Saturday, July 4, 2009

Jeff Morris Interview

Jeff Morris is the screenwriter who wrote this month's Scriptshadow Challenge Script. Before this, Jeff had sold a pitch and written and directed an indie feature titled, "You Did What?" But "The True Memoirs Of An International Assassin" was his first spec sale. Read on to find out how he did it. This interview is also running on Scott's site, Go Into The Story. Here's Jeff! :)

How did you come up with the core concept for The True Memoirs of an International Assassin (i.e., the Protagonist [Joe] takes on the persona of a fictional character of his own creation -- a professional assassin).

James Frey was the biggest inspiration, but as more and more memoirs started turning out to be fake or embellished - I started to think there was a movie there. And one day I said to myself, how funny would it be if some poor bastard wrote a book and had to pretend to be his fictional character? The questions then became - what is the world and why does he have to pretend to be this person?

What elements in the concept convinced you that it was enough to warrant writing as a spec screenplay?

When I came up with the idea, I immediately saw the set pieces and some scenes that I thought could be funny. The concept felt topical. When I pitched the idea to friends I received really positive reactions. I guess the sum of all of it made me jump in and start writing.

Were there some past movies that helped you define the tone you wanted to go after with Memoirs? If so, what are they (e.g, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, The Pink Panther)?

Tonally, I was going for something along the line of Romancing the Stone. I'd also say I probably wanted to do a less dumb, more grounded version of The Man Who Knew Too Little. Pretty much anything with a long title.

Since your Protagonist assumes the identity of a professional assassin, it stands to reason you had to come up with a hit for him to pull off. How did you go about the process that eventually led you to come up with the key subplot -- El Toro [Bad Guy] hires Joe to take out The Prime Minister of Belize? If there were other 'Bad Guy' plots you considered, could you discuss why you chose the El Toro - Prime Minister plot instead of the others?

I wanted the movie to take place in a banana republic so Joe wouldn't be able to ever go to the police out of fear they were corrupt. I didn't want Joe to have an easy way out of the situation. And I wanted to put Joe in an impossible situation with who he was supposed to assassinate. I thought that given the location, the Prime Minister, with the nation's police force and military guarding him at all times, would probably be the most difficult person to get to. That being said, I needed the Prime Minister to be a little dirty so when he Joe eventually kills him, we don't feel terrible.

If memory serves me correctly, I think El Toro hiring Joe to kill the Prime Minister was my first choice and I stuck with it.

Did you mindcast the role of Joe Schmidt? If so, which actor did you envision playing the role?

I didn't have someone specific in mind, but I definitely had a type. I thought it could be a Steve Carell, Ben Stiller, Jason Segal, Jack Black type. An every man who could play a pushover, but at the same time be good with physical comedy. We'll see if I'm lucky enough to get one of those guys in the movie!

What was the single most difficult aspect of writing this screenplay?

As I was writing it, I realized it was really easy to get Joe into deep shit, but once I did that, I was like - how the hell am I going to get him out of this now? That's probably true for life too. It's a lot easier to get yourself into trouble then it is to get out.

From generating the story concept to final draft, how long did it take you to write the script?

I'd say around a month. This was one of those times where I felt really connected to the material and it kind of just flowed out of me. It was one of the most enjoyable writing experiences I've had. It was one of those times where I really looked forward to working on it. That isn't always the case for me. Sometimes writing is work. Other times, it's fun.

How important is your prep-writing phase (i.e., research, brainstorming, character development, plotting) before typing FADE IN and moving into the page-writing part of the scripting process?

I think quality prep work makes writing the script much easier. This isn't to say I spend an eternity prepping. But if I do the work before I type Fade In, my writing is more focused and I know what I need out of each scene going forward.

The way I sort of work is this. After I come up with a concept and a log line, I try to figure out who my main characters are going to be and what kind of arcs I want them to have. Next, I'll figure out what the theme of the script will be. Then I plot the story out. This usually takes me about a week. Then I go off and write the first draft as quickly as I can just to get it out of my head and onto the page. The real writing and finessing comes during the rewrite stage.

Could you describe the process how the script got set up?

The Friday of Easter Weekend, my manager slipped the script to the production company I’m currently writing a script for. Monday afternoon we learned they really liked it and were going to take it into the studio. However, with a couple of other fish out of water projects already set up there, they didn’t think it had a strong chance of being bought by that studio.

On Tuesday afternoon, my manager took the script out wide to the rest of the town. Around 30 production companies received it. We hoped for the best, but knew the market was tough. I was optimistic, but had low expectations - it was a naked spec. We agreed to touch base the next morning.

But, we didn’t. She called back less than 2 hours later and said that an A list director’s production company read the script and flipped for it. They want to take it to multiple studios and there’s even a chance he might attach himself to direct.

An hour later, she called again and said multiple producers wanted to take the script into various studios. She couldn’t believe how fast it was moving.

Wednesday morning my manager called me and said that when she woke up, her inbox was flooded with emails from producers who read the script overnight and wanted to take it into their studio. A few hours later she was out of studios to give producers. She was having to turn producers away.

On Thursday, my manager called and said that only a few buyers have passed, but it’s still in play everywhere else. We knew several studios would be reading it over the weekend. It was going to be a long few days.

Saturday and Sunday were excruciating. I did everything I could to keep my mind off the script, but it was impossible. And as each hour passed, I began to assume it was not meant to be.

On Monday afternoon, my manager called me and said, “We just sold your script to The Film Department. Michael De Luca is producing.” After speaking briefly about the offer, I turned to my wife and said, “we did it.” She burst into tears. I’m not going to admit it, but there’s a really strong chance I may have too. It was a crazy week.

What's the status of the project?

After I complete a rewrite, the plan is to find a director.