No matter what other good things happen to screenwriter Justin Kremer, he will always have this fact as part of his personal history: His script “McCarthy” was the first one to generate enough interest in the new Black List script-hosting site to land the ‘new’ writer representation — with CAA and Madhouse Entertainment no less. The heat generated off that resulted in “McCarthy” circulating rapidly around Hollywood, leading to it making the 2012 Black List.
Justin was kind enough to do an interview and we had an extensive conversation. Today in Part 5, Justin talks about some aspects of the screenwriting craft:
Scott: How about some craft questions here, Justin?
Scott: OK, let’s start from the very beginning. How do you come up with story ideas?
Justin: There’s rarely one concrete way. I find myself consistently attracted toward source material, not just because there’s stuff already there for you. I think it’s just the most rewarding to crack.
With “McCarthy,” obviously, I had at least some structure and some narrative already in place, but it can really come from anything.
There are a bunch of sites I like to read every day that just kind of stimulate the mind and get you thinking about stuff.One of those that has been an invaluable resource is a site called Longform, which posts these amazing long‑form articles about everything from crime to science. It has everything from that initial “Wired” article that inspired “Argo,” to the more contemporary stuff. It really gets you thinking about character and story in a different way.
Scott: What’s your take on high concept?
Justin: I’m more character driven, but to be able to pitch your idea in a really concise and concrete way is something that is unbelievably important.
I know, for example, that when John Logan was trying to figure out his next spec would be in the mid to late 90s, he told his agent that he wanted to write “King Lear meets football”, That became “Any Given Sunday.” If you can very simply describe exactly what you’re trying to do and give someone else a clear sense of that, that is so valuable.
Scott: How much time do you spend on prep writing, like brainstorming, character development, plotting, research, outlining?
Justin: I’m heavy on research. I spend as much time researching as I do outlining, normally a couple weeks for each. “McCarthy” was particularly heavy on that front, because I had to figure out exactly what time period I was trying to tackle. To figure that out, you have to know exactly where Joe was in each part of his life and what best encapsulates McCarthy’s arc as a character. I had legal pads full of notes, creating a timeline of Joe’s life and trying to figure out what was most suitable for adaptation.
It’s so clear when you’re reading scripts what’s well researched and what has had less thought put into it. The scripts that tend to amaze me are so detail‑oriented. It can be the littlest detail that grounds me in the world of the piece.
Scott Myers: In terms of outlining, are you one of those three‑by‑five inch index card guys or do you have some sort of sophisticated software you use to wrangle the plot?
Justin Kremer: I’ve tried index cards, never really fell in love with them. I’m more of a big Microsoft Word document kind of guy. “McCarthy” was interesting because I didn’t outline nearly as much as I did on other projects. It was more research heavy. With “McCarthy,” I gave myself three to four major points to hit in the first act, six in the second, and another three in the third, to know “This is where I need to go”. The rest is up to you. I left a lot of room to play around in between those beats.
It was interesting to work like that. On one hand, it’s frightening, but on the other, it really gives you a lot of room to play and be creative.
Scott: For years, I’ve had the same approach, where I figure out 10 Plotline points. That gives enough structure. You have these sign posts where you know where you’re going, but then that also allows you the freedom to have the story emerge in a more organic fashion. Is that what I’m hear you’re saying, a similar approach that you did with “McCarthy”?
Scott: How about character development? Now, this is a little different because you’re adapting a biopic here, an actual historical figure. Yet, you’re opening up a side of the figure that the world had not quite seen. How did you go about developing the characters in your script “McCarthy”?
Justin: I think each character had a very distinct arc from the jump except for Don Surine, who was Joe’s confidant. Don is a creation of a few staffers that Joe was close with. He required quite a bit of creative license. I think Joe and Jean, their arcs were very clear. Part of what fascinated me about Joe, and this is eventually something that I took creative license with as well, was how unrepentant he was. I decide to present him with a climactic choice in the third act – a chance to apologize for his actions.
What happens is that Joe is essentially given two choices. He can be censured by the Senate and publicly disgraced, or he can stand up on the Senate floor and he can say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong,” and this venom will go away.
Joe didn’t have that choice in real life, but I wanted to give him that choice. He’s presented with this decision and ultimately, he unleashes on his colleagues…ranting and raving. Telling them- “I’ll never apologize for what I did. How dare you try and criticize me when I’m trying to protect the country?” I thought it was a great character moment, and I think it was really crucial for him to be presented with a choice.
Scott: Are some of the projects you’re considering now, are they completely fictional, not based on historical characters?
Scott: What lessons will you take from “McCarthy” in terms of developing entirely fictional characters, or have you thought about that process?
Justin: I’m not sure that I have. I think what’s most important to me is entering with an understanding of exactly what the arc is, because without that, I feel lost. Knowing where our characters are starting up and where they’re ending reigns supreme for me. The impotence of providing your protagonist with a climactic choice was one of the bigger lessons of this script. Some of my writing unfolded with this banal inevitably prior to McCarthy. My protagonists didn’t always have to be active – to make a crucial decision. That has changed now. When it comes to the idea of the climactic choice, I always think of “Apocalypse Now” – which is one of the greatest examples of how much tension can be derived from that moment.
Tomorrow in Part 6, Justin talks about more aspects of the screenwriting craft.
Justin is repped by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment.