Sunday, August 24, 2008

My Interview at Mondo Schlocko (Redux)

The link to my interview with Tim Shrum at Mondo Schlocko has been broken, so to make my sidebar add up (and because I liked this interview) here it is again, in all its glory, from August 2005:

When did you decide to become a screenwriter and how did you become one?
My wife and I were talking about this the other day. I don’t know if you can become a writer or if you just are one. My wife has never wanted to be anything but a writer no matter what her day job is. I started out liking cartooning, but I was ass-terrible, though that still doesn’t stop me from drawing minicomics now and then today. When my word balloons got bigger than my drawings I switched over mostly to short story writing.
I have always been interested in movies and started looking into writing screenplays. I started shooting Super-8 shorts in the late 70s and made probably around 30 shorts over the next handful of years, as well as a pair of shot-on-video features with a friend. These video cameras were the huge, heavy ones with the umbilical that ran down to a big videotape deck that this friend borrowed from his dad’s work, with credits output from an old Radio Shack computer. True old school.
I wrote a couple of plays in high school that placed in some competitions. I got to act in one at the last minute when the kid playing one of the parts quit. His name was “Mike Gross” and everyone later thought I picked that as a pseudonym. It’s the only time I’ve used one, inadvertently.
In college I made the decision to concentrate more on screenwriting and wrote a project to enter into the David Letterman Telecommunications Scholarship Competition. I wasn’t sure I had the tools at the time to do a project the way I envisioned it, but the beauty of writing is that you can build it as large as you want in your mind.
During the awards ceremony I was kind of slinking down in my chair because everyone else had clips to show, and I had nothing, just a pile of paper sitting on a table. So when I won a scholarship, instead of thanking a long list of people I stood up and thanked the Smith-Corona typewriter company and the makers of White-Out. This was in the year 1987 A.D. and thus I typed the entire 135 page project on an electric typewriter. I was the first person to win a scholarship based on writing alone.

What were some of your early screenplays?
I think my first feature-length script was a sophomoric tennis comedy called “Balls.” My only excuse is that I was an actual high school sophomore at the time. Then I wrote one called “How Not To Make A Movie,” being the sage veteran I was by my senior year in high school. In college I wrote a short about my dad’s life, and a senior thesis thriller feature-length script called “Deadlines” rather liberally splashed with my infatuation with Cornell Woolrich at the time.
I actually took a long layoff to be married, work a day job, have a family. But I did a lot of tech writing during that time, a nice solid income. I wrote about stuff like the history of the car battery and how to spot child abuse at day care facilities. Somebody has to write all of these scripts, right?
Then in the late 90s I started fooling with a couple of spec scripts again, but it wasn’t until the year 2000 that I decided to re-commit myself to freelancing. I wanted to give it until my 35th birthday. I did okay that first year and decided to give it one more year. I still judge one birthday at a time as to whether I want to keep going.

What were some of the films that inspired you or still do?
I would say “Battleship Potemkin” for editing, “The Bicycle Thief” for acting, and “Citizen Kane” for thinking up things people hadn’t thought up before. The movie I wish I made was “Dr. Strangelove.” I also love “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Bridge Over The River Kwai,” and “Manhattan,” for different reasons.

Who are some of your favorite writers in books or screenplays?
When I was first learning to write screenplays I went and checked out some bound screenplays of movies I liked. The college library had a ton. I believe the first ones I tried to emulate were Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” and Steven Sonderbergh’s “sex, lies, and videotape.” For a boost I think “WWWGD”—What Would William Goldman Do?—and I read his books and screenplays for inspiration. Michael Tolkin has written some inspirational pieces. There are tons of people every day on the ‘net writing great commentary on writing.

You have dealt in horror, schlock, science fiction, and even the weird and strange. Are these the types of subject matter you prefer or is there another genre that you like or would rather work with?
I have a wide range of interests but saw a window of opportunity in this field. I would love to do more thrillers and noirish mysteries and even a good dime western. I would love to do a superhero story. But you know, horror/sci-fi/fantasy fans voraciously seek out content and will support ideas they love. It’s a good way to go.
Honestly I had a long layoff from horror; I did the whole Japanese rubber monster, Mexican wrestler, Italian strongman thing but studied film in the 80s in college and thus missed the whole slasher genre and thus don’t understand it. I had to do a lot of research to get caught up with the trends since I sort of tailed off post-George Romero.

Describe your writing process and what goes on when you are writing dialogue and character development.
I think why I have done so many rewrites is because I’ve always had an ear for dialogue and chroming out characters and backstories. You can develop this by just being interested in other people’s lives, listening to how people talk, watch people in airports and restaurants and so on and try to acculturate to local customs when you travel.

What would you say would be your style or writing trademark on a script?
I try to write what I want to see at the movies, which I’ve found isn’t always what others want to see. But if you try to write to please everyone, nobody will be satisfied. People talk about writing to an audience, but even if you write for yourself you are still writing for an audience—just an audience of one.
As far as trademarks, I’m a pretty hardcore nerd, but then so are a lot of the fans of these genres I write in—go to a comic book show, an RPG gaming show, and a sci-fi con, and you’ll see all the same dudes there. So I always try to include references to gaming, comics, and so on, because my dawgs don’t get a lot of shout-outs.

What are some of your favorite writing tools?
MovieMagic Screenwriter and Google. Google of course for research. If you are serious about screenwriting you have to get a screenwriting program, otherwise all of the time you are worrying about the math and not the writing. There’s always a big debate between MM and Final Draft, but I started on MM because the first producer I sold a script to allowed me to use his copy so we could exchange drafts. When that project was over he took it back, but I used the money I made to buy it for myself.

Tell us what a typical day of writing entails for you such as the process or the steps involved.
Since I work full-time and teach part-time my writing starts pretty late. When I am working on a project I try to commit to three to five pages a day. If I have an open Saturday I try to commit to 10 to 15 pages. If I’m not under the gun deadline-wise, I like to put the script away in the proverbial drawer when I’m done with it and come back in a few days with fresh eyes for a polish. My wife likes to sit outside with the laptop but I’m kind of old school in that I like to sit at a desk.
Everybody has their own style. I never outline or use notecards or anything. I just keep moving it around in my head until it’s ready, then I start in. I don’t like to talk it out with anyone because I am always afraid talking about it will drain the energy out of it.

What was your fastest writing gig you ever did?
I had kind of wanted to stay clear of the Polonia Brothers’ “Peter Rottentail” because, well, it was about a giant rabbit killing people. But as the shooting date closed in I softened in my resolve a bit and agreed to do a quick polish over it. When it arrived in the mail I saw it was part of an old script called “Psycho Clown” with some of the names crossed out, and a bunch of handwritten pages on lined paper stuck in here and there, all bolted together with brass screws. I turned it around in a long weekend, three days, and shot it back. I believe they started shooting as soon as they got it. Normally I can’t write that fast because I have a day job and other obligations. I have done a full script up from scratch in three weeks, but I like having about six weeks. Recently I did a polish for director Terrence Muncy on a script called “Cow Boy” and did it in about three weeks, then the day I shipped that out I started on “Black Mass” for the Polonia Brothers and finished it in three weeks. A rewrite and a new script in six weeks is pretty fast, I think.

In my opinion the work of the Polonia Brothers have greatly improved since you became a writer for them. When did you first meet them and what can you describe the writing process working with them?
I don’t know if their work has necessarily improved, it’s just different. One of my favorites of theirs is “Dweller,” and I think John Polonia has a pretty tight little script there. That being said, I think they have acknowledged that the scripts aren’t their strongest points. I think they are very solid technically. People poke fun at older features like “Feeders,” but think of what technology they had then. And, unlike my camcorder epics of the time, this one got distributed.
How I met them was that I had a student at Ball State University who was a big fan of theirs and loaned me “Blood Red Planet” because it had some Video Toaster FX, and that was what we were posting on at the university at the time. I really fell in love with their energy and excitement despite the threadbare look of the project and emailed Mark Polonia. We emailed back and forth a long time before a project came up, and then that fell through, then another, and then finally the Bigfoot movie “Among Us” came up, and we’ve been on a good clip since then.
They almost always seem to start with a good title and an outline. For instance, all I had for “Among Us” was that it was going to be in a cabin and feature two men and a woman. I built it all out from there. Other times they have had the basic scenes sketched or written out and then I rewrite those and build it out from there to a feature length.
You have to give them credit in that they are always willing to try new things. My “Among Us” script is a bit off the beaten track and I think a lot of people would have sent me back to the drawing board.
I remember one time Bob Dennis telling me that the Brothers came into the video store he ran in Pennsylvania and he started talking to them about a movie he wanted to do. They basically encouraged him to start it and that they would help him. That became “Savage Vows,” and started a long partnership with Bob acting in many of their features, including Billy in “Among Us” and Hearn in “Black Mass,” two of my scripts. They are really encouraging and supportive guys.

