Your questions for Franklin Leonard

July 7th, 2014 by

I’ve met a lot of talented people in my time working in the movie and TV business, but certainly I’ve found Franklin Leonard to be one of Hollywood’s true bright lights. Occasionally I’ll see if he’s up for some questions from GITS readers and this appears to be a good time. So if you have any questions for Franklin, now’s your chance.

You may want to ask about the Black List. A lot going on there. Check out this list of initiatives launched in the last year:

Cassian Elwes / Sundance Film Festival – Black List

Hasty Pudding Institute Screenwriting Fellowship – Black List

Martin Katz/Toronto International Film Festival – Black List

TBS / TNT – Black List

Walt Disney Studios – Black List

Warner Bros. – Black List

WIGS – Black List

If you’d like more information on any of those or what Franklin’s vision is for the Black List, this is your opportunity to check in with the man himself.

Do you have questions about the state of the movie and TV business? Franklin travels in some very interesting circles re scripted entertainment, so he has a unique insight on current and future trends.

Advice for aspiring writers. His thoughts on resources available online for writers. Heck, you can even ask him questions about the World Cup as he is a huge ‘footy’ fan.

Head to comments, post your questions, and I’ll forward them to Franklin for his responses.

You may follow Franklin via twitter:

@FranklinLeonard

@theblcklst

KCET Spring Cinema Series Q&A’s

March 4th, 2014 by

A heads-up from GITS development assistant Wendy Cohen:

For you L.A. folks — the KCET Cinema Series continues its spring season TONIGHT at 7pm with a screening of the upcoming romantic comedy LE WEEK-END, featuring a Q&A with star Jeff Goldblum following the screening.

For more information, click on More.

(more…)

Q&A: “Philomena”

November 25th, 2013 by

A heads-up from GITS development assistant Wendy Cohen:

For you L.A. folks — the KCET Cinema Series continues its fall season this Tuesday, November 26th at 7pm with a screening of the Coen Brothers’ highly-anticipated INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. The quarterly series is hosted by nationally recognized film expert and Deadline Hollywood columnist Pete Hammond. Passes for the Fall 2013 KCET Cinema Series are now on sale. For reservations call 747.201.5800, download and mail the registration form, or buy your season passes online.

On November 5th as part of the series, a special Q&A took place at the Television Academy’s Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre following an advance screening of PHILOMENA, a U.K.-produced dramatic comedy which tells the incredible true story of one mother’s search for her lost son. Deadline Hollywood’s Pete Hammond sat down with co-writer, producer, and actor Steve Coogan to discuss his writing process, how he found the source material for the film, and the experience of working with and writing for screen legend Judi Dench. 

You can listen to a full audio recording of the panel on KCET’s website.

Below are some of the highlights from their conversation.

Pete Hammond: How did you become involved?

Steve Coogan: The movie for me began four years ago. I was in New York playing number three in yet another studio movie, and I was looking for a project — something that was different. I wanted to do something away from comedy — something that had more substance. And I came across this story online in The Guardian newspaper, and it had a real profound effect on me. I wanted to change the record in my career in a kind of way, and it was compelling and it fit the bill. I looked at it and thought, “someone should tell this story.” It’s about a mother and everyone’s got one of those, so… and with the article there was a photograph of Martin Sixsmith and Philomena together, and they were both laughing in the photograph and it seemed so at odds with the details of the story. And so I optioned the book that Martin had written, and Martin actually wrote the article in the newspaper. But Martin’s book deals almost exclusively with the life of [Philomena's son] Michael Hess, who became very successful in Washington, and I didn’t really want to tell that story. I was more interested in using the two characters and exploring the ideas of faith and intellect vs. intuition, and I thought the two of them would be a good vehicle to have a discussion about those things.

PH: What I loved about the structure of the film and your screenplay is that it unfolds like a mystery story. It’s a detective story too, which any good journalistic movie is.

SC: I don’t think a studio would make this movie because they wouldn’t know what it was. Is it a comedy, a tragedy, a drama? And we liked the idea of having a little bit of intrigue in there just to drag the audience along. And also, I love Billy WIlder and how he’s able to put comedy and tragedy side by side. I think that’s what limits movies in a way — certainly with studios, because these are things that they have to delineate — it’s either this or this because it’s easy to market. And this is kind of a funny tragedy, I guess… I like where comedy and tragedy sit side by side. I don’t think it’s contrived. I think that’s what life is like.

PH: When you worked on the screenplay for this movie you had a lot of access. Both Philomena and Martin Sixsmith are still alive.

SC: My co-writer Jeff Pope and I built the script up from conversations I had with Martin and Philomena. I spoke to Martin at length as a journalist and then I said “I want to put you in the story.” He was discombobulated by that a bit, but that struck me as more interesting. I put a lot of myself into his character. He’s not quite as cynical as I portray him onscreen. And he’s not a lapsed Catholic either. But I’m a lapsed Catholic, and I wanted to put some of my own cynicism in there, and challenge my own thoughts. I spoke with Philomena and that found its way into the script. I mean, there’s a lot of artistic license, but not with the bones of the story. They’re all true.

PH: Can you tell us about Judi Dench’s involvement?

SC: Judi was my first choice. She was even on board before the director, Stephen Frears. I was writing with Jeff, and I said, “we should get Judi Dench to do this, because she would be fantastic.” And so I went to her house and told her the story, and she said, “I want to do this.” Before we showed her the script, if I remember correctly. We hadn’t finished writing at that stage, but what we did then — I said, “Jeff if we’ve got Judi Dench we should write it for her and play to her strengths.” So there’s a couple of scenes in the film where it’s just her face, and I knew that would be powerful enough without any dialogue. I had to pare away the dialogue in those scenes and just have her alone — these private moments that Martin doesn’t see. The only people privy to them are her and the audience, so it’s quite intimate.

Declare Your Independents! Be sure to check out Philomena and Inside Llewyn Davis.

Q&A: “Dallas Buyers Club”

November 7th, 2013 by

A heads-up from GITS development assistant Wendy Cohen

For you L.A. folks — the KCET Cinema Series continues its fall season next Tuesday, November 12th at 7pm with a screening of the classic Hollywood caper THE GREAT ESCAPE.

The quarterly series is hosted by nationally recognized film expert and Deadline Hollywood columnist Pete Hammond. Passes for the Fall 2013 KCET Cinema Series are now on sale. For reservations call 747.201.5800, download and mail the registration form, or buy your season passes online.

Last week, as part of the series, a special Q&A took place at the Television Academy’s Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre following an advance screening of DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, which chronicles the real-life story of AIDS patient Ron Woodroof and is generating more than its fair share of Oscar buzz. Deadline Hollywood film critic Pete Hammond sat down with one of the film’s stars, Jennifer Garner, screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, and producers Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter to discuss the movie’s 20-year journey to the big screen, the challenges of abridging Woodroof’s story and creating composite characters, working with co-stars McConaughey and Leto, and the film’s death and rebirth during its perilous journey through the studio system to an independent film. 

You can listen to a full audio recording of the panel on KCET’s website.

Below are some of the highlights from their conversation.

Pete Hammond: How did you decide to do this story?

Craig Borten: It’s been a 20-year journey. The film business… it’s so hard and it will break your heart, and you get doors slammed. 18 years ago, Robbie read the first draft, and she said, “this is an incredible story. This is a story that has to get made.” And she’s like, “I’m gonna make this movie” — but she didn’t say it would take 18 years [laughs]. So it’s a testament to her drive and her passion. We got here and it turned out great. People are like, “Well, if you knew if it would take 20 years would you still have done it?” Sure, it was worth it.

PH: And it still has relevance today, 20 years later.

CB: The journey started when a friend sent me an article on Ron Woodroof. It was called “Staying Alive” and it was about the international grey market and these buyers clubs that were smuggling in underground AIDS treatments for opportunistic infections, and it included Ron Woodroof, this cowboy, and it was fascinating. And so I wrote him a letter and it was unreturned, and then I called a few times, and he answered the phone and said, “Be here tomorrow. You can interview me.” So I got there the following day, and spent three days with him, and the journey began.

PH: How many hours did you record with him?

CB: It was 25 hours. It took a couple of years for me to get a draft down. There were 4 options on it. There was an actor, a director, and many other producers — and around 2000 I met Melisa Wallack and we re-wrote the screenplay, and we sold it to another actor and another director, and then there was another actor and another director… life changed. And around 2009 Melisa said, “We’ve gotta get the screenplay back. We’re going to get it made and bring it back to Robbie.”

PH: The screenplay was at Universal Studios. It was stuck there and you couldn’t get it back until there was a certain point, right?

Melisa Wallack: The turnaround clause was 7 years. We sold it with Brad Pitt and Mark Forster and then we got it back and literally gave it to Robbie and said “Robbie, go make this movie.” And then I think she gave it to Matthew. He was the first person she gave it to.

PH: So, when you came into the project, where was it in terms of writing, and what did you bring to it at that point? What was it that you thought with this story that you could sit there and write this and knew it was right for you?

MW: I got totally sucked in by the character of Ron, I think, for the most part. I listened to all his tapes and then Craig convinced me to write it with him. Craig and I became best friends and we had a great time writing it. It’s always amazing when you get a movie made, especially like this.

PH: Robbie, you never gave up on this film. It was your pet project. 

Robbie Brenner: The film had several different lives. This probably was the type of movie that shouldn’t have been made under a studio umbrella. It should’ve been made exactly in the way and in the spirit that we made it — which was intimate, independent, small, personal, and where people were doing it out of the passion for the material, because I think that’s really what ultimately allowed the movie to get made. We shot the movie in 25 days. We made it for 4 million dollars. And it was amazing.

PH: That’s astounding. 

RB: On this movie, it was just a very small group of people. As we were trying to put the financing together, people would say, “Oh, I love the script, this is amazing, but the script’s been around for a long time… I don’t know if I want to make a movie about a cowboy that contracts HIV.” So it was really, really hard and we had to keep on lowering the budget in order to raise the financing… and so we wound up with 25 days, and Jean-Marc took the lighting package out. And he pulled it off.

PH: Rachel, I remember that Matthew McConaughey had lost all the weight and even then the film was in jeopardy. And I think you guys had to call him and say we’ve got to delay it two months. What did he do? 

Rachel Winter: It was 8 weeks before shooting, and we had to call Matthew and say, “We know you’ve lost a lot of weight, but is there a possibility we can do this in the spring?” And he’s like, “Absolutely not. We are doing this now. Get it together.”

PH: And how did you get it together? You found the dream backers here. 

RW: It was CAA, Cassian Elwes, Voltage, an equity component out of Texas… and everyone kind of banded together and said, “Hey, we are going to make this movie.” But this was a very short amount of time — there are deals, and there’s paperwork, and there’s things to get done. So we basically had three and a half weeks of paid prep on the film.

PH: Was Rayon [played by Jared Leto] a real character? 

MW: Rayon was a composite.

Jennifer Garner: Eve was so beautifully written that I just assumed she was real. And I did all this research looking her up, and I went and looked on microfilm at the library for Eve Saks, and I’m like, “I don’t know if she was before Google, I don’t know!” I finally called them and they said, “Yeah, she’s not a real person” and I’m like, “Oh. Thank you for letting me know.”

PH: She’s a composite too. You decided to do that, Craig, in creating these characters?

CB: Yeah, Melisa and I created that. We just wanted to get in so many points of view and we felt it was best to just create these characters to serve our story as opposed to pull from the real characters. Both of them are based on real people though, transgendered and doctors.

PH: Matthew and Jared Leto give some great performances. 

