Scott: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
Michael: Growing up, I always had an intense fascination with movies, along with a pretty wild imagination. I remember as a kid, playing with my GI-Joes for hours on end, coming up with all sorts of elaborate stories and adventures. And one time, after watching me for a while, my mother told me I should be a filmmaker when I grew up. And for some reason that always stuck with me. But even though it was always my dream, I never knew that it was something you could actually do. I mean, growing up in Massachusetts, I never knew anyone that had anything to do with the movies, so it never really entered my mind that it was an actual possibility. Then when I was in High School, Good Will Hunting came out, and I remember thinking, “guys from here can write movies?” So that year I took some creative writing classes, and it turned out I was pretty good at it. Actually, my stories would always win awards, but were never allowed in the school magazines because the teachers always said they were too violent, or just plain unsuitable for a school publication– which I always took as a point of pride (and I still do). But once I graduated, I kind of put it on the back burner while I tried my hand at an assortment of different jobs and career paths. But I still dreamed of being a filmmaker, and would always tell my friends that someday I was going to write a movie. Finally, when I was 29 years old, I decided to either put up or shut up and I moved to NYC and enrolled at the New York Film Academy, where I absolutely fell in love with filmmaking. I knew instantly, that that’s what I was meant to do. And I haven’t looked back since.
Scott: What movies from your youth influenced you?
Michael: I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, so the action films of that era were definitely a big influence on my early years, films like: First Blood, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop, Bloodsport, Out for Justice, and Big Trouble in Little China, among countless others. Jaws made a huge impact with me. My cousins made me watch it when I was maybe 5 or 6 years old, and I was scarred for life—not only is it probably a perfect movie, but it has kept me out of the ocean for my entire life. What’s more influential than that? Also, the first time I saw Goodfellas was the first time I said, “man, I wanna do that.” And for me, it’s by far and away the most influential movie of all time. One reason in particular is when Ray Liotta introduces Robert DeNiro’s character, through voice-over, and says “…Jimmy was the type of guy who used to root for the bad guys in the movies…” and that just blew me away, because it made me look at the villains in films in a totally different point of view. Before that I had always rooted for the hero in the story, but for some reason when I heard that line, it made me realize how the bad guys are usually the coolest/more interesting characters in the movie. And ever since then, my favorite films are the ones with characters that are a little more complicated, or not necessarily what you would consider “good people” if you met them in real life. And stories that are darker and more complex, but can still make you laugh with sharp, witty dialog. Some of my biggest influences are: The Godfather part 1&2, Heat, Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Cool Hand Luke, Death Wish, Boogie Nights, Breathless, Apocalypse Now and The Big Lebowski, as well as some of the great TV shows that have been on over the past decade or so, like The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, to name just a few.
Scott: How have you gone about learning the craft of screenwriting?
Michael: As a kid, I had a rabid obsession with movies and television (and still do for the most part) and I some of my earliest memories are going to the local video store and checking out the VHS covers to see which movie I wanted to rent—usually the rule of thumb was the sleazier the covers or posters were, the better chance that I was going to rent it. Then, when the stores put up new posters, they’d give them/or sell them to me, so the walls in my bedroom were always lined with trashy movie posters. But anyway–the point is, I watched a lot of movies growing up, and I learned immeasurably from them. As far as any formal schooling, I wouldn’t say I took the most traditional path to a screenwriting/filmmaking career. For a while, all I had were the How to Write a Screenplay books that my girlfriend would buy me every year for Christmas (and she still does). They actually were a big help, as far as teaching me the basics like formatting and story structure. Also, most of the books would breakdown different films and/or screenplays, and explain what worked and what didn’t work, which was a big help in understanding what made a good story. But when I finally did take real film courses, at NYFA, it was then that I realized just how little I actually knew. And the reason for that is because other than a few Star Wars re-enactments I shot when I was a kid (see: George Michael in Arrested Development—seriously, I still have the VHS tapes somewhere) I had never written or filmed anything, ever. I had written some short stories, and took some multi-media classes in high school, but those were screw-off classes that we used to ditch all the time. So when I went to NYFA, not only did I get to write a number of short films, but I also got to shoot, direct and edit them. And I think learning all the stages of filmmaking, at least a little bit, makes you a better writer because you’ll have a better understanding of how the whole process works. Also, one more thing that has been instrumental in my filmmaking education is the Internet. I have watched hours and hours of documentaries and interviews of my favorite writers and directors, always looking for any advice or tips I can pick up. I couldn’t tell you how many interviews I’ve watched of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, William Goldman, John Milius, Paul Schrader, David Chase, Matthew Weiner and anyone and everyone who’s work I admire.
Scott: What is the backstory on how you wrote your original screenplay “A Good Man”?
