNL writer.
Yeah, some people go in expecting a full comedy because they hear that I’m a writer for SNL, I write for BROAD CITY, and most of the cast is strictly known for their comedic work.
I’ve also gotten the opposite reaction from people who have only heard the logline, which is about a kid struggling with his sexuality and moving home to help his mother die. I think everybody is surprised in some way, which hopefully is good. I’m not trying to trick anybody.
Let’s talk about the writing of OTHER PEOPLE. When did you start writing the script? Did you write on spec?
I had absolutely zero intentions that anything was going to happen with OTHER PEOPLE whatsoever. I wrote it the summer after my first year at SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. In your first year at SNL, you’re flying by the seat of your pants. It was, “Please, nobody notice me too much. I don’t want to get fired. I hope I’m not doing a bad job.” As great as it was, you’re so stressed all the time.
My first summer off, I decided to not take a break, but I did want to try something different.
I did sketch through FUNNY OR DIE, THE ONION and SNL. I wanted to get into a story with a full narrative arc. I also wanted to write something similar to the types of movies I personally like to watch—that sort of hybrid between comedy and drama. I had all these great ideas, but every time I went to write or brainstorm something, I kept coming back to this real period of my life where my mother was sick and I went home and lived with her and my family.
I worried it would be too weird to write about my personal life. I had hesitations that this would not be the first cancer movie, by a long shot. But I finally accepted that this was clearly what I wanted to write about and I should just do it.
I had never written a feature before. I started by free-writing. I would write down anything and everything I remembered about that time living with my mom. I was not trying to recreate that experience verbatim, but I wanted to start from a place of truth. I knew I could embellish or change or alter the story. I brainstormed small things and big things and funny things and dumb things. I could see things that kept coming up over and over again. I noticed patterns and things that were important to me and started shaping it from there.
In OTHER PEOPLE, you wrote a lot about end of life care and the importance of having that conversation with your parents. It is such a hard conversation that most people try to avoid it. You were able to depict it on screen in a very graceful way and with a touch of humor. Can you tell me about writing those scenes?
If I handled it with grace, a lot of that is because of my mother. I wasn’t trying to make a documentary about my life, but I did pull from a lot of the real conversations I had with my mother, because they were incredibly powerful and meaningful to me.
It was such a hard couple of months, being with her while she was sick. It was so sad to know she was going to die. It was brutal, but in some ways it was also weirdly lovely. We had all these seemingly small, but intense conversations. What do you want to tell me? What do I want to tell you? It was a bizarre experience and you don’t get that many times in your life. I was lucky that I got to have those conversations with her.
When I was writing the script, I was trying to capture those moments. A lot of times when I write, I talk out loud. I’ll improvise in character or try to feel how the word sounds when they’re said out loud. I would try recreating or improvising this conversation that I had remembered with my mother. I would talk as her and as me. It was a very surreal and emotional experience.
I think I was able to capture that experience well because I lived through it. There’s an extra level of authenticity that comes with having really gone through it. Before I had gone through it, I could guess what it would feel like and probably would have gotten 60% of it right. It’s that extra percentage that you can’t really get right until you’ve been through it.
In the film, there is this scene where the family (Molly Shannon as Joanne, Bradley Whitford as Norman and Jesse Plemons as David) sit at a table in a café going through a checklist of everything from her burial arrangements to being an organ donor. Molly Shannon is brilliant in that scene.
I think that might be my favorite moment in the movie because of her and Brad and Jesse. It was really interesting to watch the scene with an audience because it’s definitely funny at points, but then the next second it’s so horrible. It was a tightrope walk with a very gifted team.
Are there scenes that you felt translated well from the page to the screen?
That scene was one of them for sure. It was actually the first scene I wrote. While many things in the movie are fully invented, that scene is very close to how it happened to me. It was an awful experience going to a coffee shop with my parents and going over the end of life paperwork. It was fucking horrible and sad. I remember my mom was in a bad mood that day. At the same time, she was ready for a playful fight and was being funny.
I can’t imagine what must’ve been going through her head. That day was awful, but weirdly had funny moments and heartbreaking moments. It was a perfect example of what my whole year was like with my family.
