Interview: Sean Robert Daniels (2012 Nicholl Winner) — Part 3

January 30th, 2013 by

Sean Robert Daniels’ original screenplay “Killers” is a taut, finely crafted thriller that won him a 2012 Nicholl fellowship. And for those of you toiling away on spec scripts outside the United States, Sean can be an inspiration for you as he lives 10,364 air miles away from Los Angeles, all the way in Centurion, South Africa.

I will be posting the whole interview over the course of this week.

Today in Part 3, Sean digs into “Killers,” the screenplay he wrote that won him a Nicholl fellowship.

Scott:  Let’s talk about your script “Killers” which won the Nicholl screenwriting competition. How did you come up with the idea and why did you think it was a strong enough story concept, one worth working on?

Sean:  After I’d done the 190 page behemoth, I was thinking of doing something a little bit differently. I wanted to do a story like Robert Altman’s “Shortcuts”, an ensemble piece, lots of characters. Each of the characters would be involved in a murder in some ways. Either someone would have to kill someone out of a crime of passion, someone would be planning to kill someone, and then there would be someone who was paid to kill. I didn’t end up liking that script but I liked the character of the Hitwoman so she stuck with me. Then I constantly asked myself that question of who would be the last person that she would kill? It came to me that it should be her mother and the whole topic of euthanasia came up in Killers. I guess it came to me a lot and speaks to me because when my aunt was about 19 she had a car accident that left her basically a quadriplegic the rest of her life.

I guess one of the uncomfortable questions that was never openly asked but was always around was would she have had a better life if she hadn’t survived the crash? That very much drove into that.

Scott:  It’s really the emotional, even philosophical core of the story. The protagonist, who is a hired assassin and, therefore, has a certain attitude toward death on a professional level, is confronted on a personal level with this request on the part of her mother in terms of her own physical state.

Sean:  Yeah. It’s something I’m always fascinated about. As a writer, two of the things that fascinate me a lot about people is people’s let’s go with spiritual beliefs or theological beliefs as well as their sexuality. With rare cases, you don’t wear your religion openly outside or your theology openly on the outside. The same with your sexuality. These are two parts of you that are relatively hidden from the naked eye but guide and dictate a huge amount of your choices in life. I’m sure you would have picked it up in “Killers” but one of the little things I was trying to do there in the discussion is it’s only the Hitwoman and the Priest who actually believe in a higher power. Everyone else is kind of atheistic except those two characters. There was that little irony attached to it.

It’s something that I am fascinated about, that idea of if you have someone, for example, that’s extremely evil what would cause them to do a moment of good? Just as you say, what would cause this Woman, for whom killing isn’t that important, to refuse to do it? In essence, the first attempt at writing “Killers” my initial goal was to actually have the Woman and the Mother reconcile, but every time I tried to write that version of the script it just felt false and it fought me until I realized that they hated each other too much.

Scott:  I don’t know if you’re much of a fan of Carl Jung at all, but this idea of a shadow that is repressed aspects of the psyche. I could see what you’re saying in terms of your protagonist, that it would have been a false ending had she not been confronted to go through with this thing all the way because, really, what her destiny is, in terms of her psyche, is to confront the opposite of what she does. She’s a hired killer. What is a situation here where she would be called upon to do something on a personal level with her mother? There’s almost an inevitability or destiny to that, don’t you think?

Sean:  I completely agree. It’s one of those ‑‑ fate has an unnerving manner of bringing these moments of confrontation into your life and this was hers. It seems to echo in real life, as well. Your hubris catches up with you.

Scott:  The protagonist is a female. At the time you made that choice, I’m sure you’re aware that males dominate roles in genre movies. Had you been influenced by projects like Salt, Hanna, or even The Hunger Games, or did the character just came to you as a female assassin?

Sean:  When the character first came about in my mind, none of those movies had even been conceived. I actually haven’t seen Hanna or the The Hunger Games. I’ve only seen Salt, which I wasn’t a big fan of. I think, actually, for me, it’s one of those things. I have a fascination with women. I realize that I’m saying this with my girlfriend in the kitchen, listening to us as we chat. I find women fascinating. They think differently to men and there is an enigma to them. I always found a lot of the times, when I was writing, that I would ask myself would the dynamics of a scene be different if instead of two men there was a man and a woman or how would this scene read differently if this person was a woman instead of a man.

Quite often I find I might start an idea with a male protagonist and I find I get more interested when I change it to a woman.

Scott:  You have a wonderful moment at the very end of the script where the protagonist intersects with an old woman and they have a conversation about clouds, and a story about children in the clouds. It feels like a very female driven moment, very intuitive and evocative, so I’m curious where you came up with that idea.

Sean:  That is actually a conversation, something that is a rare thing in my writing, that is almost, verbatim, a conversation I had with an old woman on a plane. I was flying from South Africa to Botswana and that moment, the last part about the children in the clouds, happened to me. It was this lovely old Dutch lady. That conversation, as I said, is almost word for word. The thing is, in the original draft of “Killers,” the first draft was only 70 pages long. Then the Nicholl script was 80 pages. The current draft is now 103. Initially, it just ended with the woman sitting alone in the airplane. I just knew that there was something missing from the script and that conversation that happened to me just rolled around in my head. I sat down and I wrote it.

I’m never entirely sure what it means but I know it fits and I think, for me, it lends itself to this idea of innocence, that somehow innocence still exists. The Old Woman that sits next to her can sit and talk about this magical innocence of childhood which, in many ways, has been robbed from the woman.

Scott:  In the script, no one has a proper name. It’s Woman, Doctor, Mother. What was the inspiration behind that choice?

Sean:  I used to write for theater before I started writing films and when I wrote stage plays the very first thing I would do is come up with the play build. Captain Jack Donkey, a 70 year old Lieutenant, et cetera, et cetera. I would write those and have my characters’ names and biographies well thought out before I started to write the script. With film, I wrote more intuitively and a number of my scripts will actually start where it is just man, woman, child, dentist until the name comes naturally. With “Killers,” one of the things that I really wanted to do was to have readers, and eventually, I guess, an audience, take the characters for purely who they are. I found that if I named the woman, if I gave her the name Chloe, then the name Chloe would bring all sorts of connotations to whoever was watching the film.

They might be married to a Chloe. They might have had a sister called Chloe. It brings the aspects of the Chloes throughout their life to this woman.

I wanted the audience to just treat her for who she was. By leaving the characters unnamed they, I think in a way, become a purer version of who they are.

In the same manner of speaking, it’s the same type of reason why the reason the Woman and the Mother hate each other is never fully defined. Because I felt that if I pinpointed a reason then half the audience would sit there and go, “That is a perfectly justifiable reason,” and the other half would go, “No, that’s not good enough.” Then you’ve lost half the audience.

Scott:  You also kind of demythologize it. It’s like one of the powers of the Hannibal Lecter character in The Silence of the Lambs. We know that he is a psychopath, that he’s a cannibal, but we don’t really know why. That mystery adds to the mythology of the character, the power of Hannibal Lecter.

Sean:  Oh, I agree. I think what someone said…There’s a skill to lying. If you’re going to lie, you give short answers so that the person you’re lying to fills the story in their own way. If you give too many details then they can start picking holes in what you’re saying.

Tomorrow in Part 4, Sean talks about what winning the 2012 Nicholl Fellowship was like and how it enabled him to break into Hollywood.

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

To see Sean’s acceptance speech at the Nicholl Fellowship ceremony, go here.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

Sean is represented by Kaplan/Perrone.

4 thoughts on “Interview: Sean Robert Daniels (2012 Nicholl Winner) — Part 3

  1. WriterCarmen says:

    Something Sean said brought to mind this NPR piece from last year about a man who has been photographing Catholics out and about on Ash Wednesday for 15 years. They quote him:
    “The beauty of Ash Wednesday,” Miller [who is not Catholic] explains on his blog, “is that very ordinary people, heading to the train, to work or school, exercise the simple act of wearing their faith for this one day a year. A very old ritual against the backdrop of modern society.”

    Just an intriguing aside, especially since the day is approaching again.

  2. Sean & Scott, thanks for the interview and congratulations to Sean on the Nicholl result.

    As someone who’s had a few false starts on trying to write a Hitwoman movie, even though I think I have some original takes on the genre, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s technically one of the more difficult genres to write (on top of being notoriously hard to sell).

    Moreover, unless you have an actress like Angelina Jolie or Gina Carano, it’s hard to take this kind of role, written for a man, and just change the gender.

    There are two main problems:
    i) Psychologically men & women are different, and while existential loner works great for a male protagonist, it just doesn’t for a girl.
    ii) Physically, there’s a huge difference, and in the action scenes that invariably populate such a movie, again what works great for a man, doesn’t work nearly as well for a woman, simply because of the believability issue.

    I wonder how Sean dealt with these issues.

    The reason I finally shelved these feature scripts is that in order to deal with these specific issues and a desire to avoid any misogyny and make her totally kick-ass, there was a tendency to “fetishize” (for want of a better word) my female anti-heroine protag, in almost a puerile, comic book way. That was particularly true in set pieces and action scenes where I ended up writing some very gimmicky scenes (btw, in my research I discovered a whole set of sub-cultures dedicated to such women.).

    Consequently, she either became a very one dimensional character or the feature ended up as an extended Nikita episode.

  3. @plinytheelder_t

    Good morning, thanks for the thought provoking question…
    I think I’ll start by clearing something up a little:

    In the interview with Scott I mention that sometimes I’ll get more interested in a protagonist when I change their gender from a man to a woman…but this is making it sound like I just flip a switch and do a “find-and-replace” search, swapping out all the ‘he’s and ‘his’s for ‘she’s and ‘her’s…
    When, in fact, it’s as difficult a process as you suggest – men and women have well documented differences.

    So, how did I approach these differences? I’ll start with your second point:

    ii) Since, generally, woman are physically slighter than men (The pilot of “Wire In The Blood” deals with this in a very classy and informative way) it always seemed unlikely that a Hitwoman would try and kill the same way men do. A passing knowledge of murder statistics will tell you that women tend to murder through predominantly non physical means – poison (the number one choice), shooting (unexpectedly, so gun in a gun totin’ shootout), stabbing while their victim is sleeping/not expecting the knife.
    In Killers there are no action scenes involving the Hitwoman (I agree with you that this does dampen the believeability, and it was vital to me all the characters in Killers are seen as real) but she does kill four people – shooting two, poisoning one and breaking the neck (in a moment of surprise) of one more.
    So maybe my advice here would be summed up like so – If you want your Hitwoman screenplay to more in the realm of the real, as opposed to enjoyably escapist fun (Alias, Mr & Mrs Smith etc), then avoid masculine methods of murder and perhaps classical brawn vs brawn action scenes. If you can’t compete on a physical level what’s left? Personally I find writing brain vs brawn so much more fun to write (and brain vs brain even more so)

    Okay, now to your first point:

    i) I completely agree that the psychological nature of women and men is vastly different (If it wasn’t I think the world’d be a far more dull place to live) However, I must entirely disagree with your statement that the characterisation of a girl as an existential loner doesn’t work. South Africa is, sadly, a country that still has a very patriarchal nature. Not only are women still seen, in many circles, as inferior to men, they are seen as incomplete until they are married and raising children as a housewife.
    In my opinion, there is a certain element of this mentality prevalent throughout the rest of the world…just look at the movies – the role of the ‘brooding male protagonist’ has been around for decades…you never saw a ‘brooding female protagonist’ because the predominant view, socialogically, was that married women were safe and ideal, while single women were femme fatales or spinsters.
    These days it seems that, at least in the movies, you can be independent as a woman…but that just means you can have a job and a boyfriend/husband and family. Society wise, I think people are still very uncomfortable with the idea of a commitment free, career driven woman who genuinely has no interest in having a family of her own – the love only of ‘I’. Yet we love bachelors.
    Simply, Women can be existential loners, as long as we can accept that not everything a women thinks about is how to keep a man in her life or exist solely within the structure of a family.

    Perhaps it’s time we wrote more female characters like this, then maybe more people would believe in them.

    * * *

    So, thanks again for your questions…if you have any more – please let me know!

    All the best,

    Sean Robert Daniels


    (unexpectedly, so gun in a gun totin’ shootout)

    Should have read,

    (unexpectedly, so NOT in a gun totin’ shootout)

Leave a Reply