Sam Regnier wrote the original screenplay “Free Agent” which won a 2015 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting and has been set up at CBS Films. Recently Sam and I had an excellent phone conversation in which we covered a lot of territory, his background and how he got into writing, a deep analysis of “Free Agent”, and a discussion about the writing craft.
Today in Part 4, Sam discusses his thought process on writing a project like “Free Agent” which involved making some unconventional choices.
Scott: That’s what’s so interesting. When you read the script, you know how so many movies have the big story and small stories construction. You’ve got the A plot, but then you’ve got all these subplots.
You’ve got that going on in “Free Agent,” you’ve got the big story, essentially Bridget’s pursuit of that free agent NBA basketball player, but then all these small stories, the subplots. Her relationship with Taylor, her relationship with Nick, her relationship with her ex-husband and so forth. It does seem really seamless.
How much of that was the magic of writing, and how much of that was really hard-ass, getting feedback from people, and having to work, and work, and work those elements so that they felt unified?
Sam: I would say it’s 100 percent magic, and 1,000 percent hard work. Writing is such an iterative process, which is something that took me a long time to realize. You write a draft, realizing what pieces fit and which don’t. You do another draft, do the same thing.
You do it over and over again, and you realize that what they say is true: your first drafts never get any better. The only difference is your last drafts get better. Hopefully, every time you do another script, your last draft is one millimeter better than the last draft of your previous script.
At then, that’s when you can really get in the zone – I like to call it being “in the pocket.” If I’m in the pocket, that means I know what the movie is. I’m not floating anymore. I know I can get there eventually; it’s just a matter of going through the iterative process – refining, refining, refining.
At first, you’re chiseling, and by the end, you’re ironing. You’re looking for wrinkles that don’t make sense, or pieces of dialogue, or pieces of scenes, or pieces of interactions. If you can clean out everything, so that it feels like it’s seamless, then you’re done.
Scott: You mention those four pickup games, and games of Horse, as being the heart and soul of that story. At that point, when you hit on those, you knew you were in the pocket for “Free Agent”.
Sam: Exactly. A couple of those came right away, after I figured out the basketball part, because I had written something similar that wasn’t quite there, the scenes between the two of them. I knew that there’s a midpoint scene between the two of them where Bridget is really hard on Taylor – she’s essentially trying to break her. You can look at dozens of drafts of the script, and that’s right there in the middle of every one. I knew that was the pivot point.
Scott: A transition point.
Sam: Yes. It was something that I could hang onto. I could say, “What builds to this? What follows after it?” That’s the moment where they break each other, where they become close.
Scott: Added benefit, you’ve got, I call them BOBs: “Bit Of Business.” You’ve got this activity, a visual thing, and you can shroud whatever exposition and back story stuff, by having them play basketball or a game of Horse.
Sam: Right. That’s the other huge benefit of anchoring in that world. It’s physical, and it’s real, and it’s a thing that you can do while your characters are doing exposition.
Scott: A bit of business.
Scott: At the Nicholl ceremony, you were presented by Stephanie Allain, who is a former studio exec, and currently a very successful producer. She said something interesting. She said when she read Free Agent, featuring not one, but two great female leads, she said, “I was so excited to meet this woman writer.”
First of all, I would take that as a big compliment. I’m asking the first thing. Are there any keys you might have discovered in writing female characters compared to male characters, or do you approach them pretty much the same?
Sam: One of many important avenues to becoming a better writer is the ability to listen, to search for motivations in other people, and to really feel empathy. It’s only by really examining people and what makes them tick that you can create stories that are both unpredictable, and feel real and honest.
So the main difference between writing men and women, for me, was that when I see a man’s actions, I filter them through my own feelings. I feel like I’m already halfway there.
When I’m trying to write women, I have to admit that I don’t really have any idea about what it is like to be a woman. So I have to really dedicate myself to observation, examination, and understanding. Through that, hopefully you can write a character that people believe is real.
Scott: That circles back to where you like to start, which is with character. Of course, you go to USC for four years, and you were an assistant for a little over a year. You’re obviously aware of the fact that there is this ridiculous disparity in terms of the numbers of male versus female leads in movies.
Did that ever occur to you when you were writing this thing, or did you say, “I’m not only care about the conventional wisdom there?”
Sam: It did occur to me, and I would love to tell you that it didn’t affect me. It didn’t affect me when I was writing it, because I knew that I loved the story. It did affect me when it was time, unfortunately, to take it out.
As much as I hate to admit it, I knew that it might not be is commercial, or salable of a script. I felt like before I showed it to someone, I wanted to have other material that I could attach it with, as a package.
I would like to work toward a world where that never affected anyone.
Scott: Is that fair to say that that was maybe part of the process in your thinking of setting it aside for a year and a half or so, and trying to write other material?
Sam: Absolutely. That was part of the whole decision making process I was going through.
Scott: But at some point you said, “Screw it, I’m going to submit it to the Nicholl again.”
Sam: By that point, I had come around the gotten closer to, I realized that “Free Agent” was closer to the type of material I wanted to write, and I re-read it, and I realized that it was better than I remembered.
A lot of times, you re-read your material, and you cringe constantly because you can see the strings on the puppets. You think there’s no way people are going to want to read this, because that’s part of being a writer. That was one of the few times I re-read something, and I thought, “Why haven’t I shown this to anyone?”
Scott: Of course the irony here is the script, which features not only one major female lead, but also the second lead. It blows up conventional wisdom when CBS film steps up and buys this thing, even before you were named a Nicholl winner, right?
Sam: Yeah. They became interested the day it was announced as a finalist, and then they bought it the same day that it won.
That’s why you can’t make assumptions. When you’re chasing what people want, you’re never going to catch up.
Scott: I’d like to believe that there’s an object lesson there.
Sam: You want to make the whole industry monolithic. People talk about the industry like it’s one thing, and not 1,000 different companies, all of these different places that have room for different types of material.
Here is Sam’s speech when he accepted the Nicholl Fellowship in December 2015 with an introduction from producer Stephanie Allain:
Tomorrow in Part 5, Sam talks about winning the Nicholl Fellowship, selling “Free Agent” to CBS Films, and a tall tale about a special bottle of champagne.
Sam is repped by Paradigm and Management SGC.