Eric Heisserer: The Life Of A Screenwriter

Interviewed by Jakob Lewis Barnes & Nick Deal

We’re ecstatic to share our interview with academy-award nominated screenwriter Eric Heisserer as he talks about the life of a screenwriter and his experience working in the film industry. Heisserer’s well deserved Oscar nomination was for his screenplay for Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 hit Arrival, for which he was also an Executive Producer. Heisserer is also known for his writing for Lights OutThe Thing (2010), and Final Destination 5, and is attached to some exciting future projects, including Vin Diesel’s Bloodshot and Susanne Bier’s Bird Box, which stars Sandra Bullock, Sarah Paulson, and John Malkovich.


 

Hi Eric, would you like to introduce yourself to our audience?

I’m a screenwriter, producer, and director. I’ve been in the business for about eighteen years, most of that time I lived in LA, but I got my break while I was in Houston. 

Can you tell us a little about your journey to becoming a screenwriter? Is writing something you’ve always enjoyed or was it an interest that developed later in life?

I’ve been writing creatively since high school. In my early twenties, I really wanted to be a pro writer for tabletop gaming. I even had some published work for the Cyberpunk 2020 game, back in the day. But I’m an autodidact, and I’m a bit stubborn, so I like to learn things on my own and I often can’t tell the difference between a challenge and a warning. So when I submitted a proposal for a scenario for a game publisher and was sent a polite rejection letter with the comment, “This is too linear for a game story, this is a movie,” I decided to make it a movie. That first feature screenplay took me several months to write, and at the end of the day it was terrible, but by then I knew I wanted to plunge into screenwriting and make it a career if I could.

I wrote screenplays in different forms. Pilots, spec TV episodes, features… I’d write just to keep my daily page count. My ninth screenplay garnered some attention from a studio and they optioned it. But I wanted another victory before moving to LA for good, so I kept writing. Script number eleven found a home with some independent financiers, and so I drove west on I-10 that summer and got a tiny apartment in LA. It was a long uphill slog for six years after that before I landed a studio assignment that would actually make it to screen.

What is it about storytelling that you love? If you even love it at all, feel free to tell us why you hate it if you want.

I love the potential storytelling has for reproducing specific emotions. I may have a personal experience that left me heartbroken, or nostalgic, or enraged or full of hope. To be able to repackage that feeling and have it connect with others is a feat I think separates ‘reporting the events of a character’ and actual storytelling.

Every writer is looking for that “big break” moment to get into the industry. What would you say was your breakthrough moment? And is there any particular method or route that you see as the go-to for aspiring writers?

My breakthrough moment was realizing I was always the one to get the work in this business. I had thought having an agent or manager meant I had “made it” and they would find work for me, promote my material, etc. But while they will take those swings, the real job offers never come from that. They happen when I make a move on my own — to write on spec, or to get a meeting with someone, or work up a pitch for a project in limbo at a studio somewhere, or even to get the rights to a novel and pursue it.

Would it be fair to assume that your Oscar nomination for the adapted screenplay of ‘Arrival’ is the highlight of your screenwriting career to date (feel free to tell us otherwise)? Can you tell us a little about how that felt to find out you were nominated?

Awards recognition isn’t really a metric I consider. It was fun meeting the other writers that year on the awards circuit, and getting dressed up for the various shows, but the achievement I hold close to my heart is that I’ve written 70 scripts to date, and I continue to learn something new about the craft with every project.

You adapted ‘Arrival’ from the novella ‘Story of Your Life’. How did you approach the adaptation process from turning such a short story into a feature length screenplay? How much creative license do you get when adapting a story like this?

I’d been obsessed with that story for years. I carried around a dog-eared copy of Ted Chiang’s collection in my car. Took me a long time to find producers crazy enough to take a swing at that adaptation with me. We pitched it around town, and for the pitch (as with the final film) I had to take a lot of liberties in order to make it into a filmic story, but Ted was understanding and insightful throughout the process. Which was a relief because we didn’t sell the pitch, and so I wrote that screenplay on spec, and then we nearly didn’t sell that spec either, until independent companies got involved. The whole thing was a 7-8-year process.

You also did a similar job with ‘Lights Out’, adapting a YouTube short into a feature length script. Would you say you prefer adapting stories, or creating original screenplays? And why?

I’m just as excited by either, it’s just easier in this market to get adaptations made, I think because studios are so scared of taking risks on original films. I have written as many original scripts as I have adaptations, but most of my original work has never made the distance.

When looking at your filmography and upcoming projects, ‘Arrival’ was a bit of a detour from your usual horror habits. Is there a reason you gravitate towards horror projects more often than others? Would you say screenwriters are susceptible to being tied to a particular genre, just as actors and directors can be?

Oof, yeah. So I’ve written proportionally very few horror screenplays, if I look at the spectrum of genre and dramatic work in my files. It just happens to be the kind of genre that gets made more easily than most, I think in part because horror isn’t cast dependent, meaning you don’t need a big star to get the film made, and if you’re clever you can do it on a smaller budget. Believe me, I’ve been out there swinging for action, science fiction, thriller, drama, and adventure projects for years. I hope some of those eventually make it to screen — a fun action/adventure I just wrote is one of my favorite scripts to date. But they’re also more complicated.

Screenwriting seems to be a self-confessed unglamorous job. What does the average weekly (monthly/yearly) routine look like for a Hollywood screenwriter?

If you’re a TV writer, you at least get two things that the feature writer doesn’t: a social experience, and a concrete structure. You’re in a room with other writers, with the showrunner (or you are the showrunner) and you engage with that group as you make your show. The writer’s room gives you a schedule, and that overlaps with a production schedule, and you have deadlines to meet as enforced by the network or streamer. The feature writer has to have a ton of self-discipline. No one else is around to make sure they’re getting pages done. And it can be an isolating life, too. That’s the unglamorous part.

With various projects on the go, what do you find the best approach to managing your time between each script? 

Know what needs to get done first, and knock that out. If you’re juggling several projects — and everyone will eventually have to, to have any sort of success — train your brain to shift gears as smoothly as possible. Maybe that means having a lunch break between two different projects, or devoting full days to each, or whatever. I have been using a brain hack recently of writing on something until it starts to feel like work, then I shift to whatever I consider is “play time” away from the thing I’m supposed to be doing. Eventually my muse realizes I’m simply working on something else, and I can bounce back to the first project again.

Narrowing down on your process of writing, how do you go from blank page to first draft? Are you a meticulous planner or more of an instinctive, go-with-the-flow writer? Do you lock yourself away or surround yourself with other creatives?

Outlines save my life. I have to have one before I go to script. I also collect a bunch of flotsam and jetsam on a project — specific details, visuals, dialogue, even location or costuming ideas — and that can bolster an otherwise dry outline. Eventually I reach a sort of “critical mass” of information that lets me know I can bang out a rough first draft. It will be terrible, but it gives me a foundation.

I think it’s fair to say that most writers hit a wall at some point along the road. What is your worst case of “writer’s block” and how did you overcome this?

Ha! A ton of things. The self-critic voice used to lock me up for weeks. I then began inventing little exercises and tricks for myself to bypass that voice. I collected those exercises in a little e-book I put on Amazon a few years back, called “150 Screenwriting Challenges,” in case anyone’s curious. It’s just a series of “try this and see if it shakes anything loose” writing challenges.

What does the future hold for Eric Heisserer – can you tell us anything about any of your upcoming projects? 

I’m currently working on multiple projects and yet I can’t talk about any of them, how sad is that? I also have no idea if any of them will see the light of day. But I love them all.

Do you have any passion projects or a kind of writing bucket list that you’d like to take on one day? Perhaps certain characters, worlds or topics you’d like to put your own spin on?

