Thursday, February 16, 2012

Screenwriter Interview: Timothy Mannion

Longtime Scriptshadow reader Timothy Mannion rolls onto the scene with his first produced screenwriting credit, Brake.


Hello my friends.  Today's name might be familiar to you longtime Scriptshadow readers.  Timothy Mannion entered my logline contest way back in the day and finished near the top with this very logline!  He since went on to option the script AND get it made, with Stephen Dorff starring.  The film will be released on VOD tomorrow and hit theaters on March 23rd.  I had a virtual sit down with Tim to find out how all this happened.

SS: I remember your logline all the way back from my first logline contest. A lot has happened since then. So let me ask you a few questions. First, how did you sell the script? Was it a lot of pounding the pavement? Asking people to read it? Or did you have an “in” somewhere?

TM: The script got a series of emails from producers based on the logline contest, of course. I also sent it to a couple of contacts that I made earlier in the year. Living in Connecticut and being so far from LA, I never thought anything was going to come from it. But, sure enough, I got a call from a director named Gabe Torres who read the script and flipped for it. He won me over with his vision and his time frame for making the dream become a reality, so I optioned the rights to him.

SS: And then how did it go from purchased script to a “Go” movie? Since the large majority of sold specs never get made, that must have been pretty exciting.

TM: It took a little while to gather financing and get casting together since it was independently financed, but in this business it was actually quite fast. I know other writers who have waited 10 years to see their script go to screen. BRAKE did page to first cut in less than a year. Really remarkable stuff. And even then, we shot in 11 days. That was probably the most exciting part, being on set every day, watching a talented director and a great actor, Stephen Dorff, work their magic. I feel very fortunate to be in the "poster" club.

SS: It seems like you conceived of Brake from a very marketable place. This isn’t Blue Valentine 2. Were you just thinking like a businessman when you wrote this or was there a deeper reason you wanted to write this script?

TM: Back when I was writing BRAKE it was “contained thriller” hour in Hollywood. You couldn’t take a step without bumping into one: the coffin, the elevator, the chairlift, the driver's seat of a fast car. BURIED of course was the big trend setter, and I was well into writing BRAKE before I even knew about that. But after seeing how far Chris Sparling took it, I did the opposite of what others probably would have done. I saw that it worked for him so I forged on. I think some people would have said, "Oh well, he beat me to the punch." He did, but you can throw a smarter punch, you can make yours better. It's all learning what works and what doesn't.

I wrote this script because simply, I couldn't make my epic projects work. I was having trouble balancing several characters with set pieces and moving plot and action sequences and flashbacks and reversals and just the kitchen sink. I wanted to quit. I really did. And then I flipped the switch. I told myself to think of something small with 1-2 actors for 90 minutes. Keep it contained, keep it simple. And in doing so it became MY BIGGEST SCRIPT. Not in budget, but in story and in scope. It's not a small film by any means. It has big ideas, big motivations. 

SS: Expanding on that, contained thrillers seem to be one of the best ways to break into the industry because they’re so cheap to make and are relatively easy to market. However, from a screenwriting point of view, when you’re writing about characters (or *a* character) in one place for so long, it becomes hard to keep the story fresh/interesting. How did you go about doing this for Brake?

TM: This is the critical aspect of the contained thriller. Can you keep the plot moving... without ever having your character literally moving? Fortunately for BRAKE our character is moving, he's just not in control of the situation. But for other contained thrillers I think three things are needed to pull this off. 1) Ticking time bomb device. Gotta have something that the reader/audience clings to. Even the oldie but goodie's work. Cellphone dying, lack of oxygen. But go further. Push it. In BRAKE it's a literal clock that counts down. Every 4 minutes you're waiting for... SOME THING. 2) STAKES, STAKES, STAKES. Every single page the stakes have to be raised. The situation needs to get worse for your protagonist at every turn. If it doesn't then why am I reading it? And even then, you as the writer have to create "small wins" for the character. But not too many - the antagonists and the situation have to be one step ahead. 3) Make it personal. It's hard to work the back story of your character into this hectic situation, but if you can fold it in then we get to see that character in a vulnerable situation with this added weight of personal pressure on top. That's the good stuff.

SS: In general, how do you approach writing a script? Are you an outliner? A pragmatist? Or do you just jump in there and rock out?