JG: You might have heard by now that Jared was in character the whole time we were shooting, but it wasn’t a weird thing. I couldn’t imagine him any other way. He was so thin he didn’t have any resemblance to the kind of rock star he’s known for — he came on the film much later after Matthew. He was on another level. It was haunting. I’ve worked with Matthew before, and you guys saw what he went through to do this film, and he was way down the pike when this movie came my way. You get sucked in by Matthew’s passion for something, you can’t help it. It’s contagious.

Dallas Buyers Club is now playing in limited release. You can buy tickets to the movie here.

Here is the movie trailer:

Background: “JOBS”

August 14th, 2013 by

This backround on biopics and the new movie Jobs from Wendy Cohen:

“Screenwriting Drafts of History”

Four years ago, when Gus Van Sant’s MILK, Oliver Stone’s W. and Steven Soderbergh’s CHE — political biopics as varied about the figures they covered as the critical praise they received — were in the midst of awards season contention, The New York Times produced this intriguing article highlighting the films’ screenwriters and their process of, as writer Dennis Lim astutely noted, “wrangling a life into the shape of a narrative.”

Here at GITS, we’ve talked about biopics as a movie story type — a shorthand way to describe a specific narrative conceit that is almost always tied directly to the movie’s central concept. They can be found in any genre, cross genre, or subgenre.

One recent example we’ve analyzed is Aaron Sorkin’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK, the effective use of Mark Zuckerberg’s two deposition scenes as a narrative device to travel back and forth in time, and jumps using lines of dialogue, pre-laps, and visual clues to serve as touch points for each transition.

Sorkin’s next project: a tell-all biopic of Apple innovator Steve Jobs, structured around three 30 minute scenes all set right before three major product launches. The products: The Mac, NeXT, and the iPod.

This will be the second biopic of Jobs. The first, Joshua Michael Stern’s JOBS, will be released this weekend.

The difference in structure between the two movies? Seismic.

As Scott has previously noted, biographical adaptations are one of the most difficult screenwriting challenges for two big reasons: 1) You have to find the movie in the subject’s real life story; in other words, you can’t let the facts get in the way of the movie you write and 2) What historical details and personal dynamics you omit about the subject is as important as what you choose to keep in the script.

At a Q&A following a special screening of JOBS, director Joshua Michael Stern spoke with Deadline Hollywood film critic Pete Hammond about his serendipitous collaboration with the entrepreneur responsible for the movie’s inception, working with a first-time writer and structuring the film around what he believes to be the most narrative-friendly and dramatic moments of Jobs’ life.

JOBS Q&A

Below are several excerpts from their conversation.

PH: You never met Steve Jobs himself. What I think is so interesting is that it came from a guy way outside of Hollywood.

JMS: It’s a guy who owns a magazine in Dallas, Texas — and he tells the story that when Steve Jobs retired, his whole business shut down to give homage to that, and he thought “that’s interesting, that’s something that’s part of the culture,” so he hired a writer to write a screenplay. And he had seen “Swing Vote” and called me up and said “I’ve got a script.” At the time, it was 205 pages. We brought it to town and got it to Ashton, and it sort of took off from there, but he really was from outside of the system.

PH: It’s always tough doing a biopic as they say in the business as to what you focus on. How did you hone this to focus on those years and why did you decide to do it that way?

JMS: The story to me was about him and Apple. There’s going to be a lot of stories about Steve Jobs and a lot of movies about Steve Jobs. And the most interesting part of his life for me was everything before the iMac — that computer we all recognize as his first innovation. To me, to be honest, it was a story about a prince who’s raised by working class peasants who he loves and loved him, but he always felt he was bigger than them — then he sort of meets this ragtag group of guys and ne’er do wells and then he finally gets into the palace but he’s never seen as legitimate, and then he’s banished and then comes back resurrected and he decides that he has to take everybody out. The movie’s 2 hours and 5 minutes, and there’s a section, about 8 or 9 years there, where he meets his wife, he works at NeXT which doesn’t really do very well, he’s on the board of Pixar — so that section was the most interesting as to how to deal with that. The problem of his life was that a) The relationship with his wife was so secretive. There wasn’t much meat on the bones there. He was really in the doldrums during that time. So to hazard a guess as to what’s going on in his relationship with his wife would a) be conjecture totally and b) we wanted to respect that. And anything above the iMac — after the end of the movie — that history took off by itself. We know what happened. You have to decide what story you’re gonna tell, and this was just the story about him and Mac.

PH: Was there ever a consideration of doing this in another format, like a miniseries?

JMS: I think you could — that wasn’t what was presented to me — I think there is a lot of information. And the most interesting thing about Steve is that different people have different things invested in him and in his story. Everybody has something that they’re close to him on. We did every once in a while have a line that referenced something. But when you’re making a movie, there are certain things that are either just not active or because they’re such big issues you have to deal with it. And so when you deal with it, you have to actually follow it up. You open up a can of worms. Anyone’s life is always a balance of what would be interesting to know and what we don’t want to know. But I thought Steve’s resurrection was almost sort of a coda. But you had to pick and choose. It was tough.

PH: Can you tell us more about the script and the writer, Matt Whiteley?

JMS: Yeah, it was his first screenplay. It was interesting that he was making a story about Steve Jobs that was totally homegrown. I didn’t really touch the script. I’ve written everything else I’ve ever done. So, for me, the experience was having to step back and not really being able to touch the script very much, and I was really kind of shackled to the script. They had done so much research. There’s a scene in the boardroom and I had them build this beautiful boardroom and I filled it with extras during the scene, and they came in and said there were only four board members. And I said, “I built this huge room — what am I going to do with all these chairs?” So there’s a scene where he’s got his arms back and I have this huge wide shot that showed every empty chair, but I was really hamstrung by being within the accuracy of what was written, and Ashton had an encyclopedic knowledge as well. For his first screenplay, the writer did a good job.

PH: Amazing.

JMS: There’s going to be many movies about Steve Jobs. We’re the first out of the gate, so…

PH: It’s always good to be first.