I noticed that some of the scripts you have written for the Polonia Brothers range from about 60 to 80 pages is that intentional for running time or is there a different method you use outside of what some call the standard of one page equals a minute of screentime?
You can be leaner on genre scripts because sex and gore and the old staple, running through the woods, will add to the run time. It’s always better to be a shade long so you don’t have to pad, though. In the case of the Polonia Brothers they like to run very lean so that they can take it in whatever direction they want. Or, in the immortal words of John Polonia, “if it doesn’t work, we’ll shemp it.”

You have also rewritten the script for Chris Sharpe’s SEX MACHINE. I know that the whole project is somewhat shrouded in secrecy, but what can you reveal to us about that project?
Chris calls it a “metrosexual Frankenstein story.” I would say it’s a bit Universal Horror and a bit Film Noir, starring people cooler than me.

The film seems to be a bit outside of the usual b-movie subject matter and yet at the same it is not. How much did writing the script for SEX MACHINE differ from writing for other b-movies?
I’ve admired Chris for a while because of his work on “Eyeball” Magazine and some of his other efforts. Out of the blue he emailed me and asked if I would read a script for him. I did so and shot him back some coverage. He asked if I would be willing to come on board to make the changes on it. I’m glad I did because I knew it was going to be something really good. Chris had his entire world mapped out in his mind and was intent on doing everything at another level than the norm.

You also worked on COW BOY, what can you tell us about that?
It’s from a first-time director who loves “creature features” and poured his love of those movies into the project. I punched it up a bit and think it will be very interesting.

Besides doing just rewrites, you have also written some original screenplays including your own spec scripts. Describe some of them to us if you can and what the process behind working on an original script versus a rewrite? Is one easier than the other or are they both about the same?
I like doing rewrites because the basic structure is there and I can just have fun making offbeat characters and working up dialogue riffs for them. When you write your own it is all on you, including making the plot add up. I have actually had very few opportunities to do original scripts and have never sold one. In fact I think every project I have ever been hired for, which today is around a dozen features, already came with a title, even.
When I write my original scripts I do them completely for myself. I try to do one every summer. The very first one was an urban action movie that generated a lot of interest but never has sold, though it was a calling card for other work. Later I did a dark sword and sorcery script that was sort of a calling card to the Polonia Brothers. I wrote a horror movie set in the world of backyard wrestling that got shopped around for a long time. I did an alternate future nerd-fi opus that may yet get made and a modern dress/original prose Shakespeare adaptation that will probably never see the light of day. But I think to keep sane you have to do put something in your back pocket purely for yourself once in a while.

When working with filmmakers or writers while doing rewrites is there ever a butting of heads of how the direction of the flick goes?
Only in the writing stages. Once it’s done, and it’s heading for the set, you have to let it go. You have to know that you are not having a baby, you are delivering somebody else’s baby. I argue a point only so far, then you might as well cede to the director’s vision. For instance, Chris Sharpe had a main character in “Sex Machine” called Leather Girl that I thought should have a name. I believe in giving every character a name. My production background tells me somebody would rather put “Officer Mooney” on their resume than “Cop #2,” and you can get better talent that way. I suggested several but Chris insisted on going without it, and he ended up getting a good actress for the part regardless.

Returning back to the Polonia Brothers for a moment; they are right now in post-production on BLACK MASS (formerly HELLSHOCK). What can you tell us about that film and what went into writing it?
The Polonias watched to stretch their wings a bit and were batting around a lot of ideas, including a western. They finally hit on a World War II horror thriller because a lot of elements fell into place, including finding a guy who had a bunch of period costumes and weapons. I’m a big fan of that genre in novels and movies so I was really eager to do it. I named the characters after some of my favorite novels, including Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun,” Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead,” and my all-time favorite, Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” I have read a lot of Stephen Ambrose non-fiction and drew on that a bit. I researched the time period in other ways to come up with ideas for characters, including making Brice Kennedy’s character Danby a fan of Bill Maudlin’s “Willie and Joe” comics.
The other thing I tried to do with the script was apply some 21st century ideas to a 40s potboiler framework, by talking about contemporary issues such as racism, homophobia, and family dysfunctions. There’s still plenty of monster attacks, though.

