How Director Nick Hamm Found John DeLorean’s Story in DRIVEN

(L-R) Jason Sudeikis as Jim Hoffman and Lee Pace as John DeLorean in Universal Pictures Content Group’s crime thriller comedy DRIVEN. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures Content Group.

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Nick Hamm began his directing career on the stages of London. Since then, he has found success in directing television and feature films. His latest project, Driven, is a fast-paced, comedic crime thriller of a bromance gone wrong between John DeLorean, played by Lee Pace (Captain Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy), and Jim Hoffman, played by Jason Sudeikis (Colossal, Booksmart)

Set in the early 1980s, the story follows the meteoric rise of DeLorean and his iconic DeLorean Motor Company through the eyes of his friendship with an ex-con turned FBI informant.

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher spoke to Hamm about how he approached the story and the unusual challenges he encountered making the film.

John Bucher: Tell me about how this story came to your attention. Were you someone who followed the stories about John DeLorean when they were occurring or was this a new story to you?

Nick Hamm: I was born in Belfast and my screenwriter also lived in Belfast, so we knew about DeLorean from the eighties. We were aware of this crazy guy who built this factory in the middle of a war zone which got destroyed before the company went down.

So I’ve kind of known about the story for nearly 30 years. I also was aware that it was an incredibly interesting story. I started to read about him and I also realized that nobody had ever really done the story. Not for lack of trying. People had tried all the time, but I think what they’d done, which was a huge mistake, is they’d try and do a biopic. And for a biopic, he’s just not that interesting of a character. You run out of road with a biopic very quickly unless the biopic main character is fascinating and fantastic. Unless it’s Gandhi, unless it’s someone who has an epic quality to them. We knew that DeLorean didn’t have that quality. He wasn’t Steve Jobs. He didn’t change the world. He didn’t do any of that.

He was a showman who tried to invent a car that was pretty awful and failed miserably. He just happened to be connected to a zeitgeist at that particular moment in the late seventies and early eighties which was partying, girls, smart cars, and the California lifestyle.

The thing that made us more interested was the character of Jim Hoffman, who was the FBI informant in the story and who is responsible for getting DeLorean to be involved in a drug deal. Hoffman’s character was fascinating to us because he was a total scumbag, absolute lowlife and one of life’s absolutely ghastly individuals. When we discovered that he’d actually had some sort of weird friendship with DeLorean, because they happened to live in the same area in southern California and their kids happened to play together, that was the kind of genesis for us saying this is a really interesting guy. Let’s follow his journey. Let’s tell his story and how he collides with DeLorean.

(L-R) Jason Sudeikis as Jim Hoffman and Judy Greer as Ellen Hoffman in Universal Pictures Content Group’s crime thriller comedy DRIVEN. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures Content Group.

John Bucher: How do you take something that is based on real events and bring those into a two-hour film, where you have to compress time and combine things?

Nick Hamm: Well, first of all, you do lots of research. You read as much as you can. And then you say, okay, what’s the way into this story? How do you tell it? A biopic can be very boring, because then you can’t lie. As a filmmaker, you can’t say, “This guy climbed the mountain” when actually he didn’t climb a mountain, and he fell off the mountain. You can’t do that in a biopic, which is why we didn’t go the biopic route with this story. We took a tiny slice of this moment in time.

John Bucher: You are someone who has the enjoyed success directing in a variety of different mediums, from theater to television to feature films. Can you talk about how you approach directing a film like this and how that’s different from what you’ve directed on the stage or even in television?

Nick Hamm: I spent the first 10 years of my professional life on the stage in the theater. I was at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London and I was directing plays pretty much week in, week out. I was in my mid-twenties and there was an incredibly brilliant cauldron of creative people and a very, very intense working atmosphere with brilliant actors that made you, as a young director, learn your craft. You had to really learn how actors talked to each other. How actors think. How to dramatize a scene. How to take a new scene from a new writer, work with that writer and dramatize it. And that skill set has never really left me.

That skill set is something I apply to every film or TV show that I do. I’ve just been filming a wonderful show in Spain for Netflix called White Nines, which comes out next year. And for the last three months we’ve been shooting that. And it’s the same thing. I’ve been working with great actors and dramatizing moments and telling emotional truths and making people laugh.

I don’t really separate it. What I learned in the theater I brought into filmmaking, and that ability to stage and to create was something that has given me such strength as a filmmaker.

When I was a young filmmaker, I was learning about the lenses and the cutting process and all of the technical details — I couldn’t get enough of it. So I could apply myself with both the craft I’ve learned in the theater and the craft I’ve learned in film.

In the end, there are very few artists as directors. Most of us are craftsmen. Every now and again a real artist emerges and they’re amazing as directors. But most of us practice the craft of directing. We try to get better at what we do. The more and the more we practice, sometimes we get better and sometimes we get worse. There are no real rules.

John Bucher: I was fortunate enough to see some of the behind the scenes footage that was shot around the making of the film in Puerto Rico. There was a very compelling story behind the story while making the film. Can you talk about the challenges you ran into?

Nick Hamm: We were down in Puerto Rico shooting primarily because it’s a lovely place to try and recreate 1970s California. The architecture down there, some of the houses down there, have not changed since the late seventies and early eighties and you can’t find that in southern California, so it’s a great place to shoot.

We’d shot about a week or so of the movie. We were very pleased with what we are getting. And then we were basically told we had to evacuate and get off the island because a hurricane was coming. So the crew and producers were sent away and we had to wait out the storm in New York. It was really a terrible experience to see the total devastation that Maria brought upon that island.

There was no power, so no credit cards could be accepted. There was no gasoline. There’s also no water. That pretty much takes out the infrastructure. So how the hell do you go make a Hollywood picture in the middle of all of that? We also didn’t want to take resources from the island to make our movie. We didn’t want to be using stuff that should be going to people that live there.

It was our Puerto Rican crew who said, “Look, you’ve got to come back.” There wasn’t a single doubt amongst anybody about going back after that because in the end we had three or four hundred people relying on the paycheck we were providing, plus all the people they were paying. So if we had left that island at that moment, those people would have had no money. The people that they relied on would have had no money. And essentially the film business in Puerto Rico would have shut down for a further six months.

All of that Hollywood nonsense about the size of your trailer and your private car and can I get my toasted sandwich for lunch? All of that goes out the window because guess what? There is no lunch and there is no private car. Here’s your bottle of water. Suddenly it’s a beautiful thing because everyone’s equal. And guess what? Everyone behaves and everyone gets along. It’s an example of Hollywood and the movie business putting back into a community and repaying a community for that community’s loyalty in helping us make the movie.

DRIVEN will be in theaters and On Digital/Demand on August 16, 2019.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

FINDING STEVE McQUEEN: Mark Steven Johnson on Identity and Layered Characters

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Mark Steven Johnson has written successful stories ranging from Grumpy Old Men to superhero fare such as Daredevil and Ghost Rider. With his newest project, he’s stepped behind the lens to direct Finding Steve McQueen, the true story of a gang of Ohio bank robbers that attempted to steal $30 million from President Richard Nixon’s secret illegal fund.

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Johnson to discuss his body or work, his latest project, and what advice he has for writers.

John Bucher: I’m interested in your fascination with Steve McQueen and how that came to be something that you wanted to involve yourself in from a project level.

Mark Steven Johnson: You know, I’m a huge McQueen fan, but it was really a story about this odd footnote in American history that really hooked me. I really didn’t have any interest in making a heist film. There’s so many heist films and they’ve been done so well and we have a tiny little budget so we can’t really compete with Heat or The Town or any of these greats.

But when I heard about this story — about these bank burglars from Youngstown, Ohio, who decided they wanted to rob the President of United States — I was like, wow, that’s interesting. And to me it was funny. Then there was the idea of doing this love story, of seeing this man on page one sit down at a diner with his girlfriend and say, “I’m not who you think I am.” That’s what hooked me. Those two things.

You have to be realistic about what you can achieve for such a low budget. You’re not going to compete with The Fast and Furious doing car chases. So what can we do? Well, we can be different, we can be funny. That doesn’t cost anything. We can be heartfelt. The more that you read about the true story, the more that you realize that this is stranger than fiction. All the strangest parts of the story are true. The idea that they broke into the same bank three nights in a row, and the fact that they were going after Nixon’s dirty campaign money, and the fact that they got caught because they forgot to run the dishwasher and left their fingerprints everywhere. All true.

Harry Barber met this girl and for eight years lived with her under a fake name, and she was the sheriff’s daughter. And when he got arrested, the whole town wrote letters on his behalf. It’s amazing stuff. So the plethora of good ideas in there — that hooked me. It was much more about that than it was about Steve McQueen himself or doing a heist film. This was about characters.

John Bucher: Let’s talk about Harry Barber as a character. It’s interesting to me that, with your previous work with superheroes, you’re again telling the story of someone with a secret identity.

Mark Steven Johnson: Yeah. That’s a big theme in the film — identity — and you see it. Who we are versus who we want to be always fascinates me. I love underdogs. Grumpy Old Men was about senior citizens falling in love, and they were underdogs. Simon Birch was about a small boy who believes he’s an instrument of God. He was an underdog. My first superhero, Matt Murdock, was a blind lawyer. I love underdogs. I love characters that want to be more than they are.

And when you meet Harry, aka John Baker, who sits down with his girlfriend and says, “I’m not who you think I am,” you look at her, and her hairstyle is Debbie Harry. She’s trying to be someone different. Throughout the movie, you see Molly’s hairstyles change depending on what was popular in the theaters at that time. She goes from Debbie Harry in the 80s, and we go backwards. Then she’s got hair like Allie McGraw in The Getaway. And then later she’s Jane Fonda in Klute.

These guys, the small group of bank burglars, decide they’re going to pull off the biggest robbery in history. They’re way out of their league here. And so that’s a great theme. When you find a great theme like that, you just keep coming back to it. That ties it all together. That’s what got me excited.

John Bucher:  Speaking of great characters in the film, Howard Lambert is a really fascinating character. Obviously you’ve got great talent like Forest Whitaker bringing him to life. But can you talk about the role of Howard Lambert in this story?

Mark Steven Johnson: He’s someone who was the first black detective, the first black agent within the FBI. I love when you’re watching a movie and you’ve got your good guys and your bad guys, you think, and then things begin to change a bit and you’re like, wait a minute…

I like Lambert. I like that character. And he’s going through a divorce. He’s having a hard time. He deserves a break. He should get a promotion, but he keeps getting passed over. I want to see him catch these guys. But I love these guys too, and so it’s fun.

Peeling back all those layers of the onion is what makes it so interesting and watchable. Because it’s easy to say these guys are like Robin Hood, they’re lovable, bungling characters and they make us laugh, and that’s all true. But then they start to pull off the heist. There’s a moment where Ray pulls out a gun and he starts loading up. And you see the look on Harry’s face like, whoa, I didn’t sign up for this. I don’t want anyone to get hurt. I thought this was going to be fun, like in the movies, and shit gets real.

It’s fun being able to juggle all these characters and also incredibly challenging, as you can imagine, because there’s at least five different timelines going on in the movie, which, I didn’t write the script, I rewrote the script. The first version that Keith Sharon wrote based on his articles in the Orange County Register was very linear. It was more of a straight ahead heist film, called The Youngstown Boys. And then Ken Hixon came along, and he is the one who started changing the timeline around, which is what I loved. But it also made things incredibly difficult. It’s a real challenge as a filmmaker to keep reminding people through palette, music, hairstyles, what year it is without having to constantly put slugs on screen.

John Bucher: What advice would you offer to writers who are trying to come up with interesting heroes? To bring those to life on the page and on the screen?

Mark Steven Johnson: I know it’s a cliché, but I’m going to be clear about this because I think it’s too cut and dry sometimes when people say, “write what you know.” I remember hearing that and thinking, well, I don’t know anything. I’m from a small town in Minnesota. I’ve never been to war. I was a kid. I was 25 when I wrote Grumpy Old Men. But then I thought, okay, what do I know? I know Minnesota, it’s where I’m from. I know this old guy, he’s like my grandfather. And then I just started building on that and I wrote that script.

It wasn’t exciting or interesting at first, but it was a point of view that was so specific. And that’s what I would say. I would say, when people say “write what you know,” it doesn’t mean you have to write about the fact that you work at Starbucks and your girlfriend’s name is Karen. It’s your point of view that makes you stand out from everyone else. And for me and Grumpy Old Men, people would read it and go, this is hilarious. This isn’t real, right? People don’t really cut holes in the ice and slip out there. And I’m like, yeah, by the thousands. That’s how I grew up. They thought I was making it up. I had so many people say to me, this is really funny, Mark, but it’s about senior citizens in Minnesota. This movie’s never getting made.

It became a movie that changed everything for me. So you just, you never know. And I know that you’ve put this on your site before, too, but I would say the simplest advice would be write what you know, put yourself into it. Have a specific point of view that people haven’t heard before.

And then, that first ten pages… It really is true. I’ve read a lot of scripts and I’ve read so many where, oh no, it doesn’t get good until around page 40. I’m like, I’m not getting to page 40. I got shit to do. When you read a great script and those first few pages are great, I’m in. It’s got to have a specific voice that ropes you in. That’s what it takes. You can’t expect them to get past that.

Finding Steve McQueen will be in theaters, On Demand and Digital on March 15, 2019.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

The Heroine’s Journey: A Talk with Minhal Baig, Writer/Director of Apple TV+’s HALA

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Minhal Baig’s Hala was one of the first films acquired by Apple TV+ after taking Sundance by storm in 2019. The semi-autobiographical story centers around a seventeen-year-old Pakistani American woman coping with the unraveling of her family.

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Baig recently to talk about how she made such a specific story universal, using material from her own life on the screen, and how she differentiates a heroine’s journey from a hero’s.

John Bucher: I’d love to begin with one of the key themes in the film — secrecy. Had that theme been something that was of interest to you for a long time or did that organically arise in this story?

Minhal Baig: The film was drawn a lot from my own life. It’s not autobiographical exactly, but there is a lot of emotional truth, and the experience that I had growing up navigating multiple identities and feeling like I was presenting a version of myself to my family and then another version to other people. It felt that I was compartmentalizing and that neither of those identities was the true self and that I should find out what that was.

The secrecy came out of omitting one identity and that my family, my parents, didn’t exactly know everything about my life outside of the home and vice versa. The secrecy emerged naturally in making the narrative about that tension of figuring out who you are and learning that if we are to blur those internal and external lines, then we are living more truthfully, living honestly. Part of being honest is to live with fewer secrets. It’s not that you can’t have parts of yourself that are private, but that you’re choosing to make them private because you want to and not because you feel like you have to.

John Bucher: Hala’s character feels so universal, regardless of what tradition you come from or how you might identify racially or through gender. At what point did you recognize that you had such a universal story and a universal character to share with the world?

Minhal Baig: In writing it, I didn’t know that. I think in writing, it was just about portraying this one specific young woman’s journey and making sure that it felt grounded and that everyone in the story was multi-dimensional and real and that they had their own things going on even if they were the supporting characters in Hala’s story, the larger movie.

I think the moment that it really settled that it was resonating on a more universal level is when we shared the film with an audience at Sundance and we had such a warm reception. It really felt like people were responding to the movie who didn’t have Hala’s specific lived experience, but they saw something in that journey that really touched them and moved them. And then taking the film to other festivals and gauging the audience’s reaction and having what I’ve mostly experienced as just an emotional and personal relationship with the movie, which is the best that we could have hoped for. It’s always in making the very specific stories that we can try to find the universal.

John Bucher: I think oftentimes parents in these stories get regulated to stereotypes or very flat characters, but I felt for them and their perspective on her life. Have your parents seen the film?

Minhal Baig: My mother hasn’t seen the film yet, but I’m hoping that she does and gets the chance to engage with it and I get to talk to her because I do feel that this story for many people has helped them process a pain that they’ve been carrying and/or experienced. For me, it was the process of healing and making this movie and dealing with how, when I was younger, I really marginalized my own mother, and I couldn’t see her as a fully realized being in the same way I idolized my dad and I didn’t see that he could be fallible.

That found its way into the story. I really wanted to make sure that they all had another dimension to them and they had their own journey to go through in the movie alongside Hala’s journey. I do think that Hala’s mother is on a journey for independence and self-identity herself, because she’s starting to realize that she can exist outside of the roles that are expected to have her as mother and wife. She can still be Hala’s mother, but she’s also an individual.

John Bucher: How did you go about finding the actor who would play Hala? I would imagine with a character that’s so personal to your own experience, finding the right person to fill those shoes has got to be a challenge.

Minhal Baig: We cast a really wide net and we were looking for someone who could portray a highly internal conflict, someone who could project emotional depth without saying very much. There’s many scenes where Hala is completely reacting and she’s not saying anything or she’s withholding. And that was going to be the challenge in finding someone to portray the character. And when Geraldine Viswanathan’s tape came in, it was really clear to myself and the producers that she was Hala and that she added this new dimension that we hadn’t seen before and weren’t expecting.

She has a real lightness and brought a real levity and charisma to this character, which made her feel more human, because on the page, she is a very self-serious teenager and feels wise beyond her years and emotional and capital R romantic, and we feel that she’s a very emotionally intelligent young woman, but she’s also imperfect and she’s also still a teenager. And I think as someone who’s closer to that age and that part of her life, Geraldine brought that energy to the table. And that’s the moment at which Hala leapt off the script pages and became a real person.

John Bucher: What do you feel was the big lesson for you in bringing this story to the screen?

Minhal Baig: This story was something that I’d been working on for a really long time. I had moved to Los Angeles in 2015, and the intention was to make a short film that would serve as a proof of concept for the feature. And then in the writing of that feature, it was a real act of vulnerability to share these parts of my life that are deeply personal and kind of terrifying on paper but also to direct and later edit and then share with audiences. Prior to that, I think that I was really scared of approaching those themes and those storylines in my work because they were things that I was running away from and I didn’t want to put them in the work.

And then in making Hala, I was not quite putting everything to bed or to rest, but I was reconciling that I had gone through something that was challenging as a young woman and I wanted to portray it onscreen as honestly as I could and put myself out there on the line and be vulnerable so that eventually when the film was onscreen and there are people watching it, that they too can be in a place to be vulnerable to receive it, because I think that was the biggest lesson I learned. In order for an audience to find an emotional connection, I really had to put myself out there and have the connection with the work, too.

I had to go to places where it was uncomfortable for me to go. Otherwise, if I didn’t go there, then I wasn’t taking a risk in the storytelling. I’d be playing it safe, and in a sense, denying that these things happened — the real issues and real problems that young women go through. So being vulnerable was the biggest lesson that I came away from making this movie, and it’s something that I take with me now that I approach my other work.

John Bucher: Can you talk about how you approached rounding out the rest of the cast? How did you go about finding the right voices to fill in the story?

Minhal Baig: When I cast Hala, the next step was finding her family, and they really needed to feel familiar and that they cared about each other. When I saw Purbi’s tape, it was just so clear how she saw herself in Eram, because she actually knew people like Eram in her life, women who had been boxed into certain roles and then were finding themselves later on in their lives. And she personally deeply related to the movie, and in the same sense, Azad, who had never acted before, had grown up in a culture of patriarchy, and so he felt very sensitive about playing a character who was very far away from who he is, but a character that he actually really understands.

And then when it came to Jesse’s character, we were looking for someone who was very emotionally intelligent and compassionate and kind, and Avy Kaufman, our casting director, pitched Jack Kilmer, and I had watched him in Gia Coppola’s film, Palo Alto, and I just thought he had an immediate screen presence and was someone who I really felt like would get Hala and be at her level. With Gabriel, he submitted a tape. We searched far and wide for someone to play the role of Mr. Lawrence, and I just wanted someone who had a great humanity. Gabriel is one of the warmest people.

Anna Chlumsky was someone who was also pitched to us. I believe it was someone, maybe one of the producers who pitched her. I just knew from having seen her in other work, I’ve seen her in Halt and Catch Fire and Veep, that she has a great comedic sensibility, but she’s also just very warm and you can’t hate her. Even when she’s doing something that you don’t approve of or you don’t like, you know that she’s not a bad person.

And in casting these characters with actors, it was crucial that they approach these characters without judgment, that they do it in a way that’s humanizing and that none of the characters are good or bad. They’re just living their life and dealing with the circumstances they’ve been dealt. And I wanted all of them to have the richness of having lives outside of the margins of this movie, and they all brought that to their characters and to the movie.

John Bucher: Speaking of issues of representation and patriarchy, I read that you made some decisions about having women in department head roles and having women represent a certain percentage of the below the line crew. Can you talk about that and how you felt like that affected the film?

Minhal Baig: It was very important to myself and the producers that we hire inclusively behind the scenes and below the line, and every person that we hired was the most qualified candidate for the job. It was important for all of us to have multiple female perspectives on this movie because it’s a young woman’s coming of age. Over 70% of our crew consisted of women and all the department heads were women. Our cinematographer, Carolina Costa, our costume designer, Emma Potter, production designers Sue Tebbutt, our editor Saela Davis, our composer Mandy Hoffman, our UPM Carrie Holt de Lama, Marsha Swinton, our locations… Every department head, it was a woman and they were the most qualified.

The story really resonated with them and it made a big impact because it was such a warm and supportive environment and people were really heard. I’ve never been on set like that before, and I do think that it enriched the movie because this specific film, it’s a heroine’s journey. It’s an internal journey of a young woman’s self-actualization. And so I do think it made a lot of sense to have women working below the line as well as in front of it.

John Bucher: You bring up the heroine’s journey, and this certainly is that type of story. Can you talk about how a heroine’s journey is approached differently than a hero’s journey, specifically in this story?

Minhal Baig: Joseph Campbell has The Hero’s Journey. That is the most classical structure of a hero being thrust into a new world and overcoming their weakness or their flaw and doing so in a way that we’re accustomed to seeing represented in film and television. And the heroine’s journey, it’s not that women don’t come of age or they don’t have their own journey. It’s that the stories that I really resonated with are very interior journeys and they’re about self-actualization.

There is a part in that heroine’s journey that is about healing and amending the feminine and masculine selves. So there’s a part of Hala that’s growing. It’s her developing her own sexual agency. It’s about her making sure to keep part of her culture and keeping her faith alive even as she’s reconciling herself in America, and just as a young woman who’s coming of age.

Hala can be seen on Apple TV+ beginning December 6, 2019. 

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

LOVE IS BLIND: A Talk with Director Monty Whitebloom

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Stories that deal with psychological conditions can be difficult to craft and even more challenging to execute. Creating a protagonist who doesn’t become a victim and who the audience enjoys spending time with are only a few of the difficulties filmmakers can run into.

Director Monty Whitebloom’s latest project, Love is Blind — which he co-directed with Andy Delaney — manages to navigate these treacherous possibilities while maintaining the emotional heart at the core of the story.

The film centers on a woman with selective perception who cannot see her mother and is then prescribed by her psychiatrist to spend time with a suicidal man that has fallen in love with her — but who she cannot see either.

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher talked with Whitebloom about how he managed to bring the story to the screen.

John Bucher: How were you introduced to this story? Where did the idea come from?

Monty Whitebloom: I knew the screenwriter, Jennifer Schuur, who was an old friend and colleague. I read her script and thought it was really interesting. So I met her for breakfast and asked, “Where did this idea come from?” Exactly what you’ve asked me.

She said, “Well, you know, I’ve got the worst relationship ever with my mother.” When she was really young, her mother just disappeared and they didn’t know where she’d gone. She had two younger siblings, and her mother just disappeared for a couple of years. Little did she know that her mom had ended up going on tour with Bruce Springsteen for two years.

She reappeared two years later and said, “I’m back now.” [Her mother’s] answer was, I never had a youth, because I had the two kids. So, it was my chance to have a great experience.

On the basis of that, Jennifer came up with this idea of a young woman not being able to see or hear her mother. Which obviously is a metaphor for not being able to see what’s right in front of you.

Is seeing really believing? Obviously at the root of it, it is a fantasy love story. But is it even real? Are any of these people real? Are their experiences real? Is Caroline Craft even there?

I think we were very playful, and the film is very much about identity — which I suppose is the single most interesting subject matter in art at the moment. Identity to me is, that’s the stuff of dreams, that is the human condition.

John Bucher: I’m so glad you brought up identity because that was actually the next thing I wanted to ask you about. We not only see this theme play out with Bess’s character, but I think with Murray’s character and even Russell, the farmer. Can you talk about how you approached identity in these different characters, because it seems as though you’ve taken a multilayered approach to identity with them?

Monty Whitebloom: Definitely. When I first met all the actors and spoke about the film, I said to them, I wanted their identities to become fully rounded, but at the same time they’re kind of in the stream of consciousness, you know?

It’s like their identity isn’t just who they are, or what they’ve done. It’s about what they think or what they think they’d like to have done or what they wish they’d done, and all of those things kind of merge.

So when I first met them, I gave all of the actors a series of songs, that I felt inhabited their character. These were pieces of music that they loved. I gave them pieces of art, sometimes photographs and sometimes paintings that not necessarily captured their personality but really reflected who they were inside.

There’s a whole series of characters who are struggling to overlap, struggling to connect, not having the language to connect, sometimes. Not being able to have the right moments and also a lot of them are quite selfish, living in their own heads. Everything is kind of gray. Nothing is very clear and what seems to be true is not really true and everything is real, but I think fake, all at the same time.

John Bucher: It’s interesting that one of the themes is this relationship between who we are and what we do, or who we are in our actions. As the director of the film, certainly this is something you’re working with the actors on, translating who they are, into actions on screen. Can you talk about the process of how you accomplish that?

Monty Whitebloom: I think one of the things we were really fortunate to be able to do was taking the actors to where we’re going to shoot for rehearsals, which was upstate New York in the Hudson Valley. I thought we were just going to take them there prior to the shoot happening spend a few days up there and go through the scenes, on location, because the film was on location.

The producers made it clear, that’s not how you do it. We all meet in a studio in New York and we just read through it, and you just talk about it. I was like, “I think we’re going to get so much more being in the environment, being able to actually be where the film is going to take place, where their story takes place, where we’re in the craft house, where we’re in the hospital.” So, we went up to Hudson and around the Hudson Valley and spent a couple of weeks up there going through each scene with the actors where they actually were.

We drove around to real coffee shops. We walked through the actual streets we ended up shooting on. In doing that, everyone already had so many questions answered about identity, about the character, about the role and I think that nothing beats inhabiting the world. It’s not inhabiting the world for a few minutes before you’d have to shoot a scene. But you’ve been up there, you spent time there.

John Bucher: What’s the key thing you’d hope the audience could take away from the story in these characters?

Monty Whitebloom: Seeing is not believing, you know? The idea that, what you think you can see is not really what it appears to be. I think that is best. I think that maybe that’s part of what I want the audience to feel, coming out of the film, is that there is this kind of childlike beauty in it. You go with your date to this movie and if the date doesn’t understand the movie, then you should dump them.

John Bucher: It’s a good Litmus test?

Monty Whitebloom: If you don’t get this, then you don’t get movies.

John Bucher: As I was watching the film, it felt like a story that is very appropriate for this moment we’re in, in a world where within culture and politics and so many different areas, we’re seeing a real redefining of truth and reality. There’s debate about some of these things we’ve held as ideals for so long. Do you feel like this film was meant for this time?

Monty Whitebloom: It’s very kind of you to say that and I think that’s kind of a happenstance thing sometimes. But I think they’re the kind of ideas I was always interested in when these issues came up.

I always loved the idea of what is real and what is not real. I think the idea is, what is truth and what is true? People talk about that all the time. Even talk about, I want to just fall in love. You’re like, “What’s love? What’s honesty? What is grief? What are all these alternatives?”

They’re impossible to really capture. They’re impossible to really underline. The truth is that everything is in flux. Everything is moving. I think you need to see the world through your own eyes, and then realize you have. But at the same time, you’ve got to see the other person’s experience. Only when the character’s start to see the world through the eyes of other people, do they really see any truth. If we continually just can only see our own point of view about anything political, music, films, things, then there’ll be no connection, there’ll be no connectivity. There’ll be no love. There’ll be no truth.

John Bucher: So many in our audience are creatives themselves. You’re someone who’s managed to get your film to the screen. Any advice for people who are trying to accomplish what you have?

Monty Whitebloom: I would say, do as much prep as you can. I don’t mean over prepping it and being so controlling. Not in that respect, but really prep it because when you’re there on the shoot, it goes so quickly.

And other than that, don’t listen to anyone if they say, “This is how a movie should be made,” or, “No one wants to see this movie.” It’s your vision and your idea.

Love is Blind will be in theaters, on VOD and Digital on November 8.

~

John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

Lessons in Persistence: Brian Presley’s THE GREAT ALASKAN RACE

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Brian Presley worked in front of the camera for more than twenty years before finally getting an opportunity to write and direct his own feature film. The Great Alaskan Race tells the story of a group of mushers that traveled 700 miles over a treacherous terrain to save the children of Nome, Alaska, from a deadly epidemic. 

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Brian to talk about how he brought his film to the screen, as well as his creative process.

John Bucher: Tell me about how this story came to your attention and how The Great Alaskan Race came to be.

Brian Presley: I feel like my calling in the business is to tell stories of inspiration, stories of hope, stories that can bridge a faith-based world and a secular world together around a story similar to The Great Alaskan Race. And so, I had a friend of mine probably about nine, ten years ago — he said, “I can’t believe this has never been made, dogs saving kids’ lives.” And I immediately spent a few days researching it, called him back and said, “You’re 100% correct, this movie should be made.” I began to figure out how to craft the story and all the details that went into it and realized really quickly that Leonhard Seppala and Togo were really the forgotten heroes. It’s a true miracle story. There was no other explanation for it.

John Bucher: You told a story that had a lot of challenges to bring to the screen. It’s a period piece that takes place in the 1920s. Obviously the Alaskan weather and the snow are difficult to work in. You worked with animals and children. It seems like every possible challenge you could bring to a film project, you were willing to take on.

Brian Presley: I had everybody in town tell me that I’ll never be able to make this movie. I need to give it up. I’m a first-time director who’s in front of the camera as well. Dogs, kids, snow, wolves, bears, period piece… So for me I believed I could tell this story and I don’t take no for an answer.

It definitely had its challenges. I scouted all over the country. We’re an independent film company and we don’t have Disney or Warner Brothers money. We had to find creative solutions and one of the hardest things is finding the correct dog, finding period structures, period everything. We found that all that in Silverton, Colorado, and it was the perfect place for this movie to be made. The snow was real. The storms were real. It’s avalanche country there. We hunkered down for three months and we got it made.

John Bucher: You also brought in quite a collection of film and television veterans, from Treat Williams to Henry Thomas. Can you talk about how you assembled the right team and the right cast together to tell this story?

