No matter what other good things happen to screenwriter Justin Kremer, he will always have this fact as part of his personal history: His script “McCarthy” was the first one to generate enough interest in the new Black List script-hosting site to land the ‘new’ writer representation — with CAA and Madhouse Entertainment no less. The heat generated off that resulted in “McCarthy” circulating rapidly around Hollywood, leading to it making the 2012 Black List.
Justin was kind enough to do an interview and we had an extensive conversation. Today in Part 1, Justin discusses his background, how he wound his way to Hollywood, and started as a screenwriter:
Scott Myers: First of all, congratulations. You must be terribly excited by everything that’s happened to you of late.
Justin Kremer: Thank you, I appreciate it. It’s beyond my wildest dreams. Even after all of the craziness of getting signed, being on the Black List was always a thing that was on my bucket list…something that I never expected.
I was so overwhelmed to be among people like Young Il Kim, Julia Hart, Tyler Marceca, and so many incredible talents. It’s a tremendous honor.
Scott: It’s a terrific achievement and I think you certainly deserve it with your script “McCarthy.” Let’s start with the basics. How did you start writing? When did that become part of your life?
Justin: I had always written as a child. It was never usually about film. I started in second or third grade writing about the previous night’s Yankee game or little sports diaries. Those journals became a wrestling chronicle when I grew obsessed with wrestling back in fifth and sixth grade.
My writing kept evolving and I took a film class in high school when I was 16 and really fell in love with the form. It was the first time I had been exposed to stuff like the “The Godfather” or “On the Waterfront.” Stuff that completely blew my mind and opened me up to this new world.
I fell in love with the form and was thinking, “What if I decided to write a script?” I read a little book, I don’t even remember which one. It was not a Robert McKee and wrote my first script when I was 16 on Microsoft Word with no formatting, no margins. It was 80 pages and a disaster. I fell in love with the craft and even though looking back, the script makes me cringe, it was a nice stepping‑stone to keep developing.
Scott: Were you always as movie person or was it when you discovered it in that class when you were 16 years old that really turned you on to movies?
Justin: I always was, but I don’t think I had the taste until I saw the classics. When I was growing up, I think I saw L.A. Confidential and I was 11 or 12, and that movie blew me away. Taking that class was a really formative experience in terms of allowing me to really delve into the form and fall in love with it.
Scott: Did you pursue film and writing when you went to college?
Justin: I did. I went to NYU, the Tisch School of the Arts for Dramatic Writing my freshman year. I had a good experience there but ultimately I decided I needed a change of scenery, so I transferred to SUNY Purchase’s dramatic writing conservatory.
I think what’s interesting is that I got a very unique experience, accidentally, because the two schools cannot be more different in terms of how they teach screenwriting. Both are great but they’re really different.
NYU, at the end of our freshman year, we had to write 30 pages of a feature and a seven or eight page treatment for the remainder of that feature. At Purchase, we spent my first year writing a five‑page scene, and it was very much the macro versus the micro.
Both approaches really helped me. It’s so easy to overlook the little stuff. At the same time, it’s so easy to overlook the overall art when you’re so focused on the minutia. Both experiences were really valuable.
Scott: How many scripts did you end up writing when you were at Purchase?
Justin: That’s a good question. We built up pretty slowly because it was so much about the micro and we studied playwriting, television writing, and documentary filmmaking as well. The emphasis wasn’t completely on screenwriting until our junior and senior year. I wrote one feature when I was there, one three‑act play, a pair of TV specs, a short Updike adaptation, and a variety of other smaller projects.
Scott: You graduate from Purchase and you set your mind toward becoming involved in the development side of the movie industry.
Justin: Yep. Once I fell in love with screenwriting, I became a huge screenwriting nerd, so when a new spec was sold, I’d be dying to read it and get my hands on it. I was lucky enough to have some access to what was out there and stuff that had been on the Black List, so I was always reading a ton to try to learn.
Reading’s always been one of the most important learning tools for me. My senior year of college, I started interning for a film‑financier in New York (Black Bear Pictures), a company that I loved and shared the same exact creative sensibility as I. It was a place where I actually had a voice and didn’t feel like just a measly intern with no credibility and that the work was just dead end.
I worked for the company for a couple months. At the time, the company was limited to two people. I was looking for a job when I graduated. I stayed on after graduation, despite no promise of a job, because I loved the company and believed in the films we were making. Eventually they ended up hiring me, which was great. I think the most valuable part of that experience for this world is twofold. Being able to read a little bit of everything – because the company was genre‑agnostic, so we would read everything from the 500k micro‑budget to the hundred‑million‑dollar tent poles.
That was really valuable in terms of understanding the marketplace, and just as a reader, the thing that I found the most that almost nothing surprises you at a certain point. It’s those rare scripts, that few dozen that you encounter out of the hundreds that are so unique, like Graham Moore’s “Imitation Game”, SR Bindler’s “The Bone Game”, Jez Butterworth’s “Flag Day.” They have such a unbelievably unique voice from page one.
As I was writing, I began to think – how do I subvert expectation? How do I write something that will actually stand out? So many of these scripts I read were very well written but so very strictly adherent to formula. I was just looking for a really unique angle. On another note, I think what was also really valuable was getting to actually work with a writer on the development side, because we were developing a property. Having the opportunity to contribute notes and listen to the conversations that occur between a writer and producer was very informative.
Scott: Is it fair to say that one of the lessons you took away from that experience was being able to put on your development executive cap as a writer, looking at your material that way?
Justin: Totally. And not just that too. I also, because we were a financier, have the financier cap drilled into my head now. Whenever I’m thinking of an idea, not just on the creative side, I’m thinking about, how could I make this attractive to financiers? What is its foreign value? Stuff like that that we dealt with on an everyday basis.
Scott: That’s a really valuable skill set to have, to be able to have that kind of understanding, that what you put on the page has a practical impact in terms of what happens in production ‑‑ not only production, but marketing and everything else. So it sounds like that was a tremendous education for you.
Justin: It was, but at the same time, you also have to throw all that stuff out, at a certain point. “McCarthy” is not a commercial idea. It’s not something that anyone would have encouraged me to write. A lot of the stories I’m attracted to are in a tougher space. If you’re passionate about it creatively, then you ignore the financier side of your brain. You just have to.
Tomorrow in Part 2, we dig into “McCarthy” and learn why Justin decided this story would make a movie and how he went about crafting the script.
Please stop by comments to thank Justin for taking the time for the interview and post any follow-up questions you may have.
Justin is repped by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment.