Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Interview with writers of "Dead Loss"

Josh Baizer and Marshall Johnson made big waves last year with their script, "Dead Loss," about a crew of crab fisherman who pick up a drifting castaway with a mysterious cargo. It was one of my favorite scripts of the year, as well as one of Hollywood's. Dead Loss landed on the Black List with 7 votes. It also became one of your favorites when you voted it your 24th favorite unproduced script. I wanted to thank Josh and Marshall again for doing this interview because they've been working extremely long hours on an assignment and were nice enough to take some time and answer my questions. There's a ton of good advice in here so I hope you enjoy the interview.

SS: I know a lot of people want to know where to meet writing partners. How did you two get started writing together?

J: It’s definitely tough to find someone who’s willing to put up with you over the course of many long/stressful workdays. We actually met as assistants in development at Paramount (long hours/stressful conditions). We worked right next door to each other. When I realized I wasn’t going the exec route, I started writing on the sly, between phone calls. Marshall would give me notes...and it all kind of went from there.

SS: What were you doing before Dead Loss? Where were you in your writing careers?

J: We were doing whatever job we could find. Small rewrites. Even a little bit of TV. We’d actually gotten some traction after doing a rewrite on a script for a studio - but then the strike hit and it kind of put us back to square one.

MJ: Before DEAD LOSS, we had written a couple feature rewrites. One was within the studio system, and the other was for an independent producer. But we also had worked on a short-lived TV show and wrote some webisodes for ESPN.

SS: What inspired you to write Dead Loss?

J: Contrary to popular belief, it actually wasn’t a spec. It was a pitch on an open writing assignment. We’d had a general meeting with Jesse Johnston at Thousand Words right before the strike and he’d been a fan of the first script we’d written. During the meeting we discussed our mutual love for a certain cable television show. Months later, he called and asked if we’d be interested in coming up with a take for a movie set in the world of Alaskan crab fishing. It was pretty wide open - they were open to see anything from sci-fi, to horror, etc etc. At the end of the day, our take won out and they hired us to write it.

MJ: A year before we started working on DEAD LOSS, we had met with Jesse Johnston, an executive at Thousand Words, so we already had a good relationship with him, and he was a fan of our writing. Like us, Jesse, Jonah (Smith), and Palmer (West) were all big fans of THE DEADLIEST CATCH and they wanted to do something in that world. We came up with our DEAD LOSS story, pitched them, and they bought it.

SS: I liked how you built in conflict and mystery between your characters (particularly between the brothers). What is your approach to writing characters? What’s the key to writing a good one?

MJ: Good characterization can vary based on a lot of factors - genre, tone, story, etc. Obviously, the ultimate goal is for the characters to resonate with the audience, whether that’s a larger than life buffoon in an absurd comedy, or capturing the nuances and mannerism of a real life person in a biopic.

For DEAD LOSS, it was important for us to ground the crew in realism, so we did a lot of research on crab fishermen and their lives on and off the boat. A lot of the inspiration for the characters followed organically from that research. For instance, a lot of these boats are family owned and operated, and the the business is passed down from generation to generation. So it made sense to have the brother dynamic at the center of things. And even apart from the brothers’ blood relation, the entire crew on these boats becomes like a surrogate family. It’s a very difficult and dangerous job, so they have to trust each other when they’re out on the water or someone is going to get hurt or killed. Understanding those dynamics, it became much easier to look at what kinds of circumstances and conflicts would push these tough guys who live life on the edge to their breaking point.

SS: What’s your writing method in general? How much do you outline? What do you emphasize? Do you write a lot of drafts? How long do you write each day?

J: We’ve always treated it like a job, even when we were just starting out. We meet everyday for at least eight or nine hours. When there’s a deadline, the days definitely get longer - but even when we’re not actively writing on anything, it’s good for the sanity to have a strict structure. Though, when actively writing, we don’t necessarily emphasize time, but page count. Outlines are probably the most important part of our process. We try to get as detailed as possible before starting the draft, otherwise, we could find ourselves in trouble if the plot is particularly complex.