I would love to adapt the characters I made for the limited series Secret Weapons, the comic book I wrote for Valiant Comics. I adore those characters and I miss writing them.

What would be the best advice you could offer to aspiring screenwriters hoping to make it to Hollywood?

The obvious advice that people love to dismiss: Write. Write a ton. A sale isn’t the finish line, it’s the first day at work. So work those muscles. The more, and the faster, you can write, the better you’ll do. You’ll outlast so many others.

And now the most important question of them all – pineapple on a pizza, yay or nay?

I haven’t had pineapple on pizza in years. My tastebuds have been shifting recently, so maybe I should try it again and see! The worst thing we can do for our palate is never change our minds about food.


Once again we’d like to say a huge thank you to Eric for taking the time to talk to us, and you can keep up with Eric over on Twitter!

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INTERVIEW: Kevin L. Johnson

Interviewed by Jakob Lewis Barnes

Our first #SundaySpotlight for August is Jakob’s interview with Ozark star Kevin L. Johnson, who plays Sam Dermody in the Netflix show. Johnson talks about his career, Hollywood horror stories, working with Jason Bateman, and confirms whether or not he will be returning for season 2!

 


 

JLB: First of all Kevin, would you like to introduce yourself to our audience?

KLJ: Sure thing! Hi everyone! I’m Kevin. I live in Atlanta, GA. I grew up in Lake Wylie, SC and I went to Clemson University. 

JLB: Tell me about your journey to becoming an actor? Is acting something that’s always been in your blood, a lifelong ambition?

KLJ: I fell in love with acting in college.  I wanted to try something different and break out of my shell.  Auditioned for my first play. I didn’t get cast but I did do tech work because I was very interested in seeing how things worked.  I signed up for classes in college and I got cast in the big musical of the year.  After I graduated from college, I moved to Charlotte, NC and got headshots done, signed up for classes and got my first agent.  

JLB: Every performer has an audition horror story, right? So what’s your worst experience in an audition?

KLJ: I would have to say I was auditioning for a movie a year or so ago.  I asked the casting directors who would be my reader for my eyeline etc.  One of the casting directors did not take that very well and said “First off, we’re not readers we’re casting directors.” Obviously I didn’t mean it the way he thought but he took it as an insult.  So a little tip, never “call” a casting director a “reader” 

JLB: Most people will recognise you as Sam Dermody, from the Netflix hit series Ozark – which is bloody fantastic – but how did this part come about?

KLJ: Thanks! I got an audition from my agent back in 2016.  I saw the breakdown for the character: affable, real estate agent in the Ozarks who loves his dog.  I thought “Wow! This is right up my wheelhouse” So, I felt good about audition but then I heard they were going with someone older.  On my way to another audition, I got a call from my agent and he said “They want to book your for Sam in Ozark” The rest is history!

JLB: I’ve seen a lot of interaction between the cast and crew from Ozark on social media, and it seems like you all got on really well. What was the atmosphere like when you guys were shooting?

KLJ: Everybody is great! We all support each other on and off set! For some of us, it’s the biggest role we’ve booked.  It’s been great to see all the success for everyone from the top down!

JLB: Jason Bateman, who we all primarily associate with being a comedy actor, took on directorial duties for much of season 1. How was he to work with as a director?

KLJ: Jason was great! He didn’t direct me in any episodes for season 2 but he was my first director in season 1.  He has a great eye for acting.  He’s good at letting the actor do what the actor is there to do but he also has a vision.  So it’s no surprise he was nominated for Best Director at the Emmy’s this year.

JLB: With season 2 just around the corner, what can fans expect from this next instalment? And will we see Sam Dermody returning to our screens?

KLJ: I will be back!  As for season 2 I can’t give anything away BUT I will say that season 2 is going to be even more intense then the first.  Buckle up and enjoy the ride!

JLB: What else does Kevin Johnson have in the pipeline for the future? Where do you hope to be in 5 years time, say?

KLJ: I have some possible projects coming up down the pipeline but nothing that I can divulge…yet.  In 5 years I would like to be a working on a show as a series regular and supporting/lead in films.  I have made great strides since I started around 10 years ago.  It’s all about pushing forward and telling yourself that every “no” is closer to a “yes”  Winning the room (casting director) is something you always strive for.  

JLB: Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring actors and actresses out there who are hoping to break in to the industry?

KLJ: Yes! Brian Cranston is a great actor and has great advice.  When you go into an audition you’re not going in there to GET a job you’re going in there to DO a job.  If you have that mindset then you’ll go far!

JLB: And finally, the big question. Pineapple on a pizza – where do you stand on this heated debate?

KLJ: Love pineapple on pizza! Sweet with savory count me in! 

 


 

Thank you again to Kevin for agreeing to be interviewed, and we look forward to seeing more of him in the future!

 

INTERVIEW: R.M. Moses

Interviewed by Jakob Lewis Barnes

We’re continuing our #SundaySpotlight this week with an interview with R.M. Moses, an award winning independent filmmaker from East London. Jakob talked to Moses about his films, inspiration, and his goals for the future!


JB: For any of our readers who aren’t aware of your work, would you like to introduce yourself?

My name is Remi Moses, professionally known as RM Moses and I’m a filmmaker from East London. In the past 4 years of being a filmmaker, I’ve created over 30 films and counting, I’ve won multiple awards around the world in film festivals and award ceremonies. I hate the spotlight and so you’ll rarely ever see me at events and things that require me to leave my bat cave, unless I have to wear a suit… Them I’m showing up in full effect.

JB: I’m always curious to know if there was a certain moment in a filmmaker’s life when the idea of chasing that dream was first sparked; do you recall such a moment for yourself?

I was making youtube videos before I was filmmaking and that was really where I gained the knowledge on how to film/edit. It got to a point where I was creating so much content, I became jaded and I didn’t know why. One day I realized I didn’t want to make youtube videos for a living, that wasn’t the career I wanted, so I quickly transitioned into filmmaking. I took courses and read books on how to write for screen before actually making a film. Then when I found out how to piece the puzzle together of writing, filming and editing, I just loved it.

JB: Are there any filmmakers who really inspire you, who you draw from when working on your own projects?

Not anyone in particular just because I love so many different kinds of movies, but if you were to ask me my top 5 films, you would definitely see 3 Chris Nolan movies in that list. His perfectionism and talent in his craft is something I aspire to, I love the depth and thought in his movies. I follow a lot of cinematographers on Instagram who give me sooooo much content for my private mood boards, so, if anything, I would say they give me the most inspiration.

JB: Of course, every filmmaker has their own identity and style, so tell me how you would describe your work?

I personally like to think my work is very dialogue driven, emotionally heavy but painted with a very subtle brush. I tend to write better for strong female leads, but just in general, I think my work is best reflected upon actors who can reach a certain level of emotion that promotes a realism to the scripts. CJ Beckford and Sarah Isabella are two actors I’ve worked with recently who have this quality. I can’t really articulate it, but they have sensibilities that make your scripts so full of complexities and wonders. I love that.

JB: As an independent filmmaker, there are plenty of obstacles along the way; what are some of the challenges you’ve faced and how did you overcome them?

I think funding has been the hardest part because sometimes that is the difference between average work and being able to accurately paint what you see in your head. You can still tell effective stories with no budget but as a perfectionist, you need the funding to create the perfect painting. Other than that, I haven’t had any obstacles because I mainly produce all my own content, so I don’t have to rely on other people.

JB: Your films have garnered a lot of praise, which must give you great hopes for the future. Where do you hope to be in five years time?

