Interview: Michael Werwie (2012 Nicholl Winner, 2012 Black List) — Part 2

January 8th, 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 2, we dig into Michael’s process in writing his award-winning screenplay “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile”:

Scott:  You mentioned in your acceptance speech for the ‘Nicholl” how a friend described the life of a writer as a case of crickets or whiplash. What do you mean by that?

Michael:  I think even as a working writer, there are going to be long stretches where you’re working on assignment or working on a spec and there’s not much activity on the business end. There’s not a lot of incoming calls and, just like a struggling writer, you’re kind of off everybody’s radar while you’re at work. Then when you write something that’s good, that’s well‑received, and there’s a flurry of activity, all of a sudden everything’s happening all at once. In my situation, once I won the Nicholl, it was literally overnight. So from a third party’s perspective, it looks like an overnight success, when really, I’ve been working 15, 20 years to get to this point. For the last few months, I’ve been taking meetings nonstop. I’ve taken about 60 meetings in two months so this is definitely my whiplash phase.

Scott:  That’s a natural segue to get into the script that has garnered all this attention, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.” It’s a story about the serial killer Ted Bundy, essentially told from his perspective. How did you hit on that idea?

Michael:  I did some research in the serial killer arena for a different script I was writing and came across his story. I didn’t really know much about it and made a mental note to go back to it. When I did, I thought the story was too good to pass up. It had been done many times before, but it had never been done from his point-of-view, without any violence in it, and that was what attracted me to the story. Had I written this years ago I probably would have written the slasher version of it, but this was much more interesting to me now.

Scott:  That’s a really interesting choice you made in that you really don’t give away whether Bundy is guilty until the very, very end. At what point in the story development process did you make that decision?

Michael:  The common thread among everyone who knew him was that he had this facade that led you to believe that there was no possible way for this to be true. It was essentially a con man story. It was a classic unreliable narrator, and once I decided on that, you could have him say pretty much anything. He could defend his innocence the entire script, and the most powerful revelation would be the one time that he admits to it. And remember, the drama is not from his admission of guilt, it’s from his admission of guilt to the person he loves most.  That’s something that was partially by design and partially by surprise after having written it and realizing how effective it was. It became a story about a con man who manipulates and seduces the reader just like he did the people in his life.

Scott:  You also made another interesting narrative choice, which was to spend a significant amount of time from the perspective of Liz, Ted’s girlfriend. What was the thought process there where you were splitting up the narrative between these two points of view?

Michael:  Well, the script is deceptive in that it’s actually her story. The device that structures the script is a letter he’s written to her from jail, which allows us to be put in her point-of-view as he manipulates it. We, like her, are the ones being seduced by Ted. We fall in love with him. We are attracted to his charisma, his intellect, and everybody likes the underdog so everybody sides with the underdog. You have to remember he’s not lying to us. He’s just leaving out portions of the truth.  The core of the story is really a dysfunctional relationship, something that anybody can relate to, just in this instance the stakes are dramatically heightened.

Scott:  Yes, it’s like she functions as us, as the outsider coming in. I think you mentioned that offers an opportunity for us to feel that sense of seduction, how smart, sly and clever Bundy is.

Michael:  It’s a seduction, and it’s a betrayal. At the Keyser Soze moment at the end, your allegiances completely flip from one character to the other, depending on how much knowledge you have going into the script.

Scott:  That’s interesting. I lived in Aspen from 1978 to 1980 and Ted Bundy was obviously quite famous on the local scene because of his escapes there from Pitkin County Jail. But you’re saying there are a significant number of people nowadays who really aren’t that familiar with Ted Bundy.

Michael:  Oh, absolutely. It’s a generational thing. I would say people my age or younger typically don’t know enough about the story to know who it is going into it, and the twist works great. People older than me typically have at least a vague recollection of it because they lived through it. But luckily the read is not dependent on the twist because the script covers a phase of Bundy’s life that most people don’t know a lot about. The crimes he’s famous for have already happened and we begin with his arrest.