The actors did such a good job of capturing all of those emotions that take place in that 4 or 5 minute scene. Molly kind of went above and beyond anything I could’ve imagined for the movie. I’ve always known she was a great actress. I’ve been a fan of her since she was on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. I loved her more dramatic work in YEAR OF THE DOG and ENLIGHTENED. I wanted her so badly for this movie and I knew she would be great. I had no doubts whatsoever. My reaction to her filming that scene was essentially “Holy shit, this is so wonderful. She’s so funny, she’s so real. She’s everything I want.”
OTHER PEOPLE also captures this interesting dynamic that exists in the LGBTQ community between people who came out and are now in their 30’s or 40’s, like the film’s protagonist, and kids who are out and proud by the time they’re teenagers, like the character Justin.
Yeah, people really seem to love this Justin character. He has this great big dance scene in the movie that works as a comedy piece. I remember when I was writing the script, some people wanted to know if that scene was necessary; arguing it technically wasn’t part of the plot and had nothing to do with the cancer element of the story. But I fought to keep it in because it DID feel necessary to me. It may not be as obviously necessary, but it is 100% necessary to the movie to me. And yes, I think the character of Justin does illustrate the generational divide.
When I was in high school, in late 90s and early 2000s, I didn’t know anybody who was gay. It wasn’t talked about in high school. It never occurred to me to even float the idea that I was gay to anybody. I don’t know if it was because of the time that it was or if it was because I came from a very conservative family where being gay was not okay.
Now at my old high school, there are kids who are openly gay and it’s barely 15 years later. That’s not to say the whole world has completely changed and that it’s easy to be a young, gay kid. That is not the case at all, but there has been a sizable shift since I was in high school.
I felt that Justin’s dance scene provides insight into David as a person. It shows you how guarded he is about his world.
100%. That is pulled directly from my life. Years ago, I went over to my friend’s parents’ house for a Christmas party, and while I was there, one of their young kids said he wanted to put on a show. He had made programs and everything. This child was so great and so confident and so flamboyant, but I gotta say, his show was pretty sexual for a child. I remember being so uncomfortable by it and laughing. But my friend turned to me kind of sharply—and I put this in the movie—and he said, “You’re laughing, but you’re also jealous because this kid is a thousand times more confident than you’ll ever be in your entire life.”
I was like, “Damn, that cut deep.” I was laughing because yes, the kid’s dance was perhaps too provocative, but I was also laughing because I was uncomfortable and had more hang-ups with my sexuality than this kid did.
When you’re writing a scene, how descriptive do you get in your script? Given your background, do you leave room for the actors to improvise?
95% of the movie was scripted. There were definitely moments of improv, especially given we had a cast of great comedians who come from improv. If something feels fake coming out of an actor’s mouth, or if they want to change it to make it feel more natural, I will support my actors.
There is a scene with David and his ex-boyfriend in bed together. Some of those moments are improvised. It was important to have the guys talk to each other like people who’ve known each other six years.
Then the scene where David comes home and finds his mom, Molly Shannon, has done medical marijuana for the first time and she’s lost her damn mind. Molly said, “I’m just going to improvise. Roll the camera.” We caught all this hilarious improvisation from her. We stood behind the camera and watched a one woman show by Molly Shannon.
Were there scenes that you had to rewrite based on shooting schedule or budget? If so, how did you work those rewrites into the film while still being able to keep the heart of the story?
I was very scared of rewrites on this movie and I truly spend my entire life rewriting at SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. At SNL, you can never be too precious about a single word. You’re doing rewrites right up until it airs. You’re writing words that the actors have never seen five seconds before they say them on live TV. I’ve been there for five years and rewriting is the name of the game. I’m a fan of rewriting, am used to it and I know that’s how it goes.
On my movie, I was so worried about it because I had written the script three or four years before we actually made it. It had sat as this piece for so long and the longer it exists, the more it feels like it’ set in stone. When we got into production and I had to make little tweaks, I’d be so nervous. It freaked me out, but it did have to happen.
The biggest thing I can think of is the character of Justin. When JJ Totah came in to audition for the role, he sort of stopped me in my tracks. He was only 13 years old, but was already so confident and funny and smart and quick. He immediately apologized for being late to the audition because his house was going through a massive redec, and within minutes he was talking to me about how beautiful carrera marble is. He was unlike anyone I had ever met, and we immediately knew we needed to cast him, and allow his voice to dictate the character of Justin.
Where do you write?
SNL is its own different beast. That writing is all done frantically on one writing night, each week, in our offices.
For my feature, I basically work in my home where it’s quiet. I wrote a very detailed outline over a very long period time. I wanted to know all the beats of the story. I wanted to know that there wasn’t some big gaping hole that I didn’t realize once I started writing the actual script. I spent most of my time on the outline—brainstorming until I felt confident I hadn’t forgotten anything. The actual writing of the script was fast and easy because the outline was so detailed.
Is there a line of dialogue from OTHER PEOPLE that really stands out to you as capturing the essence of the film?
The main character’s father is sort of not accepting of his sexuality and doesn’t really address it. He doesn’t feel comfortable talking to his son about boyfriends or anything like that.
David is complaining to his sisters about his dad and goes, “God, our dad still can’t fucking ask about my boyfriend.” One of his sisters shoots right back with, “You never ask about me or Rebecca.”
That line was important to me. His sisters acknowledging their brother’s valid complaint, but also drawing his attention to the fact that he never asks about them either. I don’t know if that really makes sense out of the context of seeing the movie, but I like that moment because David, Jesse’s character, is the protagonist of the story and you’re seeing the movie through his eyes. I thought that was a nice little moment to step outside of him and see the movie from somebody else’s point of view. David seeing that there’s these other people who have their own problems, their own issues and their own struggles—but we’re not seeing them because we’re following somebody else on his journey. I was trying to capture that idea, which is one of the reasons I like the title OTHER PEOPLE.
You can follow Chris Kelly on Twitter at @
Recap & Photos: Screenplay Readings Live at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
On July 12th, the Writers Guild of America, East, in partnership with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, held live readings of two screenplays; a drama by 2014 Michael Collyer Screenwriting Fellowship recipient Hennah Sekandary and a comedy by Kelley Sane and Benjamin Forster.
The program at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center was moderated by WGAE President Michael Winship, directed by Timothy Michael Cooper and casted by Caroline Sinclair Casting.
Sekandary’s 48 HOUR FIRE tells the story of two families struggling to navigate the most turbulent hours of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Ryung, a Korean shop-owner takes up arms with his militaristic brother in what becomes a futile attempt to defend their store. Meanwhile Marcus, a Black teen, makes a misguided decision that brings him face-to-face with the most dangerous elements of mob mentality. The cast featured Mikai Anthony, Evander Duck, Tyler Fields, Daniel K. Isaac, Nicole Kang, Arnold Y. Kim, Sunita Mani, Jiehae Park, Steven Prescod and JD Williams.
Sane and Forster’s TAKEDOWN tells the story of three amateur bounty hunters who travel to Cuba in search of Meryl Streep. Little do they know that the Oscar-winning actress is a trained CIA operative. As the bounty hunters try to outrun a Black-Ops CIA team and collect their reward, they learn about Meryl’s induction into the CIA and about themselves. The cast featured Carl Foreman, Jr., Cristina Garcia Leon, Mark Gessner, Jeff Hiller, Elizabeth Jasicki, Chris Lanceley, Jake Robinson, Linnea Sage and Morgan Wolf.
Photo Credit: Daniel Rodriguez
Interview: Susan Lacy (AMERICAN MASTERS)
If you have ever turned to PBS and found yourself steeped in the inspiration of a great American cultural luminary, it is likely by the influence of Susan Lacy. It’s been 30 years since she launched AMERICAN MASTERS, the documentary series that celebrated America’s creative leaders.
In addition to being the former executive producer of AMERICAN MASTERS, Susan has written and directed documentaries on David Geffen, Judy Garland, and Joni Mitchell.
Now focused on projects with HBO and Comedy Central, Susan shares her reflections on the art of documentary storytelling and the impact of AMERICAN MASTERS.
Did you set out to be a documentary filmmaker?
I thought I was going to be an academic. After my MA, I worked at both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. At some point, I wrote an article about television and the arts, and upon reading it the then-president of WNET/Thirteen called me, as he was interested in meeting. It was a great conversation. He ended up offering me a job in what I thought was program development, but it was actually a fundraising job – which I could do because of my experience at the Endowments with grant proposals. Within six months, I was taken under the wing of the great Jac Venza, who had shaped arts programming at PBS almost single-handedly. I became his deputy director and we worked to strengthen the already long-running GREAT PERFORMANCES series.
