Thursday, January 12, 2012

Interview with Adam Zopf - writer of Reunion!

You may remember Adam. He wrote my favorite amateur script I’ve ever reviewed on the site, “Reunion,” about a bullied kid who decides to enact revenge on his tormentors at their high school reunion. You can check out the original review here, where you can also download a copy of the script. A lot of people have been e-mailing me asking what happened after all the buzz the review created, so I thought it would be fun to catch up with Adam as well as learn a little about his approach to screenwriting. Adam is currently looking for a buyer for his new comedy script, What If It Was, about a ghost writer forced to pen an outrageous fake memoir. I haven’t read it yet but am looking forward to it. You can download the script yourself here. Adam’s also always open to answering questions so feel free to e-mail him at or ask him anything in the comments.

SS: First of all, for those not familiar with what you’ve been doing since the Reunion review, can you fill us in on what’s happened since then? You found a production house for the project, right? How did that all happen?

AZ: After the review, I got emails from a few managers but mostly a lot of independent producers and production companies. I then took meetings and half were interested in doing something with Reunion and the other half wanted to know about other stuff. Since then I’ve still been talking to them about other scripts, including the one I’m outlining now. And overall, everyone was very cool and I really didn’t have any bad experiences. But I settled on Two Ton Films for Reunion about a month ago. Two Ton’s Justin Zackham (writer of “The Bucket List”, creator of F/X’s “Lights Out” and writer/director of “The Wedding” starring Robert DeNiro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams, Amanda Seyfried and Topher Grace which will come out in the Fall) was incredibly up front through the entire process, telling me to take my time and ask him any questions I had. And through that I really got the sense that, as a writer, he was treating me the way he thought writers should be treated, which led to a certain amount of trust that that would continue if I went with them. He had his own war stories and in the short time I’ve spent with him, I’ve learned an incredible amount. At some point it came down to “I just like this fucking guy and more importantly I believe in him, his company and their vision for the movie and how to get it actually made.”

SS: You had expressed to me that you wrote for a long time without any success. What are some of the mistakes you think you made in regards to how you approached the industry? Things that might have hindered your progress?

AZ: I don’t think it was anything I did or didn’t do but really just circumstance that befall a lot of people here. If you don’t luck out, you will go through every stage of the process before something happens. And that’s fine because it’s just more battle testing for when it actually counts. It really doesn’t get any more straight forward than 1) I took about a year to write my first script, 2) I wrote 3-4 more super personal scripts that were hot messes, 3) I wrote about four pretty okay, finally looks like a movie scripts, 4) Wrote another 5-6 that were actually enjoyed by people but just weren’t good enough to get made, 5) Wrote five scripts that could conceivably get made but I just didn’t get the right break for a few years and now 6) One of those gets noticed and here we are. And I still haven’t sold anything or even have representation yet but once I’m in a room I can talk scripts and ideas all day. I know my process inside and out and can deliver on opportunities rather than where I might have been say four years ago, which is still green. So I guess - and this is super hard when you just can’t express the ideas you have in your head or you keep almost getting the right script with the right opportunity - but I would have had more patience overall. Just don’t get frustrated. But that’s easy to say and hard to do.

SS: If you could do it all over again – if you were just arriving in Los Angeles today - what would you do differently?

AZ: Outside of writing, I would’ve come to LA sooner. Get on a set quicker. Get on multiple sets quicker. I moved here in 2003 at 25 and hadn’t seen a single film shoot until 2005 at 27. And this was on a truly awful indie movie but it was a gigantic deal to see someone say action and cut in person. So just demythologizing movie-making and getting the dream out of my head and a plan into it. You aren’t going to win an Oscar or write a $100 million movie your first time out. There isn’t anyone who’s going to give you the key to “Show Business” and a million dollar check. Start looking at things practically earlier. If I met someone who just got here, I’d say get the traditional way out of your head because that’s just a byproduct of your “dream.” Write stuff and shoot it. Work at a production company. Find a director working in small films or even commercials and offer to do whatever as long as you can see them work. Get an entire vision of the process from script to actual product. It makes it more real. It puts stuff like budgets, locations, casting etc. in your head just as someone who could actually make your script has it in theirs. You are miles ahead of the masses slaving away at their laptops if you know what it takes to actually make a movie.

SS: What inspired you to write Reunion and how long did it take you from first draft to last?

AZ: I was rewriting a comedy I’d gotten a director attached to (a talented person who was getting a lot of notice at the time) but I was having to wait on him a lot and I had to get something else on paper or I was gonna pull my own Fat Pig. I put up the antenna for a new idea and there was a new $5-$10 million horror movie coming out every week. Which makes total sense. Those movies are the safest bets in entertainment. And if one hits, not only do you get that but it’s an immediate property. But most of them suck, so alright smart guy, come up with one then. Then it just Stay-Puft-Marshmallow-Man’d into my head one night. Guy who gets revenge at a reunion. And nobody had done it. And it’s totally something that someone will do in some form in actual, real life. By that I mean bring a gun into the Holiday Inn because they’re drunk and their high school sweetheart is married but still… But if I took that basic revenge idea and movie’d it up? There you go. And I’d also wanted to write a movie that took place in a condensed time period for a while so that also helped. But from there it went much faster than usual because there’s just no other place for the story to go. Have to show him plan, have to show the actual reunion, he has to get them back there, has to get them in the collars, have to have the scene where he lays it all out for them and then what places in a school would make the best set pieces? Pool, library, shop class, gym, lunch room… People have to start getting picked off. The flashback story took a bit to plan out but all told it was 6 weeks from idea to having essentially what it is now. Not the usual but I had a lot of structural factors because of the genre and the idea I picked that combined to make it a pretty quick process.

SS: One of my favorite parts about Reunion, as you know, is the character development, particularly the character of Fat Pig. Can you tell us what your approach is to character development and was for that character in particular? How do you craft a character like that?

AZ: Inevitably story and the main character go hand in glove. Most likely story idea first, then “What would be the optimal character to put through that story?” Kind of like how you need music first to write lyrics to. And then supporting characters, whether they be with the main character or opposing them, have differing viewpoints that bring about the most conflict. So I have the idea for Reunion. Now: “Who is the best main character for this?” Well, making him fat is kind of a stock approach. However, it’s that way because it’s true. Society as a whole feels comfortable judging fat people, especially 10 years ago. It also gives me a visual character and someone who I can change physically to not only differentiate his past and present, but that also shows character. He has turned himself, through rage, into a Discipline Machine built for revenge. Which gives me most of how he is in the present. Exact. Calculating. Patient. Vicious. It’s all gonna pour out during that night. So where did it come from? Now I work through the flashback story and think about what could be his goal. Acceptance. Just a day that isn’t hell. How does he do that? Etc. And as I start to build that story, I think of these small moments. Terror (the popular kids, the sea of regular kids, swim class, the bus, etc.) mixed with any relief he can find (food and someone, anyone who is nice to him… Then I have Maria). Now I have who *she* is. So who is her husband? And all the way down the line. Everything is hopefully an organic reaction and that includes the characters and their dynamics. And once you get that process going of what would work with this (oh wait, if I did *that* then I could do *this*) and so on and so on, it takes on a life of its own. You just let the story become what it wants to and the characters who they need to be to tell it.

SS: What about the rest of your approach? What are the three most important things you focus on when you write a screenplay?

