Anthrax, Amnesia and Atomic Veterans

Scriptnotes: Ep. 260
Play

John and Craig implore screenwriters to think twice before using the phrase “begs the question.” We know it’s a losing battle, but if we learned anything from 300, sometimes those are still worth having.

We then dive into one of our favorite features, How Would This Be a Movie, looking at listener-suggested stories about anthrax, amnesia and atomic veterans.

Links:

You can download the episode here.


Adam Davis, year 10

adam davisI first met Adam Davis in 2006, back when he was finishing up at Drake University, my alma mater. He loved movies, and was wondering whether he should bite the bullet and move to Los Angeles. I said yes, definitely — but he should prepare to work his ass off when he got here.

Adam took my advice to heart, and got to work. Along the way, he wrote up recaps of his first year in Hollywood, his second year, and his fifth year.

Unbelievably, it’s now his tenth year in Los Angeles, so I asked him to recap what he’s accomplished, what he’s learned, and what he would have done differently.


Exactly 10 years ago I arrived in Los Angeles for a summer internship at Marvel Studios and quickly realized this town and industry was for me. I was turning twenty-two and was driven by the surefire fact that I was going to make my debut feature film and have my manager or agent by twenty-three, just like Robert Rodriguez. Because I was one of those young genius savants, not one of those poor shlubs that actually had to work years at honing their craft, right?

Let’s just say twenty-three was a mighty depressing birthday. Ah, but twenty-seven, that’s when I would strike it big like my other idol, Quentin Tarantino! As you might guess, birthday number twenty-eight was even more depressing. Nothing big was happening. Nothing I could tell people about. But what I was doing in all those years was the work. I was writing, trying to get better with each script. I was directing one short a year, when I could afford it. I wasn’t out doing drinks, I wasn’t networking like crazy, I was just doing the work. Because I needed to get better.

I got sidetracked of course, captivated by those stories of a self-published novel that was becoming a movie. A bidding war over an indie comic. The funding contests. The screenplay competitions. Maybe, just maybe, if I tried another door, I’d finally win the prize. So I adapted one of my features into a novel and self-published it to a whopping five mediocre reviews and zero dollars. I adapted script ideas into comic pitches and submitted to rejection. I submitted projects to funding contests that set you back a couple hundred bucks. Rejection. I submitted to the Blacklist. More rejection. I tried making videos for YouTube. No one cared. Was it me? Was it everyone else? Was there just too much competition and content? I felt like I was trying everything and failing, but the one thing I always came back to was the work.

No one was going to hand success to me, that much I had learned. But people could help or provide advice if I asked. So I took a chance and reached out to a successful writer that I had a few pleasant interactions with and asked him to lunch. I just wanted to know what his path was. The conversation was informative and fun and out of that came a request to read a script my writing partner and I had written. Turns out a stuntwoman he knew, Heidi Moneymaker, was looking to have an action script written for her to star in. He liked our script enough to pass it along, Heidi read it, liked it, we had a great lunch and walked away with a pro bono writing gig and a production company tentatively attached to produce. That project stalled and eventually died, but we had another solid script under our belts and a new relationship. We still wanted to do something with Heidi, so we came up with an action/horror short film idea called NO TOUCHING starring her and her friend, Zoë Bell. We pitched them our idea over sushi and they agreed to star in it and produce with us.

To fund it, we ran a Kickstarter campaign and miraculously raised the $30,000 we needed in 15 days. Family and friends really stepped up to help us reach our goal, but things were rocky the night before the campaign ended the next day. We were down $2,500. Everyone we knew had pledged, so it was up to fate. I went to bed not knowing what we’d do if we failed. That would be the end of it. All that hard work and nothing to show for it. My mind raced. Could I pledge the rest myself? Put it on a credit card? I had no answers so I went to sleep, preparing myself to jump into action in the morning. And then something amazing happened in the middle of the night. Unbeknownst to us, a Xena: The Warrior Princess fan page on Facebook had found the campaign and posted about it, since Zoë was the Xena stunt double. And by this random occurrence, one fan graciously put us over the edge. In the morning I woke up to numerous texts and voicemails saying that we had done it. It still remains one of the most surreal events that’s ever happened to me. I’ve never considered myself lucky, but this seemed like a textbook example of it that I’m forever grateful for.