I’m going to be nominated for a BAFTA or OSCAR. Then hopefully, with my foot in the door, I can create all these ideas I have, with no obstacles. I just want to create as much as I can, and as much as I don’t like the spotlight, if I have to go and pick up and award just to give my work some credibility, so be it.

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JB: Speaking of praise, I saw Letitia Wright – of ‘Black Panther’ fame – gave you a shoutout recently. Congratulations, first of all. How important is it for these kind of stars to support those of us trying to break into the industry?

Letitia has been to a couple of my past film premieres and I love her to bits. When she gave me a shoutout, my phone was going crazy the whole week. I think its testament to her personality, being so kind and humble, but it happens a lot in the industry, just on a bigger scale. We always see interviews with big stars name dropping their well-known celebrity friends but I think it’s important to talk about the emerging talent coming through. We don’t usually get wind of filmmakers until they get Oscar nominated, which is crazy but that’s what I mean when these awards give creatives validation. The indie film community in London is pretty close-knit but there isn’t much going on in terms of support and development. The support from people in the industry, as mentors and teachers, is critical for our growth in this country.

JB: I also saw on Twitter, that you were considering writing a British gang movie; is this an avenue you will genuinely be pursuing? Because I would love to see that!

I’m creating a 3 minute short film called “MANDEM” which is for the RODE film competition. It’s more of a proof-of-concept than a film because it’s so short but I think it could go far. It comes out during the first week of August so watch out for that.

JB: What can we expect from you in the near future, what are you working on?

I have a short film called “Grounding” starring Sarah Isabella and Stefan Boateng which is about anxiety in a relationship and the fallout of poorly dealing with your mental health problems. It’s a 7-9 minute short and is incredibly beautiful, so raw and elegant. I have high hopes for this in the film festival circuit. Also I’m working on a web series at the end of the year which should be available online sometime early 2019.

JB: Do you watch many films yourself? What have you been enjoying lately?

I haven’t seen much recently because work has been intense but I’d like to think I’m an amateur cinephile. ‘Ready Player One’ made me cry recently after watching it for the second time. I had read the book so I knew what was to come but that was one of the best cinema experiences I’ve ever had. And of course, ‘Infinity War’, absolutely blew me away. Just recently I’ve been preaching about the new horror movie ‘Hereditary’. Such a brilliant film, the acting is some of the best I’ve seen in recent years. I really do urge people to see it, not because it’s a horror movie, but because the filmmaking is soooo good.

JB: What’s the best piece of advice you could offer to other aspiring filmmakers out there?

Learn to wear as many hats as you can. Don’t limit yourself to one specialty, learn how to edit, produce, direct, write, and increase your value to a future agency or studio. Make sure you learn as much as possible, don’t be naïve to think you can be in the industry without training. Read books, pay for courses, study your craft as much as you can because you can never learn too much. Educate yourself and go and create as much as you can. The theory is only 25% of it, filming/producing content is another 25% and the last 50% of becoming a filmmaker is making mistakes. Like any creative field, we only get better with practice. I’ve made over 30 films in the past 4 years and I feel comfortable and confident being able to specialise in any department because I’ve put myself through the process of making mistakes and learning how to get better next time. Sounds cheesy but it’s true.

JB: And finally, the most important question of the day, maybe ever – Pineapple on pizza? Right or wrong?

I’m sorry, but it’s so wrong. Anyone who eats that combo probably binges YouTube videos of people gaming and doesn’t value their life.

Strong words there! We’d like to thank Moses once again for taking the time to talk to Jakob and answer his questions.

 

Moses’ latest short film, Mandem, is now available to watch on YouTube!

 

 

 

“We treat virtuosity like it’s mundane, we expect it” – Blindspotting’s Rafael Casal on Oakland, theatre, language, masculinity and more…

Interviewed by Fiona Underhill 

For the first six months of 2018, the most exciting and contemporary filmed art being produced seemed to be from the music industry. The music videos and films that accompanied Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, Childish Gambino’s This is America and The Carters’ Apesh*t and Family Feud all feel as if they have something to say about the state of America right now, with their commentary on the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, among many other themes. Now that July has arrived, we have two films that have been released (just in the US so far), both set in the same city, that have this same fresh voice and risk-taking approach – Sorry to Bother You (written and directed by Boots Riley) and Blindspotting (directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada and written by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs). It is perhaps no coincidence that the filmmakers behind both of these movies have come from a music (specifically hip-hop) background themselves. The writers of both films are from Oakland (where the films are also set), a city with a rich cultural and huge artistic seam running through it, a history of protest and activism (the Black Panther Party originated there), but now changing rapidly and potentially beyond all recognition.


 

I was lucky enough to speak to the co-writer and star of BlindspottingRAFAEL CASAL – and I asked him about the points he was trying to make about Oakland in the film.

I think what we were hoping to do was show a side of the Bay Area that’s the less popularised side. The way we want to showcase Oakland is very much in the film, I would do no justice describing it now. I think it took us the 94 minutes to even give a fraction, so I want to encourage everyone to go see it. I think stories that are often told about areas that are getting a new influx of a population that’s not originally from there is mostly about real estate and about new businesses and then periodically any controversy that salts the new reputation of the place. That’s how you get these BBQ Becky memes about a white woman calling the police on people who have been barbecuing there for twenty years. Then you get another article about how expensive San Francisco is compared to the rest of the country – those are the big narratives.

The people from there have such a different love and appreciation for the subtle nuance of a place where they’ve existed for their entire lives; food, community, culture. The relationship between elders and children, the way that the school system has worked, the way that the street culture has worked, the way that the music and slang and the virtuosic nature of the people. It’s so unbelievably vibrant, that the biggest challenge that came for us was figuring out how to capture it on film. More importantly, those elements are so infrequently broadcast that we really wanted to ‘time capsule’ them for a moment, because they’re disappearing due to an influx of people that aren’t aware of those things and moving in somewhat on top of them. For us, it was important to capture that place on film before it disappears.

 

I also spoke with the production designer of Blindspotting, Tom Hammock and asked him about the location-scouting process and the choice to showcase so many different sides of the city. The two main characters, Miles (Casal) and Collin (Diggs) play removal men, which means that the diverse neighbourhoods are seen as they drive through them in their mover’s truck. Miles and Collin go to a party at a hipster’s house which was a real location – a modern building in a row of Victorian houses. Like so much of the film and the wider conversation about gentrification, this story is not as simple as it seems. Hammock told me that the original house had burned down (not been knocked down) and a local architect was employed to create the new design. Their job as movers also means that you see historic houses being emptied and pulled down, robbing them of their contents and erasing the city’s culture. Hammock explained that these wooden houses had been built by ship’s carpenters, meaning that many featured port-holes. He also told me that the apartment that was used for Miles and Ashley was an Air B&B which is ironic, given the film’s focus on gentrification and Miles’ feelings about it, in particular. I mentioned this to Casal:

We came about that apartment because the people who lived there were moving out and it was being Air B&B’d so that it could be either rented or sold to a new resident, who I would imagine would also experience a hike in rent. It’s amazing how many moments in filming that the subject matter met us face-to-face and reminded us why the film was so important to make. And that was one of a thousand moments, like, wow – we couldn’t even write that. There is a movie [that could be made] about the movie being made and about a town that is being taken over by different industries and subsequently a population of people. There are so many clashes that are worth writing about, that evolved this experience and that was one of the first ones.

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Casal has a background in theatre and Diggs was in the original cast of a little-known Broadway musical called Hamilton. Director Estrada brought the same virtuosity, ambition and problem-solving as he had to shooting music videos with Diggs and when filming Casal’s students’ theatrical performance in New York. He brought in split-screens, tracking shots and shot the climatic scene with two cameras in a 9-minute single-take. The dream sequences are shot like music videos, complete with flashing colours, choreography, dollying cameras and employing theatre tech to time everything perfectly. The influence of the filmmakers’ background is clear in the theatrical style and also the heightened language in the film. I asked Casal about the influence of theatre on the film.

Yeah – Daveed and I both have backgrounds in theatre. The stage is where we built our careers, separately and together. My time on the stage started out as a writer/performer in the performance poetry scene in the Bay Area. So very much, I would describe that as a gateway drug. It’s an art-form that has all of the attributes and skill sets that you need to eventually work in long-form, especially in heightened language in long-form. It is a performative monologue essentially, it is communicating the personal to the universal. We are using heightened language to condense information and you do have to connect with an audience in real time, right? That transition into long-form theatre was very easy and obvious for me, so when I got into my late teens, Daveed and I wrote a few plays together. Then I went onto teach Creative Writing and Theatre at UW Madison, while Daveed was pursuing music and teaching middle school after-school programmes back in the Bay Area. And then we ran a theatre programme at the Public Theater [in New York] called #BARS which is a theatre and verse programme, under the mentorship of Oskar Eustis, building a theatre programme very much based on that curriculum that I was developing at UW Madison.

So much about our approach to the stage and to story-telling is about the inter-personal relationships between characters, the dynamic and the momentum of a dynamic that takes place when you just let a scene happen and experience the power of actors fully immersed in the moment. And Carlos, our director also comes from a theatre background, even though his forte is in cinema, so much of our philosophies were aligned and the script was so-written to cater to the kind of performances that work both on stage and on film. So in the filming of it, we would just do these long, sprawling takes and let Daveed and I just sort of off-the-leash and play for the moment as much as possible. I think we were all the better for it. I think in terms of approaching our next project, I’ll probably continue to go back to the same conventions because I think that the dynamic that you get from theatre while also being verse performers [is that the] the camera is just allowed to roll to try to pick up the full duration of a scene, you get so much more subtlety and so much more inherent chemistry than all this start-and-stop.

 

As well as theatre, Casal started out using spoken-word and verse in performance poetry and hip-hop. He was featured on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, toured college campuses with his spoken-word performances and has a large presence on YouTube. This also feeds into the film, along with the use of the Bay Area slang that Casal and Diggs have grown up with. This innovative use of a unique style of dialogue is one of the most refreshing aspects of the film, so of course I had to ask Casal about it. It was producer Jess Calder who discovered Casal on the internet and approached him about writing a film using verse (she particularly traces the film back to one of Casal’s poems – Monster, a piece about growing numb to his friends dying violent deaths at a young age).

They had found my YouTube popular poetry videos and music videos where heightened language was being used to tell stories directly at the camera. So that was the prompt, that producer Jess [Calder] saw the potential to write a film where heightened language is the way in which the characters communicate in some of the most tense or important moments. So it’s always been a part of the DNA of the idea; even that final scene with Daveed – I wrote the bulk of that nine years ago and it just stayed in the script and we always just thought me and Daveed would re-write it to accommodate the film, but so much of the film is reverse-engineered from that climatic moment, so we just kept the bulk of it there. I think Daveed added two or three lines a few days before we shot, to fit it into his mouth the way that he wanted it to, but it’s been essentially the same the entire time.

So I think what was most exciting for me was this was the challenge of verse that both independently and collectively, Daveed and I have always thought about and wanted to crack the rhythm of how to introduce heightened language into film in the way that we’ve been exposed to it. The Bay Area is so ingrained in the idea of the beauty of language to articulate yourself, that your individuality is very much expressed through the way in which you speak and the words you use. We treat virtuosity like it’s mundane, we expect it. So, it felt essential that it be a spine of the piece. The element about Miles that we loved so much is that Miles is a salesman. The way in which Miles sells himself and uses language is also the tool that he is teaching Collin to wield in order to vocalise and articulate what he needs to let out of his soul, in order to survive and get his sanity back. In the whole film, Collin is trying to express himself through improvisational verse, but the “make it sound pretty”, the salesmanship, the selling of an idea is the gift that Miles is unknowingly giving Collin through the duration of their friendship and most importantly, the duration of these last four days.

 

As well as confronting race, the film also shows different aspects of masculinity. In a separate interview (on BUILD series – it’s amazing and on YouTube, watch it!), Casal talks about

“men who do not have a well-tuned capacity for intimate conversation, men’s most acceptable modes are anger and humour and everything in between is a stumbling walk through trying to articulate yourself. These two men are very much a part of toxic masculinity to a degree, they have a survivalist mentality, claiming their space, whether through violence or through humour.”

I asked Casal about the theme of toxic masculinity, particularly in relation to how the character of Miles is trying to raise his son. He was understandably protective of the character he’d created.

I think we steered heavily away from the idea of trying to impose themes into the story. I think we were trying to represent the characters honestly and ask ourselves what we felt like they would do or how they would act or how they would raise their kids based on the people we based those characters on. Miles is a minority among minorities, that has been his reality the entirety of his life and the way in which he has had to defend his position and his space has probably been more violent than Collin, not because he is pursuing violence but because he’s getting picked on and messed with, he’s been questioned and been getting his credibility challenged, he’s had his space encroached upon more than anyone else around him, he sticks out like a sore thumb, and the idea of a white dude in a black and brown neighbourhood is really questionable. So he has been fighting physically and had to fight physically so much more than Collin. So his way of surviving as a male in violent neighbourhoods, in dangerous spaces, his way of imparting some wisdom on his son is to make sure that his son is tough enough to handle the neighbourhood that they live in. And I don’t know that that is inherently problematic, I think what that leads to is potentially very problematic.

I’m more critical of systemic poverty and the violence that that encourages because of the way that we starve and shrink the physical space of poor people than I am of critical of Miles and how he survives within that problematic system. I just want to make that point. It’s really easy to demonise Miles’ reaction to a fucked-up situation but the problem is the situation and Miles’ reaction to it is also problematic, but it is secondary to the circumstance. That family is trying to raise a son within a problematic, dangerous  and violent circumstance and Miles as a father (and we’ve alluded to the fact that he had no father of his own) is trying to teach his son to survive the best way that he knows how and God bless him for it, even if you have a problem with it. He’s trying to be a positive role-model with his son.

[Miles’ girlfriend] Ashley (played by Jasmine Cephas Jones) is in a different mind-state, she suddenly has a black son and that son is becoming an age when he’s not someone that she’s holding onto physically at all times, that is out in the world increasingly more independently. So the fear of the police is something that is weighing on her heavily in the film and the two of them (who we always sort of imagined as high school sweethearts) have a new negotiation to have. We always imagined that Ashley – she knows who she’s with, she knows that he’s someone who defends space very aggressively and I’m sure to a certain degree, she likes that – it’s partly what she was attracted to. But now that violence can have a slightly different consequence, that can take a potentially larger toll if it gets out of hand. So the gun threat is really a rallying point in which the two of them have to talk about the fear that Ashley has about the safety of her son and that the way in which Miles is approaching parenting, while noble and while loving, is scary to her, which turns out to be such a beautiful conversation between an interracial couple from the same place. So often we tend to see interracial couples where they live in completely different realities and one is always educating the other on the harshness of the world and that’s not what this conversation is. It’s about two people who really understand the complexities of their reality and are in those trenches together. But their relationship to violence and the fear of violence is different and they have to negotiate that in raising a brown son.

