Variety is out with their annual 10 Screenwriters to Watch list. They are:
Travis Beacham’s screenwriting career didn’t begin in Hollywood. Instead, it began in North Carolina.
While wrapping up his senior year at the North Carolina School of the Arts, Beacham wrote a script titled “Killing on Carnival Row.” Looking for some feedback, he sent it to a recent graduate who had landed an intern position at a production company. And then he waited.
“One day he called me in sort of a hushed tone and said, ‘You’re going to be getting some phone calls soon … but I can’t really say much about it.’?”
Those phone calls were from agents, managers and producers. With diploma in hand and opportunity calling, Beacham packed up and headed west. Now, just five years later, he’s one of the most sought-after writing talents for studio tentpole films.
His philosophy for screenwriting is simple: “It seems so cliched and obvious, but write the movie you want to see in the theater.”
Having a child doesn’t typically entail a career and paycheck boost, unless you happen to be Sheila Callaghan.
A downtown New York playwright for the past 10 years, Callaghan was embraced by Hollywood after an article in the New York Times appeared about her Off Broadway play, “That Pretty Pretty; or, the Rape Play,” in early 2009.
“I had been cobbling together a livelihood writing plays and teaching,” Callaghan says. “When I had my son in 2008, the need to have a stable income became a bit greater. Then out of nowhere I got an email from (former “United States of Tara” showrunner) Jill Soloway asking me if I was interested in writing for TV.”
She was. Callaghan, who is now a staff writer for the Showtime skein, recently sold one of her spec scripts, “Over/Under,” to USA and is tackling a task that many scribes have attempted but failed — adapting 1960s TV show “I Dream of Jeannie” for Sony.
“When my agent casually mentioned that there was an open assignment for ‘Jeannie’ I lit up,” Callaghan says. “I loved that show growing up. Also my playwriting tends to be really theatrical, and it seemed like a great opportunity to be theatrical on the screen.”
Imagine your favorite literary character gets (re)made into a movie, and you get to help make it. Yeah, like that would happen. Except for Adam Cozad, it kind of did. The writer’s spec script “Moscow” (original title: “Dubai”) is being touted as the re-boot of the Jack Ryan franchise for Paramount and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura.
“I grew up adoring all of those Tom Clancy books,” says Cozad. “I’ve always kind of geeked out on that character (Ryan) … I was really trying to write it as a geopolitical thriller (with the same) tone as a Tom Clancy thriller.”
Screenwriting wasn’t a natural choice for Cozad, who says “in college, all my worst grades were in English,” and a screenwriting class “wasn’t love at first sight.” But when his “bad-ass sister” returned from Mexico, where she had worked with an NGO as a human shield “with a fascinating yarn about the Zapatista rebellion and government reprisals against indigenous villages” Cozad felt “it was an interesting story with an important social message, so I began working on my first script.”
That script didn’t work out, and Cozad attributes “writing for years without any success” as a benefit to his career. “Toiling in obscurity keeps you humble,” he says.
While some writers prefer to work alone, Michael Diliberti appreciates a more collaborative approach. In addition to writing with longtime friend Matt Sullivan, Diliberti enjoys getting feedback from a wide cast of trusted sources.
“I pass pages to my agents, manager and other people I’m working with because I want to know what people are and aren’t reacting to during the process,” he says.
It’s a practice that has worked well so far.
After attending college in Baltimore, he kept busy with industry jobs — first in Gotham as an intern for producer Scott Rudin, then as an assistant-turned-exec for John Lesher during his Paramount Vantage days.
During that time, Diliberti co-wrote action-comedy spec “30 Minutes or Less” with Sullivan before either of them had agents, and they modeled one of the script’s leads after comedian Danny McBride. After being picked up by Ben Stiller and Stuart Cornfeld’s Red Hour Prods., not only did the film land McBride in the very role that was created for him, but they also got Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) on board to direct.
Ever since I remember, I wanted to act,” says Tim Dowling, who studied theater at USC. After struggling as a thesp, however, he found a bit more welcoming career as a scribe. His work on the 1999 comedy short “George Lucas in Love” opened up some doors; then he wrote a spec called “Back to the Teen Movie,” got an agent at Endeavor, did months of meetings, but “no work came out of it,” says Dowling.
But he persevered. A couple of script jobs later — “The Harder They Fall,” an action spoof, and “Outsourced,” a buddy comedy about outsourcing, which made the Black List — and Dowling was on his way: He wrote the Adam Sandler romantic comedy “Just Go With It,” which got fast-tracked at Sony, McG’s “This Means War,” a buddy action movie/romantic comedy set to shoot for Fox, and Tribeca Prods’ “Midnight Run 2.”
Tribeca producer Jane Rosenthal singles out Dowling for a “passion for the craft of storytelling (that is) equally matched by his energy, imagination and unique comic perspective.”
Though Dowling’s acting career may not have taken off, the training informs his writing.
“I did a lot of improv comedy, which is very freeing creatively,” he says. “And I found my voice as a writer when I applied that to writing; instead of being one character, I’m all the characters and not trying to censor myself and come up with the most creative thing possible.”
America’s new shoestring auteurs have gotten a bad rap lately, thanks to a number of DIY helmers who ditch the script and let their actors improvise heavily. Not Lena Dunham.
“I’m a complete and total control freak,” says Dunham, an Oberlin grad who studied creative writing, not filmmaking, even though she also shows a gift for directing (her first full-length feature, “Tiny Furniture,” won the SXSW narrative jury prize).
Dunham doesn’t disapprove of improvisation, per se. “It’s just that I’m so into the scriptwriting process,” says Dunham, who spent the summer at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab helping recovering improviser Ry Russo-Young write her next movie, “Nobody Walks.”
Dunham’s disarmingly personal voice may sound casual, but depends largely on zingers and a carefully planned sense of self-deprecation, which she extends to the semi-autobiographical HBO series she’s preparing with input from Judd Apatow.
“Where I was being all delicate and WASPy, he can cut right to the center of the scene,” says Dunham, the child of photog Laurie Simmons and painter Carroll Dunham.
A little more than two years ago, Seth Grahame-Smith was busy working as an intern at CBS. A little more than two months ago, he was sitting down for drinks and dinner with Tim Burton and Johnny Depp in London.
Times have changed for the author-screenwriter.
In 2009, after his mash-up novel “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” made the New York Times bestsellers list, Grahame-Smith became a hot commodity in both the lit and film worlds.
He now finds himself working both ends as he adapts two of his novels for film: the aforementioned Jane Austen revamp, as well as this year’s “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.” He admits the transition is harder than one may think.
“While you may have sold 250,000 books, you have to sell 2 million tickets just on opening weekend,” he says. “You have to serve a much bigger and broader audience that is demographically different than the audience reading your books.”
So two guys room together in college, bond over Monty Python and the Coen brothers and end up as writing partners whose first script sale grosses more than $45 million in its first weekend of release. Sounds ridiculous. Except it happened to Brent Simons and Alan Schoolcraft.
It wasn’t exactly overnight success for the pair, however. “?’Mastermind’ was the script that got us our representation and several jobs,” write the pair in an email, “though it didn’t sell initially.”
Instead it became their calling card. Unlike many calling cards, however, this one came a cropper, developing into “Megamind,” the first spec ever bought by DreamWorks. “Three years after it first went out, we got a call that Ben Stiller and DreamWorks wanted to buy it. For a second we thought it was a cruel joke being pulled by one of our college buddies. It still might be, which would be really impressive.”
For Schoolcraft and Simons, ideas “usually start with some sort of conflict that we find funny,” says Simons, “like with ‘Megamind,’ a villain kills this hero, then doesn’t know what to do with his life. We did another script, ‘All About Adam’ (optioned by Disney for producer Scott Rudin), which was ‘What if Eve left Adam?’ He’d have to win her back.”
Before making headlines for being tapped to adapt Sony’s all-CGI animated 3D feature, “Popeye,” Mike Jones wrote the headlines.
In his past life, Jones served on the senior editorial staffs of Filmmaker Magazine and IndieWire.
He eventually left journalism to become a full-time screenwriter and wrote “Evenhand,” which was produced in 2001, as well as the film adaptation of Steven Sherrill’s book “The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break,” which would prove instrumental in landing him “Popeye.”
During the writers’ strike in 2007, Jones returned to journalism when he moved to Los Angeles and worked for Variety.
“Film is my passion,” Jones says. “I love story, but I also really love the work of other filmmakers and I like writing about it.”
Actors Rashida Jones and Will McCormack met in the late 1990s, dated for two weeks, then realized they’d make better writers than lovers. Their working relationship bore fruit after they both moved from New York to L.A. “It took more time to mature into writing,” says McCormack, who appeared on “The Sopranos.” “And you actually have something to write about,” adds Jones, known for her roles on TV’s “The Office” and in “Parks and Recreation.”
They also learned their craft from reading so many screenplays as actors. “Eventually, you become supercritical,” says McCormack. Thinking they could do it just as well, the duo wrote “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” “an antithetical romantic comedy,” according to Jones, which made the Black List. Jennifer Todd, a producer on “Celeste and Jesse,” says the duo’s acting skills allow them to create characters “that are complex and complicated. They also have very fresh voices.”
“Their dialogue seems so real and somehow timely and classic at the same time.”
Based on the strong buzz around “Celeste and Jesse,” Working Title’s Eric Fellner hired them to write another tale of a thorny relationship, “Getting There,” which they describe as “Planes, Trains and Automobile” meets “When Harry Met Sally.”
The 2008 list here.
The 2009 list here.