So we were well on our way to shoot it in fall of 2014 when Tarantino’s Hateful Eight intervened. Zoë got whisked away earlier than expected to begin training and we had to make the hard decision to push a full year due to her and Heidi’s schedules. I was devastated. One year! This was supposed to be the project that got my foot in the door and I had to postpone for one year! What was I going to do with one year? 2014 was ending. In a half year I would turn thirty-one. I had set milestones for myself, all of which I had failed to meet. Thirty-one was approaching 10 years of true, constant effort. Thirty-one was my breaking point.

So I had a tough conversation with myself. I had to wait a year. There was nothing I could do about that. So what could I do? I had not accomplished my goal of directing a feature film by the time I was thirty so I promised myself that I would finally do it before I turned thirty-one in July. That gave me 6 months to write and direct it. Which I had no idea how I was going to pull off, but I knew I had to. There was no other choice.

In January I began writing the script for an idea I had, a single location drama called CONFERENCE CALL and wrote a first draft by the end of February. As I rewrote I began the pre-production process, looking for crew, reaching out to actors, asking people for help and things started falling into place. The project was a quickly moving train and anyone wanting to be a part of it had to be willing to jump on and run with it. And the best people did. There were temptations, offers from actors of connecting me to this or that producer who might be able to get funding if I cast them, but I stuck to my guns. I couldn’t wait for anyone. I was self-financing it which meant we only had the budget to shoot it in 4 days and we had to make that happen.

directingAs I kept up with the momentum and ran headfirst into production, I was able to lock down the perfect cast, the right crew and an amazing location. I didn’t, couldn’t, stop and things somehow kept falling into place. The cast and I rehearsed the script like a play for 2 weeks because we had to shoot quickly, only allowing them a few takes per scene. And the script was ninety-five percent dialogue, being a group of people stuck in a room together. But the cast was up to it and they performed better than I could have ever imagined. At the end of June, after 4 grueling days spread out over 2 weekends, we had everything in the can. Apologies in advance for getting way too honest here, but on the last day of shooting I came home and all I could do was sit in my car and cry for a solid 5 minutes. They were happy tears, grateful tears, because somehow I had done it. I had finally accomplished my biggest goal.

By December, the film was finished and submitted to festivals. CONFERENCE CALL premiered at the Pasadena International Film Festival in March of this year and was nominated for Best Feature. The festival run since then has been pretty limited, as a micro budget movie about the film industry with no stars in it is a tough sell, but I know there’s an audience out there for it. It may take me a while to find the best way to reach them, but I’ll keep trying. And if nothing comes out of it, it will still have served its purpose. I learned more than I’ve ever learned through that process, I worked with some amazing actors that I’ll be casting for years to come, and I now had an answer to that question I knew I would be asked when trying to get a directing gig, “Well, have you ever directed a feature?” Yep. I have.

In the fall of 2015 we finally shot NO TOUCHING. Through Zoë and Heidi’s connections, we were able to add Jake Busey, Tracie Thoms, Kevin Daniels and Doug Jones to the cast. Shooting action and horror on this scale was another great learning experience and because of the feature I had the confidence to work with a much larger cast and crew.

It’s interesting to have two very different movies going through the film festival circuit at the same time. NO TOUCHING has gotten into more festivals than CONFERENCE CALL because it’s a short, which means higher acceptance rates, a genre for a wider audience, and has notable faces in the cast. It’s played a couple fests so far this year and coming up we’re playing in the San Diego Comic Con Film Fest as well as Fantasia and some others we can’t announce just yet.

For NO TOUCHING, running the festival circuit is all about getting the word out about the film before we eventually release it wide online and meeting people and making connections. And it was about trying to attract a manager or agent. Until it suddenly wasn’t.