How did AMERICAN MASTERS come about?
I was at Thirteen in the 1980s, at a time when you could really make things happen. Jac was very committed to the idea of original American drama, and for us not to rely entirely on British drama imports. Out of this grew American Playhouse. While working on all this, I realized that there was no place on television for telling the stories of the people responsible for creating our artistic heritage. I believed in the power of their stories, whether they were painters, filmmakers, architects, musicians, choreographers – the whole mosaic of American culture. At the time, no one thought it was a good idea, but there was no question in my mind that I was going to make it happen. Before I could get AMERICAN MASTERS off the ground, I was offered a job with the Sundance Institute – I took it but continued developing the series simultaneously. At Sundance, I met the screenwriter Waldo Salt and because I had this potential series on my mind, we sat him down and filmed a long interview with him, which became the basis for a later film about him for AMERICAN MASTERS (a film that was nominated for an Oscar).
So you just had an idea for AMERICAN MASTERS and it happened?
I didn’t allow myself to believe this wouldn’t happen. It was always a bigger idea than just a television series. Perhaps I didn’t realize it then, but my goal was to build an archive of American cultural history – which we did. Before I left a few years ago, we had produced, co-produced, or acquired over 250 films. But back to the beginning… when we received a start-up grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, it paved the way. AMERICAN MASTERS premiered in a summer primetime slot in 1986. There were no other new shows on at that time so the TV critics ate it up and we got all the television magazine covers, because everyone else was doing repeats. Remember, at that time there were only three networks, plus PBS.
How did the AMERICAN MASTERS films change over time?
Our first films relied heavily on narration – and many thereafter continued to – but as time went on, we began increasingly relying more on the voices of the artists themselves. It was a long haul to finally have a monthly series, with 8 new and 4 repeat films a year. We were always operating by the skin of our teeth, with a very small staff. I believe the series survived because we met the appetite for very big names but still provided a good mix representing the full diversity of the arts. We would do Leonard Bernstein as well as Paul Simon; Martha Graham as well as Bill T. Jones; Ella Fitzgerald as well as Joan Baez – just to name a few. We did not shy away from pop culture.
When people ask you for advice in developing a documentary story, what do you say?
With documentary, there is no particular format and there shouldn’t be one. The film should reflect the person being profiled. For INVENTING DAVID GEFFEN, the documentary was punchy, funny, and musical. LOU REED: ROCK AND ROLL HEART had a real downtown feel. You know, ‘Walk on the Wild Side.’ LEONARD BERNSTEIN: REACHING FOR THE NOTE had a majestic quality because he was a majestic, larger than life person. You don’t want a stock film; you want insight and depth. You are making something with the goal of having the audience walk away with a greater understanding.
What are you most proud of related to AMERICAN MASTERS?
One of the things I am really proud of is that 30 percent of Time’s 100 Most Important People of the Twentieth Century were figures we featured on AMERICAN MASTERS. The series has survived close to 30 years because our focus has always been on excellence and quality filmmaking. Each film is unique and original. There is a reason we’ve been awarded 12 Peabodys and 28 Primetime Emmys (10 of which are for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series). I’m really proud of that. Michael Kantor, the current executive producer, is doing a great job in continuing the work of the series and expanding upon it in creative ways.
So you moved on from PBS to HBO a while ago, what are you working on?
Since PBS, I have started my own production company, Pentimento Productions and am currently in production on documentaries about Steven Spielberg and Jane Fonda, both films under an exclusive deal with HBO. Pentimento is also working on a documentary series for Comedy Central. I love being able to focus on purely filmmaking now, after spending so many years dealing with fundraising and the changing marketplace (which is providing many challenges to the future of documentaries).
Is there someone who you wish you could have captured in documentary for AMERICAN MASTERS?
Interview: Anthony Jaswinski (THE SHALLOWS)
Anthony Jaswinski has spent nearly two decades honing his craft writing screenplays that tingle your spine and make your skin crawl. His breakthrough came with the Brad Anderson (THE MACHINIST) directed VANISHING ON 7TH STREET, which starred Hayden Christensen and John Leguizamo.
His new film, THE SHALLOWS (Columbia Pictures; Opens June 24, 2016), is “unequivocally the best shark movie since JAWS” according to Indiewire. The film is a gripping thriller in which a surfer (Blake Lively) finds herself stranded on a rock 200 yards from a secluded beach as she is hunted by a great white shark.
OnWriting spoke with Anthony about THE SHALLOWS, his writing process and his other summer film, SATANIC, which opens July 1, 2016.
How did you break into the film industry as a screenwriter?
After I graduated from NYU, I was working retail. I started to enter the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship for Screenwriting competition. After a few times, I finally won it. I sold a pitch to Warner Brothers on my Nicholl’s week out in Los Angeles and that ingratiated me to the business. With that and a couple of scripts under my belt, I was fortunate enough to work with directors like Brad Anderson on movies like VANISHING ON SEVENTH STREET.
To make a long story short, I’m always in the wilderness. I’m not huge on doing rewrites. I like adaptations, but for the most part I tend to be self-generating. I work from New York. I write specs. I’ve been doing that, professionally, since about ’98, ‘99. I put KILLING TIME together myself in 2002. It was a coming of age story and was fortunate to get into Sundance. I tend to write thrillers bordering on horror or elite horror. I’ve been lucky enough to make a decent living in the business and do what I want to do.
What attracted you to first writing thrillers?
Horror is the bastard stepchild of great drama. One of my favorite films is THE EXORCIST, not because it’s one of the scariest films of all time, but it’s a great story about underdogs. When you break it apart, it’s about outsiders who band together to fight a greater purpose. I always felt some of the best dramas were ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE SHINING and the abstracts like PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. Those are films with a lot of psychological undercurrents to them. I feel like horror and thrillers were some of the only dramas that you could get emotion and impact out like that.
I was always a big admirer of Stephen King and his short stories when I was in high school and college. I never set out to write movies. I was trying to write short stories and I fell in love with the model of writing scripts because it forces writers to focus on pacing. Prose gives you this dramatic license to do what you want and let your mind roam, which creates a wonderful sense of creative expanse. But for the most part, I needed a certain sense of structure and precision. Scripts gave that to me. Horror and thrillers gave me the vision of writing great drama but under this guise of terror and threat and dread. I’ve always stuck to that.
I branch out occasionally. I’ve written a coming of age high school movie for Paramount and I’m about to work on a fight drama. All of that stuff can bridge from a horror/thriller or neo-noir element. I love the drama that comes out of horror and thriller, so I always go back to that.
Tell me about THE SHALLOWS. Was this written on spec?
Yes it was. I was trying to figure out what my next movie was going to be. I had written a vampire script previously because I felt that vampires were starting to get sidelined into comedy/romance. When you go back to SALEM’S LOT, NEAR DARK or even NOSFERATU, the vampire used to be this horrifying element.
I was watching SHARK WEEK, almost two years ago, and everything was about SHARKNADO and cartoon sharks and sharks getting punched in the face. I was asking myself, “When did the shark not become scary anymore? When did this beautiful, primal weapon of nature become this kind of laugh-in joke?” Then the next day, Spielberg’s DUEL was on. (An early film of his from Matheson that I absolutely adore). I started to get inspired by it. I’m thinking there must be a minimal approach for the shark movie to return to the days of JAWS and the days when there was something under the surface and you don’t know what it was? The highway mirage is the unknown lurking beneath. The windchimes on some shitty roadhouse porch is the crisp lap of late-day tide. There is something about the unsettling creak of water.
I got excited about making a very small movie about a person stranded on a rock island, where she can see the shoreline the entire film. The more I thought about a woman’s point of view, the more excited I got. It’s not because I tend to like to write women, but I think that a woman’s thought system is a lot different, more complex. The idea of this animal versus human survival story, with the Hitchcock-ian ticking clock feel, sounded really good to me. I also loved the idea of the shark being a battle-tested survivor, an old man still fighting. Young vs old. I started working on that, and maybe three and a half weeks later, I had a pretty durable first draft. Sometimes they take a while to write and sometimes they tend to, which is the cliché, write themselves. It feels that way when you have an idea that you’re really excited about. Keeps you up at night grinding your teeth.
That’s how that came to be. I gave it to my reps and I got a call at six in the morning the next day. Valerie Phillips and David Boxermbaum, my agents flipped for it. So we went out with it and sold it very quickly.
