Interview: Michael Werwie (2012 Nicholl Winner, 2012 Black List) — Part 1

January 7th, 2013 by

Michael Werwie’s original screenplay “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” not only won the young screenwriter a 2012 Nicholl fellowship, it also landed on the 2012 Black List, garnering 31 votes, the 7th highest total of any script on the list this year.

Michael was kind enough to agree to an interview and recently we had a wide-ranging hour-long conversation in which we covered a lot of territory related to screenwriting. I will be posting the whole interview over the course of this week, definitely a Q&A you will want to read in its entirety as Michael offers some terrific insight into the craft.

Today in Part 1, we cover how Michael got into screenwriting:

Scott:  OK, so first off, I think this is the stuff of legends. You were all of 11 years old when you bought the Syd Field book, “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting,” is that right?

Michael:  Yes, that’s correct.

Scott:  When did you become aware of the fact that there are people who actually write movies?

Michael:  I was a huge horror movie fan and I believe it was in the back of a Fangoria magazine that I saw ads for Syd Field and Final Draft. I was also making movies with our home camcorder, and at some point I put two and two together and realized that they weren’t just shot sequentially, they were written by somebody. There was actually a book out there that tells you how to write them, and a piece of software that helps you format them. I went out and bought Sid Field, and shortly after that got Final Draft, on floppy disk.

Scott:  Were you, at that point, reading screenplays?

Michael:  This was pre-internet so I didn’t have access to them but I remember buying the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” screenplay through a mail‑order company. I remember reading it and being confused by the archaic format.

Scott:  Previously had you been writing or interested in novels or short stories?

Michael:  Yeah, I had been writing short stories for a while. In grade school we’d have class assignments to write a Halloween story for the local paper or do a book report in a creative way. Any opportunity to be creative, I took it.

Scott:  This is Wisconsin we’re talking about?

Michael:  Yeah, born and raised in a suburb of Milwaukee called Whitefish Bay.

Scott:  I’m assuming that you were always kind of a movie guy, your family too?

Michael:  Yes. My family watched movies all the time.

Scott:  I understand that you wrote your first full‑length screenplay when you were 15.

Michael:  Yes. I began it when was 15. I think I finished it when I was 17 or so.

Scott:  What was it about?

Michael:  It was like anybody’s first script. It was about four friends who were hanging out the summer before college. It was a really bad character drama where nothing really happened.

Scott:  People kind of standing around, smoking cigarettes, talking about the meaning of life…

Michael:  Yeah, exactly.

Scott:  You went to USC as an undergrad.

Michael:  Yes.

Scott:  What was your major there?

Michael:  I majored in Business and triple‑minored in Psychology, Spanish, and Film. I always planned to write after I graduated, just chose to study something else that I thought would be more versatile when I graduated.

Scott:  As I understand it, you got into doing hedge funds after you graduated.

Michael:  I interned while I was in school for a hedge fund and also for Smith Barney. I was interested in investment banking but then realized it didn’t leave me with enough mental energy to be creative at the end of the day and that was always the priority.

Scott:  Is that how you segued into a lengthy stint as a bartender?

Michael:  Yeah, once I graduated I took a job bartending, and I bartended for nearly 10 years.

Scott:  That was in L.A.?

Michael:  Yes, West Hollywood. I was at one place for the entire duration of its run, from day one until the last day, called O-Bar. Then that closed and I went to another place not too far away.

Scott:   How has bartending fit into your writing schedule?

Michael:  Bartending couldn’t have been a more perfect fit. I had my days completely free and I used that time to write. I’d wake up, eat breakfast, and write, and that just became a discipline, to the point where if I skipped it or didn’t have time to do it for whatever reason, it felt strange. I would do that every day, and would also take meetings, if and when I had those (which were few and far between for many, many years). Bartending allowed me to make the most money while working the fewest hours. It was a good balance because I could treat writing like a full‑time job and still pay the bills.

Scott:  I understand you’ve written 13 scripts. Were they similar or different genres?

Michael:  The first five were all over the place. The fifth was a thriller and the first that got a unanimously positive response. It actually placed in that year’s Nicholl in the top 30, so I was encouraged by that. The next five scripts were various types of thrillers. I took a very business approach and tried to brand myself as a thriller writer, and during that process, I learned a lot about writing in general. So by the time I got to my 10th or 11th script, I just started writing whatever I felt like writing, regardless of genre, and trusted that I had the skill and craft to do it well. So the last few scripts I’ve written were more character‑driven dramas.  Now, I don’t worry about genre.  I let the story decide that.

