Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Interview with Chad St. John

Chad St. John had a great year in 2009. He sold his first script, "The Days Before," which I reviewed here. He also sold a script titled "Motor City," which has only a couple of lines of dialogue in the entire script. Both scripts made the 2009 Black List, and "The Days Before," landed in the Top 10. This led to St. John selling another spec, "The Further Adventures Of Doc Holliday" to producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Paramount. That film is said to be a Pirates Of The Caribbean-esque action adventure story, with a basis in history. Since St. John spends hours upon hours in the shadows writing his masterpieces, he had no problems jumping into a Scriptshadow interview.

SS: Can you tell us what led up to your sale of “The Days Before?” How long had you been writing? How many scripts had you written? How much had you committed yourself to the craft of screenwriting?

CSJ: Years. I had written quite a few things. I think you have to write 100 rotten scripts. No one writes a great song till they’ve written a hundred awful ones.

I would work the “real job”, then come home and write for another 3 or 4 hours and on the weekends. I considered that my real work. The more desperate and irritated I’d get with workin’ for The Man, the more I’d immerse myself in writing. I used to call it “writing for my life”.

SS: Okay so when you say 100? How many did you really write before that first sale?

CSJ: Including all the ones I wrote for just me, as exercises? I’d say somewhere just north of twenty.

SS: Why did you write “The Days Before?” Was it because you wanted to write something marketable? Was it because you were passionate about the idea?

I definitely try to write things that I think are marketable. It’s the business of entertainment, after all.

As far as DAYS, I always wanted to write an alien invasion story. But, I could never figure out a nifty way for them to show up. Seems like a bunch of massive alien craft cruising towards earth might be the kind of thing somebody would notice. That is, unless they just popped up out of nowhere. Like popping out of hyperspace, a wormhole, or some dimensional mumbo jumbo. But, none of those ideas really blew my skirt up.

One day I noticed a homeless guy with a sign. It’s something I’ve seen hundreds of times in L.A., but this guy stuck out for some reason. It was one of those “Ninja’s killed my father. Need money for karate lessons” kind of signs. I honestly don’t remember what it said, but it reminded me of that cliché of the crazy guy with a “Repent! The end is near!” sign. I thought, what if it had been one of those signs. And, what if he was right. What if he was the only person in the world who knew the world was ending. Today. Man, what a drag.

So, the idea of an alien invasion, and that homeless dude careened around in my head for a few weeks. At some point, they crashed into each other. Aliens show up out of thin air. One guy knows and has to try and warn the world. Etc. etc. I got pretty jazzed about the concept once it all clicked. It was a cool new take on an old idea.

SS: Can you give us a blow by blow of how the sale happened?

CSJ: I finished it in November of ’08, and gave it to my agents. They flipped for it. But, things were awful as far as spec sales were concerned at that time. The economy had just taken a nosedive, and not too many folks were buying. Not to mention, DAYS is something you either get, or don’t get. I’ll admit it’s a far out concept, and I had originally imagined it as a “Lethal Weapon in tone/don’t take itself too seriously” kind of flick. We didn’t want to burn it by going out with it, and no one buying. So, we decided we’d sit on it till the new year, and see what was what marketwise then.

Still, just to test the waters, one of my agents slid a copy with no cover page to someone at Warner Brothers he trusted, to get an opinion on the marketability of the script. That was on a Friday night. They bought it Monday afternoon. Just like the aliens in the story, I never saw it coming.

SS: You also wrote a script called “Motor City” that is 75 pages and has almost no dialogue. Can you tell us why you decided to write that script and why you think it was received so well. Also, what’s the status on the project?

CSJ: Honestly, it wasn’t my idea. Greg Silverman over at Warner Bros., one all around bad ass dude, tossed that one my way. After they bought DAYS and I had rewritten it based on their notes, Greg offered me a two script blind deal. I was definitely salivating for the chance, but I really wasn’t keen on the blind aspect of it. I wanted to have at least one of the scripts spelled out before I said yes. I thought it was crucial to follow DAYS with something just as unique. So, Greg throws this idea at me. Then, he says the magic words…“and there’s no dialogue.” A “silent” revenge movie.

I said yes before he finished the sentence. The artist in me leapt at the chance. Beside, when the hell is another Exec this far up the food chain in a studio going to ask me to write a “silent” movie? I was all over it. It was audacious and ballsy. Of course, then I spent a week banging my head into a desk in front of my computer thinking, “What the hell have I done?”

Why was it received so well? I was just humbled that it was. Truly. I still am. I think part of it is definitely that it was just so ballsy and different. Maybe it was a reminder that a script doesn’t need to have an explosion a minute. Or, even dialogue. You’ll have to ask all those cats who like it. I just aim for “Don’t Suck”.

I rewrote it for Dark Castle. And, yes, added dialogue. I’m really happy with how it’s coming along. We still go back and forth as to which version is the right one to get made. I suspect it might be a version that combines the no dialogue and dialogue versions. We’ll see.

SS: How did you get your agent?

A friend of mine gave something I had written called THE GIRL to a young lady at ICM they call Ava Jamshidi. Reading them didn’t cause her any physical or emotional discomfort, so I met with her and Lars Theriot. I liked them both on the spot. They didn’t have me thrown out. Been partners in crime ever since.

SS: What was "The Girl" about?

CSJ: It's a black comedy about a low level hitman, who is actually a woman, that has an overwhelming, debilitating fear of blood. She screws something up for a mob boss, and is tasked with bringing said mob boss the head of someone that screwed him over. So, she kidnaps the next guy on her hit list, and promises him his life back if he’ll do the deed for her.

SS: Cool. And how long did you have your agent before you sold Days?

CSJ: We'd been together for 5 or 6 months before we sold DAYS.

SS: If you were to start all over again, knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently to speed up your path to success?

Develop my voice as soon as I could. Anyone can write a story, but only you can write it like you do. Hopefully, people become a fan of that last part.

Personally, I know enough to know that I wouldn’t change a single thing. I had to write everything I wrote, I had to bust ass, I had to get my teeth kicked in, I had to struggle exactly the way I did to get where I am today. It makes you a better writer. Story is conflict. So is life. One seasons the other.

SS: What’s your writing regimen like? (How many hours do you write a day? How much rewriting do you do on a script, etc.)

CSJ: Balls to the wall comes to mind. Usually, I do little else when I’m working on something. I get consumed by it. Totally immersed. I forget to eat. I’ll spend fourteen hours in front of the computer before I realize it. I usually don’t do a lot of rewriting. But, I do many, many passes. Changing a word here and there. Tweaking in places. Etc.

SS: How do you know when your script is ready? Do you have an extensive system where you give the script to certain friends and get feedback, or is it more of a feel thing?

CSJ: There are only one or two people I might show something to, barring my Agents. And, they’re not in the business. The absolute best judges, as far as I am concerned. People with opinions I completely trust. We make what we make for the people who aren’t in the business, after all. There are exceptions sometimes, but that’s usually how it goes. No extensive system. I just try to write what I would like to watch.

SS: I asked this question to another sci-fi writer. What do you think the key is to writing good sci-fi?

Character. The same thing that is the key to writing everything else. I think a good sci-fi story is one that can be lifted out of that genre, placed in any other setting, and be just as good. Think of every great sci-fi story. You love them for the characters.

[SS note: This is almost the same answer Ben Ripley gave. And yet I keep getting sci-fi scripts that focus on the world more than the characters!]

SS: “The Days Before” has such a unique structure in that you’re jumping through time repeatedly. How challenging was it structuring that story? Or was it easy?

Not as bad as you’d think. There’s really only one “jump” that changes everything.

SS: You had such a successful year in 2009. I’m always curious, does it feel like you thought it would feel when you imagined breaking through? Is it exciting? Or does that feeling wear off and you immediately begin thinking about the next level?

All of the above, really. I wouldn’t say the excitement wears off for me. Rather, I just don’t think about it. It’s mighty tough to get anything done when you’re geeking out every ten minutes. I know. But, it is every bit as awesome as you’d imagine, being able to make your living doing it. I have honestly worked harder than I ever have in my life (and I’ve worked in steel mills and on farms), but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

SS: Staying with that, what was the biggest surprise about the industry once you sold that first script? Were there things you weren’t prepared for? Or was it exactly how you thought it would be?

Meetings. The sheer number of meetings. With everyone. Everywhere. They don’t tell you that in the handbook, but a huge part of this gig is meetings. You develop the social skills real fast.

SS: Can I ask what you're working on now?

CSJ: My 3rd pot of coffee and SGT. ROCK, with SPYHUNTER on deck.