Scott:  You mentioned you had read several books, primary sources, people that knew Bundy. How much other research did you do, and how long of a period of time did you spend researching it?

Michael:  I would say probably three months reading and watching everything I could get my hands on. There’s a lot you can find online as far as trial video and transcripts and interviews and crime reports. His FBI file has recently been made public which you can get directly off the FBI website, that chronicles a lot of the events. The courthouses have tens of thousands of pages of transcript. Almost every character is a public domain character, and it wasn’t that hard to corroborate different sources because the events have been well-covered in books and media.

Scott:  The process of writing the script, how long did that take you? How many drafts?

Michael:  I usually do anywhere between two and 10 drafts of each script. It took me maybe three or four months to write the first few drafts. I put it away for almost a year, and then did another pass on it to submit to the Nicholl and that’s what won.  I call it my fifth draft.

Scott:  What about this story made you think, “You know what? This would make a great movie”? What are the narrative elements that struck you either at the beginning and/or along the way where you said, “I think this can really work as a movie”?

Michael:  It’s a movie I would love to see. I didn’t think it would do anything in the marketplace to be perfectly honest. I thought the characters were compelling, I thought there were two really great roles for actors, I thought it would be something for a director to sink her teeth into. But as for its commercial potential or market value, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in it. I was actually pretty surprised as it advanced in each round of the Nicholl. The response has just been unbelievable as far as who’s calling in about it, who’s showing interest, who I’m meeting with – far beyond anything I ever expected.  It all began with a character, a tone, and my own obsession.

Scott:  Beyond that level of cool narrative elements, marketability, and all that, it really boils down oftentimes to what’s the emotional resonance a writer has for the content in making a decision to go forward. What was that for you? What about this story on an emotional or psychological level really appealed to you?

Michael:  I think that’s an important point. For me, the lesson I learned writing this was the importance to being connected to and passionate about the material. In this script in particular, I think there are a lot of relatable elements in that it portrays a dysfunctional relationship. At its core, I think anyone can relate to the fundamental issues between Ted and Liz.

Scott:  How about the title, where did you come up with that?

Michael:  The title comes from one of the verdicts. I thought it was so bold and absurd given the tone of 75 percent of the script, and then it becomes less ironic and more literal as the story concludes, and that was very interesting to me.

Scott:  What’s the status of the script at this point?

Michael:  Michael Costigan is producing and we’re currently out to directors.

Tomorrow in Part 3, we learn about Michael’s experience in winning the Nicholl Fellowship and landing on the Black List.

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.

6 thoughts on “Interview: Michael Werwie (2012 Nicholl Winner, 2012 Black List) — Part 2

  1. Another fine example of going the route of adaptation when writing a spec.

  2. dw says:

    Michael and Scott, thanks for the interview. Michael’s acceptance speech on the Nicholl website is really terrific. He entered the competition something like 29 times over 10 years I believe. Hard work paid off.

  3. LisaAldin says:

    Thank you for the interview Michael! And congratulations!

  4. SabinaGiado says:

    Seriously? 29 times in 10 years! Good Lord, I’m going to say that Michael Werwie is officially my hard-core screenwriting, stick-to-your-guns hero!

    I’d like a little more info about his research process. Where did he start? What did he find was the most useful? Did he make notes? Did a plot come to him as he researched or did he already have a plot in mind?

    1. MichaelWerwie says:

      SabinaGiado — I think we get into some of that in the next parts of the interview. But in short, I started by reading/watching anything and everything, made lots of notes and dog-eared book pages, and there was already a chronological plot. The task was cutting it down to what was essential for this particular story, pacing it out, and shaping each act with a dramatic rise and fall. Then after the first few drafts, forgetting about the research and trying to shape it into compelling drama because at the end of the day, this isn’t a biopic or book report, it’s a dramatic story.

  5. TheQuietAct says:

    Well done Michael!

    We get knocked down but we get damn well back up again!

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