Sunday, June 7, 2009

Mike Million Interview

Welcome to Scriptshadow's second ever interview. For those of you who've been with the site for awhile, you already know about my love for Mike Million's script, "Tenure", which is number 8 on my Top 25 list (my review can be found here). The script, which landed on the Black List in 2005, eventually attracted interest from Luke Wilson. Funding was secured soonafter and within months, Mike was directing his first film. Mike is definitely one of the good guys in the business, and was very helpful in putting this interview together. So let's get to it, shall we?

SS: You made the Black List in 2005 with 5 votes. It seems like these days The Black List is going the way of Sundance – with more and more people lobbying to get their projects on it. It’s clear why, with seemingly half of the scripts becoming movies. What are your thoughts on the list and what did it do for Tenure?

MM: I think the Black List is a great thing. I was on it in 2005 which – if I’m not mistaken -- was the first year they did it. I had two scripts with multiple mentions that year – TENURE, and a script I wrote called ANALOG.

Honestly, I think I got a couple emails from my agent and a few Hollywood types congratulating me, but that was about it! That said, I’m sure it increased the visibility of both scripts. It’s always an honor to be included on “best of” type lists. I remember sending the list to my parents and pointing out to them that I – their son -- was on the same list (twice!) as Aaron Sorkin and David Benioff, to which they replied – “Who are they?”

So, yeah, I’m a fan of the Black List. And you can’t argue with their success ratio. I honestly have no idea if it actually helped TENURE get made, but it certainly didn’t hurt!

SS: How many scripts had you written before Tenure? Was Tenure your favorite one? Or was it just the one that received the best response?

MM: I think I had 3 completed feature scripts before TENURE. And about 100 incomplete ones! I had optioned another script (ANALOG) a year or so earlier and, TENURE was my attempt to follow that script up with a straightforward (i.e. more commercial) comedy. ANALOG is a drama/comedy, but it has a slightly darker edge to it than TENURE does. The response has been great for both scripts, actually. And I hope ANALOG will be the next movie I direct.

SS: I loved Tenure because I attended a small liberal arts college and this really brought me back to that world. But were you ever nervous that a “small liberal arts college” setting might be too narrow a subject matter? Did that ever cross your mind?

MM: I think the world of college is something that most people can connect with – whether it’s a small liberal arts college or a big state school. Mostly, I wanted “Grey College” to be a realistic, funny place. NOT the idealized, perfect – fall foliage in every shot -- college world that we see in a lot of college movies. So I didn’t shy away from the small liberal arts college setting at all, I embraced it. I also think the story has enough universal themes – mid-life crisis, fear of losing your job, late coming of age, etc. -- that people will be on board regardless of the setting.

SS: Staying with that, there’s that eternal screenwriter’s debate of “Should I write something commercial or should I write something I love?” Which side of the fence do you fall on?

MM: I think it’s possible to do both. One thing I try to do is – when I’m thinking of an idea – is try to boil the movie down to one sentence. I know this is not a revolutionary idea, but it really helps. Test your sentence out on a few people – if they immediately “get it”, then chances are you’ve got a commercial movie idea on your hands. If the idea takes a lot of explaining, then you’re screwed!

But every script is different, so there are no hard and fast rules. TENURE started out with a world – I simply wanted to write a movie about the world of college and professors. ANALOG started with a character.

And to your “love” question – I strongly believe that the best writing happens when you love your idea, character, world, etc. If you have a big, commercial idea, but you don’t love it – that will show in the writing.

SS: I’m a big fan of the dialogue in your script. It doesn’t draw attention to itself and yet it’s still very funny. What’s the secret to good dialogue?

MM: Dialogue is something that has always come easy for me. I think it’s initially what drew me to screenwriting vs. trying to write a novel. My family would probably say it’s because I talk a lot. I’d probably say it’s because THEY talk a lot. Wow. How boring is this answer? I think someone just died reading this. I just killed one of your readers.

One tip I would give aspiring screenwriters is to keep your dialogue short. If you listen to the way people usually talk it’s often in short, clipped, incomplete sentences – and that’s the way I try to write dialogue. I use a lot of elipses (…) and short beats (beat) in between thoughts, so that it sounds like the character is thinking while they are talking.

SS: What’s the one thing you know you have to nail to make a screenplay work? And how do you go about doing that?

MM: The absolute most important thing for me is that the reader has to CARE about the characters. And you should be able to make this happen in the first 10 pages of the script. Obviously, the story is hugely important too, but if you have a great story with terrible characters, the script won’t work. The way I try to hook people into my characters is through sympathy. I try to find a way to make people feel sympathetic toward my main character – maybe they feel sorry for their situation, or see a little bit of themselves in the character. Once you do that work, people are on board and the rest is easy. Actually the rest is hard as hell, but at least now you’ve got a good character to build the story around.

SS: What’s your process for getting your screenplay ready to send out? How many friends do you give it to? How many times do you rewrite? How do you know when it’s finally ready?

MM: I typically show about 5 people my first drafts. If they all come back to me with similar ideas/issues – then I know that’s a problem area in the script. As far as sending the script out wide – I think it should be at least a second draft. I tend to rewrite a lot while I’m writing though, so usually by the time I’m done with the second draft it’s pretty polished.

What I’ve found is that I’m kind of a glutton for feedback, but that it isn’t always helpful unless the script is actually READY for feedback. If you start giving out pages too early, sometimes it can mess up the process. So I’ve become a lot more careful about when I give out pages. Writing is a personal process – once you open it up to other opinions the process will change. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, just be ready for those opinions.