Has there ever been a time when you were writing for yourself or another filmmaker and you said to yourself that you were going to far with a scene or thought what a filmmaker wanted was too extreme for you? If so how did you deal with it?
Everyone has to set their limits early on about what you feel comfortable with. Once I said I didn’t want to write anything my grandma couldn’t see but had to abandon that pretty quickly. My dislikes run towards rape and child abuse. There was a scene in “Peter Rottentail” where Peter basically raped a girl, and I called the Polonias up and said, “Guys, you have some bestiality rape stuff in here, which sort of cuts the comedy a bit if you know what I mean.” So I changed it to be consensual, meaning the worst case of beer goggles ever. But if that’s the only part where you have to suspend disbelief you’re doing okay.
Mark Polonia shot Leslie Culton covered in blood and writhing nude in his actual bed in “House That Screamed 2” but was really squeamish about cussing in a church during “Black Mass.” Everybody has their limits.
If you are working in b-movies the porn question is always kind of out there too, I think.

You also have had to face certain restrictions as far as the budget of the filmmaker is concerned. As a writer how do you restrain yourself from going overboard with certain sequences or number of characters in a script in order to keep the film script within the budget of the project?
You start to realize there are ways to structure it to limit locations and people after you have done it a few times. I think there are probably thirty speaking parts in “Among Us” but many of those scenes are shot individually, and the bulk of it is only four people. If you break out your “kill” scenes in a horror movie, for instance, you can shoot those at your own pace and then shoot the biggest part of it all at once with your principal actors. I think it has helped that I have a background in television production and have had a chance to visit the set of a couple of my features. It helps you think about workarounds and ways to cut corners and yet still make the feature look “bigger.”

Have you ever faced writer’s block and what were some of the ways you overcame it?
I think everybody gets writer’s block. The trick is to make the lows shorter and the highs longer. It’s the long, dark valleys that are the killers. For me, it helps to change up my routines; listen to different music, read different magazines, check out manga or foreign films to see people thinking differently than I do.

Would you say the market of getting into writing low budget films such as direct-to-dvd is extremely difficult or easy?
A lot of people think it’s easy to just “bang something out.” Nothing is really easy; it’s always your butt in the chair when the sun is shining and there’s no way to get around that. Just like with low budget filmmaking; no movie costs nothing. Outside of equipment, people’s time is worth something. That’s why I think as long as you are doing it you should try to make it as good as you can. Mark Polonia has said that if someone thinks it is so easy they should try it themselves, and I’m a bit of the same mindset. There are so many dreamers and talkers and very few doers. And of those that do, there are so many movies that never go anywhere and get released. To have something out there that can be found on the shelf is lightning in a bottle.

Were there some projects that you have worked on that you found too difficult or challenging for you and what were some of the techniques you did to help you keep yourself to continue on?
I think everybody hits the wall at a certain page count. Sometimes you can jump ahead and write a scene later on that you’ve already figured out. Sometimes you just have to keep typing until the rusted gears start turning again. A lot of times what you wrote is crap and has to be junked but at least you kept moving forward.

Are there any tricks of the trade that you are willing to share with others who are also interested in writing their first screenplay?
I think you have to read a lot to be able to write well, to fill your mind with ideas. I recommend reading other people’s screenplays to see how things are done, especially with professional formats. I think you have to nurture networks and friendships. I think people try to guard themselves too closely. I believe in helping out others as much as I can. Jon McBride once told me that you can’t really push anyone’s career ahead of your own, but if you move forward you can pull others in your wake. And of course others can pull you along too. I think that’s an important distinction because it frees you from being so competitive with other people in the industry and you can try to look out more for one another. The history of b-movies shows that some people are going to catch fire, and it would be nice to be standing close to the heat when it happens to somebody in your circle of acquaintances.

What are some of the cliches of other writers or filmmakers that you cringe at as a writer? And as a writer how would you recommend others to stray away from cliches?
There’s too many clich├ęs to name them all here. I think the main problem is that if you are going to draw on what has happened before you need to go all the way back to the source material, not just copy what you just saw. Tarantino took ideas from pulp novels and Hong Kong fare and then filtered it through a 70s backbeat. Then a whole generation of people just copied Tarantino, spawning a wave of smart-assed movies where dudes walked around in sunglasses. People need to do their research, as well as develop a curiosity for exploring their own ideas.

Out of all of the many screenplays that you have done which are you the most proud of?
I spent last summer working up a modern dress, original prose version of an obscure Shakespeare play that I set in the dotcom boom and bust. It is such a flawed play that it is rarely performed, and there are questions as to whether it was a draft, or written by somebody else, and so on. When I heard about it I thought, hell, I’ve started with worse, and I always wanted to adapt a Shakespeare play. But I could literally not get anyone to finish reading it. I think it has an audience, somewhere.

As a final question if you were to write a book what would be three golden rules that you think aspiring writers should always follow?
The only rule I think you have to follow is to be proud of everything that leaves your keyboard.

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