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 4, Sean talks about what winning the 2012 Nicholl Fellowship was like and how it enabled him to break into Hollywood.
Scott: Let’s get to the juicy part here where you found out you won the Nicholl.
Sean: Well, first of all, what happened was ‑‑ as you know, these days we don’t really sit with a script in your drawer, but it was sitting on my hard drive and had been doing so since about the middle of last year, and I had no real idea what to do with it. And then I’d forgotten about the Nicholl until I saw a tweet from IMDB that the closing date was coming up. So I went, ah, I remember this competition. But foolishly, when I was in my final year of high school I looked at the Nicholl and thought, hey, you know what? I’m studying film next year, I should enter, I’ll be more than qualified to write for this in a year [laughs] . And that didn’t turn out quite the way I expected.
So yes, I checked the rules and saw that I still hadn’t earned the $5,000, and my script was original and in English. So then, I don’t know why I was dithering or prevaricating about entering, but I went back to the school where I’m teaching. And every now and again they rent out a hall for business function, and the business function that was on on this particular day was themed Oscar Night. So I walked onto the campus, and the whole place was filled with Oscars, and I just went, well, I’ll take the hint. So I borrowed my friend’s credit card and entered.
And then, to be honest, I think part of why I entered was just a little bit of verification, if that’s the right word. I really just wanted to get through to the quarterfinals, just to say that it’s good enough to get that far. So, when I got through to the quarterfinals, I was happy, I was kind of content.
When I got through to the semifinals, for the first time I got a little bit of nervousness, because now suddenly I was closer to a real goal. While I was on a photographic camp with my students, and from looking on the Facebook page I knew that that week that I was on the photographic camp we would hear if we made it through to the finals. And equally, that you would get a phone call if you made it through and you would get an email if you hadn’t.
So, I was avoiding my phone because I was very much enjoying just being a semifinalist and didn’t want the journey to end. And then we were sitting up quite late, actually, about midnight drinking and playing cards with the students when I checked my phone and I saw that I had an email. And my girlfriend was sitting across the table from me, and she could see my face. My face kind of fell.
And then I opened up the email, and the first lines were, Dear Sean, we’ve been trying to phone you all day, we just can’t seem to get the number right. And I don’t think I finished the email [laughs] , I just went woo‑hoo! And then I was shaking for about an hour at least, and then I phoned Greg and Joan at the Nicholl and thanked them. I don’t know what their first impression must’ve been, because I was like, something along the lines, if I say something stupid it’s because I’m drunk. [laughter] But you’ve kind of sobered me up right now [laughs] .
Scott: So funny!
Sean: And it was amazing. I mean, if you draw a line from that day, before that day I had my own little path, which was a very patient, slow‑moving, almost glacial‑moving path to being a screenwriter and being a part of Hollywood and the film industry. And then you get announced as a finalist, and it changes. Suddenly I was getting emails and a massive amount of phone calls from agents to managers wanting to chat and find out whoever I was, and the courting season began, which was very flattering. And then, what was also wonderful was my friends and family were very supportive, and my students were ecstatic. I think that for them, like a lot of us, when you go and you’re studying film, you have the dream of Hollywood and you have the dream of making movies and TV. But especially in a country like South Africa, it feels very, very far away. So I think for my students the fact that this happened to me makes their dream seem all the more realistic.
Scott: With the growing internationalization of the American film market combined with how small the world is nowadays given the reach of technology and communication, I would think people in international locations will be inspired by your story.
Sean: Well, at the very least, that’s something I hope happens. In South Africa, in this year’s Nicholl, only nine people entered. Only 17 people entered from the entire African continent.
Sean: And to me, one of the things I did almost as soon as I got back from the Nicholl week was I asked Greg Beal to send my email to the other entrants from South Africa. And I think last week or the week before I actually had breakfast with all the ones that were in this part of the world, because I really want to kind of…From what I’ve experienced, there’s a huge lack of community with screenwriters in South Africa, and it’s something that riding this wave I hope to kind of stir up a little more.
Scott: Did you sign with a manager or an agent?
