Screenwriter Justin Marks has been described as the “most gainfully employed professional fanboy on the planet right now.” Understandably so given the fact Justin has written such projects The Raven, Super Max, Suicide Squad, Shadow of the Colossus, Hack/Slash and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Captain Nemo.
The Hollywood Reporter recently featured this guest column Justin wrote called “My Life as a Screenwriter You’ve Never Heard Of.”
Justin has written over 20 movie projects. This interview in 6-parts offers an informed perspective of the craft from Hollywood’s front lines.
Today in Part 2, Justin talks about Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun‑Li, adapting comic books and his work on “The Raven”:
Scott: Your first writing credit on a feature length film I believe is Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun‑Li. What did you learn from that experience?
Justin: [laughs] Oh, I learned so much from that experience. [laughs] One is, it’s all about everyone in the process believing in the same mutual vision. Which that movie did not have. But I was lucky, I guess. That was the second assignment I ever had. It paid me money and I could continue my writing career. At a certain point when you sign off on a script, that’s it. You leave your hopes at the door. I know that they did some things on that movie… let’s just say I can’t get all the way through. But it was exciting at the time. It seemed so easy, when the second thing I wrote got made. It’s like wow, this must be what it’s like. The batting average is going to work like this. Then, seeing it for the first time, seeing what it became, it was mortifying. You want to rewrite the movie in real time. I felt so helpless. Street Fighter was tough, it was my first real scar. But I’m glad I have it. I’ve always been candid in my opinion of that movie, as my friends know.
Scott: You’re drilling down here into two points. One is that it’s really hard to get a movie made. The second thing is you want to get that produced credit. Not only about getting a production bonus, it’s having a credit, getting residuals and all that other stuff.
Justin: That would be great, except I wasn’t in the Writer’s Guild at that time. [laughs] I get no residuals for that movie. As much as my friends think they’re helping me by renting it on DVD so they can make fun of it, I get none of that money, which is heartbreaking.
Scott: Someone once described that getting a movie made is like a space shuttle launch. A million things can go wrong. Is that your experience with the process of getting films made?
Justin: Yeah, I think it’s even harder than that. I mean, as a writer at a certain point you have to let go, because that’s not why we’re doing this. We’re doing this because we love what we do. I love getting up in the morning, walking my dogs, having my coffee, thinking about movies, and then sitting down at my computer and getting to write. Everything else becomes secondary. Obviously, you get hooked into it when people say hey, the movie’s going to get made. But I’ve had enough of those, I mean, I could go through war stories of movies that were cancelled at the last minute, movies that were greenlit, and then the head of the studio was fired on the very same day. Things like that just go on. It makes you cynical, it really does. But the best thing a screenwriter can do, is just don’t let it faze you. Just keep writing, because that’s what you’re doing it for. You’re not doing it for the money, you’re not doing it for the name in lights. You’re doing it to keep working. The fact that people pay us for this is crazy.
Scott: A lot of projects you’ve worked on are based on comic books including “Green Arrow,” “Supermax,”" Suicide Squad,” “Hack and Slash,” as well as the video game “Shadow of Colossus.” How did you get on that list in the movie development circles?
Justin: David Goyer was a mentor to me very early on. I was lucky enough to work with him on Green Arrow: Escape From Supermax. He was a producer on that movie. He must have grown up in a house made of comic books. I never had that. I grew up on those shows, and played with those action figures, and read comics just like any boy in the 1980s. But really, I just try to look at those properties and say, what about this would this be interesting to someone who had never heard of it? How do you bring the best parts of these characters and translate them to an audience? Fans will dispute this, but I think that’s what The Avengers did best. The Avengers was so pure and so true to those characters. But it also found the best aspects of those characters, and managed to make them play to everyone. That was always my strategy in terms of those branded things. Nowadays I’m trying to do that less. I like original things better.
Scott: That segues into what are the advantages and disadvantages for being known as a writer who specializes in one particular genre or type of writing?
Justin: Well, the advantages are… I think it may have been John Swetnam who said this to you. People say you don’t want to be put in a box, and he said of course you do. You want them to put you in that box because then they will call you for that box and you will be hired for that box. I completely agree with that. It is absolutely the best thing that a screenwriter can do. If they’re making an action movie, and they’re putting together an action list, they know that your name is on an action list. A comic book movie, they know you’re on a comic book list.
But I do think, or I personally feel this way after eight years… eventually the real job is to find your way out of that box. To find a way to surprise not just the marketplace, but yourself, in terms of the choices that you make. I think it’s really dangerous to just write the same thing for your entire career.
I look at the writers whom I consider heroes of the screenwriting trade, and none of them stayed with the same thing all their lives. They always kept themselves stimulated by doing things that were outside of their box. It’s important to flex your muscles and to continue to grow as a writer, otherwise you run out of things to say.
Scott: There’s a project, “The Raven” based on a short film. Is Mark Wahlberg attached to that?
Justin: Mark is producing it, yes.
Scott: Let me read a description from the video site where you can actually still screen the six minute video.”Chris possesses a power that could lead to the destruction of the current regime. They will stop at nothing to destroy him. The chase is on as Chris runs for his life in this sci‑fi thriller set in an alternate and futuristic Los Angeles.”
What can you tell us about working on “The Raven,” and what’s its status?
Justin: “The Raven” came about because of Ricard De Montreuil. He was actually my next-door neighbor in Los Feliz. We met at a barbecue when I moved in. How’s that for reasons to live in LA? He was a great independent filmmaker, he wanted to break into commercial films, and he was talking about doing this short. It was just an idea that I loved about this character. So he went off, and did this short film. I visited him on set, it looked really great. And then suddenly, the short blew up. It was like, “Oh, so this is real.” It happened very quickly, which was really exciting.
Here was the thing about The Raven. Writing that script was all about, “How could we find a way to make this huge, cool sci-fi movie, for no money?” I mean, who knows what they end up making that movie for someday, but it’s not a 100 million dollars. We looked to The Terminator as a great example of a guerrilla style movie. Ricardo, and I had to construct a story that was all about, “Look, we can only afford this many action scenes.” But we can’t make it feel limited, or claustrophobic. That’s one of the advantages of working with a director when you’re developing. We always had to be intelligent with the choices we made.
Scott: I think you hit that sweet spot, making a low budget action film. Because then you open yourself up to not just the seven, or eight, or nine major studios who can afford to do 100 million, or 150 million dollar movies, you’ve got 50 to 75 financiers out there that could, you widen your scope of opportunities.
Justin: Yeah. It makes people comfortable. What I hope to see in the future of sci‑fi, I look at Looper or I look at Monsters, I look at a movie that I just love, Trollhunter, and I say, “These are really clever ways of making movies”. They’re doing them for so little money. I think if you want to do sci‑fi, that’s the way to do it, and to give yourself the freedom to push the boundaries a little. Otherwise you’re always going to be accountable to too many people, the more money you spend.
Tomorrow in Part 3: Justin discusses his original screenplay “Earth Prime” and how a spec script can have value even if it doesn’t sell.
For Part 1, go here.
Please stop by comments to thank Justin and ask any questions you may have.
Justin is repped by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment.