Thursday, July 21, 2011

F. Scott Frazier (The Numbers Station) Interview

F. Scott Frazier broke onto the scene over a year ago with his eerie spec script “The Numbers Station,” which he sold to Content Film. The script is about a man tasked with guarding a strange top secret remote station that ends up getting breached, putting his life in jeopardy. The film is going into production within the next couple of months. He followed that up with a more recent sale, “Line of Sight,” to Warner Brothers, about Delta Force Three-One (considered to be the most dangerous men in the world), who are brought in to quash an anti-government uprising on American soil. He also has a mystery third sale (as I found out during this interview) that has not been announced yet. Besides being a great writer who’s tearing it up on the spec market, Scott’s a genuinely down to earth and cool guy. I loved hearing what he had to say about the craft.

SS: When did you begin your pursuit of this craft? What were your first impressions of it? Did you find it harder than you initially thought it would be, or easier?

SF: I’ve written my entire life. Short stories, plays, books, screenplays, you name it. Nothing that you would ever call good. Nothing that you would ever call finished.

Right out of high school I got a job working at a video game company where, after nine years, I ended up as a producer. I started making a pretty good career for myself. But my dream had always been to write, and in 2009 I quit my job to follow my dreams.

I knew that it was going to be hard. When I knuckled down to try and finish a script, I realized what an immense undertaking it really was. It was definitely harder than I thought it would be but there was great enjoyment in the difficulty. There was immense pleasure to be found, and there was something to be found in the overcoming of obstacles and arriving at the solutions to all the problems.

People told me it was harder to break in than it was to write a really great script. And while I appreciate the opinion on the matter, I decided early on not to listen to it. I was going to break in. And the only obstacle I had to overcome was writing a really great script. (At least in my mind.)

However, I also knew I needed to have a finished product as soon as possible, at the highest level of quality as possible. And so I set about writing as close to eight hours a day, seven days a week as I could manage. When you have little money and live 35 miles outside of LA it’s really quite amazing how much you can get done.

SS: At what point did you believe you were capable of doing this? Was it a certain script? Was it a particular mental breakthrough?

SF: After finishing the rough draft of my second script, I put it away in a drawer and didn’t look at it for four months, truly believing it was awful and not worth the space on my hard drive. My creative process has always included a cooling off period. I always like to get time away from anything I’ve written. However, when I went back to that second script, telling myself how awful it was, it turned out it wasn’t as bad as I had remembered it being. In fact it was really quite good. It still needed a lot of rewriting, but I had a feeling that it was something special.

This was the script that eventually got me representation and I’ve since sold it. It is ramping up for production at the end of the year.

Reading the rough draft of that script was a defining moment. It didn’t suck as much as I remembered it sucking. I knew that I was getting better. It gave me the confidence to push on. It gave me the confidence to rewrite it. It gave me the confidence to query it. And it gave me the confidence to not quit and go back to my day job.

SS: And how long was it before you sold The Numbers Station? How many scripts did you have under your belt before that happened?

SF: I got representation in January of 2010 (Chris Fenton and Chris Cowles at H2F, Mike Esola at WME) and we sold Numbers Station in April of 2010. Up to that point, since quitting my job, I had two complete screenplays as well as four others that were in various stages of completion. Although that doesn’t include the literally thousands upon thousands of pages I had written over the first 27 years of my life that will never be completed and will likely never see the light of day. (Because they’re awful.)

SS: Did The Numbers Station sell with or without Ethan Hawke attached? And because it seems like you need a name actor to get your script sold these days, can you explain how that process works? I mean, how does one even go about getting Ethan Hawke attached to their screenplay?

SF: From my perspective, it all happened simultaneously, where one day I was told that we were making a deal on the script, and then a few days later that Ethan was attached. I’m sure there was a lot of wheeling and dealing in the background that I was just not privy to. And knowing how the industry works now, I have to assume that Ethan was instrumental in getting the project off the ground.

The producers, Sean and Bryan Furst, have done an immense amount of work in moving the script from the recesses of my imagination to a greenlit movie. Set to start production in less than six weeks.

I couldn’t even begin to tell you how Ethan Hawke was attached to the script outside of the general knowledge that he had worked with the Furst brothers in the past and they had an ongoing professional relationship. As far as the process is concerned, I couldn’t say one way or the other, all I can tell you is that one morning I was driving down the 405 when I got the phone call that Ethan Hawke, a real honest-to-goodness movie star, wanted to be in my movie. How or why it happened, I’ll probably never know.

SS: I’m assuming The Numbers Station is what led you to your agent. Since getting an agent is such an important step in a writer’s success, can you explain how that all came about?

SF: H2F came first. I was introduced to Chris Fenton by his next-door neighbor. I went to high school with her son. And although neither my friend nor his mom worked in Hollywood, having lived in LA my whole life was the catalyst to getting representation. So if I’m going to throw my hat into the ring, in regards to a lot of online discussions right now between burgeoning screenwriters, I would greatly urge writers to take the chance and move to LA, if at all possible. It’s where the business is, it’s where the deals are made, and if you’re going to build a career early on, it’s where you’ll eventually have to be anyway.

After being introduced to Chris over email, he sent me the scariest letter of my life. It contained 5 words: “Send me your best script.” And for an entire weekend, I read my two completed scripts over and over and over, trying to decide which one was better. I ended up choosing my second script over Numbers Station because it was a little bit bigger and a little bit more of a high concept. I guess I chose correctly, because Chris called me in for a meeting within a week.

I was introduced to Mike Esola through Chris, again based off of my second script. When Mike and I met for the first time, we had a great rapport with one another and I could tell after fifteen minutes he was just as eager and excited to be a part of this business as I was.

SS: You’ve sold (I believe) two scripts now. Did either of those result in one of those notorious back and forths between writer and agent where your agent keeps coming back to you with a higher and higher number? If so, what’s that like? Is it the most nerve-wracking experience in the world? I mean, how do you not just take the first amount they offer you?

SF: So far I’ve actually sold three scripts, and every time the experience has been different. I trust my reps to handle the business side of the equation. I try not to get too involved in the moment-to-moment back and forth of negotiation. When they tell me, “This is a good deal,” I take it.

Whenever we’re getting close to selling something, I’m always nervous. I try to do anything and everything I can to keep my mind off of it. I also find a little time to celebrate after it’s done. But then something in the back of my head reminds me that in this business you’re only as good as your last success and I invariably end up back in front of my computer, starting a new script.

SS: In your opinion, what is it you know now that makes you a better writer than three years ago, when you were eating ramen noodles and living on people’s doorsteps?

SF: Thanks to my selfless wife, I was lucky enough to never have lived on anyone’s doorstep or eat ramen.

I think the thing that has become the most clear to me over the last 18 months, is that when building a career in this industry, selling your first script is the easy part. And that’s a really, really tough lesson to learn.

And although it took me a bit of time to realize, I eventually learned to not be too beholden to rules and trends. To write a script the way I want to write it, the way I want to see it appear on the screen, the way I want it to feel and sound. The one thing everybody in this town is looking for in a writer is that unique voice. That alchemical combination of choice, structure, narrative, plot, characters, and world view. You’re the only person equipped to deliver a screenplay in your voice. And while I think copying and learning from those who came before us is one of the key steps to success, you have to eventually break away and deliver a screenplay that is 100%, unequivocally yours.

And so it really comes down to this: write the movie you want to see at the theater this Friday night. Make it yours and yours alone and people will stand up and take notice.

(That’s not to say you can write 180 minute musical about a Russian oligarch in the 18th century who falls in love with his pet mule and expect to sell it to a major movie studio for mid-six figures.)

SS: Do you outline your screenplays or just go where the story takes you? If you do outline, how big a part of your process is it? Do you write just a few pages? A lot of pages? Take us through it.

SF: One of the things I’ve had to overcome is that I get bored very easily. This has helped because it makes it so that it forces me to finish something before I want to move on to the next project. But it’s also made my writing process a bit more fluid. While I always outline, from project to project my outlines will change in both density and format. Right now I’m addicted to note cards. In the past I’ve written 30-page treatments, as well as bullet-point lists. The one constant between all these various types of outlines is that I know my major beats, I know who my characters are, and I know what I want them to go through. Depending on the genre, I’ll also want to know what my big set pieces are, where they go, and how they interact with both the plot and the character arcs.

The things I usually never know before going into a rough draft are things like: theme, length, dialogue, and moment-to-moment scene structure. I like to discover all of this along the way. I’m never beholden to the outline or any previously held ideas or notions about the story or characters while working on the rough draft or any subsequent major rewrites. I find a lot of times that I’ll surprise myself with fun twists that I didn’t see coming when I keep myself open to the creative process.

And although sometimes it’s absolutely frightening, I have to dare myself to suck in order to finish what I started.

SS: Let’s talk about The Numbers Station for a second. It’s such a cool idea. How did you come up with it?

SF: I heard a story on NPR about this couple that goes out into the desert to try to find short-wave radio broadcasts. I was immediately fascinated by the topic. And after doing some research and realizing how deep this rabbit hole went, I knew I wanted to write a movie around these theories. Of course my mind immediately goes to spies and action and being the first script I ever attempted to finish, I wanted it to be a little bit smaller than normal with fewer characters and fewer moving parts to juggle.

SS: I recently had an idea for a thriller where many of the characters were lying about who they were. I backed off of it because I realized it would be too difficult to create real characters that the audience could identify with if everyone was a chameleon. You sort of run into the same problem with The Numbers Station. Because of the nature of the story, the characters can’t really talk about who they are. How did you navigate this? Was it something you thought about? Were you worried that the audience wouldn’t be able to relate with them? Or did you simply shift the emphasis over to the plot?

SF: In all honesty, I never really thought about it that much. I think within the spy genre, there’s always an expectation of duplicity, and again going back to the smaller cast of characters, I think it’s much easier for one or two people to be lying to each other than six or seven or even ten.

I’m reminded of the movie WICKER PARK where one character’s lie sets in motion the entire plot. And I think that if you can somehow find a way to balance the duplicity against the dramatic irony of the setup, you can find a way to make the characters relatable without sacrificing the narrative conflict.

Lying, half-truths, misdirection are such a staple of the thriller genre, that I think audiences have been groomed to expect and accept that at some point in this experience they will be lied to.

SS: My favorite part about The Numbers Station was the mood you created. It just had this dark eerie vibe, sort of like the way I felt watching “Let The Right One In,” even though they’re two totally different stories. Is mood something you think about? If so, how do you approach it?

SF: Both mood and tone are very important to me regardless of the genre or script. When I set out on a new project I want the script to reflect the movie I see in my head. If there’s a big surprise, I want to write it in such a way that the words jump off the page, with capital letters or underlines. If there’s a little bit of tension, I want the reader to hold their breath with long run on sentences and a sprinkling of ellipsis…

I want the pace of the script to mirror the pace of the movie.

To me, a lot of this comes from word choice. I wanted The Numbers Station to feel impersonal and closed off. So I used words like “sterile” and “claustrophobic” to describe the locations. I knew that audio was going to be a big thematic undercurrent of this movie, and so describing sound and the way the sound interacted with the movie was just as important as the visuals. I didn’t really want the action to be glorious or stylized, so I purposefully wrote it in a very matter-of-fact style. This happens. And then this happens. Again going back to the impersonality of the story.

I don’t know if I accomplished it in every scene. But it was definitely a conscious decision to write the scenes and the movie as a whole in styles and structures that matched the emotions at any given moment.

SS: In your eyes, what was the key component to making The Numbers Station work? What was that “ah-ha” moment when you knew you had a screenplay?

SF: I don’t know if there was ever a moment when I knew I had a screenplay other than when I was through with it and had no more changes to make. It definitely took a couple drafts to feel like I had a movie on my hands. Even on scripts that I’ve sold, I don’t know if I ever have that moment outside of writing “the end,” and sending the PDF to my reps.

SS: It seems like the way most specs sell these days, is they’re written under the guidance of a producer, who understands the market and therefore knows who he’s going to try and sell it to once the script’s ready. I get the sense that that’s how you sold your second spec, Line of Sight. Can you take us into how this process works?

SF: I had been introduced to Alex Heineman over at Silver Pictures when Numbers Station had gone out as a spec. About six months later, he came to me with an idea that I found incredibly intriguing and after breaking the story together, over a few conversations, I wrote my first draft. I turned it in to Alex in January. We did a couple of rewrites together, and then it was sent to Warner Brothers in March. Alex seemed to know exactly what it was they wanted because they bought it less than two weeks later.

Producers definitely know what buyers want, and if you’re able to get in there with the right idea at the right time, you can have a winner.

I personally tend to write multiple scripts at once, and my own rule for writing specs is to write one with a producer and one without. Gives me the best of both worlds and is also key in building relationships in the industry.
SS: You have a lot of young writers out there hanging on your every word. What advice would you give them to find success in this pursuit?

SF: Write every day. Finish things. Write every day. Don’t ever listen to anyone who tells you how hard it is. Write every day. Write what you like, not what you know. Write every day. Avoid the trap that is cynicism, it will cripple and rot every creative bone in your body. Write every day. Know that with a metric ton of hard work and a limitless supply of perseverance, success is out there waiting for you. And write every day.

And also, write every day.