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The film had a long (almost 10 year) gestation period and had to be updated along the way. Depressingly, they cut protests to police violence from the film because they noticed that there were less protests as police shot more black people (it was becoming more commonplace and therefore being met with more apathy and silence). Ultimately, there came a ‘now or never moment’ where Daveed Diggs had a tiny window in his schedule and they seized their chance. I asked Casal about the sense of urgency created from shooting in 22 days.

Yeah the urgency of filming in 22 days was because they were the only 22 days that Daveed had open in his schedule. I had to essentially do the physical writing of it on my own, so I moved to LA and rewrote the script and Daveed participated in that via phone and big-picture conversations between he and I in the middle of the night. You know we’d gain this momentum and excitement and there was a opportunity in our window to shoot it and we were racing against the Sundance deadline. Really, to make an independent film, so many variables have to line up – the right people, the right place, the right time, the right funding, the right enthusiasm, the right script for the right moment because we don’t have this massive budget and machine behind us. So I think when it came around again, when I very fortuitously sent a drunk text to our producers after the Oscars last year and said “I wish we had made that movie” and they responded “so make it” – that snowballed in a way that I felt needed to be capitalised on. Everybody was a little hesitant, Diggs was very hesitant, Carlos didn’t even know about the script the day before and the producers were excited but unsure if we could pull it off in that window. But I am often known in my artistic circle as the instigator, as the rallier, as the one who tells everyone “we can definitely do it, if we all get on board.” I feel like we willed it into existence with love and enthusiasm and excitement around bringing this story to the communities that we feel like really need it and really that’s to say: the whole country. We feel like the country is in a place where conversations like these, the conversations that this film seem to be provoking when people are walking out are exactly the kinds of conversations that I’m excited to have. Every question that you ask, I’m excited to answer and that doesn’t always happen with the art that we make. So with every question, every conversation, I’m just more and more excited that we did it.


 

It was a pleasure and a privilege to discuss this stunning film with Mr Casal and I cannot wait to disect it with more people. Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting have genuinely made me excited about cinema again – as a vital and urgent art-form confronting contemporary themes and provoking conversation. They are both a snapshot of a city in flux and people who are struggling to cope with new realities. They both do so with artistry which pushes boundaries, take risks, are innovative and unique. How exciting and how lucky we are that we get to experience these films NOW. I urge you to check them out as soon as you are able to.

Blindspotting is on limited release from July 20th and wide release from July 27th.

I also urge you to subscribe Rafael Casal’s YouTube channel

(Some of Mr Casal’s comments may have been edited for clarity)

INTERVIEW: Michael Matteo Rossi

Interviewed by Fiona Underhill

On Saturday 7th July, I battled my way through the LA heatwave to Mimi’s Cafe, near Griffith Park to meet writer, director and producer Michael Matteo Rossi. England had beaten Sweden that morning and there was a replay on the TV screen at the bar. Michael turned up wearing an England shirt, which was surprising and sweet. We had a nice chat over ice-cold waters:

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FU: Could you introduce yourself to our readers please?

MMR: My name is Michael Matteo Rossi, I am a writer, director and producer. I have been doing all three for 12 years. I started when I was 19 in college at San Diego State, I graduated from there in 2009 and came back to LA and have been living up here ever since. Professionally, I’ve been doing it for the last 5 or so years. I make somewhat consistent money, this is my exclusive job, this is all I do. To be honest, directing is number one, followed by writing, followed by producing. Producing, of course, is that necessary evil. It’s the business and numbers and all that, there isn’t as much creativity as opposed to directing and writing. But I do all three. I try to stay prolific, I try to make one film a year at least. And for the last couple of years, I’ve delved into mostly just doing feature films, so full-length films that go out and get distributed.

FU: What started your passion for film, as a child? Were you parents in the industry?

MMR: My parents actually aren’t in the industry. Nobody except for my younger brother, who’s a screenwriter is in the industry. So, I didn’t really have a leg-up with it. But my Dad did love cinema and he’d show me a lot of the classic films, he’d show the classic TV shows, like ‘The Twilight Zone’, he’d show the Hitchcock films, classic Film Noirs and that really influenced me. Because as a kid, I would watch them and I just knew from an early age that I wanted to be involved somehow.

Interestingly enough, I actually started in theatre. I did acting; I was in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, ‘Bugsy Malone’, ‘Annie’, I did some Shakespeare plays. So I did that up until I was about 15/16, when I took a creative writing class and that’s when it shifted. I knew I wanted to do writing and tell my own stories. And then in college, direct my own stories. So, I knew pretty early that that is what I wanted to do.

FU: Did you study film in college?

MMR: I did Television, Film and New Media with an emphasis on Critical Studies. But the first short that I made, when I was 19, it was a 4 minute short, it wasn’t a student film. This was a real film, it got into the Burbank Film Festival and I never looked back. I figured I wasn’t going to wait till after college to start making films, might as well cut out the middle man, you know? There you go.

FU: I want to ask you about your first experience working on a film set. What was that like?

MMR: Well that was on that first 4 minute short, I put out an advert on MySpace, of all things (which was really popular at the time). I found a great guy, Josh, who wanted to act in it but also helped me produce it. So we teamed up, we packaged people together, we shot it in one day. I think the whole thing took about 6 hours, it was very smooth. For a first experience, it was brilliant. But for me, it just opened up this whole new world to me. I really saw the process, from start to finish, I worked with my editor on it after and I just loved the process. I loved working with the actors. I mean it’s just like learning a language; you can learn it in class, but actually being there, being out in the field, being in another country, that’s when you learn the most. I learned more on that first project than I learned in some whole semester-long classes, so it was a great first experience for me. You have to get out there and do it. Absolutely.

FU: How did you get started in the industry?

MMR: I feel like everybody can go out there and try to do something, especially in the age we live in now, when even phones and other technologies are so much more accessible, so that’s the approach that I took to it. I reached out, so I tried to bring some other creative minds together and I just did it. No excuses.

FU: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

MMR: To be honest, it’s networking. It’s meeting people, it’s building relationships. That’s the thing. You could be the most talented person, you could have the greatest content, but if you don’t have the proper avenues to get it out there, it’s just going to sit on a piece of paper, it’s just gonna sit in your mind. So, working with people that share that same passion that you do – that’s the best advice that I’ve ever gotten that I still apply to my career now.

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FU: That leads me neatly onto my next question which is to do with financing and funding. I think that’s something our readers will be mainly interested in. How do you get from a script or an idea, how do you get the money? I think that’s everyone’s main concern!

MMR: I think that’s the thing – to cut out the middle man and get right to the point. I will say this, and I don’t want to frustrate your readers, but there is no right way to find the money. There’s not ONE way. Of course, I know a lot of people use IndieGoGo or Kickstarter, yes that’s an option. I’ve never used that. Here’s the thing. Knowing even a couple of wealthy people that believe in the content and believe in your work, that want to put in a little bit – that’s it. And then you argue well how do I even get money for a short? You don’t get your money back there. That’s where maybe your Kickstarters can help a little bit. But knowing a couple of people, building a team, finding people, with short films, who will say OK we’ll do it for much less – that type of thing is very important. Meeting people who aren’t going to charge you an arm and a leg at first, that maybe just want to make films.

And then once you start getting into the features; there is money out there. There is more money than you may think. For me, the financing that I’ve gotten from investors, they were actually not film-related investors. These were people in real estate, or doctors, business people, restaurant-owners. It’s proving yourself, too. Especially with a feature film. Make shorts first. Have proof of content. Have content  under your belt before you’re ready to ask for something in the five figures, or even four figures. Because even wealthy people, they don’t want to just throw their money away. They want some sort of incentive, so they can think “OK – this could make money. It’s a speculative investment, but at the same time, I’ve seen your other work, I’ve can see who you have involved.” And it all goes back to networking. You never know who you’re going to meet. I’ve met people that have helped me, investment-wise, on Twitter. Seriously, social media. So success breeds success, that’s what I think.

FU: So what would be your top “nuggets” of advice?

MMR: Well first of all, I know I’ve already mentioned it, but networking. That’s number one.

And my other one would be; whether you’re a writer, whether you’re an actor – practice your craft in some way every day. Every day do something that is going to move you forward. If you’re an actor, maybe study a monologue, tape yourself doing it. If you’re a writer, write! If you’ve got writer’s block, start a new thing. Write on a napkin, write on a piece of paper, go old school! If you’re a director, film some stuff.

Compile a little short yourself, edit it yourself. Keep your mind sharp. Every day.

FU: Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment? Can you tell us anything about your next project or your latest project?

MMR: So actually, starting July 30th, I’m going to be doing my feature film that’s called ‘Chase’. It’s a thriller-crime-action film. Little bit like ‘John Wick’ meets ‘Drive’. That’s going to be the biggest feature film that I’ve done, to date. It’s going to be an 18 day shoot, we’re shooting most of August. We actually have a couple of recognisable faces in it as well that you can look and see on IMDb. We’ve been in pre-production for three and a half months. We’re shooting all in LA. Actually, tomorrow we’re having a big cast and crew meeting where we’re going over some of the fight choreography and some of the gun prep stuff. Is it stressful sometimes? Yes. But I feel really good with the cast and the crew that I have. I’ve worked with a lot of the crew before and a couple of the same cast people before. I feel ready for it.

FU: And finally, for the most important question: Does pineapple belong on pizza?

MMR: No. No! I would not eat pineapple on pizza. I’m not that picky with some foods, although I hate cilantro (coriander). It tastes like soap to me.

 


 

I then asked Michael a few questions based on his short film ‘Always Remember’ 

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FU: I really liked the music. Was it an original composition or was it a found piece?

MMR: It was an original composition. It was original music from a composer that I actually went to High School with – Marty. We had worked together on something before. He did it from scratch. We’d send him the assembly cut with no music, I’d given him a couple of samples of what I was trying to look for, in terms of style. He’d come back to me with the score and I’d say ‘this works or let’s tweak this.’

FU: How did you find the young girl?

MMR: The young girl was recommended by the guy who plays the husband in it. He had worked with her on a feature where she played the daughter of Adrien Brody and Salma Hayek; ‘Septembers of Shiraz.’ So I met her and she was fantastic. She actually had a role in my last feature film ‘Sable’ as well. She was great to work with, very mature. She was 11, but she looked younger. She looked more like 7 or 8.

FU: And the filming location? How did you find that?

MMR: We filmed that at my next-door neighbour’s place. He’s actually my mentor, his name is Robert Mintz – he actually wrote some of the ‘Batman’ from the 60s. So he’s been in the business a while. He’s a great guy, so we filmed there. It was the perfect location obviously!

FU: I found the signing between the father and the daughter interesting. You didn’t use subtitles when they were signing, you went more for a lip-reading approach. I was wondering what your thought process was behind that?

MMR: I thought I didn’t need subtitles because it was kind of implied what they were saying. I think that you could see it in their facial expressions and their emotions, so we pretty much get what they’re saying. That’s what I was doing with that.


 

Thank you very much to Michael for taking the time to talk to us here at JUMPCUT and good luck with ‘Chase’!

You can keep up with Michael and his latest work over on Twitter

 

 

Anton Volkov: The Serial Trailer Maniac Behind TrailerTrack

As a film’s release date gets closer, there’s one man people gear up to @ on Twitter to discover when that all important trailer will arrive. That man is Anton Volkov, the face behind TrailerTrack.

Here at JUMPCUT we’re huge fans of Anton and his work, and have had the pleasure of knowing him since before TrailerTrack’s birth, so we thought we’d chat with the man himself about trailers, films, and his time a UCL Film Society President!


TS: For those who may not know you from Twitter, or are learning of the face behind Trailer Track for the first time reading this, would you like to introduce yourself:

AV: Sure – I’m Anton, I’ve just finished my final year at university and have been running this little site called TrailerTrack for the past couple of years now, as well as appearing here and there on social media’s filmy circles.

TS: Starting with your brilliant work over at TrailerTrack –I know you’re a self-confessed serial trailer maniac, but how did the birth of TT come about?

AV: I guess it’s several things, really. Firstly, I’ve had a real fascination with trailers and how film marketing for such a long time; and secondly the sort of stuff that I share on TrailerTrack now I and several others have already been sharing on Twitter. And there were people who at the time have started to ask, why not have a dedicated site for this? Then one day, at the start of the summer holidays two years ago, I decided to go ahead and make a Twitter account for TT and I guess the rest is history…

TS: The TT Twitter account recently broke the 12k follower mark (Congratulations!) – What would you say has been your most enquired about trailer since you started it 2 years ago?

AV: Well, thank you! I believe it may be a tie between the first Justice League and Avengers: Infinity War trailers…the latter especially has been behind a lot of activity on the account, with all the rumours popping up every few weeks following that extended footage being shown at San Diego Comic-Con and D23 this time last year. Even though all these messages can be a lot to handle, there is a certain satisfaction you get from interacting with everyone, after all we are all alike in being fans who are really looking forward to getting these first looks.

TS: What’re your top three trailers of 2018 so far? And what about them makes them top three material?

AV: That’s a tough one as there have been so many good ones, especially really recently! If I had to pick three at the moment, in release date order: the Super Bowl debut trailer for Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the Deadpool 2 Meet Cable piece and the Suspiria teaser. That M:I trailer is really a perfect marriage of just enough story, great music choice (even though I’m not usually a fan of mainstream music in trailers but this case works so well), and a kick-ass edit. The Deadpool one I love because of how subversive it is and how well it acts as both a funny original piece as well as a really good teaser in its own right. Suspiria is an ideal tease, giving just enough visuals, little/no story (yet you get the basic premise and who the leads are) and an atmosphere which at least appears to be of the film itself – particularly with the Thom Yorke score from the film.

TS: What are you 3 most anticipated upcoming film trailers? (announced or unannounced)

AV: That’s a really hard one because there are so many films coming, and some that haven’t been shot yet! If I had to pick one though that’s bound to be out by the end of the year, Avengers 4 would be it. That’s probably going to be the most highly-anticipated brand new trailer launch of 2018, with Solo already behind us and all. In terms of second/third trailers for films that have already had their first looks, I’m really excited to see more from First Man and Suspiria, both of which are the films I’m most looking forward to for the remainder of the year.

TS: In your personal opinion, what elements are needed to make a ‘good’ trailer.

AV: Most importantly, a great music/background audio choice as that’s almost always what drives the trailer. Then, actually feeling of a piece with the film itself, not necessarily in terms of being representative of the film in terms of story but in terms of atmosphere, the music, the editing style to some extent, even things like graphic/typography design. And lastly is the story element, which will depend on what sort of trailer you’re cutting – a teaser or a full piece – but point is that it should show just enough of the basic premise and of who the main characters are without giving things away as well as obviously leaving the viewer wanting more!

TS: As well as watching trailers, you also create your own. Are there any key elements you make sure each of your trailers have?

AV: Nearly always before editing I put together the music, which in turns provides me with the general structure, sometimes agonising over a long time about it. A recent fan edit for the last James Bond film, Spectre, I had in my mind for so long but didn’t get around to editing it until a short while ago because I couldn’t find the right music. Then once I have that everything else tends to come together nicely. When editing trailers for movies that have already been released the central idea almost always tends to be about staying authentic to the film itself, what I mentioned previously about a trailer ‘feeling of a piece’ with it, being cut from the same cloth. I also always like to go deep on the details that make the trailer stand out as ‘official’ – official-looking typography, title treatments, credits, even that green-band MPAA card.

