Q&A: Screenwriter Chris McCoy, Part 4

February 23rd, 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 4 — “Good Kids”

In terms of “Good Kids,” which made the 2011 Black List, here is a logline I found: “The story of four overachieving high school students on Cape Cod who reinvent themselves the summer after graduation. This is SAY ANYTHING meets EASY A.” If you were forced at gunpoint to come up with a two movie mash-up for “Good Kids,” would it be Say Anything meets Easy A, or two other movies?

First of all – that would be the strangest demand to receive at gunpoint ever, though I love the idea of an armed criminal going around Hollywood holding up writers and ordering new loglines.

A big reference point for “Good Kids” was “American Graffiti” – that summer after high school but before college, when you’re kinda seeing your friends in the context that you’ve previously known them for the last time – so maybe I’d include that in the blank-meets-blank formula. I kinda hate that way of pitching projects, because you always have to reference hit movies. You can never say what something actually is – “This is Kazaam meets The Rum Diary,” or something like that.

I may write that script.

Of the three scripts, “Good Kids” seems like the most mainstream story, slotting right into that R-rated comedy frenzy that has hit Hollywood since the success of The Hangover and Bridesmaids. Were you specifically trying to write with that trend in mind or is this an example of you just following a story you came up with you thought was interesting?

I’m glad you think it’s so commercial! Other people thought it was pretty indie, so that’s good to hear.

I try not to write with a trend in mind, because by the time you’re done with the script, the trend is somewhere else. I can see how The Hangover would pop into your head at the beginning of “Good Kids” because of the flash-forward story frame, which is effective as hell, but is admittedly probably being used a bit too much these days. But on the whole, I have to connect with a story or find it interesting in order to force myself to sit down for a couple hundred hours and write it.

Speaking of story concept, how did you come up with this one?

I grew up on Cape Cod and I was very much a good kid growing up – never drank, never partied, just wanted to get the hell out of town and go to New York. I had several friends who were the same way, so it felt natural to write those characters. The group of us had a kind of perspective-shifting summer before college, and in “Good Kids” I kinda took that seed and pushed it to its extreme.

Plus, there’s sort of a wish-fulfillment aspect to it – my summer job was a tennis pro, so that’s where that stuff in the script came from. The nice thing about writing is your characters can do the stuff you never did. Ha.

One distinguishing dynamic of “Good Kids” as compared to the other two scripts the ensemble nature of the Protagonist group. What was your experience working with a group of main characters and their multiple subplots?

When you’re working with a bunch of characters, it’s important to really have their arcs hammered out beforehand so you don’t lose them within the context of the scene. As long as you know where they’re all going eventually, you have a sense of what you need to do with them when they’re together.

There a lot of complications, plot twists and turns in this story, as well as setups, payoffs, and callbacks, befitting a movie in the tradition of a classic farce. What are the particular challenges of writing a script where you have to interweave a complicated plot?

If your main priority is building characters who are well-rounded and whose actions feel believable, a lot of those setups and callbacks will take care of themselves. If you’ve constructed the right kind of foundation, you can get away with those big, broad set pieces down the road.

There are some elements common to all three scripts. For example, a male Protagonist finds himself in a tense situation in which he may or may not be involved in a relationship with the right woman. What about that dynamic appeals to you as a writer?

Ha. When you’re dating in your twenties, I think it’s probably just something that’s on your mind a lot. I wrote “Good Looking” after the breakup of a long-term relationship, so that’s where that idea of am-I-with-the-right-person came from. I think whatever you’re going through in your personal life naturally informs your writing whether you want it to or not.

Another area of commonality is the quirky nature of your characters in that each of them has some highly specific and unusual traits, hobbies, or habits. And once again, we hit that question: Is this a conscious thing on your part or more a reflection of your creative instincts?

When I’m building a character, it takes me a little time to get to know him or her, but eventually I get to a point where I say “okay, this is how this woman speaks… this is what this guy’s home looks like…” Once I understand the characters world, those hidden traits and talents begin to reveal themselves, which can be a little bit strange sometimes – like looking into the private life of someone who you are actually creating. But that’s why it’s important to be as specific as you can with your characters – the more specific you make them, the more ideas will pop into your head about who they are, which makes them even more specific. It’s like a character development feedback loop.

Of course, sometimes you use traits that you have in yourself or you see in your friends. For instance, I’m very good at catching food with my mouth. It’s a useless talent. But I thought it was a logical trait to give the protagonist in “Good Kids,” because it would allow an entire party to be watching him at the same time, waiting to see if he’s going to catch a gummi bear thrown from a great distance.

What is the status of “Good Kids”?

I wrote “Good Kids” with the intention of directing it myself, so I’m putting it together with the guys over at Depth of Field, which is Chris and Paul Weitz’s company. Directing is a new world for me, but they’ve been incredibly supportive and smart about the process.

“But that’s why it’s important to be as specific as you can with your characters – the more specific you make them, the more ideas will pop into your head about who they are, which makes them even more specific. It’s like a character development feedback loop.”

I couldn’t agree more with this comment. Everything worth anything in a story emerges from the characters including macro items like goals, wants and needs to micro items like being good at catching food in his/her mouth.

Tomorrow in Part 5: Chris shares his insights into the craft of screenwriting.

For Part 1, go here.

Part 2 here.

Part 3 here.

One thought on “Q&A: Screenwriter Chris McCoy, Part 4

  1. Question about the first time directing. So are you going to just jump in heads first with this feature? Or have you directed shorts?

    I’m interested in that process–how a writer, first time director goes through that process.

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