Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Screenwriter Interview - John Swetnam

You know, it's harder giving interviews than you think!  It's hard to come up with unique questions and such.  So I decided to mix it up a little bit with today's guest and ask some questions that usually don't get asked.  Hopefully you enjoy it.  John Swetnam's name might sound familiar to you.  He's the Found Footage king.  Well, maybe not the king.  Oren Peli owns the copyright on found footage.  But he's pretty darn close. He's sold two found footage specs, Evidence and Category 6 (a found footage tornado spec) and, as I just found out via this interview, is coming out with another, "Genesis: Dawn," that he hopes will change the found footage game. I talked with him after the interview and I don't think I've ever heard somebody as passionate about something as he is about this spec. I wanted to go to the nearest theater and see it right now!  Need more John Swetnam? You can follow him @JohnSwetnam on Twitter .

SS: How is a working writer’s life different from a non-working writer’s life? How are your days different?

JS: The biggest difference in my life now is that pants are mostly optional. I can’t tell you what it’s like to commute from my bedroom to the computer in by boxer briefs, spike a cup of coffee with some Jack Daniels and spend my hours just making shit up. It’s amazing. All the years of struggle, of waiting tables, of making minimum wage are definitely worth it. It is the greatest job on the planet and I just try to be grateful every day. I even had that tattooed on my chest. Literally. Be Grateful Every Day.

SS: Everybody has a bad first script story. What was your first script about? Was it bad? When you go back to it, what kind of sounds do you make?

JS: My first script was called “Fifty Yard Gain”. It was a teen drama that I based on the small town in Tennessee where I used to live. We had an East and West High School in the same town, which was pretty nuts. HUGE rivalry. So the script was basically Romeo and Juliet in the world of High School Football. I actually went back to check it out recently and of course it was awful, but there was this energy in the writing that I thought was cool. Back when I had no idea what I was doing, I just poured my soul onto the page. But of course, my soul is twisted and insane, so the script is a complete and total cluster fuck. I still think it was a pretty good idea though. It would be like High School Musical but instead of singing, there would be drugs, abortions, and armed robbery. Somebody put in a call to Disney…

SS: I’m hoping you visited Scriptshadow before you sold Evidence. Is there anything you learned from this wonderful little blog that helped your own screenwriting?

JS: Dude, you probably don’t remember this but way back in the day you read some of my stuff. There was one script called RAPTURE, which was like this Midnight Run at the end of the world thing. Again, it was a steaming pile of shit, but you had some very encouraging words about the writing. And I’ve never forgotten that, even though you have-- dick.

And yes, I’ve followed the blog since its conception. And one of the greatest things I’ve learned, or at least reconfirmed, was from reading all the comments from your readers. And that’s that this business is SO subjective. One guy may hate something while another loves it. And neither one of them are wrong (except for the pricks who railed on EVIDENCE). But us, as writers, need to remember that. You’re not gonna please everybody and somebody IS going to hate your stuff. But that’s okay. Just know who your audience is and write it for them… even if that’s just you. You can’t please everybody so don’t even try.

SS: Wait a minute wait a minute. I think I remember that script. This was back in the Done Deal days right? Maybe when I had just started the site? I remember that. The writing was good. Definitely not a steaming pile of shit. So if you wrote that script now, what would be different? How would you approach it now as opposed to then?

JS: Yeah, it was back in my DDP days. The idea for that script was actually pretty good butt I’d completely have to rework it to fit certain marketing parameters. That was a 150 million dollar post-apocalyptic dark comedy. Not really an easy sell. If I were to do it today, I’d do a Zombieland version. Small and fun with action. Midnight Run at the end of the world. It practically sells itself!

SS: You wrote 16 specs before you got your first sale. How did you keep the faith? And how did you pay for rent?

JS: I always tell people that there is no right or wrong path to making it in this business. We’re not lawyers. Some guy can write one script at 19 years old, sell it for a million, and be off and running (of course we all hate that guy, but still). And for some it may take three or four scripts. And for some stubborn idiots it may take 16. But the thing is, for me, I needed ALL of those scripts. Because I got better with each and every one. Obviously when I started I was the equivalent of a brain damaged sloth, but slowly and surely I got better and better, until finally I had enough skill to become a bonafied hack and sell a script.

But in all seriousness, through all the ups and downs, what I know for sure is that I believed in myself. From my first script to my latest, number 22. I know deep down that I can be good at this and I’m determined to prove that to myself. I have no backup plan. If there are any doubts, I squash them (or drink them away). But this was, and continues to be, the greatest and most satisfying challenge of my life. Can I succeed? Can I make awesome movies that make shitloads of money? The answer may be “no”, but I promise you I will keep trying until the day I die. I always tells my buddies that “this is the year”. And if that’s what it ends up saying on my gravestone… that “this is the year”… I’m okay with that because it means I never gave up.

And to all your readers, if you look deep down in yourself and you honestly believe you can do this and this crazy dream is what makes you happy, then just go for it. Do it. Go all in. And don’t doubt yourself. I know that’s hard to do, but trust me, in this business there’s gonna be enough people out there doubting you… don’t be one of them. Your passion and confidence are what will get you through. Just know that it’s hard, and it may take one year and two scripts, or ten years and twenty scripts. But that shouldn’t matter. Just keep writing. Keep fighting. And keep believing in yourself.

And to answer your question about paying rent. I will now give your readers the greatest piece of screenwriting advice ever. Two words. APARTMENT MANAGEMENT. I got free rent, salary, had a roommate that paid me cash, and I spent all day writing. Your toilet needs to be unclogged? Fuck off, I’m writing. Did it for 7 years. That’s the trick. You’re welcome.

SS: A question I’m CONSTANTLY asked is “Should I go to school for screenwriting?” You went to Chapman (a beautiful little school btw – I visited there myself). How would you answer that question? SHOULD someone go to school? Or should they just visit screenwriting blogs every day and save their money?

JS: Getting a master’s degree is a very strange thing. I already had a bachelor’s so there I had a base of knowledge and education. For me, going to grad school was not so much about learning the craft, but being surrounded by it. And by that, I mean, you’re talking with people every day about movies. You’re writing on deadline, interacting with professionals, networking, etc. And of course there’s the student loans that you can use to fuel all those weekend binges in Vegas.

So for me, in my particular situation, it was cool. I met some cool people and it really threw me into the world of film like nothing else. Would I do it all over again? Probably not. I would probably write my ass off, move to Hollywood, and get a job as an apartment manager while interning and visiting Scriptshadow and GITS every day. (Are you gonna pay me for all these plugs?)

SS: By the way, how does the money work for a script sale? Everybody hears about the numbers but, like, when do you actually get paid! How does that whole process work?

Ah, the money question. My favorite. To be honest every deal is different. The option is what happens to most people on their first “sale”. And if you can get into production you’ll see a fat check on day one of principal photography. For outright sales you get a big fatty check about 3-4 months after the sale (it takes a while to get all the contracts worked out) and then another chunky pay day on day one of shooting. Plus there are bonuses built in, some back end possibly, etc, etc. Let’s just say the money beats apartment managing.

SS: 3 movies that you think would be awesome remade as Found Footage movies. Besides When Harry Met Sally. Go.

JS: I actually wrote down 3 answers to this question but then I erased them all because I realized how fucking awesome they were. I’m literally gonna pitch them now. Sorry.

SS: You’ve had multiple agents and managers. It sounds like the early ones didn’t do a whole lot. Could you tell writers what to avoid when looking for an agent or manager, and some of the issues to expect once you do become a client?

JS: I can tell you from my experience that 99% of any issues I ever had with any of my previous reps fell completely on my shoulders. Believe me, if I would’ve given any of those guys a good damn script they could’ve sold it. But I never did. So it’s really hard to judge anyone on representing me when I didn’t yet have the ability to represent myself in my work.

As for issues with reps, I always tell people to forget about the letters on the building or the promises and the smoke that will inevitably be blown up your ass. Trust your gut. Do you believe that they believe what they’re saying? I mean, just take your time and really get a feel for the person and if you feel that connection, then go for it. If it doesn’t work out you can always leave. Nothing personal. You have to remember that this is your career so if you’re not feeling it after six months or a year… just bail and start again. No shame it that. I know that when you’re starting out it’s terrifying to go from repped to unrepped, but if you can find that manager/agent once then you’ll be able to do it again. Be confident in your ability, or at the very least, be confident in your ability to get better.

SS: How did you get your early agents/managers btw? I know Jake Wagner found you after being a finalist on the Tracking B contest. But before that, what was your trick to getting repped?

JS: After grad school I moved to Hollywood and got an internship. I worked hard and tried to figure out what the producers at the company were looking for. I became friends with the assistants who were genuinely good guys and I asked their advice as I generated concepts. Finally I had a concept that they loved. I wrote the spec script and the assistant showed the producer. He liked it enough to want to develop it so I asked him to call his friend who was a manger, which he did. Then when I signed with the manager I asked him to call his friend who was an agent and he did. Boom. Repped.

Of course, the script turned out awful and I never made any of those guys one dollar after years of bitching and complaining. I still feel like I owe all my old reps a drink or ten. I mean, I was so cocky back then with absolutely zero skills. I must’ve been a pain in the ass to deal with. (I still am but at least now they’re getting paid). 

SS: What is a writer/agent writer/manager relationship like? Do you talk every day? When you do talk, what do you talk about? Can you give me a typical conversation?

JS: Again this is one of those questions, like most, where every time it’s different. Every relationship I’ve ever had, whether it was with a girl, a guy friend, an agent, or whatever… they’re always different. Some good and some bad. My relationship with my team right now is fantastic. I consider them both friends and when I need something they are there for me. I’m really, really lucky.

A typical conversation might go something like this…

ME: Yo, let’s sell this script and get me paid. THEM: On it. CUT TO TWO WEEKS LATER where I’m either making it rain at the strip club, or back on the computer working on a new spec.

But seriously, they’re great. I owe a lot to them both. And right now… it’s all good.

SS: What are your thoughts on Tyler coming out of nowhere this past week with The Disciple Program? Pretty wild, huh?

JS: Fucking loved it! These are those stories that I would dream about when I was starting out. I’m a little pissed and super jealous that this kind of shit never happened to me, but I was never as good as a writer as he is. The guy put the words on the page. He created a product and then you created a demand. The product lived up to the hype and dude’s gonna have a hell of a year. My advice to him is just to keep his feet on the ground and write, write, write. I’m excited to see how his career progresses. No doubt he’ll be getting all the good jobs and exposing me for the fraud that I am.

SS: Speaking of, Tyler is taking a bunch of meetings over the next two weeks. Can you give him any advice? I mean, what did you learn from that first wave of meetings?

JS: Enjoy the hell out of it. It’s a once in a lifetime experience because it’s only “new and exciting” once. I mean, it’s always exciting but that overwhelming, surreal world he’s about to step into is soooo much fun the first time. It’s a trip. The studios. The fancy restaurants. The praise. Oh man, do I miss all that praise. But like I said before, hopefully he meets some reps, clicks with them and trusts his gut, and they’ll get him a ton of opportunities. Just have fun, order the lobster, drink the single-malt, and then get back to writing. Create more product. Cause without it… we got nothing.

SS: You seem to be on the cutting edge of technology. You have a Twitter account. You write found footage. Are you actively thinking of the next trend? What is it? Can you tell me?

JS: I’m on the cutting edge of technology because I have a twitter account? Sweet. And yes, I write Found Footage. As for the next trend… I could tell you but I’d have to kill you.

SS: How do you think found footage is going to evolve? What’s the next phase?

JS: Found Footage has a long way to go before it fades away. There are so many writers out there experimenting with the genre that I think it’s really exciting to see what comes out of it. But you really wanna know what I think the next phase of found footage is. Two words. “GENESIS: DAWN”.

SS: So what are you writing now? What have you finished recently? You got any cool scripts we should be aware of?

JS: Oh, funny you should ask, but I just finished a new spec that’s the next phase of found footage called “GENESIS: DAWN”. I’m actually really stoked about this one because it’s literally like nothing that’s ever been done before.

Tonally, I wanted to do a franchise starter like Resident Evil or Underworld. But mine is the sci-fi action-thriller version of that.

Here’s the logline to peak your interest (hopefully): After her daughter is abducted, a young mother wakes up on a spaceship and must traverse a hostile landscape while battling alien creatures in order to find her. It’s basically Taken meets Aliens POV style.

Hopefully you can do a review on it soon. Just make sure it gets an “Impressive”.

SS: Finally – since you love to reminded – you wrote 16 scripts before you found success. If you could go back and do it all over again, what would you change to speed things up!?

JS: Here’s the fucked up thing about this question… there’s nothing I could’ve done different. For me, it took 16 scripts before I got to a place where I felt like I knew what I was doing. If I could go back and make myself smarter, maybe that would work. Or I could’ve told myself not to drink so much beer or smoke so much weed, but what’s the fun in that? I really just think there is no secret. No magic bullet. There are tons of concepts, theories, ideas, guidelines, etc, that will definitely help you. But I think every writer has to just keep writing. And keep writing. If you stay focused, work hard, and work smart, you will succeed at some point. And it will be at your own pace. I’m proof of it, because I’m not a talented writer. I wasn’t born with a gift. I just know that I will not be outworked. As Big Willy said, “I’m not afraid to die on the treadmill”.

Anyway, thanks for the interview. It was fun. Hopefully I didn’t come off as too much of a d-bag. I wish nothing but the best for all of us. It’s an amazing dream that we’re chasing and it won’t come easy, but it will come if you believe in yourself and KEEP WRITING!