AZ: 1) The main idea. What is the essential story and am I serving it at absolutely all times? Anything that doesn’t add, subtracts. (Carson note: VERY IMPORTANT!!!)
2) External and internal goals and them being extensions of each other. This is a HUGE lesson to learn. You get this solid and follow it through and your script is automatically going to be halfway there. A 60 year old man tries to climb the highest mountain in the world. Eh… A 60 year old man grieves for his dead 25 year old son. Eh… BUT… A 60 year old man sets out to climb the highest mountain in the world because his 25 year old son died 200 feet from the top? You still got to write the fucking thing, but it’s at least an actual potential movie.
3) Entertain these fucking people. Once you’ve figured out your structure and done all the work, you owe it to yourself to nail down each scene with the best possible execution. You can have the right scene and intent and it’s just kind of lying there, so maybe toss something in out of the blue and see what happens. I dunno… It’s a feel thing, but you get as many chances as you want so don’t be happy until you’re actually happy. And even then, there’s always gonna be a few things you still feel you’re only 80% there on.

SS: You do something in this script a lot of screenwriters are told to avoid: Flashbacks. Are you aware of the resistance to this technique and how did you approach the flashbacks in your script to avoid this?

AZ: It’s one of the first rules you learn because 99% of the time it’s done poorly as a lazy way to “show” and not “tell” exposition. But there is a reason flashbacks exist, because on occasion you need them. If I hadn’t put them in Reunion, it would’ve felt flat. “How hard could it have really been for this guy?” the audience is asking. So I have to show you. And I think a key in doing flashbacks well is committing to them as an actual plot line rather than a momentary cheat to get information out. Like if you have a character just appear and then you never see them again, it feels like a cheat. But other than that, two other things worked in my favor. One, the juxtaposition of the two types of brutality, torture and bullying, are both painful in their own ways, so it helps to ground the violence in something we’ve all experienced or witnessed or even participated in. And by the time Fat Pig’s high school story reaches an apex with the attack on him, it feeds right into the violence of the story 10 years later, so it really is one whole series of events cut in half and then shuffled together like a deck of cards. And two, the flashbacks serve as a way to break up the “horror” stuff and allow me to reset characters spatially in the present. So you have something I could’ve easily fucked up five years ago but now, because it happened naturally, I could use it as a way to structurally fortify the script rather than take away from it.

SS: One of the most popular genres on the spec market is contained thriller/horror. Unfortunately that’s led to a lot of people writing boring “been there/done that” contained thrillers, a problem you’ve managed to avoid. What do you think the key is to making a contained thriller work?

AZ: I think you wrap yourself in the warm blanket of the structural advantages the genre offers: Keeping it as short as possible. Only a certain amount of characters. A need to develop characters on the fly, because, you won’t have time to do it otherwise. And a place that they can be trapped in but also explore. Now what circumstances bring these together where I can also give a strong reason for someone to put all of this into motion? A lot of these scripts fail basic logic tests right there. Then, you probably need a device to bounce out of the main story. It helps visually and also pacing-wise because A) you can balance action with quieter moments (otherwise everyone is dead in 45 minutes) and B) you can jump ahead a little time-wise when you need to move characters around/do basic stuff that keep the script from being 25% longer than it needs to be. I had present and past. Someone could do present and future. A classic is inside the bank with hostages, outside with the negotiator – whatever it is… It only has to be a contained movie in that people are stuck in a bad situation. Alien, Predator, Speed, Die Hard… They all boil down to a bug in a jar and your hand is on top of the lid. But each finds a way to open the movie up and give you different looks so that it feels like a nice big meal while also keeping the screws on the characters tightened.

SS: Something I don’t talk about enough on this blog is rewriting. Can you take us through your rewriting process?

AZ: I tend to have pretty comprehensive first drafts due to outlining a lot and also taking breaks from writing to edit during the first draft, so once I’m done with it, it’s pretty much what it’s going to be. Then a few days later I take it out and just read it. This is where experience helps a lot because some stuff will feel off and some stuff I know will stay almost-as-written throughout. But mostly I’m looking for ways to do things quicker. Cutting little ‘back and forths’ that aren’t adding anything to a conversation. Beginnings and endings of scenes. One thing I learned through the years is that when you rewrite, you want to be doing what’s already in the script but better, and that means planning out ahead of time so you’re only doing the cutting afterward. Adding characters or plot lines after the fact is just gonna put stress on parts of your script that weren’t conceived with those things in mind. That’s why I really consider writing outlining. Your time writing the actual script should be it just flowing out of you.