We definitely try to emphasize the tone and the world. Tone can be tough on some projects, but that oftentimes takes many drafts of tweaks in dialogue and character choices...so we tend to tinker with that for as long as we can. The world comes out of the research phase. It’s probably the stuff we love most. Our second script took place on an aircraft carrier and the navy allowed us to fly onto the USS Reagan and explore everything we needed for two days. That research helped a lot and allowed us to make the world believable.

MJ: Most of our projects generally start with a lot of research. We really enjoy exploring new subcultures and environments. In fact, I think in many ways screenwriting can be like journalism. From there you find your characters and storylines, etc, and things usually start to crystallize in an organic way - like I was saying before about DEAD LOSS.

And yeah, when we’re getting ready to write or pitch, we usually do a lot of outlining. Josh and I both are very logic-oriented, so we try hard to make sure everyone’s motivations make sense and that there aren’t any plot holes ahead of time. It’s time-consuming to be so thorough up front, but it usually pays off in the long run. As far as schedule goes, we’re pretty diligent about writing and treat it like a day job, working regular hours together most every day.

SS: I’m assuming you guys are fielding offers in the assignment market now. Could you tell us a little bit about that world? How does a writer get into a room to pitch his/her take on, say, “Clash of the Titans?” Would you guys be able to get into a room for that? Or is that a whole nother level?

J: For those who don’t know how it works, most times your last good script becomes your resume for open writing assignments available in that genre. Your reps will know what assignments are around and put you up for those jobs. Of course, the timing isn’t always so perfect - jobs may not be in abundance. So you’ll end up going on a lot of ‘general’ meetings with production company execs around town who have read your work and hopefully liked it. A lot of jobs come out of these generals, directly and indirectly. Good relationships help so much. We got DEAD LOSS from a general meeting the year before. We were able to get another rewrite job when a pitch on another project didn’t sell...but the studio exec liked us and liked our writing (and we were the right price at the time). With something like CLASH, I’ve seen how it works from the studio side as well as from the writers’ - execs will try and go with big name writers, but there’s always room for a young up and comer with an amazing sample to blow them out of the water and get the job. Again, relationships are huge. You never know what big producer will read your sample and champion you. A big job like CLASH is in the realm of possibility for guys like us, but we’d still be up against heavy hitters...so we’d need plenty of luck.

MJ: The assignment market is pretty tough right now. It seems like there are fewer jobs each year at all levels. But there are still opportunities, from high-profile gigs like CLASH to smaller budgeted projects at companies who are independently financed. Still, in every case it starts with someone liking your writing.

From there, it’s hard to generalize. Studios obviously have conservative reputations, so unless you’ve sold something or had a movie go into production, it’s more difficult to get a job there but still not impossible. Starting as an unknown quantity, it generally just takes time to build your fan base and for everyone in town to get to know you and your writing. So hopefully, when a big project like CLASH comes along, you already have a relationship with either the producer or the studio exec supervising the project, and they will remember how much they liked your script, or maybe they had already met with you and recall how you had mentioned being obsessed with Greek mythology or whatever. Then they’ll consider you for the project and give you a shot at coming up with a take for the movie. That scenario has happened to us many times, even with DEAD LOSS. But once you’re in consideration, it’s up to you to make the most of the opportunity and come up with a fantastic take that is in line with their vision of the movie.

SS: Do you have any particular screenwriting books or scriptwriters who inspired/helped you? Who do you suggest Scriptshadow readers read to learn about the craft?

J: I’ve never read a screenwriting book. But I’ve read many, many scripts. We’ve actually got a loose writers’ circle made up of a bunch of friends at various stages in their writing careers and it’s very helpful.

MJ: I took screenwriting in college, so that’s where I learned the basics, like formatting and act structure. But there are lots of books that can teach you that stuff too (Syd Field, Robert McKee, etc). And ultimately it is very important you have that understanding - not only for writing and crafting a script, but also for pitching and discussing projects. It’s the jargon of the industry, so you have to be able to talk about act breaks, structure, etc. But honestly I found that the absolute best education came from reading scripts. While working at Paramount, I must’ve read thousands of scripts - and there’s just as much to learn from the bad ones as the good. And of course now there are so many online resources, so you can go watch a movie, then download the script and see how it read on the page. It can be very helpful to see how certain things are communicated and get a taste of different writing styles.

SS: Writers deal with a lot of rejection, and are oftentimes unsure of where they are in the journey. Are they close to that magical sale? Do they have a ways to go? When did you guys know you were legitimately able to compete with professional writers in one of the hardest markets in the world? Is there a way for a writer to know when he/she’s made that step?

J: Probably getting our first paycheck. It made it seem real for the first time.

MJ: I think there are probably certain milestones that are important to people for different reasons. Getting a key producer or talent to read your material, or landing an agent or manager is obviously important. But for me, it was getting my first paycheck. It wasn’t a big one, but that was the when I felt legitimized as a professional writer. And the idea of the “magical sale” is tantalizing, but honestly the odds of a first spec selling are very low. Obviously it happens, and when it does, it’s great and those Cinderella stories often make news, but speaking practically, it truly is a marathon and not a race. So I think as long as you’re continuing to progress in your career, enjoying it, and paying your bills (however that may be), then persistence is key. Just try to keep perspective on the bigger picture and ask yourself some basic questions about the big picture. Are your scripts getting better each time? Does your feeback get more positive? Are you getting more access with each script? And once you start getting paid, are your quotes getting higher? etc.

SS: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received in regards to screenwriting? If you could speak directly to that writer out there who’s just about to start his new spec – what would you tell him to give him the best chance to sell his/her screenplay?

J: Just finish it. You can always fix things in the next draft. Or the one after that. As for selling a spec, I have yet to do so, so I can’t speak from experience. But I would say to take a look at what’s recently sold to get a feel of the market. Passion projects rarely match what the town is buying. (I know from experience)

MJ: In regards to advice, there’s no single useful pearl of wisdom that comes to mind (omitting a few cynical ones, that is). Instead most of the wisdom I found useful came from working in the industry for several years before I started writing full time. It’s proven invaluable to have an overall understand of the process and how screenwriters fit into the bigger picture.

So maybe working in the industry is something to consider for yourself. But obviously, not everyone is able to do that. So let’s assume that you’re already writing something you like, and writing about settings, characters, and stories you feel competent portraying, then I would advise taking a step back and think about the commercial side of things.

Of course there’s artistry and craft involved with writing, but having worked in the studio system and seen that side of things, one thing becomes crystal clear: screenwriting is storytelling, but ultimately it really is just a for-profit business.

So keep in mind that the agent reading your script will be wondering how they can sell it, and the producer reading it will be thinking who will buy it. And if you’ve already got the access, then if a buyer reads and likes it, then they will also be thinking about the economics of saying yes, risk and recouping, etc.

So take some time and ask yourself some key questions like... is your movie meant for all audiences, just guys, just kids? There’s not a right and wrong answer here, but don’t forget that narrow demographics means lower box office which means lower budget, etc.

How much does your movie cost? It might be hard to estimate if you haven’t worked in Hollywood, but do some online research and find budgets of comparable movies.

Even if you write with an actor in mind, are there lots of other actors who could play the part? Because if your space epic costs $300M, there are only so many stars like Will Smith who will ultimately guarantee financing.

What does the marketing look like? Thinking about the poster and taglines is not only something that companies will have to do down the road anyway if your script gets produced, but it can also help you during the writing process to focus your story.

Obviously, in the end you still have to write a script that is going to resonate on the page and that people will like, just don’t lose sight of the business side of things so you aren’t wasting your time, or at least so that you have reasonable expectations about the response.

SS: Where is Dead Loss in the process, and what are you guys writing next?

J: Thousand Words has Chris Gorak attached to direct, and beyond that we don’t really know what their plans are. Right now, we’re in the middle of adapting a novel, LONG LOST by Harlan Coben for Gaumont, a French studio. Nick Wechsler and David Gerson are producing. Massy Tadjedin will direct and Hugh Jackman is attached to star.