JMS: In the original script we actually had a scene with Steve and his sister Mona walking through a park, and it didn’t really lead very far, but it created a relationship with his sister, which I think was an amazing story. I think it made it make sense that he was brilliant, because it came from something. The thing about the story of Steve Jobs is it’s not like Johnny Cash. It’s not like he got abused, he had a drug habit… He had great parents, friends… traveled, and then he came to and never left Silicon Valley. He worked eight miles from where he grew up. Everything was within that zone. Which was interesting to his personality, wanting things to be familiar to him. It kind of made sense when you started to get under the skin of him. I think we latched onto the fact that there was a sense that he didn’t belong, but he didn’t dwell on it.

Thanks to Wendy for this post.

A full recording of the Q&A can be found here courtesy of KCET, which sponsored the event. To learn more about the KCET Cinema Series, visit their website.

JOBS goes into wide release on August 16th. For tickets and more information, click here.

Q&A: Elgin James (“Little Birds”), Part 4

September 6th, 2012 by

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Elgin James who wrote and directed his debut movie Little Birds. Here is some background:

Elgin James’ first screenplay, “Little Birds,” was accepted into both the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the Sundance Directors Lab. In 2009, James was awarded a Time Fellowship Grant as well as an Annenberg Feature Film Fellow Grant. He was recently named as one of Ioncinema.com’s “American New Wave 25,” in addition to being selected as one of Variety’s 2011 “Directors to Watch.”

Homeless as a teenager, James was a fixture in Boston’s hardcore punk scene, founding a national street gang that targeted neo-Nazi skinheads and robbed drug dealers to give the money to charity. After years in that lifestyle, James renounced violence and relocated to Los Angeles.

“Little Birds” marks his feature film directorial debut.

Here is Part 4 of my conversation with Elgin:

SM: Talking about autobiography here, you’ve got these two primary environments in Little Birds. You’ve got the Salton Sea. You’ve got LA. Can you talk about what that meant to you, those two places, thematically? What did Salton Sea represent and what did LA represent to you?

EJ: Totally. I’d grown up in a small farm town, like a small, rural New England farm town and it looked nothing like the Salton Sea, but that’s like how it felt to me… dead, arid, and dry with no life. I felt like Lily; I felt too big for it. I felt like I was on fire. I was into punk rock at the time, and I’m like eleven, twelve years old, and with this stupid Mohawk that I had my poor mom shave into my head. I’m surrounded by like cows, and pigs, and sheep. All I craved was concrete. I craved the city, even when I was like nine or ten listening to Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen and hearing about knife fights, and the city, and the shore and all of these things in my imagination. That’s a life that I wanted, and then you go up and you get that life, and it chews you up and spits you out. I was really the Lily character and that’s why we go for LA. I tried to write it and then also shoot Salton Sea still with colors. The Salton Sea is very warm because it’s home. I didn’t know what I had until it was gone, and that’s where the Alison character comes in of just like… I wish I’d known what I had at the time, instead of being so obsessed with what I was missing and what I wasn’t getting. Even in my household, that’s one thing that Robert Redford set out for me or broke down for me is like… I was so obsessed with what I didn’t get from my father or my father’s shortcomings and the abuse… that I missed how strong, and quiet, and beautiful life my mom lived throughout. That’s really where the Alison character came from. The Salton Sea is basically my small town in New England and LA is supposed to represent Boston and the world.

SM: Here it is, this story that you instinctively came to, and it does have that Hero’s Journey arc, doesn’t it? It starts off in the ordinary world, goes off into this extraordinary world of adventure, and the characters… not to reduce it… but they learn something. They go through these experiences, these challenges, right?

EJ: Right. That’s so funny because I hadn’t read that until late, but you’re totally right. That’s what it comes down to. 10,000 stories or whatever the number was that we’ve had in our lives. It becomes our own language and our blueprint. That’s so funny. That’s interesting. It’s totally true.

SM: Well, Joseph Campbell was a smart guy.

EJ: Sure was.

Here is Part 1.

Here is Part 2.

Here is Part 3.

Here is the movie’s website.

Little Birds debuted in NYC on August 29th. It screens for the first time in LA on September 14th.

Thanks to one of my former UNC students Ariel Butters for setting the interview into motion. Ariel has been working with Electric City Entertainment, one of the producing outfits involved with Little Birds.

Thanks as well to Black List intern Justin Kremer for handling the transcription of the interview and turning it around as quickly as he did.

Q&A: Elgin James (“Little Birds”), Part 3

September 5th, 2012 by

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Elgin James who wrote and directed his debut movie Little Birds. Here is some background:

Elgin James’ first screenplay, “Little Birds,” was accepted into both the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the Sundance Directors Lab. In 2009, James was awarded a Time Fellowship Grant as well as an Annenberg Feature Film Fellow Grant. He was recently named as one of Ioncinema.com’s “American New Wave 25,” in addition to being selected as one of Variety’s 2011 “Directors to Watch.”

Homeless as a teenager, James was a fixture in Boston’s hardcore punk scene, founding a national street gang that targeted neo-Nazi skinheads and robbed drug dealers to give the money to charity. After years in that lifestyle, James renounced violence and relocated to Los Angeles.

“Little Birds” marks his feature film directorial debut.

Here is Part 3 of my conversation with Elgin:

SM: Let’s talk about that experience with Sundance Labs and The Institute. From the time you had that initial inspiration for the script, to the time you started principal photography, how long a period was that?

EJ: I wrote it in – I had it and my wife had gone away for like a couple weeks… so I wrote it really quickly. I wrote it in a couple weeks; I just got it all out. It had been built up inside of me for so long. I didn’t understand all the things about how to write a screenplay. I didn’t know all that stuff, so I was trying to figure out that with the formatting and everything. I wrote “Little Birds” in a couple weeks, and then it was maybe like a few weeks after that or so, that I got it to Jamie Patricoff – who ended up producing it because he’d done one of my favorite films “Half Nelson” and he actually did not want to make the film. He wanted to meet me about my life story. He’d heard about it, and there was a Rolling Stone article so he wanted to make the big biopic if you will…a twenty million dollar movie. I wouldn’t meet with him about it, but I sent two friends of mine instead to bring my script to him. Understandably, he’s like “What? This gang member thinks he can write a screenplay?” Like “Yeah, no thanks.” This amazing girl, Katie McNeil, who had only been his assistant for a month and a half, took my screenplay home, read it, and then came back was like “Jamie, you have to trust me. You have to meet with this person. There’s something special here.” She’s like, “I see myself in this script. There’s something special,” which is incredible. Then, she went from an assistant to the producer on “Little Birds” because of that, and she’s now the Vice President of Development at Electric City, Jamie’s company…with “Blue Valentine”, and all those other great films. Sorry, Jamie got it and then I met with Jamie who sent me to meet Michelle Satter from the Feature Film Program. I didn’t even know what the Labs were; I’d never heard about them. I obviously knew Sundance and I’d grown up watching, like – I said in The New Yorker – like lay in my mom’s lap watching “The Sting” and “The Electric Horsemen” and “Butch Cassidy” and all this stuff that Robert Redford did, because my mom, like all red blooded women, loved her some Robert Redford. Then all of a sudden, I walk into this room and here’s Michelle Satter, and everyone else from the Institute or the program, and it was just like I’d come home. She even said – one of her quotes was – I told her my whole story up to that moment and then she was just like “Elgin, you’ve been hanging out with the wrong crowd.” And yeah, they brought me to the labs and literally like my life changed. Then I’m there with everyone from Walter Mosley – who is like one of my favorite authors – to Scott Frank – who’s no slouch at screenwriting. It was really just incredible that way… to Wesley Strick to Tiger Williams… and just to have all these people talking to you. And then at the same time, I went there to the Labs- I couldn’t believe I was there… I was there with my other Fellows and they’d all already made films before, you know. They had films that appeared at Cannes and at Sundance and stuff. I was like the asshole like “Can you believe we’re here? Can you believe we’re at the screenwriting labs! Can you believe what he’s done? And what this writer’s done?” And they’re like “Of course, idiot. We’ve been trying to get here for a long time. We know why we’re here.” And Michelle Satter, she took me aside at some point – I’m not sure if it was a screenwriters lab or a directors lab – and was just like we’re not here…everything the writers would tell me was like “Yeah! That’s perfect! You’re right! Yessir! Yessir! Oh my god. Yes ma’am. Yes ma’am.” I was so happy to be there, and she was like “we brought you for your fierceness. You can’t lose that. We brought you for your voice. You can’t be so accommodating.” The whole thing is they push you to find out who you really are. They don’t push you to tell you ‘this is right’ or ‘this is wrong’. They have a screenwriter to tell you this is a story that I would write, or there’s certain physical things – it’s not like a class – it’s more like “why did you do that? Why? What does this mean?” And there are some screenwriters that wanted answers in “Little Birds”. And they wanted answers of why Lily cuts herself, and luckily through Michelle Satter and through the program, I was like “you know what? No. I’m not going to answer that, because when you’re a kid you don’t know why you do shit. “ I’m a grown ass man and I’ve probably done ten stupid things today. I don’t know why, and I especially didn’t know why when I was fifteen. They want to know, well was she molested? I was like “I’m not going to make that movie.” That’s not interesting to me. It’s beyond that. It’s not about – I think with screenwriting its like – audiences are smarter. That’s one thing we should know as like artists. You don’t have to answer everything, and you’re talking down to people when you do.

SM: It sounds like one of the things that you learned out of that experience, or maybe kind of honed down, was to find your voice and respect that. Stay with that. Don’t lose that.

EJ: That’s exactly right, and that’s really what they want out of you… is to find out who you really are and where you’re going to fight back. When you have people that are much more brilliant and much more successful and accomplished at what you’re trying to do than you, and they’re trying to tell you something…you’re going to find out how strongly you really feel about something, and that’s where you become an artist. If you’re like “nope… I don’t care what you say. This is what I have to do.” And a lot of things become bumping my head against it and being like… okay… but I have to find that out myself, and a lot of that came from the directing lab. When you have Caleb Deschanel, an amazing cinematographer, telling you where to put the camera and I’m telling him “no, I need to put it over here”, and I put it over in this other place and it’s wrong because I’m an idiot…I had to find that out myself, and that’s what’s so great about the labs. It’s the same way with writing. “Well okay, that may be the story you’re going to tell, but this is my story. “ What really they’re trying to get out of you is just…at least for me… was to go as deep, and as autobiographical as you can. Shed away all that other stuff, and just make it as honest and real as possible.

Tomorrow Part 4 of my Q&A with writer-director Elgin James.

Here is Part 1.

Here is Part 2.

Here is the movie’s website.

Little Birds debuted in NYC on August 29th. It screens for the first time in LA on September 14th.

Thanks to one of my former UNC students Ariel Butters for setting the interview into motion. Ariel has been working with Electric City Entertainment, one of the producing outfits involved with Little Birds.

Thanks as well to Black List intern Justin Kremer for handling the transcription of the interview and turning it around as quickly as he did.

Q&A: Elgin James (“Little Birds”), Part 2

September 4th, 2012 by

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Elgin James who wrote and directed his debut movie Little Birds. Here is some background:

Elgin James’ first screenplay, “Little Birds,” was accepted into both the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the Sundance Directors Lab. In 2009, James was awarded a Time Fellowship Grant as well as an Annenberg Feature Film Fellow Grant. He was recently named as one of Ioncinema.com’s “American New Wave 25,” in addition to being selected as one of Variety’s 2011 “Directors to Watch.”

Homeless as a teenager, James was a fixture in Boston’s hardcore punk scene, founding a national street gang that targeted neo-Nazi skinheads and robbed drug dealers to give the money to charity. After years in that lifestyle, James renounced violence and relocated to Los Angeles.

“Little Birds” marks his feature film directorial debut.

Here is Part 2 of my conversation with Elgin:

SM: Lets talk about “Little Birds”. In The New Yorker article, you talk about driving around the Salton Sea and you saw a girl on a bicycle and that was essentially kind of a flash for you, right?

EJ: Oh, totally.

SM: Could you describe that moment – how that translated in your head where you said this is a movie I want to tell?

EJ: Yeah, you know what, I was sitting there and I just walked away from the other project. My wife and I, we went up to Joshua Tree. We’d just moved to California pretty recently. We read in a book that the Salton Sea is crazy… don’t go there after dark… so we were like “Oh, we’ve got to go to the Salton Sea after dark.”  We go, and the sun was just starting to set, and we stopped somewhere… and literally it was this girl on the back of her boyfriend’s BMX bike, sitting on the pegs with a cigarette pack in her sleeve. It just felt such like childhood; you know what I mean? It felt such like adolescence. It was like this perfect moment that touched this thing inside of me, and I was like – that’s a story, and that’s how I can tell this story about me and my best friend. It was just one of those magical moments that you could either pay attention to or not. I think that’s the whole thing…of trying to tap into things, of trying to be an artist…just be aware of those moments and just to run with them. Not to say that’s the only moment I’ve ever had – sometimes you hit a brick wall and that’s not anything – but to me, just seeing that in the evening… this girl riding around, her whole life ahead of her… but in this place. I knew that feeling from being in a small town and just wandering aimlessly. It’s just that feeling of my whole life is ahead of me but maybe I’ll never leave this town. Or, I’m too big for this town, I need to get out into the world… and then realizing, oh I got out into the world and then it chewed me up and spat me out. So yeah, it was really this time – my wife just went into a store – but for me, I was just like “Oh my god! This is it.” I was so excited; I couldn’t stop talking about it and figuring it out, like, the whole three hour drive back to L.A.

SM: You know what’s cool about that, Elgin? It’s like that old adage you hear – character equals plot. It sounds like what you had was – you zeroed in on this character, and then all of a sudden just saw the story unfold in front of your eyes just from that.

EJ: You’re right. That’s true. I feel like – it’s amazing you say that – that’s really how I… I’m trying to figure out, as we all are as artists, we’re trying to figure out who we are as an artist and then we’re trying to figure out who the hell we are just in life anyway and our art is a way to do that, and through writing. But character is so much more interesting to me than story. You’re totally right, and just from that, from her, from seeing just this girl… that’s where the story comes from. But I feel like to me, and the things I’m also interested in, it comes first with the character. The way I saw “Little Birds” was it’s almost like – cause I fell in love with westerns with John Ford in particular and those are very… they’re like a genre film… and when I was in Boston and I’d sneak off with my friends and go to these little arthouse theaters… there was a time in the 90’s, just this explosion of these amazing movies from “All Over Me” to “Kids” to “All The Real Girls” to “Thirteen”… I kind of wanted to make my genre film like that, and the character stuff is what’s interesting to me. Kids run away, and they go into the big, bad world, and things usually go wrong – I wasn’t trying to change the world with that – but what interested me is who these characters were and to be honest, when I was a kid and I was homeless, there’s just me and a bunch of boys in abandoned buildings. These runaway girls would come around; I could not care less about them at the time except for the one thing adolescent boys like adolescent girls for. But besides that, I didn’t care where they came from or where they were going. Now as an adult, those adolescent boys – I mean, my friends aren’t that interesting to me – but those girls, like what happened? What led them to us, and what happened after they left us? That’s what really became interesting to me.

SM: Let’s talk about those girls. Lily and Alison, two of the lead characters in “Little Birds” – how did you find the experience of writing those two keys characters who are two decades younger than you?

EJ: You know, I have no idea. I think because age is such a weird thing, because my life has been really stagnant… like I said, I feel like I just came alive a few years ago. It’s a hole I dug for myself completely, like I made choices in my own life. That’s the problems of people where something happened to someone as a child — it’s almost like you emotionally freeze, and then you feel like a victim, and then you can victimize the rest of the world, but inside you’re still stuck at this age. You’re kind of stunted. It wasn’t until I had these amazing mentors that were able to bring me out of that from the Sundance Labs and the Sundance Institute. I don’t know; I feel like we’re all – any of the things that would have let me let go of that …of what it feels like to be like a kid, aimless, trying to figure out who you are… like a mortgage and a job and car payments, I never had any of those. You know what I mean? So, that was still and is still, for better or worse, alive inside of me. The years didn’t change anything. It wasn’t that difficult. I think really what’s interesting to me is just how girls are so much more complicated. I always say that when I say something, I just mean that. When my wife says something, she means a dozen things, and I can only usually figure out the top two if I’m lucky. I had older sisters as well; I was like the pesky little brother. I was like many years younger than… but with all these teenage girls and just like following them and like them yelling at my mom to have me stop pestering them. You know what I mean? But just to hear those voices, it was still very alive inside of me in just the way that girls talk.

SM: That’s interesting. I was wondering — because you had this dramatic moment where you saw this girl on the bicycle — choosing two teenage girls at the center of your story, that is in some ways reflective of you and your friend, whether that was just because of the fact it was this girl you saw or perhaps writing female characters struck you as a more interesting choice, working with a female perspective.

EJ: Oh, completely. That’s why I think I was so excited about it, because I found my way in. That’s really what it was. It was just like this girl and this amazing moment. I think, even in other ways, I couldn’t even articulate yet. I was trying to. I don’t know if my wife could figure out why – she was my girlfriend at the time – she didn’t understand why I was so excited because I can’t even articulate this is also like my way and I’ve been surrounded by strong women my entire life you know starting with my mom. I just recently lost my mom, so it’s kind of like a love song to her. And to my wife now. And to Juno Temple, the lead, who’s one of the closest people in my life. To my cinematographer. I’ve been so blessed by that, and there’s a way to tell the story through somebody I was much more interested in and also can kind of, like, celebrate. And then not even knowing that when I’d get into it, that it could be so much more autobiographical with this stuff. The people from the labs – particularly Michelle Satter, who runs the labs – also would push me to go there, push me to be more autobiographical, push me to go deeper. It wasn’t about the physical things I’d done; just that kind of emotional place and because that must feel like – it’s the same reason I feel like I’d be a better father to a daughter than I would a son – because you’re used to being intimate with women. I’m used to being intimate with that, and being more vulnerable. I have three rescue dogs; I have two girls and a boy. With the girls, I’m all like “Aw, baby!” and with the boy, I’m like “Come on, buddy “ and I put him in a headlock and we’re wrestling around. I feel like even on the set, when I was trying to direct that that became a thing – I kind of had to have the boys be their own crew and almost be their own… I don’t know if I want to call it a gang… but they kind of had to be on their own so I could be there emotionally for the girls. Back to writing, that’s what I was able to do with the characters. I could tell more honest truths about myself through them.

Tomorrow Part 3 of my Q&A with writer-director Elgin James.

Here is Part 1.

Here is the movie’s website.

Little Birds debuted in NYC on August 29th. It screens for the first time in LA on September 14th.

Thanks to one of my former UNC students Ariel Butters for setting the interview into motion. Ariel has been working with Electric City Entertainment, one of the producing outfits involved with Little Birds.

Thanks as well to Black List intern Justin Kremer for handling the transcription of the interview and turning it around as quickly as he did.

Q&A: Elgin James (“Little Birds”), Part 1

September 3rd, 2012 by

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Elgin James who wrote and directed his debut movie Little Birds. Elgin has – to say the least – an interesting background. Here is an excerpt from an abstract of a recent New Yorker feature on the writer-director:

At forty-two, Elgin James is trim and fit, a vegan who has long forsworn drugs and alcohol. His upper body is a scrapbook of tattoos, many of which embody aspiration. Others are darker, the inky residue of James’s fifteen years leading a gang called F.S.U., for Fuck Shit Up. F.S.U. rose out of Boston’s hardcore music scene to become a straight-edge militia whose members prided themselves on beating up drug dealers and neo-Nazis. In 2006, James renounced gang life and moved to L.A., where he hoped to break into film. Before long, he had a berth at Sundance Labs, the prestigious indie-film boot camp. In L.A., he discovered that he had the essential qualities of a writer-director: charisma, determination, and a deep well of sorrow. “When someone like Elgin, someone who was so raw and broken, uses film to get out of the violence, and uses it so beautifully—I was just very taken by that,” Robert Redford, who founded the Sundance Institute in 1981, said. After taking Sundance Labs classes in screenwriting and directing, James worked to develop his first film, “Little Birds.” But as his producer succeeded in raising the five hundred thousand dollars they needed to shoot it, James was arrested by the F.B.I. for attempted extortion. After James finished editing “Little Birds,” he waived a trial and pleaded guilty. The news raced around Hollywood much faster than James’s script had. “Little Birds” premièred, at the Sundance Film Festival, in January, 2011. The film is an intimate, idiosyncratic portrait of two fifteen-year-old girls, Lily (played by Juno Temple) and Alison, who live on the shores of the Salton Sea, in California’s Imperial Valley. The crowd at Sundance was riveted. After the premiere, James learned that he had been sentenced to a year in the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal prison. When he was released, this March, he was thirty pounds lighter, but glutted with ideas. Many in Hollywood have warmed to the Elgin James story because it fits one of the town’s stock narratives: the triumph of the human spirit. However, as you get paid more it gets harder to preserve the authentic voice that made you desirable. James’s common touch has attracted a band of industry stalwarts who are eager to help him succeed.

Part 1 of my conversation with Elgin James in which he recounts how he got into screenwriting / filmmaking and how he approaches the craft:

SM: First of all, congratulations on “Little Birds”.

EJ: Thank you so much, man. It is so cool to finally be able to, like, talk about it. It’s amazing.

SM: I bet you’ve been going through the rounds the last week or so.

EJ: Yeah, it’s been cool though – I mean, now I’m in New York which is rad. I actually got in last night, but it’s like when Juno [Temple], Kate [Bosworth], and I got to spend the day just doing all this stuff together and it was amazing. We asked them to finally let us, like, actually be the three of us together – because I think normally you have… directors always say ‘Oh, I love my actresses…’ and actresses always say ‘Oh, I love my director’, but it’s usually just Hollywood bullshit. With us, it’s really just like this real bond and a real family, so it’s been great to be back with them.

SM: I know you’ve probably done a lot of talking about your personal history. I was going to include an overview of that in the post, but I’d really like to focus on your screenwriting if you don’t mind.

EJ: I would love that. I don’t think anybody has ever asked me about that… ever.

SM: I was very interested, you know… obviously you have a provocative line, basically ‘movies saved my life’ and reading about you and how you grew up on movies. When did it first occur to you that someone actually wrote those stories, the idea of screenwriting or writing screenplays. Do you remember that?

EJ: You know what, when I was pretty young, I was lucky. Even when I was little, as I’ve said before, I had horrible nervous tics. I was a really scared kid, and my mom was the one that realized they stopped, but it wasn’t like – like I say – I was watching “Billy Jack” and “Planet of the Apes”. It wasn’t like I was watching “Citizen Kane” or anything, even though I still love both those movies. I started pretty young… when you’re younger, and I think maybe just because of the 70’s and early 80’s, parents are different. You’re watching “Clockwork Orange” and you’re watching these things, and you hear about Stanley Kubrick and stuff. It’s kind of like my parents – we did not have any money, but they were very intelligent people, and I was really lucky that way. So it happened actually, pretty early on that I started to figure that out.

SM: What training did you have in terms of screenwriting? Did you read books or was it just from watching movies?

EJ: You know what it was – it was really the great gift. It’s hard because when the story gets told, and people talk about your past. My father, he had his issues and he had his issues in his relationship with me, but he also had a great part of him. One of the amazing gifts he gave to me was a love of reading. When I was a kid, we had this farmhouse that we ended up losing because we had no money… but we had a whole room that was just a library, filled with books. As a kid, when there was nothing to read and I was bored, so I’d go in and all of a sudden go ‘what’s here?’ There’d be like Irwin Shaw, or like Saul Bellow, or all these people. I didn’t understand most of what I was even reading, even later like a Raymond Carver. But, I got this love of short stories, and when I went to Los Angeles finally to make movies, not really knowing how I was going to do that… what that would entail… there’s a project put together about my life story and I’d sit in the room with these writers and the producers talking about the film and I’d be like ‘You know what? I think you’re wrong. I feel like I know as much about story as you.’ So when I finally sat down to try to write – writing myself – I didn’t want to write particularly about what happened to me because I was so worried about glamorizing the violence… like glorifying the violence…which I was so judgmental to them about. So I tried to do it myself and I’m like… oh yeah, that’s hard. But what helped me is I realized that I already had that cadence in my head from reading all these mid century short story writers with these, like, short muscular sentences, right to the point, like an economy of words. And that’s where it was… it was literally like from reading and from writing and keeping journals since I was about twelve years old.

SM: That’s interesting. I saw something one time that said by the time a person reaches the age of twenty-one in the United States, they will have seen, heard, or read 10,000 stories.

EJ: Wow.

SM: So that’s probably true, that we all have some sort of innate sense of story.

EJ: Oh, I think you’re totally right, and as a screenwriters, that’s kind of our duty to tell the…people say ‘no, you’re just telling the same stories over and over’…but to find different ways to usurp expectations a little bit but still have it feel warm, you know what I mean? To still have it feel comfortable, because we’re used to a certain – and I realized, even, finishing “Little Birds”, and then having it premiere, and then sitting in prison for a year, I was like – alright, I want to get better at my craft – and so I read like 101 books while I was there and just started to figure things out like okay… we’re used to stories since primitive time and maybe I strayed a little too far at times of when we expected to get out… like we stayed in the Salton Sea for a really long time, but that’s kind of a story that I wanted to tell. I wanted it to be a slow burn. So it was kind of like this thing… to not be chained by that as screenwriters, but to be aware of it. It’s almost like playing jazz a little bit. You learn all the rules and then you learn how to throw them away at times and break them interestingly.

SM: That’s one of the constant critiques you hear from managers, producers, and studio executives. There are so many formulaic scripts. In fact I saw a comment by a producer recently where he said he hated Joseph Campbell. Why? He said basically because he sees all these formulaic Hero’s Journey scripts. That’s sad, isn’t it? When you reduce a brilliant, inspirational figure like Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey, which is really this energetic, organic expression of narrative, to some simple rote formula.

EJ: Totally, and that’s such a thing where people just sell themselves short anyway and be like ‘What is my shortcut?’ You know what I mean? As opposed to trying to tell something interesting and figuring out who you are through writing – and that’s really what it is – we have all this horrible or beautiful wreckage inside of us and then you try to just get it out somehow and that’s the beautiful thing about words. Even when you read a book, or in a screenplay, when someone puts together these words that you’re familiar with, but puts them together in a certain way… that all of a sudden it’s like “I feel that way all the time and I could never figure out how to articulate that”… that’s just like magic. But then for other people, and that’s being a writer… as other people are like “Oh, I want to be in the movie business and what do I have to do? I have this great idea about boy meets girl… and what are these other films like? How can I do that? Let me buy “Save The Cat”. Let me buy “The Hero’s Journey”. But, like, oh wow… there’s too much stuff in here… what’s the gist? What can I just get through? How can I just break it down? I feel as an artist, you’re just selling yourself so short.

Tomorrow Part 2 of my Q&A with writer-director Elgin James.

Here is a synopsis of Little Birds:

15 year-old Lily (Juno Temple) and her best friend Alison (Kay Panabaker) live on the shores of the Salton Sea among rundown trailers parks, rotting household items, drained pools and decaying streets. What was once an oasis for the wealthy and famous has become a near ghost town, leaving its residents fighting for breath in the deep end. Lily feels eternally claustrophobic and rebellious, living with her manic, single mother (Leslie Mann), clinging to hope for something more exciting than visits with her young and already washed up Aunt (Kate Bosworth).

When they meet a few visiting street kids, the girls’ bond is finally tested and Lily convinces Alison to follow the boys back to Los Angeles. Not intimidated by the journey ahead, Lily is hopelessly drawn to one of the boys and the freedoms of their lifestyle. But in the big city, Lily and Alison quickly fall into the boys’ world of scams and petty crime. Lily is determined to stay and make it work, while Alison is overwhelmed and eager to return home. When an idea is hatched to use Lily as bait for men with money to steal, things quickly escalate to a life-changing moment. Lily must decide how far she will go to grow up and Alison must decide how far she will go to protect Lily.

Here is the movie’s trailer:

Here is the movie’s website.

Little Birds debuted in NYC on August 29th. It screens for the first time in LA on September 14th.

Thanks to one of my former UNC students Ariel Butters for setting the interview into motion. Ariel has been working with Electric City Entertainment, one of the producing outfits involved with Little Birds.

Thanks as well to Black List intern Justin Kremer for handling the transcription of the interview and turning it around as quickly as he did.

Which screenwriters would you most like to see interviewed on GITS?

November 15th, 2011 by

I like to interview screenwriters as it’s a small way of promoting them and the craft, and their insights provide wisdom to GITS readers. I have tended to focus on writers who have recently sold spec scripts because I know that is what most of you are about, writing and hoping to sell a spec. But one of the benefits of the partnership with the Black List is access to a lot more screenwriters.

So how about it: Which screenwriters would you most like to see interviewed on GITS?