Interview (Part 1): David Guggenheim (2010, 2012 Black List)

April 1st, 2013 by

David Guggenheim broke into the business in February 2010 by selling the spec script Safe House which was produced and has grossed $208M worldwide. Since that time, Guggenheim has sold two more spec scripts: “Black Box” to Universal and “Narco Sub” to 20th Century Fox, as well as the pitch “Puzzle Palace”. With several other projects in development and having made the Black List twice (2010, 2012), it’s safe to say Guggenheim is one of the hottest action-thriller screenwriters in Hollywood today.

I recently spoke with David about his background, some of his writing projects and the screenwriting craft. Today in Part 1, David describes how he found his way into screenwriting:

Scott:  As recently as 2010, you were working as a senior editor at US Weekly. How did you end up there?

David:  I’d always been a screenwriter, but I’m also a New York based screenwriter. After college, I didn’t want to go to LA, and our version of Hollywood here is publishing. I sent out query letters to every single magazine that was out there. Back then, Us Weekly had just become a weekly. It was more of the movie version of Rolling Stone.  It was my first job right out of college. I started working there as a freelance fact checker, then eventually just kept working my way up from fact checker to writer to senior editor.

Scott:  How many years were you US Weekly?

David:  With the exception of a one year gap, I was there for almost ten years.

Scott:  Aren’t both of your brothers screenwriters?

David:  Yup. My older brothers Marc and Eric.

Scott:  Marc wrote Green Lantern.

David:  Yeah, Green Lantern, one of the creators of Arrow. And Eric wrote Miracle, and he was a writer on “Parenthood,” and now he’s a writer on“Hawaii Five‑O.”

Scott:  How did the Guggenheim gaggle of guys get so dialed into movies, and specifically screenwriting?

David:  We prefer Guggenheim Super Squad of Men. But movies have been our collective obsession from the beginning, but oddly we all ended up breaking into the business in a different way. Eric had gone to film school to be a director, but he knew the best way to break into the business was through screenwriting. So after college, he’d written this great spec that got him a ton of attention and off that he got a couple of pitches sold. Marc started out as a corporate attorney and used his legal experience along with a TV spec to get a writing job on the Practice. It took me a little longer than the two of them. I’ve been writing spec’s since I was 17. My first spec made the rounds when I was a sophomore in college. It got a lot of attention, but didn’t sell, but I just kept writing spec, after spec, after spec, each of them getting as close to as humanly possible to selling…literally making its way up the ladder to the yes man…who would then say no.

Scott:  What’s interesting is that all three of you gravitated towards screenwriting. Most people, when they watch movies, they’ll think, “I want to be an actor” or “I want to be a director.” Where was it along the way you all said, “There’s people who write these things and that’s what I want to do.”

David:  You know,  I just love the craft of constructing a story, coming up with movie concepts. That’s the fun for me. Just you and a blank page and you’re just coming up with stories. I didn’t make short films on my own that I hear a lot of directors do when they’re growing up. I just wrote scripts. And believe me, no one wants me directing them. I can barely direct myself.

Scott:  How did you go about learning the craft?

David:  I went to NYU. Actually, it’s funny, I got into Tisch for filmmaking. I got to the film program, and the day before classes started, I was like, “What am I doing? I’m not going to be a director. I’m going to be a writer.” I had to convince them to allow me to switch majors the day before freshman class had started. Luckily they said, “Write a 30 page screenplay tonight, and if it’s good, we’ll let you in.” I went home, wrote a 30 page script, and they accepted me into the Dramatic Writing Program.

But in some ways, I learned a lot of the basics before college,  just by getting my hands on as many screenplays as possible and reading this. Before the Internet you had to be very crafty, in how you got these things. I didn’t have any Hollywood connections, but there was this store  in Boston, my brother Marc went to law school there, that sold screenplays. This tiny movie poster shop. They had hot off the presses specs plus movies that hadn’t been in production yet, plus abandoned movie sequels. It had a lot…I mean I got my hands on too many screenplays, to even name. Which, probably, was incredibly shady at the time, but it worked. I would save up and drop a $100 on all these scripts and just read them on the train back to New York, like Pulp Fiction, about a year before it comes out. I can remember reading The Game in 1995 and just going wow, such a great script.

And as you’re reading, you’re really teaching yourself, and seeing how the best are doing it.  Then, when I started going to college, I got to hone the craft even more, and they grill it into your mind how important craft and structure is.

Tomorrow in Part 2, David talks about the inspiration for Safe House and the movie’s two central characters Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) and Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds).

Please stop by comments to thank David and ask any questions you may have.

David is repped by Paradigm and Madhouse Entertainment.

2 thoughts on “Interview (Part 1): David Guggenheim (2010, 2012 Black List)

  1. Zaike Airey says:

    Thanks Scott and thanks David! If questions are getting filtered to David, I humbly submit mine.

    Something that always impresses me is your seeming mastery of concept. Safe House, Stolen, Puzzle Palace, Black Box — how could producers NOT want to make these movies? Can you tell us anything about your proces of vetting concepts? This is one of the areas I am working hardest on, since I tend to think fairly small scale and am not a natural when it comes to big, nut-grabbing loglines (excuse me). I’ve heard “execution dependent” more times than I can count. So I’d love to know a bit about your process in terms of figuring out why this concept works while this one doesn’t, and your approach to finding the right idea.

    Thanks again!

    Zaike LaPorte Airey

    ps: first!

  2. David Guggenheim says:

    Hi Zaike,

    Thanks so much for your comments. First off: big or small, you need to believe in the concept, otherwise you won’t be able to write it. Also, I think “small scale” is fine, as long as its original (Hollywood loves movies it can make on a budget). As far as knowing what works and what doesn’t — ask yourself, would you pay money to see it? And high concept can also apply to the world you’re setting the story in, so be on the lookout for original backdrops. They’re out there. Hope this helps.

    – David

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