SS: Tell us a little more about your outlining process then. When did you start outlining in your screenwriting journey and why?

AZ: Outlining is where I’m actually creating the story. I didn’t do it my first script (which promptly took about 10 months). Second script I went to note cards which really helped me see the entire movie for the first time. I did that for the next eight scripts and then at some point I went over to outlines because there got to be too many note cards and too much detail. Now I do about a 15 page outline and note cards just for scene headings (but even that’s kind of fading out of my process). The outline can contain any random thought I come up with, and as I start to get to the 5 or 6 page mark, I begin to organize and delete things that new ideas have made obsolete. That’s when I start organizing the scene ideas into an order and then group those by sequences and acts. So the movie is being assembled at the top while I have a section for Random Bits (random story pieces - scenes, lines of dialogue, cool moments - that haven’t found a home yet), Characters (notes on them, their arcs, etc.), Themes/Big Stuff (Movies my idea shares DNA with. For example, Reunion is structurally similar to Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). And as I vomit out all the ideas I have, they eventually find a home and then the top of the movie starts to take shape so I start writing those scenes. And as I write them, I delete everything from the outline I’ve used. The outline then gets shorter at the front, longer at the back and like a conveyor belt it just feeds scenes into the script. So as I’m writing at the computer, I have everything pretty well planned out and then when I get bored of writing, I work on the outline and back and forth until I have like a four page nub of an outline full of unused ideas. But I’ll outline for about two months and write a script in about six weeks. And for anywhere between a couple of years to a few weeks I could be kicking around the idea before that process begins.

SS: What do you think is the hardest thing about screenwriting and how do you tackle it?

AZ: It varies at all stages of your path but personally, now, it’s coming up with an idea that’s worth writing. You get some crappy scripts out of you and then an under-discussed longer stage is when you write a lot of simply “good scripts.” They make perfect sense, have laughs or thrills or whatever, but aren’t good enough to get noticed. And once you get past that, you really need to focus and come up with something cool no matter how high or low concept it is. It just has to get you hyped to write it and do all the work that at this point, you know is going to be a pretty thorough process. It’s a struggle to get to the point where you can express what’s in your head and heart on the page. But once you get there, it’s just as much of a struggle with each script because you know how good you can make it. I get done with something now and I’m not smiling as it comes out of the printer. I’m fucking exhausted. So you really have to find something you’re into to make it worth it. That takes time.

SS: Just for kicks, let’s say we compared two horror scripts, one written by Adam from eight years ago and one written by Adam today. What would be the biggest difference?

AZ: The one eight years ago would’ve been flat out ‘shoulder shrug’ material. A big fat, “Eh.” It would make sense and be cool in spots but it would be the equivalent of me going on the internet for a lasagna recipe and making it versus someone who spent 12 years learning to be a chef making it. Edible does the job but not much more.

SS: What’s next on the horizon?

AZ: Well, Two Ton and I will kick into gear on Reunion shortly - going through the script and ironing out anything they might want to take a look at. They’ll also be trying to put the movie together on their end. I’m taking meetings on my new project, a supernatural thriller that’s a step up in budget. People are responding well so far, so I’m hoping to find a home for it before I sit down so I can involve them in the process. Then it’s finding a home for comedy stuff which is my actual bread and butter. Whether that’s a manager or someone interested in a specific script, who knows? And I probably need to solve the representation question at some point. Right now, I’m just dealing with people myself which is kind of cool as I’m relying on word of mouth that’s built from SS and being good in the room to foster relationships. It seems to be working which is a good confidence builder. But it is a bit of a job on top of my writing job on top of my actual day job, which I still have. So hopefully soon someone will step forward who I feel comfortable with and can take some of this off my plate. Other than that, just keep writing. Got me this far. Seems like a good plan.