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 3, Justin rounds out his insights into the writing of “McCarthy” and how he got his script into the hands of people in Hollywood.
Scott: There’s a pivotal set of scenes in the script early on toward the end of Act One between McCarthy and General Dwight Eisenhower, then a candidate for president. The first scene is a contentious private meeting between them in which Eisenhower essentially said, “I don’t like what you’re doing.” The second turns out to be a surprising public endorsement of Eisenhower of McCarthy’s efforts to ferret out communists. First of all, is that historically accurate?
Justin: It is. That was one of those moments where when I stumbled upon that, you just laugh because it’s too good to be true. Eisenhower and Joe, shortly before Eisenhower was set to give a big campaign speech in Joe’s backyard in Wisconsin, meet privately. There are no public accounts of what happened inside this hotel room. But those on the outside, waiting by the door, say that all they heard was Eisenhower screaming and screaming and screaming nonstop for 15, 20 minutes, and Joe did not say a word.
Eisenhower just ripped him to shreds. When Joe exits the hotel that they met at, a reporter asks him, “Hey Joe? How was your talk with Eisenhower?” Joe says, “It was very nice.” They head to Eisenhower’s campaign rally. What happens is that instead of publicly rebuking McCarthy, as he was allegedly planning to do, Eisenhower essentially bends to Joe’s will and gives him the ultimate endorsement in many respects. That’s a real moment for Joe, where he realizes that, “I can’t be stopped.”
This guy, who’s going to be the next president of the United States, doesn’t even have the fortitude to criticize me. I think now he becomes even more consumed by hubris. His dream, in many ways, is to become the man Eisenhower did – to become the president of the United States. To have that constant fawning and love and attention. But now he’s seeing that, well, even the president’s afraid of me. That’s a good step, right? Because, if he’s afraid of me, it’s a testament to my power. I’m only going to get more powerful, and I’m going to be in his seat some day.
Scott: I can see why you would be excited about having seen that, discovered that historical set of events. It really is a capstone on act one and springboard into act two. But if there was no actual accounts of what went on in terms of the dialogue, so you really felt, you knew the kind of arc that went on in there but you had a kind of a clean slate didn’t you, in terms of the actual dialogue?
Justin: Exactly. It was kind of the opposite of what happened in terms of the hearings in the script where the dialogue is partially verbatim. In this case, I knew the tone of the meeting, and ust played around with it in an attempt to make it as honest to the accounts as possible.
Scott: There’s an interesting subplot involving McCarthy and his relationship with the Kennedys, in particular Robert Kennedy. Thematically what was the point of that subplot do you think in your view?
Justin: I was struck by Joe’s relationship with the Kennedys. That was one of the first jumping off points for the script. I picked up this book and in the foreward was an anecdote about Bobby Kennedy, a guy who I was taught was the paragon of good in politics, and a guy that I never thought existed in the same world as Joe. I couldn’t even imagine it.
Bobby is off the coast of Hyannisport with a couple of reporters and it’s the day after Joe’s death. The reporters are asking Bobby, “McCarthy’s dead now. Isn’t this kind of a good thing? Aren’t we better off? It’s sad, but he’s done some horrible things to this country.” Bobby says, “He was a complicated man.” That’s all he says. That was the moment I realized I knew nothing about McCarthy.
Bobby’s presence in the script changed a lot as the piece evolved. I think initially he was a background figure. There was less of the Kennedys. But that stuff just became so compelling to me. I think Bobby provides Joe with a moral compass. Because he’s one of these few guys who’s willing to say to Joe, “What you’re doing is wrong and I can’t be a part of it. I have to leave before this becomes toxic.” He’s foreshadowing what’s to come.
Joe’s relationship with the Kennedys was intimate. He dated two of Bobby’s cousins and they worked together for a brief period. I think Joe Kennedy saw something in McCarthy as well. There were very few Irish Catholics in power at the time, and they shared a real kinship in that respect. That relationship really fascinated me because Joe Kennedy is the first one who puts the idea of the presidency in McCarthy’s head. That becomes a key aspect of the script.
Scott: It has a kind of a Shakespearean quality, doesn’t it, their relationship? Particularly as a way of measuring their respective rises and falls where there is a meeting between Kennedy and McCarthy early on in their relationship where one’s in a position of power, and the other is seeking some help. Then that’s completely reversed at the end of the story.
Scott: Let’s get into the nuts and bolts of this process. How long did it take you to write the script and how many drafts do you think you wrote before you were able to send it out?
Justin: The first draft took about three months, and that was just spewing it all out on the page and seeing what I had. To become what it did, it took a little over a year and a good five drafts of comprehensive passes. There were a number of things that changed. I think the second act, for the most part, stayed entact, but the first and third acts underwent enormous shifts throughout the process.
Because I started initially in that first draft with Joe at the top, what became the first 20 pages or so of the script now did not exist until many months in. There’s something in the third act that I had always tried to squeeze in that I found interesting. Joe and Jean adopted a child. Shortly after the censure, when Joe fell out of favor with the Washington elite, he adopts a child. It was this tragic and heartbreaking attempt to revive him. To give him some hope again.
By all accounts the child actually did. Joe loved the girl. But at the same time he just couldn’t stop drinking, and was only alive for I believe the first nine months of her adoption. That was always an interesting moment that I tried to encapsulate in the script, but ultimately like you said, it’s as much about what you omit as what you put in. That was something that had to be omitted.
Scott: You’re working on this while you’re working at Black Bear?
Justin: I had finished the script right when I got to Black Bear. It’s been done for a little over a year now.
Scott: At this point in the process, how are you getting feedback on the script?
Justin: I had an incredibly valuable mentor and teacher at Purchase named Dean Bell, who’s an excellent screenwriter in his own right. He gave me notes and operated as my sounding board. Outside of that, I showed it to a few friends and family, but Dean was the central person that shaped the script in terms of getting notes.
Scott: Two points for a teacher who has committed to his craft beyond the student getting their degree.
Scott: You had this done for a year. What did you do with it after you wrote it?
Justin: I submitted it to a contest, to the WriteMovies contest. At a certain point, you lose all objectivity and perspective when it comes to your work. I wanted to use the contest to gauge the quality of the script. I submitted it to the contest and ended up receiving an Honorable Mention and placing as a Finalist, but there was no attention generated from that.
I felt like the script was at a dead end. I started working for Black Bear, but I loved those guys too much to show them the script and was too intimidated too, so I put it in a drawer. It stayed in that drawer until October of 2012, when I submitted it to the Black List site.
Scott: At some point, you intersected with Franklin Leonard.
Justin: I did. I’d always followed the Black List and loved it. I left Black Bear in June and was looking for a new opportunity, trying to find something in development because that was as close as I could get to the writing process.
I saw Franklin post a Black List internship notice, I think, in early July. It was a remote internship, working from home, and I loved what the Black List was doing and what Go into the Story was doing, so I figured why not? I’ll send my resume over, I’m not doing anything else.
I connected with Franklin and was lucky enough to work on a few little projects. I transcribed your interview with Elgin James, which was great. One of the most exciting projects that I got to participate in was reconstructing and updating a big spreadsheet of what Black List films were produced, and breaking those films down in two dozen categories to chronicle what awards they won, what festivals they played, how much money they grossed at the box office.
It sounds tedious, but to a movie geek, it was really interesting and drilled certain names and figures into my head. It was a valuable experience.
Scott: That was remote. You were living where you were living and Franklin’s out in LA and that was the nature of the participation, right?
Justin: Exactly. I still haven’t met Franklin, which blows my mind, but hopefully we’ll rectify that soon.
Scott: Then Franklin and the Black List, they launch this new service where essentially people can submit scripts, anybody can submit scripts to be reviewed by professional readers. For a nominal fee, have the script hosted where industry insiders can read it. When you saw that, you took advantage of that. What was it about that you figured this would be something smart to do?
Justin: I trusted Franklin and knew the brand so well. It seemed like too interesting an opportunity to pass up, especially when for $75, you’re getting so much in comparison to so many of these contests, whose fees are just as expensive, if not much higher in some cases.
I already had a Black List account from my time doing little projects for Franklin. At one point, Franklin even offered to read any of the interns work and provide notes. I was intimidated. This was the guy that created the Black List. I nixed the idea of showing him the script.
I created a new account when the site launched its writer initiative and submitted the script blind, hoping I would get a decent rating and some good notes. I figured that would be that, and was completely amazed by what happened next.
Scott: What happened next?
Justin: I submitted the script on a Saturday night. I got my notes, I want to say three days later and received a positive rating I was really surprised and happy with. The script was highlighted in the first Black List email blast. These are the first high‑scoring amateur scripts on the new site.
I think because the site was so new and so many people were interested, being on that first email blast was a huge asset. I’d say, probably a day or two after that, Franklin emailed me and was like, “I just read your script. Why didn’t you show this to me? This was great.” That was the first surreal moment of the journey. Two days after Franklin sent that email, I heard from my first agency, and everything happened from there.
Tomorrow in Part 4, Justin shares insights into his first experiences of making the rounds in Hollywood and the importance of reading scripts.
Please stop by comments to thank Justin for taking the time for the interview and post any follow-up questions you may have.
Justin is repped by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment.