Interview: Daniel Kunka — Part 2

June 18th, 2013 by

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 2, Daniel talks about “Agent Ox” and a key to a strong high concept: Six Words:

Scott:   Let’s jump into some of your projects. You were working as an assistant in the story department four or five years. How did 12 Rounds come about?

Daniel: After college I had written a script called Copies. It was sort of a Minority Report-esque futuristic thriller about human cloning. I was young and working and making pretty decent money, so it took three or four years for me to really get it rewritten and working as a script. And of course, just as I did, the movie The Island came out which was pretty much exactly like my script and that movie didn’t do very well so my script was dead and that sucked.

The script did go around town though, and from that I went on a bunch of general meetings. Through those meetings I met a guy named Josh McLaughlin who worked at the Mark Gordon Company. Josh loved Copies and we hit it off on a personal level so we just decided to come up with a new idea and go from there. It was during those meetings that the idea for 12 Rounds was born.

But it was far from an instant success. We tried to sell it as a pitch, but that didn’t work mostly because I was the worst pitcher in the world. Then I wrote it as a spec and it wasn’t very good and it didn’t sell either. The script actually got to the point where it was pretty much dead. I think we tried to sell it in February, nothing happened with it, it was sitting on the shelf. I had moved on. By this time I had quit Universal to be a “full time writer” or at least give it a shot and I had run out of money. I had to move in with my girlfriend, I started tutoring high school kids for the SAT. I drove a delivery van.

But Josh was a great producer. He kept bringing it up in meetings, trying to find different ways to do it, and finally he did. He took a meeting with the professional wrestler John Cena and John said the WWE was committed to making a movie with him at the end of the year but they had a script they didn’t like. Josh said “read 12 Rounds”.  John did, he got it to Vince McMahon, Vince loved the script and in two days we had a text from Vince that said “Let’s make the movie”. It was surreal on every level. By the end of the week we had a deal. They bought the script in May, I did a bunch rewrites on it, and we went into production the following March.

Scott:  Your typical overnight success story.

Daniel:  Yeah, right? It’s amazing. You work hard. You try to do everything “by the book” without success and then it’s literally one phone call and I go from sitting on my couch eating Cheetos to being on set in New Orleans with the producer of Saving Private Ryan and Speed and the director of Cliffhanger while a trolley car plows through trucks on Canal Street. It was an amazing movie experience.

Scott:  You followed that up with the spec script “Agent Ox” in March of 2011 that sold to Columbia. That’s described as a human spy on an alien planet who’s trying to stop an invasion of the Earth. How did you come up with that idea?

Daniel:  Sheer desperation. As great as the 12 Rounds experience was – it got me into the guild, it got me health insurance – this town for a young screenwriter is about “what can you do for me now?” I wasn’t at the point where studios were knocking down my door begging me to work for them. I’m still not. The movie came out, it didn’t do very well, so even though my name was out there I still had to bring a new idea to the table.

And for a few years I tried to recreate the same thing that happened with 12 Rounds.  I wrote two or three action-thrillers much in the Taken vein that just weren’t me. The scripts were fine scripts, but nobody cared. I got a lot of “this is great” reads and that was it. I think the success I had getting the move made put me on a path where I tried to take the easy road and I thought I would hit the lottery again and it just didn’t happen.

It’s a lesson that was valuable to learn though. I wasn’t writing to my voice. I was writing to what I thought Hollywood wanted. And Hollywood, she’s a fickle mistress. So Agent Ox was my response to that. It was my return back to what the script Copies was that I had written all those years before. A big, fun, genre movie. It was still marketable, it was still trying to give Hollywood something that would hopefully sell, but it was my version of that, my voice, and not some watered-down other thing.

That decision really defined who I became as a writer. It had taken four years of college and maybe eight years after and I had a movie made and I still didn’t quite know until I started writing Ox. And that original idea of the script, it was so simple. I made a document called “High Concept Story Ideas” and just brain dumped a bunch of stuff down for two or three days, and the very last idea in this document were the six words “Human Spy on an Alien Planet” and I knew that was it.

I always joke in meetings now that those were the six words that changed my career and how I think about writing screenplays, but it’s the absolute truth. I started writing three weeks before my son was born, I finished it during his midnight feedings and then I sold it ten days before my WGA health insurance ran out. The first sale is always special, but it’s the second one where you really start to think you can do this as a career.

Scott:  That six word thing. You’re really talking about drilling down the high concept so they can see it. Like what’s the simplest thing you can convey, and it’s really important because the people on the other end are so busy, you really want to have that concise description, yes?

Daniel:  For sure. I know that people don’t like that concept. Like they think that it lessens an idea or it lessens what you do as a screenwriter, but again, this is the game we’re playing. If you want to write at a studio level, you must be able to communicate big ideas in simple terms.  That’s how specs climb the food chain. If an assistant reads your script and loves it, that six-word idea will make it that much easier for the assistant to sell it to his or her boss, and then for that producer to sell it to the studio and that studio to sell it to marketing and hopefully, marketing to sell it in a three minute trailer to the entire world to get people to come see your movie.

Even if you’re trying to write a more independently-minded movie – what are the six words that make your independent movie different from every other independent movie? I don’t want to diminish the actual craft of telling your story and creating memorable characters and dialogue and conflict and emotion, but I also think younger writers don’t necessarily think of the bigger picture as well.

Tomorrow in Part 3, Daniel digs into his most recent spec sale: “Bermuda Triangle”.

For Part 1, go here.

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

Daniel is repped by ICM Partners and Madhouse Entertainment.

Twitter: @unikunka.

6 thoughts on “Interview: Daniel Kunka — Part 2

  1. Alan D. says:

    Hey Daniel,

    I’m a huge WWE fan, so naturally I enjoy the movies and “12 Rounds” is my favorite from them!

    I was wondering if you had to rewrite the main character a lot to cater to John Cena more or were they relatable already?

    Also, were you involved with the recent sequel at all and what happens with like the story credit or anything like that? Thanks!

    1. unikunka1 says:

      Hey Alan — thanks for the kind words about 12 ROUNDS…

      Yeah, we did do some rewrites for John, but I think we almost went a little too far. When I had my first meeting with the WWE Film guys, they were really worried that John couldn’t handle as much dialogue as was written for him originally in the script. So we took out a lot of snappy one-liners and other dialogue. But then we I met John a few days before shooting, he was a great guy and funny and probably could have handled a little more to do acting wise. I think in the final version of the film he was a little too serious, but it was a decision we made early on…

      As for 12 Rounds 2, I was not involved. It’s kind of a tricky situation cause it wasn’t a theatrical remake (if it was, they would have had to come back to at least see if I wanted to write it) and because technically they’re not using any of the same characters, although from the looks of the movie they are using the exact same setup. I’m actually watching the movie this week and am thinking about doing a live-Tweet about it.

  2. CydM says:

    Hi Daniel. This is great stuff. And what a close call with the insurance and the baby being born! Whew, right?

    I love “big, fun, genre movie.” I’ve got a friend who did the MFA thing & then spent 15 years banging his head against a wall getting nowhere. He gave up and wrote a script with no idea of selling, just doing what he loves, and…Do I need to finish? :-) That makes me wonder if it isn’t a good idea to just let her rip with voice and story and enjoy what you’re doing to break through your own barriers. Jailbreak yourself before breaking into Hollywood?

    The six words idea is great. In prose publishing, the first thing an agent or publisher will ask is what makes your story different from all the others like it out there (and they are out there). Keep it simple and make it amazing. One of my favorite writers had a bestseller about an orange. Who wants to read about an orange? Done well, a whole bunch of people.

    Thanks for taking the time. Looking forward to more.

    1. unikunka1 says:

      I love “big swings”. Tell a story a new and interesting way. I always say with “voice” questions — “your voice is writing a screenplay that you honestly believe no one else in the world could write”. If you do THAT, you’ll find success one way or another.

      (But again, make sure your voice fits SOME parameters of what sells… Play the “game” of Hollywood, just play it your way.)

  3. 14Shari says:

    Hey Daniel,
    This interview inspired me to see ’12 Rounds’. I enjoyed it. What sparked you to use 12 rounds of assignments? Is there some symbolism there? Weren’t you afraid if you start high with a bombing how to top that? How do you write chase sequences? Any tips for budding writers to make it more lively. For study purposes I would love to read the script. Where can I get it?

    1. unikunka1 says:

      Well, the “literary” answer is that I was crafting the 12 rounds after the 12 tasks of Hercules but I didn’t get that reference until my grade school English teacher pointed it out to me after the movie came out…

      Even though there were “12 rounds”, the idea was that the first couple of rounds were our first act, so those culminated with an explosion… then even though the rounds kept going sequentially, we sorta started small (the longitude/latitude puzzle) then worked up through the second act growing bigger in action and emotionally (his brother with a fake out, then the fire, then race with the firetruck for action, then introducing the girl and Willie dying for the emotion, then culminating the second act with our biggest set piece the trolley car and biggest emotion with his partner dying), then resetting everything at the end. The rounds sorta work together in groups that way, although the joke on set was always “this movie would be better if it was called 8 rounds” and so to avoid repetition we sorta cheat a few there in the middle.

      For action — be specific with what makes each fight/chase unique, and know that brevity is key. Also look to guys who write great action (David Guggenheim, Tony Gilroy) and see how they work in quick little bursts to paint a great picture of how the scene comes together.

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