Scott:  So 13 scripts. At what point in the process of writing all those stories did you start to feel like, “You know what? I’m kind of getting this. I’m understanding this craft of screenwriting”?

Michael:  I thought that very early on. It wasn’t necessarily true, but I would say around the fifth script, I thought I knew what I was doing and that I was ready to have career doing it. I had certain external things validating me — placements in the Nicholl and other competitions, occasional meetings with managers. Nothing ever came of those things, but you don’t have the foresight to know that there’s still a lot more to be learned. So nine years ago I thought I was ready to be a professional writer. Now that I look back on what has happened since then, little did I know then I was far from it and had a lot to learn.

Tomorrow in Part 2, we dig into what attracted Michael to the script project “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” and his approach to writing it.

Please stop by comments to thank Michael for taking the time for the interview and post any follow-up questions you may have.

Michael is repped by UTA and Evolution Entertainment.

Comment Archive

7 thoughts on “Interview: Michael Werwie (2012 Nicholl Winner, 2012 Black List) — Part 1

  1. HOLY COW!!! A hometown boy! Whitefish Bay is a mere 20 minutes south of me! This is GREAT! Wow, this absolutely made my day!

  2. mattmallon91 says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time, Michael. Fellow USC student here, in the screenwriting program. I’d love to know more of your thoughts on genre and branding yourself as a writer. It’s a concept that I’ve been struggling with a lot lately. I’ve written 10 scripts, and although I’ve got 3 solid comedies in that bunch that would help me brand myself as a comedy writer, I’m also interested in other genres and have written thriller, drama, and action-adventure as well. I’ve evolved as a writer and as a person since I wrote my comedy scripts, a couple years ago, and I’m finding myself not very interested in comedy anymore and more interested in thrillers and drama. Yet at the moment, I’ve been recommended by professors to brand myself as a comedy writer because that’s what I have the most to show for. So I guess my question is, how important is branding? Should I try to rekindle my comedy muse to brand myself as that type of writer, or should I follow my artistic inclinations and forget about branding? Thank you so much!

  3. MichaelWerwie says:

    mattmallon91 – There are benefits to branding yourself but I believe the most important thing is to feel passionate and connected to the material you’re writing. If the passion’s not there, the genre’s irrelevant because it probably won’t be that engaging of a script. I’ve come to reject the idea of being a “thriller” writer or “comedy” writer or “sci-fi writer” and just concentrate on being a writer of good stories. Now the business people love to put you in a box or on a list and that will always be out of your control, but if you’re writing your next spec, go with what gets you excited each morning. My Nicholl/Black List script is a character drama, despite the genre label attributed to it on the lists. It’s dark and small with a weird tone and something no studio would ever touch. But guess what? I’m meeting at every studio about all sorts of projects ranging from drama to thriller to sci-fi to action to you name it. Even though my sample isn’t studio fare, the execs are excited by the voice and my handling of character and are curious what I might bring to their more commercial projects. The two scripts that have done the most for my career are my two least commercial stories. The first got me my manager; the second won the Nicholl, placed on the Black List, and essentially launched my career. The commonality between the two? My passion for the material. Write what you want to see. Also, if a manager or agent tells you that writing in different genres “confuses the marketplace,” find someone smarter.

    Jeff Messerman – Great to meet another cheesehead. Go Pack!

  4. Erica R Maier says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! I look forward to reading the rest! How difficult was it to secure an agent/manager who gets your writing? When in the process did that happen?

  5. MichaelWerwie says:

    Erica R Maier – I started working with my current manager about seven years in. Most managers at legit management companies are smart, hard working, well-intentioned people but it’s a lot like dating – you’re not going to click with everyone, and you’re only going to know it when you feel it. It’s also important to note that there wasn’t a specific moment when he “offered” to represent me. We just had reason to keep meeting and the relationship grew organically so that when I started needing him on a daily basis, the relationship was already there. Looking back, I can clearly see I wasn’t an official client for the first two and a half years, but he always made himself available to me so that the good will was already there when it came time to make it official. Also, I’m a firm believer that a new writer should begin with a manager rather than an agent. An agent will come when it’s time.

    1. Erica R Maier says:

      Great insight. Thanks again!

  6. Scott says:

    Thanks, Michael, for taking the time to respond to reader questions. Looking forward to the conversation tied to your interview during the rest of this week.

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