How do you build that suspense into a script that essentially is all set in one location?
It’s all about the set pieces, isn’t it? I was trying to figure out how to do close calls and near misses in the realm of the shallow waters right off the beach. I figured you could get the audience hooked by having the shark attack and the woman, Nancy, stranded in a certain area that becomes a perimeter of sorts. But after that, you can’t have her talk the shark to death. I was trying to figure out how to realistically present certain obstructions for her so that she can use her mind and her body.
I never throw notes on a wall and try to figure out scenes. I have a pen and a paper and I try to do a two pager that will have bullet points. “Here’s the first act. Here’s the second act. Here’s the third act.” If it goes correctly, I can have the parameters of the story and I can see where it begins and where it ends.
People in our business know the big filler is the second act. For that, all the set pieces are there so I was very precise in trying to figure out where she has to be and where she has to go and how do you change it up to where it doesn’t become both redundant and derivative. I started to put the machine together by designing the first and third act. Then with the second act, I tried to figure out what the set pieces were. They all came together with the high tide. Sooner or later you’re going to have to jump off the rocks because the high tide will come. There’s a great gag piece about a whale that can be used as part of her plan. There’s a bunch of things that I was able to figure out, but it was a puzzle. I was able to sort those elements out by designing the first and third act like bookends, which is what they are.
I wanted to keep a pace where she has to keep moving because I think when things slow too much in one location, you’re demanding a lot out of audiences. Attack attack attack. I get that we needs hills and valleys, but I’m very suspicious of giving too much lull, unless it serves an effective purpose for building character or preloading one helluva scare.
When you’re writing a specific scene, how descriptive do you make it?
Technically, I’m sort of a director’s writer. It all starts with the director’s eye, honestly, and having a good place where he can visualize. I try to make the reading as easy as possible for the readers and for the director if what I always set out to do.
I’ll write a paragraph instead of saying, “She’s on the rock. A lot of shit is happening. Oh, a seagull crashes.” I figure out what works, what doesn’t. I will print the page out, take a pen and cross certain things out. Fifteen minutes later, I’ll design a half-pager of the scene to see if it’s working and then—if I did my homework correctly—within an hour, I have a pretty good scene.
I usually try to think as a director. When I’m writing about the visual cues and the close-ups, I don’t want to get too much into the directors face about how the scene should be. But it helps me when I’m writing visually for those scenes, not only because it brings me into the world and helps me figure out set pieces, but it gives me a sense of pace into what these characters would do.
I graduated NYU’s dramatic writing, but had many close friends in the film department and the two were very hand-in-hand. It gave me a technical aspect to the craft. I’ve had a lot of advice from friends and I had to do a lot of courses in film. The best advice I can give writers is obviously to watch films, but also try to get on a production. Look around and see how the production goes. A lot of things that are important when you write the script have to be rearranged in the process of production.
I think the director is always keen on making sure that he has the spirit and the root and the bones of the script into his production.
Was there any particular scene in THE SHALLOWS that you felt translated particularly well—or completely different—from the page to the screen?
Yes to both. The first 15 minutes felt straight out of the page, in a way, which was great. I wouldn’t say I was worried, but I was concerned about how the director would keep the audience glued to her and to her point of view as she goes into the water. I was really encouraged by what I saw worked from what I had written. It felt like it was right off the page all the way up to when she gets attacked by the shark. Because of certain production issues, we couldn’t have everything we wanted. That’s the concession you make when you’re making a film.
I envisioned, for example, that the rock island would be a little bigger. A lot of it was due to production. I wouldn’t say I was bummed, but I was wondering how it was going to work. Then I saw Jaume’s entire cut and I saw how small this island gets. I’m like, “Oh well shit, that actually makes it better.” I never foresaw that version to where she really had to cling to this small part of the island. It’s not some kind of safe haven that I had imagined it originally. A lot of that credit goes to the director, Jaume Collet Serra. Whether it was because he couldn’t get everything he wanted, or he saw something different, he saw that as an advantage where I saw it as a disadvantage. That’s the wonder about collaboration.
What kind of rewrites did you do for on THE SHALLOWS?
I had to rewrite some scenes based on who the characters were and the geographics, with respect to the production and Nancy’s A-to-Bs. Originally, Nancy’s mother had recently passed on and she didn’t know what she wanted to do in life. She was a lot younger. When Blake Lively signed on, I had to write Nancy slightly older and a little wiser. It was a bit tricky for me because I was sort of used to living with this younger woman, right out of college. I had to put on a new persona for this character and figure out what her back story was. At the end of the day, it’s pretty close to the original script. I guess it threw me for a curve because I was terrified, as a writer, to go into the back story and look for something else I thought was working quite strongly.
Things change and back stories have to change. As far as the visual set pieces and budgetary concerns for the production, we couldn’t get nights that I wanted to get. There was a set piece on a buoy that had to be turned down a little. Again, they didn’t tarnish the spirit of the script, it was just you have to make concessions when you’re shooting a movie.
With THE SHALLOWS, did you initially set out to have a film focused on one character through the whole film?
I did. I initially, and I think it stuck to that in production, produced a few other characters, but essentially it’s the 127 HOURS model. Basically, it starts with a few meet and greets. Then it ends with this one character. GRAVITY did this to a certain extent. I was worried about the audience starting to feel like it’s getting redundant. GRAVITY did a very good job about going from point A to point B and making something happen without the entire focus being on getting from a point A to point B. The biggest point is you have to like the character. I think they did a really good job at the end of the day to have the audience embrace who Nancy is.
Now, whether some people might still feel like they need to see more people in the film or they need to go more places, I can’t do anything about that. I know, from my point of view, this is a kind of a movie that I had set out to write. I was worried, a little, about spending too much time with Nancy, but all of those seeds have to be planted in the first act. The other writers cliché, which I think happens to be very true, is if you write a character people care about, they’re going to follow them for a while.
Nancy has an arc in this very small amount of time. I credit, again, the director, for being able to bring that out in Blake. I always wanted to give her this one big monologue without making it feel like a big monologue. It’s something a regular person would say. I think that was a strong component in the film that’s going to make audiences understand this is what happens when it is life and death, even though you don’t really know it is life and death yet. It’s these little moments that count.
I am a big fan of the ‘60s minimalistic films (Godard, Jules Dassin) or where we follow a day in the life or Gus Van Sant films where you’re following people to their death. I was saying to myself, “Could that be done in a more genre thriller while keeping the same spirit and soul of films like that?” Hopefully I accomplished that. That’s what I was always trying to do. I wanted to give a lot of meaning to one person’s simple story and at the same time have the audience enjoy being in their point of view throughout the entire movie.
Tell me a bit about your actual writing process. What kind of space do you like to be in when you write? How do you surround it? What kinds of materials do you surround yourself in?
I have a little office here in Santa Monica. I put little dark curtains on the windows and I put myself on the wall and write. I need to be immersed in a way. I have friends that can go to coffee places and I think that’s great. I couldn’t do that.
When I’m in New York, I don’t have an office so I go to the 42nd street library and work there. I do it because it’s one of the few places that they’re not going to charge you any money to write. You can get your work done. I usually come to write to get my work done. My agreement with myself is I have to write at least five pages a day. Five pages might not seem like a lot, but it can take hours when you’re trying to tinker things out. I never take a day off. I’ll write five pages a day. I will have 20 pages by the end of the week. I’ll spend the weekend going back into those 20 pages, reworking those, making them 15 pages because certain things feel like bullshit and don’t work.
The only way I can have that life is if I shut myself in somewhere and I just work. I guess you could say I get inspired sometimes by things on the street, but usually it’s about the story I’m writing. I live with that story 24/7. You’re completely immersed in it. You talk to yourself a little, you’re not the greatest company around people—at least I’m not, because I think about the story. It’s not something that I can turn on and turn off; that’s why I usually have to work hard on it, get it done, and be able to breathe a sigh of relief after. Some people love writing, they have a great experience with it. I would say I love writing, but it’s like that lover that you love but you fight with all the time.
At the end of the day, you have this script that’s before you. You’re seeing your 95 pages. All those 95 pages come with hours where you wake up at five in the morning, you’re figuring out if this scene you wrote sucked. Or you have these great inspirations about seeing something and realizing that can work. It all sounds a little narcissistic, but you’re creating a world within a story within a script. You need all those bits and pieces. When I finally put the computer on and write, hopefully half the work is already done in the back of my head. It’s about facing a wall and getting that on the screen.
Is there any character throughout the history of cinema that you wish you could write dialogue for?
The whole GODFATHER series was near perfect. (I even defend some of Three). There’s so much complex stuff going on with Michael Corleone’s character, and Kay’s too. I would have loved to have been around that time and sort of got my hands on that idea and created more of that world. There’s a lot to be said for the film noir period of the 40s. I was born a little too late, but I would have loved to have written during that time, even though it was hard for a writer back then. I think that was such a beautiful time for film noir and creating drama out of thriller. Even though I take a lot from those movies, it would have been a great era to live through and build worlds upon when that genre was at the top of its game.
Can you tell me about the other film you have coming out this summer, SATANIC?
That was always a smaller film. The director wanted to do a heist film. I wasn’t a heist guy. I thought about it and I’ve always been trying to find a way to do a good “B” movie horror, but do it for a price and be able to have the liberty to what we want to do. The film was originally called FINDING THE TATE HOUSE, which is more or less about looking for evil because you have nothing to do, or looking into the dark sides of the world. I think SATANIC was a better selling title for them. It was a small little horror that we had fun making and the whole thing was shot around Los Angeles.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but the devil is hardly in the film. It’s following these young kids heading to Coachella music festival and they deviate into L.A. because one of the girls is goth and wants to visit some of the sights that Ramirez was at and the Cecil hotel and all these things. They wind up getting themselves inadvertently over their heads and unleashing something real. It’s kind of a big idea that you can do in a small scale.
I was a big admirer, and people either love it or hate it, of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. What they were able to do for $30,000—it was probably a little more than that—they were able to take that movie and create these images in your mind about what is out there and give you the bigger broad strokes of this world without going over the top with it. I was inspired by that and set out to make about the devil where things are kind of really happening.
It was a challenge the same way a shark movie was a challenge to me. How do you write a minimal idea about a shark film? I thought, how do you take the devil that’s larger than life and bring it down to a grounded scale size? That’s what we executed in SATANIC.
Any final advice you’d like to share?
Stay hungry and find your own process.
I like challenges, but I don’t like Rubik’s Cubes. My greatest fear is writing myself into a corner, so unless I can see light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t take on a project.
My process is I have to be excited about an idea, I guess you can call it passion, before I jump into it. Once you have that idea that you’re excited about, just finish the script. That’s my process and that’s what’s kept me alive so far. When you know that idea in the back of your head is an idea that still excites you, I think that’s the thing worth taking the trip and launching out into the deep water.
Photos: THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON Writers Panel.
The Writers Guild of America, East members ventured to 30 Rock’s legendary Studio 6B for a panel with the writers of THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON. The lively discussion was moderated by Jimmy Fallon and featured Head Writer A.D. Miles and Writers Gerard Bradford, Mike DiCenzo, Albertina Rizzo and Caroline Eppright.
- March 8, 2018: In Solidarity: International Women's Day
- January 16, 2018: Interview: Caytha Jentis (THE OTHER F WORD)
- November 13, 2017: Interview: Richard Linklater & Darryl Ponicsan (LAST FLAG FLYING)
- October 30, 2017: Essay: Ian Olympio on Produced By: New York 2017
- October 12, 2017: Essay: Alexis Fedor on The Writer's Profit Plan
- October 4, 2017: Interview: Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani (THE BIG SICK)
- August 7, 2017: Interview: John Chernin & Dave Chernin (THE MICK)
- July 31, 2017: Interview: Julie Rudd (FUN MOM DINNER)
- July 25, 2017: PODCAST: Horror & Suspense Screenwriter's Panel w/ Ted Tally, Chris Sparling, Ingrid Jungermann & Jeremy Saulnier
- July 12, 2017: OnWriting: Brian Knappenberger on Net Neutrality
- Issue 1: A Conversation with Terry George and Tony Gilroy
- Issue 2: Reflections on Adaptation: Israel Horovitz, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Doug McGrath, Richard Wesley, Richard Vetere
- Issue 3: The Writers Room: Robert Carlock, John Markus, Meredith Scardino
- Issue 4: From Broadway to the Back Lot: John Guare, David Lindsay-Abaire, Donald Margulies