Michael: I completed my one-year filmmaking program at NYFA in 2011, and then moved back home to Massachusetts for four or five months before I headed back to New York to live for another year. But in those four or five months that I was home, I wrote the first draft of my screenplay, A Good Man. Then when I got back to NYC, I took a great night class at The Gotham Writer’s Workshop, where I learned the finer points of screenwriting, and wrote a second draft of the script. After that, a few of my fellow students and I formed a writing group, and as we progressed on our screenplays, we would meet up and discuss them–giving each other notes and feedback. I also wrote and shot a couple more short films during that time, and after each one I felt like I learned more and more, so I would go back and revise the script until I had written a number of new drafts, and got it to where I thought it was pretty good. After that, I started to send out query letters to any actors, agents, managers, producers, and anyone and everyone who might be willing to read it. But after months of sending out letters, I didn’t get any responses. Needless to say it was pretty discouraging. But luckily, that’s around the time I first learned about the Black List, and I eventually I uploaded my screenplay onto it. I got some good reviews and a few notes on how to make it better, but I kept the script as it was for about a year just to see what would happen. I had quite a few people download it at first, but no one ever contacted me about it. So I decided to take some of the notes from the reviews, and I wrote one more draft. I uploaded that version about a year ago, and although it placed pretty high in a couple other contests hosted on the site, nothing was really happening with it. I just hoped maybe someday the right person might stumble across it and fall in love with it. And then one day I saw the call for entries for the Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowship, and I said “hey, what the hell.” So I entered it, and the rest is history.
Scott: What’s your logline for the script?
Michael: When someone close to him is brutalized, a guilt-ridden drug addict goes out for revenge, partially to bring justice to the girl, and partly to ease his guilt from his own past. Set in Brockton, MA, this story deals with regret, revenge and most importantly, redemption.
Scott: What made you decide to host the script on the Black List site?
Michael: Well, like I said before, once I had the screenplay to where I thought it was pretty good, I started sending out query letters to agents, managers, producers, etc. And as you can imagine, I didn’t have much luck with that. So, fed up and frustrated that I couldn’t get anyone to read it, and started looking for alternative ways to get it out there and into the right hands. That’s when I stumbled across an article on nofilmschool.com, talking about this new screenplay hosting service called The Black List. So I did some additional research on it, and everything I read made it seem like a no-brainer. Instead of me sending out mass query letters in hopes that maybe one of them would get a response, I could put my script on this website and have it available to a couple thousand industry professionals. Also, I liked the fact that I could have it reviewed by professional readers, so I could get an idea if I was at least on the right track. And once I did upload it onto the website, and I did get a few good reviews, it really helped to keep my confidence up. As an aspiring writer, you need those little moments of encouragement to get you through the dark days of waiting for that phone to ring. It took a couple years, but it definitely paid off. I can honestly say, that putting my script on the Black List was the best decision of my screenwriting career. Without it, my script would probably just be sitting on my bookshelf, underneath that stack of How to Write a Screenplay books. Like I said, it was a no-brainer.
Scott: What was the process like going from uploading your script to the Black List site to receiving a call from Cassian Elwes informing you that you were the recipient of the 2015 Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowship?
Michael: It was definitely a very long, arduous journey from the time I originally uploaded the script to the night Cassian called me on the phone and told me I had won. I’m not sure exactly how long the screenplay’s been on the website, but I’d say it’s been at least a couple years since I first put it on there. I was really at the point where I figured it was still just my first screenplay, and I got some good reviews, and hopefully the next one would be better. When I saw the post for this contest, I almost didn’t even bother to enter; I just figured I didn’t have a chance. Thank God for my girlfriend, Jenn, who gave me a swift kick in the butt and told me a better enter it, or else. So I entered the screenplay, thinking that would be the end of it, but a couple months later I found out I was in the top ten and had to submit a personal essay. And being the hardcore pessimist that I am, I figured I still didn’t have a snowball’s chance. But again, thankfully, my girlfriend threatened me with physical harm (she’s small, but she’s mean) if I didn’t submit the essay. So I wrote it out the night before the deadline and sent it in. And about a week later, my phone rang and the caller ID said: Cassian Elwes, Beverly Hills, CA. I’m sure you can imagine my reaction. I answered the phone and the first thing he said was that I had won the contest, and after that I probably heard every third word he said, I just couldn’t believe it. I actually kept thinking that there must’ve been a mistake, and he called the wrong person, but then he started talking about what he loved about the screenplay and the characters, and that’s when I knew–I actually won the (bleeping) thing! It really was one of those moments you only see in the movies–truly unbelievable.
Scott: What were your expectations before you went to the 2015 Sundance Film Festival?
Michael: I really didn’t know what to expect going into it. I kept telling myself that if nothing else, at least I was getting a free trip to Sundance–and anything else was just gravy. But inside, I was really hoping that it would lead to me seeing my screenplay get made, and the start to a career as a filmmaker. And now that I’m back, it’s safe to say that the trip far exceeded my expectations. The festival was unbelievable and I got to meet some amazing people, hear some crazy stories and watched some great movies. As for my screenplay and a filmmaking career, it’s still a little early to tell, but all signs are looking up. And one thing I know for sure, it never would’ve happened if I hadn’t taken the chance and uploaded my screenplay to the Black List.
One of the nicest aspects about being the official screenwriting blog of the Black List is to interface with writers like Michael and share in their excitement deriving from a worthy initiative such as this one. Tomorrow Michael’s impressions of his time at the Sundance Film Festival.