TM: I usually outline. Although, on the last one I winged it... and I paid for it! I think outlining at least gives you a direction for where the story is going. Hell, if you take a left turn during the writing process all the better. But knowing your ending, knowing your all-too-important third act ahead of time, is critical.

SS: Are you someone who tends to follow the “rules/guidelines” of screenwriting? Or are rules outlawed in Timothy MannionLand?

TM: The most important thing I've learned was the rules. Learning structure was critical to my success. And now I bend them and sometimes break them completely. But I know if I didn't learn the basics first, I wouldn't be anywhere today. Learn them, and if you disagree, well, forget'em.

SS: Brake was your first sale. How many screenplays had you written before that?

TM: I wrote three scripts before BRAKE. All action-oriented.

SS: Were any of them any good? If so, give us a pitch or two!

TM: I wrote one called JULIET 7 about an alien prisoner of War being help captive in an underground silo and an invasion of spaceships that come down, trying to free it. It was a found footage idea, with 4 teenagers being caught in this chaotic situation where we change POV three different times. Looking back with all of this FF craze now happening, I probably should have finished it. (from Carson: That idea actually sounds pretty cool! With FF footage film here to stay, I say you finish it). 

SS: What do you think you know now as a screenwriter that you didn’t know, say, 3 years ago, around the time of the logline competition? What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned since then?

TM: I learned that larger than life characters are critical in this game. I read scripts where the characters are flat. The concept is good, it's executed well, good set ups and reversals, great set pieces. But there isn't one defining character. You need a standalone character that makes the reader/producer/audience say WOW, this guy/girl is amazing. I've learned that after BRAKE and I'm still learning that today. Actors want to play timeless characters. Look around: Han Solo, John McClane, Butch Cassidy, Sundance Kid, Beatrix Kiddo, Anton Chigurh, Lisbeth Salander, Hans Landa, Tyler Durden, The Dude, Clarice Starling, Ellen Ripley. You name it. It's why people go to the theater.

SS: What lessons have you taken away from Brake specifically? After watching it go from your personal laptop to digital celluloid?

TM: I'm still processing this to be honest. But I did learn that anything is possible in this industry. You can be a nobody one morning and then your inbox is flooded with emails and your phone is ringing with people who love your work by lunch. And that – ironically - doesn't happen overnight, but it's possible! Anything is possible... AS LONG AS YOU KEEP WRITING.

SS: A lot of writers want to know (specifically) how to land an agent or manager. Could you go into detail about the process of landing a manager/agent? Starting with how long it took after your very first query to land representation?

TM: I queried on my second script. Thought it was awesome. It was a mess. Same story with every writer, I guarantee it. Even the ones who have broken in have this story. My third script didn't leave my computer, no one has ever read it. I was kind of rep-shook at that point. Rejection always hurts. But everyone has been there. The forth script was BRAKE and that was taken off the table before I ever sent queries out to managers, so I did it backwards. But then I landed a manager with cold email queries. It didn't take long because I had small success. I had several offers of representation. Hell, I have a great story where a management company called me 11 months after the initial query for BRAKE was sent. I let this manager go for 5 minutes about what he liked about the script, where he thought it might need a slight tweak, then I told him the script was already sold, shot and in post-production. He just laughed and said congratulations. Things like managers/agents are nothing to worry about until your script is READY. And by ready, I mean great. Everyone wants to rush to that step, but in doing so you bypass the most important part: the writing. 

SS: Any advice you might have for other screenwriters out there? Guys who were in your position a couple of years ago? How can they become a paid screenwriter ASAP?

TM: Advice is hard to give because who I am, really? The only thing I can tell you is if you want to do this, you have to do your homework before you start the writing. Concept, concept, concept. Character, character, character. Nail them down. Don't waste time if you want to make a career out of this. These two points are critical. And trust me, in the last couple of days I suffered from not taking my own advice. Screenwriting is as hard as it is. So don't set up roadblocks that hinder. You're supposed to be doing that to your characters! And most of all, keep writing. If you stop, you're done. If you don't, you're still alive. Anything is possible. Oh, and if you want a shortcut to get paid, write something that can be done on the cheap. People are committing less and less money to financing these days. But a small, compelling piece of work can be scooped up because it's low risk, high reward. That's simple logic that gets passed over, but it's true.