Screenwriter Daniel Kunka wrote the 2009 movie 12 Rounds and has sold two high profile spec scripts: Agent Ox and Bermuda Triangle. In addition, Daniel is working on the project “Crime of the Century” with Chris Morgan producing.
Recently Daniel and I had an excellent conversation which I am happy to share here.
Today in Part 1, Daniel discusses how he wound his way into the entertainment business:
Scott: Let’s start from the beginning. Where did you grow up and how did you find your way into writing?
Daniel: I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago, in a place called Palos Heights. I wasn’t very much of a film kid growing up, I was much more into TV. I liked my creative writing class in high school and there was a creative writing magazine for high schools, I don’t even remember the name of it, that had an article about the film adaptation of the movie The Crucible that starred Winona Ryder.
They had an article about turning the play into a movie and they had actual screenplay excerpts. That was the very first time I ever remember reading or even knowing that there was a thing called a screenplay. Then I found a few other examples. The Pulp Fiction script paperback was available at Barnes and Noble. I got excited about screenwriting and when I told my parents I wanted to go to the undergraduate screenwriting program at USC, they amazingly didn’t have a problem with it. I had no idea what I was doing really. I hadn’t even seen The Godfather or Citizen Kane but there I was basically in a trade school for screenwriters. I had a lot of catching up to do.
Scott: I assume you did a certain amount of that when you were in college, watching movies, reading a lot of scripts.
Daniel: Yeah, the program is great. The undergraduate screenwriting program at USC is a four‑year intensive program where it’s you and the same 20 people who have come in as freshman. You’re not very intermingled with the rest of the undergraduate film class. There’s production, there’s critical studies, and then there’s the writing program. The very first weekend you move in, you go to this weekend crash course on screenwriting taught by this guy Vincent Robert, you learn about the broad ideas of what it is to write a screenplay, then you get a couple of books to read and then you start writing.
You write a full screenplay over the course of each of your sophomore, junior, and senior years. You workshop it together, you learn some things about how to become a writer, and then they kick you out the door and you try to go and do it.
Scott: Most of the scripts you’ve written have an action or sci‑fi action component. How did that happen you zeroed in on that?
Daniel: I think that’s all about finding your voice. In college I wrote a lot of historical fiction. I think my sophomore year script, my first feature length script, was about the stockyards in Chicago at the turn of the century. The screenplay my junior year was about the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Then my senior thesis was a script about a small army operation after the bombing of the US military base in Beirut in the ‘80’s.
I still like a lot of those ideas, but I didn’t really find my voice until after college. I started working in the industry and read a lot more and that helped me narrow what I wanted to do which was more broad, fun, action-type scripts. I think in college you have a tendency to go with the crowd, and the crowd is often about the smaller, more “important” ideas, and while I love going to see those types of movie, it’s not the type of writer I am. So it was just a matter of figuring out what I wanted to do and then taking the steps to be that type of writer.
Scott: Was that strictly about what your voice was or did commercial considerations enter into your thinking?
Daniel: I think when you graduate, especially from a four-year program about screenwriting, your only commercial consideration is “I’m awesome at writing, I can’t wait for them to pay me”. Which of course isn’t the case. I mean at the time, there were two major success stories that had come out of the program. One was Josh Schwartz, who setup a pilot at MTV while he was in school then setup The O.C. not long after, and Jamie Vanderbilt, who sold a script called Independence, Missouri two days before he graduated. I think everyone who graduated assumed they would find success like those two guys. But at that point of being a writer, I hadn’t quite figured out what was and wasn’t commercial. I had no idea how the business actually worked.
After school a lot of my friends got jobs at video stores or whatever to just wrote and tried to break into the business that way. I went the opposite and got an internship in the Universal Studios Story Department then worked for Kevin Misher, who was President of Production at the time. I think part of finding my voice was working for a studio and having access to scripts written by professionals so I could see how everything worked. I saw what was selling and what wasn’t. And it wasn’t just the ideas, it was the nuts and bolts. You pick things up from professional writers. Scott Frank starts a lot of his action description using the word “And –“ to convey movement. Steve Zaillian uses a lot of “-ing” verbs to do the same thing. Or Tony Gilroy writes in very short staccato sentences, with lots of dashes, and as you read more scripts that work, you pick up on what will work for you. And I definitely had periods where I wrote exactly like those guys almost to a fault, but that allowed me to find my own thing, which is just as much apart of finding your voice as anything else. It’s “how do I get this story in my head on paper in a way that will make my reader have a visceral reaction to it?”
The other thing I think helped me develop my voice after college was being apart of the actual machine in Hollywood. I was one of those assistants who would read five or six scripts in a weekend. I saw which scripts got passed along, I saw how executives and agents talked about a script, I saw what went into selling a script to a studio. That was all very important in my evolution as a professional screenwriter.
Scott: You’ve just given a testimony to two of the most important aspects to learning the craft. One: Read scripts. It’s probably the single most important thing an aspiring writer can do, apart from writing and, obviously, watching movies, particularly recent scripts that sell, to understand the sensibilities of writers, their style, voice and all the rest. Second thing: Understand the buyer’s mentality, how they think, because you don’t write in a vacuum, you write in a context of what they’re buying now, what their business sensibilities are.
Daniel: Yeah. I always find people in Hollywood, struggling writers, and they say, “Oh, the game is rigged” or “the machine is broken, they only make the same thing over and over.” That’s like complaining the sky is blue. If you just want to write for yourself and don’t care about finding financial success, you can. You don’t have to read other material, you don’t have to care about what’s selling. You can just write and do whatever you want. But to try and find success and make it a career, it’s impossible to not know the game you’re playing. It’s like trying to be an electrical engineer and never taking a physics class.
It’s the same with reading scripts. It’s not just new material – you can learn a lot from reading scripts of produced movies. You can see what’s different in the script from the finished film. You can see why things work. Most importantly, you can start to think critically about how these different stories are told.
Tomorrow in Part 2, Daniel talks about “Agent Ox” and a key to a strong high concept: Six Words.
Please stop by comments to thank Daniel and ask any questions you may have.
Daniel is repped by ICM Partners and Madhouse Entertainment.