Sean: I did, I signed with Josh Goldenberg of Kaplan/Perrone. I took a little bit of a risk, not with him, I couldn’t be happier, but because initially I’d been getting advice that I should wait until I was actually in Los Angeles and meeting all these people who wanted to speak with me. But my feeling was that it’s a month’s salary to fly out to Los Angeles, so for me it made more sense to take a risk and sign with someone before I flew over for the Nicholl week, so that my week would be spent with A, the activities in the Nicholl week, and then B, my manager would organize meetings for me. And that’s how it turned out. What I was really happy with was, when I signed with Josh we spent a week working on a new draft of Killers. Because obviously, as you can imagine, in that first week I would’ve sent my script out to a couple people so that they could see it, and then of course it gets everywhere.
I mean, within a day or two I think our scripts had popped up on the tracking board. And then there was the small thing where a script shadow had a copy of our scripts and was trying to pass it around. That was a bit of an ill taste, I have to admit. So, Josh’s idea was that if we could get a fresh draft, a new one, then when he sent the script around it wouldn’t be something that everyone had read, it’d be something new.
And I will admit, there was a small nervousness. When you do a script about a hit woman and there’s no gun fights in the whole film, I was worried for a moment that he would want me to maybe push it in a different direction. But he was great, he was actually pushing in the completely opposite direction, kind of, do you need these lines? Can you say it with less? Can it be darker? You can explore more.
And things like, he asked my reasoning for that final scene that you liked. And I said to him at the time, and I still struggle with exactly knowing what it meant, and his response was, well, you like the scene, you know how it fits, and that’s what’s important. So, I’d say in that last week we had quite a number of phone calls, and I added in about 20‑odd pages into the script.
Scott: What’s the status with it now? Are you going out with it?
Sean: Yeah, it’s going out. It’s out now. Josh’s been exhausting himself over the past week sending it out to people.
Scott: An exciting time for you.
Sean: It is. Last week I said to [my girlfriend] Kate, “I don’t want to get too excited because I don’t want to raise hopes and then…” Because, you know, it’s a fishing expedition. You’re going to get 99 percent of the people saying “No,” and all you’re hoping for is the one person to say “Yes.” But as Kate pointed out to me, what I should be excited about and what I am excited about is that my script is in Hollywood and people are reading it. That is an amazing feeling.
Scott: In your acceptance speech, you said “writing is both terrifying and magical.” What did you mean by that?
Sean: The terror and magic walk hand in hand because the whole time what you’re doing is you’re creating non‑existent worlds, non‑existent people and hoping that once it gets out of your mind and onto paper and other people are reading it that they respond to it even remotely the same way that you do, that they treat these people as real. They treat these worlds that you create as real and are moved to either laugh or cry or be horrified. And so, the great joy of it comes from when you’re doing it. For me, when I’m writing, I’ve tried many times to do various writing techniques, drawing outlines and using cue cards. And for me, the only way that I find I can really work with writing is to just write. I imagine as I’m writing that I’m a person in the scene watching it as it’s going on, and my subconscious takes a very strong hold of me. Especially in the early drafts, I have very little control over what’s happening. I take the control more in the rewriting.
And letting your subconscious loose is to me something that is both magical and terrifying. It’s that other thing as well as that, I think Neil Gaiman said a number of times, he makes a living telling stories and he’s just waiting for the day someone comes along to tell him to get a real job.
And there is something to that, you know. I really believe that storytellers in whatever medium are amongst the most important people in the world, because it’s through stories that we understand history, that we understand how we’re supposed to think, how we’re supposed to live. It comments on how we live and what we think. And yet, it seems in a way so frivolous, because it’s just you sitting in front of a computer making your fingers move.
Scott: I don’t know if you’re a fan of Joseph Campbell, but his attitude was that storytellers are the people that keep the myths alive which help define our cultures and our individual existences. And so, I couldn’t agree with you more that…
Sean: If we were talking with the video camera on I would just turn it a little and you would see “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” on my bookshelf.
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.
For Part 3, go here.
Sean is represented by Kaplan/Perrone.