TS: Do you have any starting tips for any of our readers who might want to start creating their own trailers?

AV: As many filmmakers would say, it’s so easy to start with software you already have, such as iMovie which is what I started out on. And secondly, try and have a clear idea of what you want to achieve with what you’re putting together. More often that not I already have the piece I want to cut – at least the general structure and the score – playing in my head before sitting down to edit. As with so many things, if you have a clear direction it makes it so much easier to sit down and knock stuff out. And one more thing is source material quality – as I mentioned previously about trying to make it feel official-looking, this is a huge part of it – it can be as simple as downloading a good quality version of the trailer off iTunes Trailers or the official YouTube channel of the studio or film as opposed to a different site and making sure the frame rates match and so on.

TS: You recently finished your run as UCL Film Society President, can you tell us what you enjoyed most about being President, and being a part of the Film Society in general.

AV: For those who don’t know, the Film Society over at UCL is one of if not the oldest university-based film societies in the UK – we turned 70 this year which is a huge milestone for us. And we do such a wide range of things, from screening films weekly to actually making as many as 5 short film productions each year, as well as running a blog/podcast and hosting guest speakers from the industry. What I really loved about my time there is being able to put my own stamp on it while pushing the envelope out further in terms of what the society does. As well as – of course – having the opportunity to meet the likes of Christopher Nolan (who ran the society in the 90s when he was a student at UCL and returned to the university last September to receive an honorary degree) and Tim Bevan, whom we hosted for a Q&A event earlier this year; and partnering together with the teams at Curzon, Picturehouse and Raindance on special events and offers.

TS: You became my most envied person on Twitter when you posted the below image towards the end of last year. Can you tell us a little bit about what is was like meeting Christopher Nolan?

AV: Absolutely surreal, meeting him and Emma Thomas was a very special opportunity. As I mentioned, they returned to UCL to receive an honorary degree and the alumni office at the university arranged for myself and my predecessor to take part in this by showing him our studio space on campus, where Nolan actually produced his early short films as well as edited Following (we still have the 16mm Arri camera and Steenbeck editing suite that was used on that film)! It was great to chat to him and Emma about their time at UCL and what the society did then and now, as well as briefly about Dunkirk and his other films – a real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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TS: Whilst  we’re talking Nolan – if you were only allowed to watch ONE of his films ever again, which one would you pick and why?

AV: Interstellar, simply because I’m an absolute sucker for space films, as well as sci-fi in general. While some may argue it’s not Nolan’s strongest film, it’s absolutely my favourite. As some probably know I’m a huge fan of the IMAX format and seeing it on those huge screens in 70mm film was quite an experience. I was also lucky enough to see it with the score, including the organ, performed live in front of an audience of nearly 6,000, and that probably remains my all-time favourite moviegoing experience.

TS: If you could sit and have a meal with 3 famous faces from the world of film, who would you invite?

AV: That’s a really tough one…especially as I’d want to choose faces that aren’t necessarily famous, not just directors/actors/crew members but those on the other side.

TS: I’d be remiss not to ask what your favourite film of 2018 is so far?

AV: By far, Annihilation. After watching it on Netflix upon its release I was lucky enough to catch it on the big screen and it is absolutely enthralling, with chilling performances and a story and visuals that will stay in your mind for a long time. It’s a shame that things worked out the way they did with that film, but again – so lucky to have managed to see it as intended by Alex Garland and co.


We’d like to thank Anton once again for taking the time to chat with us. We’re sure he’ll be kept very busy over the next few weeks as film Twitter prepares for SDCC and all the film goodies we’ll be treated to!

Be sure to follow TrailerTrack over on Twitter to keep up to date with the latest trailers and trailer announcements!

 

INTERVIEW: Phil Clarke

Interview by Tom Sheffield

Here at JUMPCUT ONLINE we have been fortunate enough to interview a number of people who have worked in all different areas across the film industry. Recently we had the pleasure of interviewing Phil Clarke, a screenwriter and script consultant who has worked in the film industry for the best part of 20 years. Phil has worked on films such as ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Star Wars’, and with the likes of Danny Boyle, Tim Burton, and George Lucas.

We wanted to talk to Phil about his time in the industry, learn some of his favourite aspects of the work he’s done and his current script consulting, and also see if he could share some helpful tips for any budding writers who may be reading this.


TS: Hi Phil, thank you taking time to talk to us. For those who may not be aware of your work, would you like to introduce yourself to our readers.

PC:  Would love to! I’m a freelance script consultant, a role I’ve been doing full-time for well over a decade now through my own company: PHILMSCRIBE.COM. This followed many years working in film on the sets and in the production offices of some major motion pictures, TV shows, music videos and commercials. I have also written for the screen – having a number of projects optioned –  and for the page, with several books published over the years.

TS: Can you remember what it was in particular that first piqued your interest in becoming a screenwriter?

PC: Honestly, I think it was a combination of things. Falling in love with visual storytelling through watching movies was a key factor. I have always enjoyed the physical process of writing. The look, shape, sound and meaning of words. Creative writing classes at school. Writing essays… This led to looking for jobs I wanted to do in the industry and writing was an obvious focus. This focus was further developed after being fortunate enough to work closely with established screenwriters: Chris Columbus, Steve Kloves etc. Reading about how Andrew Kevin Walker was working at Tower Records when he sold one of his first scripts. This gave me heart as I was working at Tower around the same time. And to quote the Mamet-written film ‘The Edge’, I thought “What one man can do, another can do.”

TS: What was the first film you worked on, and how did you find your first experience working on a film set?

PC: The first film I worked on was ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’ back in ’97. Was strange as not three months earlier I had taken my mum to see ‘Return of the Jedi: Special Edition’ at the cinema, having just been made redundant. I’d have laughed in your face if you’d told me I’d be working on the first prequel that summer. Must admit: back then it was hard not to be a wide-eyed fanboy. A lot of it was a blur. My first time on set was for a scene in the vast Theed Hangar with all the sleek, shiny Naboo starfighters lined up. It was surreal. I was in awe. It really did feel like I was in a galaxy far, far away!

TS: What’re your top 3 films you’ve worked on and what about them makes them top 3 material?

PC: Hmm… tough one. ‘Sleepy Hollow’ would probably have to be #1. It was the first film I was involved in from the very start on early pre-production to final wrap. And I wasn’t quite so starstruck so I could really take it all in and learn. I was the studio’s Production Liaison so I was able to see and understand how every department worked and even after my shift was over, I’d stay behind and observe on set. Not a bad education watching Tim Burton, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, Scott Rudin, Colleen Atwood and co work their magic.

‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ is a very close second. By this time I was freelance crew, working for the AD (Assistant Director) department. And it wasn’t long before I then became Chris Columbus’ on-set PA. If I thought ‘Sleepy Hollow’ provided me the perfect film education, this role would change my thinking. On top of my set duties, I had the enviable job of accompanying Chris to all other departments. I would even get to watch the previous day’s rushes with him and the producers – not something afforded to many.

My third choice would be ‘Enigma’. While not my first film, this was my first ever screen credit. This allowed me to experience film-making on a comparatively smaller scale, especially after my time on ‘Star Wars’. I found myself in the hub of the film-making process: the Production Office. Getting to work with some legends of the British film-making scene on a film adaptation of Robert Harris’ period spy novel was a fantastic experience.

TS: Can you tell us how you got into the script consultant game? What do you find most enjoyable about reading other people’s screenplays?

PC: I started reading other people’s screenplays during my film crew days. Then this developed into reading in-house for several production companies before deciding to go it alone and open up to those – how should one put it? –  outside the inner circle. I felt I could provide more help to writers this way. Provide a more personal service. Talk to writers directly and get to the crux of a story. Also, I was enjoying this side of things. I discovered I didn’t just have a passion for it, I was actually pretty damn good (if I am allowed to blow my own trumpet!) It does take a certain skill-set to be a good script consultant.

What’s most enjoyable about reading scripts? Well, I count myself fortunate to get to read stories every day in all different genres. Something not to be sniffed at. But specifically regarding my role, I love being able to help writers. More often than not writers find themselves too close to their work and are unable to pinpoint what might be holding their script back from fulfilling its true potential. I get huge satisfaction from providing writers of all levels with guidance, objective insights, benefits of my experience, heuristic advice that allows them to discover how to improve their drafts so they stand a better chance of success.

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TS: What’s the best piece of advice you ever received in regards to your writing? 

PC: The best piece of advice was the simplest I’ve ever been given. It was while working as Chris Columbus’ on-set PA on the the first ‘Harry Potter’ film, which also coincided with my self-education in screenwriting. I was reading every book under the sun on the craft at that time. I remember finishing one of Syd Field’s many books on the subject where he pushes the importance of his 3-act story structure paradigm with accompanying plot points and pinches. And one day while walking back to set with Chris – writer of such movies as ‘Gremlins’ and ‘The Goonies’ – I asked him what he made of Field’s focus on this paradigm and he looked at me and said:

“Just write an entertaining story.”

This helped me to realise I shouldn’t get too bogged down on these kind of details. Screenwriters are storytellers first and foremost and I was running the risk of forgetting this. Newbie screenwriters often become dependent on these writing books as they tend to always suggest there is a formula one can follow. This is comforting for the greenhorn scribe groping away in the darkness, but every screenwriter should always keep in the forefront of their mind the fact they are telling a story and if it engages and entertains, then it’s working. Simple.

TS: What are 3 pieces of advice you’d give to any of our readers currently writing a screenplay? Are there any common mistakes they should avoid?

PC: Always happy to dish out some nuggets of educative gold. Though they’ll have to be rather broad as giving specific advice is best done in context on an individual’s script.

First up I’m going to repeat Chris’ advice to me some twenty years ago as it’s THAT important.  Never lose sight of the fact that your job is to write an entertaining story. This may seem a rather obvious statement, but you wouldn’t believe how many scripts I read that fail to entertain. Many writers get bogged down in other details; paradigms, scene structure, character arcs etc etc. Now all these elements are important, but if your focus is always on telling an engaging story, then you’re not going to go too far wrong.

Nugget #2: Don’t rush your script purely to meet a particular script contest deadline. Far too many writers fixate on a particular competition and end up submitting a poor draft. I always advise my clients to COMPLETE, then COMPETE. These contests are annual so there is always the following year. And if that’s too long to wait, submit it to one of the many other quality comps that run at other times of the year so it allows you the time to ensure your script is truly ready. And of course this advice extends to submitting to production companies. Make sure your script is pure gold before you even think about letting the powers-that-be see it. First impressions count and are never forgotten.

And my third and final nugget: Don’t be precious about your writing. If you’re lucky enough that you get your script sold and put into production, then this advice is key. Know that you’re giving your script up for adoption. To multiple parents! And they’ll make all sorts of changes. This is because film-making is a collaborative endeavour. Selling your idea is your goal. Do this and you’ve succeeded. So write with this intention. The same advice applies when dealing with people who are trying to help such as a script consultant. Be open to advice. You don’t need to take it, but if you’ve got yourself a practiced, skilled, knowledgeable one, then the likelihood is that their feedback is only going to improve your work.

And as for those common mistakes, where to start? The majority of screenplays I read, especially from those who are rather new to the craft, tend to feature the same flaws. Here are three that come to mind:

A large number of scripts I read make the mistake of not being a clear-enough story, lacking in a distinct reason for existence. The story ends up being one big shrug. It’s as if the writer doesn’t know why they are writing this particular tale. It’s essential to know what your story is truly about. You have to ask yourself: why this story above all others? It’s as if a writer thinks producers and companies are just twiddling their thumbs with nothing to do but wait for you to finish your script. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a highly competitive market. I’ve heard there are as many as a million scripts written each year. Certainly wouldn’t surprise me. So your spec script has to be F***ING BRILLIANT. (Excuse the language, but I felt it necessary!) It needs to hit all the right notes, be bulletproof or you’re running the risk of it being passed on and being resigned to the Recycle Bin.

Many make the mistake of choosing the easy option, the first thought. This tends to result in a predictable, over-familiar, hackneyed piece. Spec scripts need to bring something new, something fresh. Be inventive, creative.

Many scripts I read lack any clear, coherent theme. Or the writer ends up being too heavy-handed with their message. And then the script ends up sounding preachy. The best writers express their moral vision gradually, subtly and in distinct story-pertinent ways.

I’ll rattle some off quick-fire now: Protagonists aren’t fascinating enough or have no clear story goal. The scenes have little or no conflict. The script has too much dialogue or too much action. Poor formatting. A lack of attention to spelling and grammar.

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TS: As well as your screenwriting and script consulting, you’re also a published author. Is there anything in particular about true crime stories that makes you want to write about them?

PC: Not particularly. I was commissioned to write those titles. An author for hire.  But I did find I got really into the subject matter, grim and grisly as it was. I have always been fascinated by human behaviour; I think most good writers are. And researching and writing about serial killers certainly allows you to see the extreme end of that.

TS: With all the reading you must do every day, do you have any activities or hobbies you like to do in your downtime that doesn’t involve reading?

PC: Absolutely. And it’s imperative to get some balance to all that sitting and reading. I’ve always been a very active guy. If I have one thing I love as much as film, it’s football. I’m in my forties now but I still try and play as much as I can. In fact, I love most ball sports. Tennis, squash etc. I also go running regularly. There’s some gorgeous countryside around where I live and I have a number of different running routes I like to hit. I also go on a walking holiday at least once a year somewhere in the UK. This summer I’m returning to the Lakes and Dales to do some rambling.

TS: Do you have any screenplays or books in the works at the minute you can tell us about?

PC: Most of my time is taken up with the consulting, as you can imagine. But I’m always developing my own projects whenever I can. Being a private person, I tend to keep my cards fairly close to my chest (so being interviewed like this doesn’t come naturally!) I’m developing two thrillers, one with a time-travel bent, the other involving sport. That’s about all I want to say about them at this stage. I’d also like to return to stories for the page too. There are a few non-fiction titles I have itching away at the back of my brain that I am sure will insist upon being written at some point in the future.

TS: Our final, and probably most important question today – we know you must get asked what you favourite films are a lot, but we’d really like to know is… does pineapple belong on pizza?

PC: It can, yes, but there are caveats. So the Hawaiian – ham & pineapple – works. I’ve done extensive research on this – but I would balk at having pineapple on, say, a Meat Feast. That just feels wrong on a number of levels. It’s all about the combination. The ingredients need to complement one another. And some just don’t go together. I mean, can you imagine an Anchovy and Pineapple pizza?! (One could draw some clear parallels between this pizza topping query and screenwriting if one looked deep enough…)

TS: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Phil. We wish you the best of luck for future projects.

PC: Been an undiluted pleasure. If any of your readers wish to contact me and discuss their work and how I might be able to help them, then please let them know they can contact me anytime in a variety of ways.

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Interview by Jakob Lewis Barnes

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Jason Starr: Writing for Both Sides

Interview by Chris Gelderd

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