SS: Do you have both a manager and an agent? Do you think you need both? And how does a new screenwriter get an agent?

MM: I have a manager and an agent. For me, having both works well. They can serve as checks and balances, and they each have a different set of contacts in the industry – which hopefully gives me more exposure. That said, I think it’s up to the writer to decide what he or she needs in terms of representation.

Ahhh… the age-old question “how do I get an agent?” Truly, the only way I know how is to write a good script. Make friends with assistants and give them your scripts. Enter screenwriting contests that have good reputations and industry exposure. And don’t be afraid to use every single possible connection you have!

Another word of advice to aspiring screenwriters – don’t get wedded to one script. If you finish a script, but the reception is luke warm, write another one. Hollywood loves to tell us about the 20 year-old kid who wrote one script and sold it for a million dollars. Good for that kid. But the truth is that is incredibly rare. Most successful writers have several bad scripts under their belt before they have any success in the industry.

SS: It seems like everybody thinks they have a good idea for a movie but how do you really know if you have a good idea? Can you give us an early screenplay idea of yours that you thought was brilliant but in retrospect realized it was terrible? (if not, I can supply you with plenty)

MM: My first screenplay was called KEVORKIAN SUMMER. No joke. I still can’t believe the title alone didn’t get me a blind deal at every studio in town! It was about two college kids who go down to Mexico for the summer and get involved in an assisted suicide. Try to pitch that one! It’s actually a fun script. I bought the script for PULP FICTION and Syd Field’s book “Screenplay”, read them both and wrote my first script.

The worst idea I’ve probably ever had was when this folk-singer guy who worked in a toll-booth emailed me out of the blue. His email was really weird and kind of sad – talking about how he’s been working in a toll-booth for 20 years and how he’s REALLY a musician and how he’s written hundreds of songs. I was like – what a great idea for a movie – the toll-booth folk singer! As a script, that one never quite got out of the gates. I even approached the wonderful radio show THIS AMERICAN LIFE about it. Not sure if they even returned my calls. I’m telling you -- someday, someone will make a great toll-booth folk-singer movie and I’ll be pissed.

SS: Going from directing short films and commercials to directing big movie stars on your first feature film is a huge step. Some would say about as likely as spotting Bigfoot. How did Tenure go from spec script to “Go movie”?

MM: A lot of luck and good timing. The first step was finding a producer who would support me as a first-time director – and that was Paul Schiff. It’s incredibly hard to find people in Hollywood who are willing to take risks on first-time directors, but Paul did, and we were off and running. We shopped the script around to financiers and had nibbles, but they all basically said the same thing – come back to us when you get a star. So we started sending it to actors and it’s really still unbelievable to me that we ended up with Luke Wilson. He was my first choice and had been since I wrote the script. Years before TENURE was made, I created a “pitch book” to help get the movie going and I told the storyboard artist to use Luke Wilson’s likeness. The fact that we ended up actually casting him is amazing. Once Luke was on board, a financier stepped up to the plate and suddenly we were in Pennsylvania making a movie! By Hollywood standards, this movie came together very quickly.

I also have to give a lot of credit to my manager and one of the producers of the film – Brendan McDonald. He worked tirelessly getting the script around before we had any real momentum.

SS: Do you look at scriptwriting differently after having directed?

MM: Absolutely. One huge lesson I learned is that sometimes my scene descriptions are fun to read, but hard to film. For example, in the script I described Grey College like this:
A light snow falls on Grey College -- a small, unremarkable liberal arts college. The campus is pretty enough with stone buildings, tree-lined streets, and STUDENTS on foot and on bike...

But lurking silently beneath the wintry collegiate charm something else is present at Grey College: an air of barely fulfilled potential, of mere academic adequacy... the quiet, ever present grumbling that this college was everyone’s fourth-choice.
How do you film “everyone’s fourth-choice”? I guess the lesson for me was that when I’m breaking a script down to be shot, I need to pay special attention to passages like this one – so that I’m ready to explain to 100 people what “everyone’s fourth choice” actually looks like!

That said, I still wholeheartedly believe in using description like this in a script. As a writer, you need to make the script fun and readable. As a director, your job is to show it.

Another lesson I learned – mainly in editing – was that sometimes my scenes, as written, were on the long side. We did a lot of trimming scenes down to the bare essentials, which meant cutting many jokes and favorite lines!

I definitely will keep these lessons in mind as I write my next script.

SS: When can we expect a trailer for Tenure and when will it be hitting theaters?

MM: The latest release date I’ve heard is Fall or Winter of ’09.

SS: What other projects are you working on? Can you give us a tease?

MM: I’m writing an original comedy right now. I’ll let you review it when it’s done!

SS: So come on, when did you change your last name to Million? After college? Recently?

MM: It’s my real name – the one I was born with. I’ve always been Mike Million. And if I had a nickel for every bad “millionaire” joke I’ve heard in my life, I’d actually be one.

SS: And finally, Bigfoot has a nice little subplot in your script. Do you believe in Bigfoot?

MM: Let’s just say that I think the world is a MUCH more interesting place with people who believe in Bigfoot in it. And UFO’s. And the Loch Ness Monster.

Man, do I ever identify with that "Everybody's fourth choice" response. Sheesh. Anyway, that concludes my interview with Mike Million. Very cool guy. I know I will be there front and center when Tenure comes out. If you want to learn more about Mike, you can check out the website for his production company, Third Story Films. There are some outtakes from the movie, some of Mike's work in short films and commercials, as well as a little more info about Mike himself. Hope you guys got something out of this. I know I did. :)