Q&A: Screenwriter Chris McCoy, Part 3

February 22nd, 2012 by

Chris McCoy is pretty unique among screenwriters in that he has three scripts that have made the Black List: “Get Back” (2007), “Good Looking” (2009), and “Good Kids” (2011). That alone is enough to warrant significant curiosity about this young writer. The fact his screenplays are highly entertaining, distinctive, and filled with quirky characters and strong dialogue makes it even more so. Therefore I was quite happy when Chris agreed to do a GITS Q&A.

In this 5-part series, which will run today through Friday, we cover Chris’ background as a writer, reflections about each of his Black List scripts, and his insight into the craft of screenwriting.

Today: Part 3 — The screenplay “Good Looking”

Moving onto “Good Looking,” which made the 2009 Black List, there is this excerpt from a Hollywood Reporter article on the sale of that script to DreamWorks:

In a funky tweak on “Minority Report,” McCoy’s newest project posits a future dating service that matches soulmates around the world without fail. The story line follows a guy who has the audacity to reject the person chosen for him.

McCoy developed the idea last year while on a working vacation in London, where he noticed the city’s near-universal coverage by surveillance camera to deter crime. He started musing on alternative uses for that collected personal information.

“If someone could organize that information and know what everyone in London was doing and eating and who they’re dating and who they’re going home with, then that’s an incredibly powerful tool,” McCoy said. “I think I have an oddball brain or something, but then I started thinking about how all that stuff could be applied to matchmaking. It would totally subvert Match.com and eHarmony, (where) I think people lie about who they are or they say what they think people will want them to be. But ‘Good Looking,’ my service, knows who they are and can put them together.”

So your “oddball brain” went from surveillance cameras everywhere in London to a service that guarantees to match people with their true soulmates. What appealed to you about that story concept as a potential original screenplay?

In my work, I like introducing a big concept – i.e. a service that matches you to your soulmate with 100% accuracy, which changes the world overnight – and then getting that concept out of the way as quickly as possible in order to focus on the characters.

I thought this particular idea could be a screenplay when I realized the heart-versus-mind conflict such a service would create for the protagonist. “I love this girl… but my soulmate is that that girl.” That’s a tough spot for a character.

How soon in your process did you realize, Okay, I want my Protagonist to find his soulmate, then reject her?

It would have been a very short movie had the protagonist met his soulmate, and then lived happily ever. It was my goal at the beginning of the writing to set up an unconventional love triangle, and nothing is more unconventional than rejecting the person you know is your soulmate.

Was the instinct to go that route a conscious choice to satirize the traditional romantic-comedy model or was it simply a matter of following your creative impulses for where you thought this particular story should go?

Yeah, it was a conscious choice to try and use the tropes of romantic comedy in a different way. Probably more than any other genre, people are used to the rhythm of a romantic comedy – when the guy is supposed to meet the girl, how those cute moments that show them falling in love are supposed to feel, how the declaration of love at the end is supposed to play out – so when you don’t do what you’re supposed to do with those beats, people really go, “wait… what is happening here.” Sometimes that can backfire, because readers start howling about structural flaws, and rightfully so, but I feel like it’s important to experiment sometimes.

In “Good Looking,” the Protagonist is Will who is engaged to Emma. They are extremely different personality types: Will works in financial services, refuses to own a cellphone and other modern technological devices, and as a hobby is trying to build a violin that rivals the sound of a Stradivarius; Emma is a cop and an assertive personality who has a passion for exercise and watching 80s action movies like Red Heat and Days of Thunder. In a typical rom-com, that feels like the classic “guy with the wrong gal” set-up. How conscious were you of that dynamic when developing these two characters?

Very conscious. Again, it’s just flipping standard conventions – the things that in another romantic comedy would be indicators that these two people aren’t supposed to be together, here end up being the things that show they should be together.

Another unusual choice you made was to introduce Sophie, the Protagonist’s semi-official love interest on page 60. Was this a conscious decision to break that conventional wisdom about introducing all the major characters by the end of Act One or do you just not care about supposed screenwriting rules of thumb like that?

I care very deeply about the rules of screenwriting, and I actually love having a structural framework within which you have to work. It forces you to get creative.

When I first wrote Good Looking, my plan was to direct it myself, so I was screwing around with the rules more than I normally would. Sometimes you shrug and just go – why not?

When I rewrote the script after it sold, I gave it a more conventional structure… you meet the rival love interest much earlier, at the end of the first act. I also had to change the protagonist to a female and set it in the present instead of a half-beat in the future, so quite a bit of work has been done, to say the least.

The founder of the Good Looking company is a guy named Theodore. Is it fair to say he functions as a sort of dark wisdom character, that is he has insight into the world, but in the case of Will, it happens to be the wrong insight?

Technology is becoming increasingly powerful and is being incorporated more and more into our lives. I think the point of Good Looking is to say that there is something about being human that can’t be quantified with data or algorithms.

What’s the status of “Good Looking”?

We just put a terrific director named Randall Einhorn on it – he does a lot of “Parks & Recreation” episodes and the entire series of “Wilfred.” We’re out to cast, so I’m excited to see how it comes together.

I can’t help but think that every DNA chromosome in every studio exec’s psyche would be steering him or her toward having the Protagonist in “Good Looking” end up with his soulmate. But as Chris notes, this would have been an awfully short script. Besides this way, it’s a much more interesting story.

It’s great to see writers making interesting, even counterintuitive story choices like Chris has done with “Good Looking.” We need more of that in Hollywood.

Tomorrow in Part 4: Chris talks about his screenplay “Good Kids”.

For Part 1, go here.

Part 2, here.

UPDATE: Yesterday Dw posted this question in comments:

Thanks Chris and Scott for the interview. I read “Get Back” a while back and it was really funny (one of my favorite parts was when they debate going back to stop Hitler but then decide it’s too dangerous so they settle on the 60s). I was just wondering how many scripts had Chris written before “Get Back”.

I forwarded the question to Chris who sent back this response:

I had written two scripts before “Get Back” that I considered “done.” The first was – randomly – a biopic of Marie Curie. Not a comedy at all, but I wrote it so I could enter the running for an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation fellowship for science-based screenwriting while I was at NYU. I actually ended up winning that grant, and they gave me $7500, which was more money than I’d seen before in my life. I spent it all traveling in Fiji, Australia and New Zealand after I graduated, which was how I ended up broke and working the overnight shift at Stop & Shop back in my hometown.

The other script was sort of a Mel Brooks-ish take on the world of high school football, which I wrote just to show people I was funny.

Make sure you jump to comments to thank Chris for the Q&A.

2 thoughts on “Q&A: Screenwriter Chris McCoy, Part 3

  1. Dw says:

    Wow, that was just his 3rd complete script? That’s impressive. Thanks for the response.

  2. Big thanks for the Q&A! Looking forward to the next parts…

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