It didn’t happen because of our social media efforts. It wasn’t because an agent saw it at a festival. It came down to something very old-fashioned. A friend who saw the short and believed in it enough sent it along to an agent he knows. She liked the short and one of our other scripts and set a meeting with us. And at the end of a great meeting she did the unthinkable and said she wanted to sign us in the room. We said yes. Much jumping and high-fiving happened in the elevator down to the parking garage.

My path was never going to be through a novelization, a graphic novel, a tweet or a competition, although that works for others. As much as I fought it, it was always going to be the old-fashioned way, through someone’s belief in the work and kindness in passing it along.

So after 10 years, I’m finally getting that beginning I’ve always wanted. Soon will come the general meetings, the water bottle tour. But I’m ready for it now. I know that I would have crashed and burned had I been given this opportunity back at twenty-two, when I thought I was ready. Honestly, I sucked back then. I had a lot of heart, but I sucked. All I know for certain is that I suck a little less now.


I wrote a book.

I’m not sure how many screenplays I’ve written. At least 30. Maybe 50.

I have ten produced credits, so that means a lot of unmade movies. As much as I love screenwriting, it’s like being the architect for a bunch of buildings that may never get built. Screenplays are transitional documents, plans for making the “real” thing.

Novels, however, are the real things. Even if they’re later adapated into movies or TV shows, the books themselves are finished works. They’re permanent in a way screenplays could never be.

So in between other projects, I decided to write one. And now it’s getting published.

Here’s the key bit from the press release:

Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, has signed a 3-book deal for a new middle grade series by award-winning screenwriter John August, who counts Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Go among his credits.

In the first book in the series, Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire, set to be published in early 2018, readers are introduced to Arlo Finch, a young boy who joins a mountain scouting troop and discovers that his fellow campers are not just training in outdoor survival—they are also learning to harness the wild magic that lies deep within the forest. Through treacherous adventures and close calls, Arlo is awakened to his unique destiny and the foundations of the Rangers’ Vow: loyalty, bravery, kindness, and truth.

As a screenwriter who frequently gets sent these kinds of books to adapt, it’s been fascinating to see the other side of the business. I’m asking a ton of questions. I’ll be sharing what I learn here and elsewhere.

Since middle grade fiction readers are not the core demo of this site, I’ve also set up a Tumblr at arlofin.ch that’s just about the book — and is more kid-and-parent friendly.

If you’re curious about the behind-the-scenes of writing and producing the series, I’ll be starting a sporadic newsletter with updates and sneak peeks along the way. More details soon.

Huge thanks to Jodi Reamer, my agent at Writers House, and my editor Connie Hsu for making this happen. It’s going to be a busy couple of years, but I’m looking forward to the journey ahead.


Duly Noted: Let’s Talk about Episode 259

Scriptnotes: Ep. DN 1
Play

Matt Selman (EP of The Simpsons) sits down with Scriptnotes favorites Aline Brosh McKenna and Rawson Marshall Thurber to discuss what went down in the season finale.

Links:

You can download the episode here.


The Exit Interview

Scriptnotes: Ep. 259
Play

In the season finale of Scriptnotes, John and Craig reveal big changes to the podcast.

After five years, a much-loved supporting character is leaving the show. We look back at his time with us, what he learned and what he’ll take with him to his new screenwriting adventures.

Meanwhile, one of the hosts is leaving Los Angeles entirely. We discuss what’s taking him to a different time zone and the impact it will have on the show.

Finally, a fresh voice joins the podcast, bringing an international flavor and a name worthy of NPR.

If all these changes sound scary, please be assured we’ll be back next week with the start of a new season.

Links:

You can download the episode here.


Generic Trigger Warning

Scriptnotes: Ep. 258
Play

John and Craig take a look at three new entries in the Three Page Challenge, with scripts tackling kidnapping, dystopia and parkour hackers. We look at both how the writing works on the page, and what the writers seem to be trying to say.

We also answer listener questions about the increased visibility of characters with disabilities on screen, and the differences between the two WGAs.

Links:

You can download the episode here.

UPDATE 7-18-16: The transcript of this episode can be found here