Brian Presley: As the writer-director, what I love about movie making is that every little detail is important. And that’s what makes it fun. In any movie casting is 90% of it. Making sure you have the correct people in the correct roles. I knew what I had visually wanted and when we had the opportunity to get Henry Thomas, I wanted that character of Thompson to be likable. Where we don’t hate the guy, we’re actually saying, “Okay, there’s some logic to what he’s saying.” Henry Thomas just presented that in general. Bruce Davison came in and knocked it out of the park as well.

Having Brad Leland and Treat Williams… they were anchors of the town. I wanted the mayor of Nome, Brad Leland’s character, to feel like everybody’s grandpa, and the same with Treat, in a different way. I was really lucky to have a great cast and I’m very thankful for the cast that I had.

John Bucher: One of the things that our readers are most interested in is the creative process itself with how someone creates a project. Being the writer on this project, can you tell us about your writing style? Are you a guy that gets up early in the morning and writes? Are you somebody who writes throughout the day? Do you get in and knock it out? Do you take on a little each day? What does your writing process look like?

Brian Presley: Usually when I start writing, I have a general premise of, “Okay, here’s in two sentences what the movie’s about.” I’ll let it simmer for a while and then usually I just sit down and I start. I like to write at night I feel like late at night is my creative space. And I also like to do it early morning. During the day, it’s hard because of different distractions. Once I get in the zone, I like to allow the creative thoughts and freedom to come. My advice to any writer is trust your instinct and if you’re not sure, go try to flesh that direction out and you can always change it. Make clear choices and decisions.

Everybody’s got their process. That’s mine. Remaining open minded, not being married to an idea, because a lot of times, we’d get to location and it wasn’t quite how I thought it was when I wrote it. You’ve got to make adjustments on the go.

John Bucher: You’re someone who wrote, directed, and starred in this piece and you’ve managed to pick your project and get it out into theaters. That’s going to be inspiring to a lot of creators. What would you say to the folks out there that have projects where they’re trying to do the same thing?

Brian Presley: What I would say to people is don’t take no for an answer. I’ve been in business 22 years. Hollywood — it’s good when it’s good but it can also kick you in the butt. A town full of no, no, no, no. And for me, what’s gotten me through is my passion for storytelling, my passion for filmmaking, and not taking no for an answer.

Kurt Russell once told me if you see the movie in your head then you should be the one to tell the story, and I really didn’t ever let that go. I had opportunities to sell this script over the years. I trusted my own instincts and my persistence and was always trying to find a way.

The Great Alaskan Race hits theaters on October 25, 2019.

~

John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

SKIN: Guy Nattiv on the Journey from Oscar-Winning Short to Feature

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Guy Nattiv has been creating short films in his native Israel since 2003. His first American film won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short last year and gave him the opportunity to turn the project into a feature, which interestingly had been written first.

Nattiv sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher to talk about the process that lead to the film getting made as well as his own creative practice.

John Bucher: I understand that you actually had the script for the feature version of Skin before you created a short film out of it. Can you talk about how you take the story that’s in the short and move that to a feature without losing the emotional punch that the original has?

Guy Nattiv: So, not every feature film can be a short film, and not every short film can be a feature film. When the (feature) script was ready, Obama was President and people told me that Neo-Nazi skinheads are not really a thing anymore in the States. It’s like only a couple of people in the Midwest. I did my research and I saw that’s not the case.

All my features were shorts before —  Strangers and The Flood and Offside. I didn’t have anything moving here in Hollywood and I was frustrated. My wife told me, “Let’s make a short like you did with the features in Israel.” I saw an article about this Neo-Nazi’s skinhead father who taught his son how to shoot Mexicans at the border in Arizona. Then one night, the father came home totally drunk at two am and the son thought he was an African American intruder and he took his father’s gun, exactly like the father taught him, and shot him in the head.

We wrote it over a weekend. My wife and I put all our retirement money in the short. We brought in Danielle McDonald, who is our neighbor, and Jonathan Tucker, the amazing Jonathan Tucker. Everyone came together just to make this story happen. And then Trump got elected, Charlottesville happened, the synagogue massacre… and it became crazy. The US was on fire, and that’s when producers sold the short and understood that’s in the zeitgeist, and they agreed that it’s important to tell the story.

There were three people with goals and vision. Oren Moverman, who is an amazing producer. He’s producing my next film and he’s just a big brother to me. Trudie Styler, who is Sting’s wife, and Celine Rattray, from Maven Pictures, who said, “Sting saw the short and he said it’s one of the best shorts he’s ever seen. He told his wife we’ve got to be involved in the feature.” So they came on board and we made the feature happen.

While we made the feature happen, we sent the short to film festivals. We didn’t get into Cannes, we didn’t get into Sundance, we didn’t get into Berlin, which is my second home. And I was like you know what, whatever, it made the feature happen, fine, you know? We shot the feature and it was amazing. While we were in Toronto, I’m getting this phone call from the Academy that we got onto the Short List. And I was like “What?” We sent it to more film festivals and then the rest is history.

John Bucher: The thing that kept coming to mind for me as I was watched the film, was about our concepts of mythology. The main character is trading in the mythology that he’s embraced for all these years, that’s an embodied mythology with the symbols that are on his skin, and he becomes a man without a mythology, trying to redefine who he is. I saw that as a parallel to what the United States is going through right now — shedding our past mythology and having no new mythology to embrace. How do you see mythology in the film?

Guy Nattiv: The funny thing is that they (the Neo-Nazis) believe that they are Vikings, but they actually don’t have any connection to Vikings. And Bryon Widner (who the film is based on) actually told me, very secretly, that his great, great grandmother is Jewish. They wanted to believe in something, and they took the Viking bullshit, but they don’t have the bloodline, they don’t have any connection to Norse mythology. They are just reading about it. But people need a sense of something to believe in and a leader.

John Bucher: They need a mythology.

Guy Nattiv: Exactly. You can live years and years on mythology.

John Bucher: How do you take this story of a man who’s actually had these experiences in real life and trim away things? You’ve got to compress time. You’ve got to still keep the heart of the story, the narrative that’s happening. How do you approach that?

Guy Nattiv: What I did in the feature was actually look at a documentary called Raising Hate, that I had seen before. Every twenty-five minutes in the film, they stop and go into a body treatment — a kind of physical transition that I did in the feature, which helped me to jump cut in time. So that’s what I did, and you’re going through this physical and mental transition without you even noticing it throughout the movie until he’s completely blank, until he’s completely free of tattoos.

There’s another film that I love — it’s called Five by Two. It’s a French film. It’s about a couple and they are going backwards in time, but it jumps in time, and I kind of like this way of telling stories. I feel that the audience is more open to that.

John Bucher: Are you someone that writes every day? Do you put some stories down and come back to them?

Guy Nattiv: I love those questions because that’s what I ask other screenwriters. Everybody has their own way. I’m like a Rabbi — like a student in a synagogue. I wake up every day, I drink my coffee, and then go and write. I like music. I like people, so I write in a WeWork office. I’m writing and writing and writing until five pm.

I’m on a mission, I’m writing every single day. Sometimes on Shabbat, sometimes on Sundays. I’m a worker. That’s why my wife (Jamie Ray Newman) and I work together. She’s producing my films because we understand each other. I work every day because I believe in the marathon. You need to keep running because if you stop — and there are stops, you know — getting back to it is hard. So, I need this day by day by day by day, and sometimes I take a weekend off just to go back and read it, to have perspective, but I love to write. It’s a blitz for me.

Skin will be in theaters and On Demand July 26.

~

John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

Memory to Memoir to Screenplay: Savannah Knoop on JT LeROY

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Savannah Knoop spent six years pretending to be the acclaimed and mysterious author J.T. LeRoy, a fictitious literary persona made up by her sister-in-law, the writer of the LeRoy books. After the exposure of the rouse, Knoop went on to craft her experiences into a celebrated memoir, which has now been adapted for the screen as J.T. LeRoy, starring Kristen Stewart, Diane Kruger, Laura Dern, and Courtney Love. 

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Knoop to talk about her experiences and the nature of storytelling itself.

John Bucher: One of the things that I’ve been fascinated with in your story is the nature of narrative and story itself, and especially how we build stories around ourselves. Can we talk about how we create narrative?

Savannah Knoop: I love that as a point and I so agree. I feel like this whole thing is like the experience that I lived through then I translated into memory, from memory into the memoir, and then in turn into a script. I think it is some exercise in narrative, and the translation of narrative through different forms, and it is some kind of celebration of human story telling, I would say.

It was sort of about writing on the page versus writing off the page. We are all writing off the page all the time, and where are the boundaries around that and how much can you write off the page into fiction before you start sort of messing with yourself and everyone around you? Where is that boundary? Where’s the threshold of that boundary?

John Bucher: I think it also connects with our deep desire to experience things, and you created an experience for people. You created an experience that others could intertwine their own narratives into the one that you were crafting.

Savannah Knoop: I love that. Yes, I think that’s very apt. Because the nature of the story is sort of mysterious. It’s so interesting when people watch the film because everyone has a very specific take away. And it’s like almost prismatic — it says so much about yourself and what you see in it. Or what you picked up in the experience.

I feel like there’s so much room in this story for everyone’s specificity of viewpoint. The story is told without judgment and maybe that’s part of why people pick up on different things, because you’re given room as a viewer to tease out what you’re interested in, in the story.

John Bucher: I completely relate to that and had that experience. I feel like one of the other reasons your story really resonated with me was this experience of recreating mystery in the world — it seems like this is a story we need right now. Can you talk about our relationship with mystery and why we need the unknown? It seems to me that JT LeRoy was a mirror that allowed us to look at ourselves and our relationship with mystery and the unknown.

Savannah Knoop: Right. I think at this point in time we are in with social media and God, and the media at large, where people are withholding information. I mean, I’m just going to say with social media, because I don’t want to get into the juggernaut of what’s happening in our country politically. But interpersonally, you’re told that withholding will not benefit you and so it’s good to expose yourself completely and as much as you can and commodify yourself for the benefit, we’re told of ourselves, but actually maybe it’s for the benefit of commerce or something.

I think that’s a kind of compulsion right now that we’re told that we have to do. It’s part of the commodification process. How many likes did you get? Let’s quantify it. Does everybody like it? It does feel like it’s connected to art-making specifically, too. You’re not rewarded for mystery or complexity. The role of an artist is to get at the nuances and complications of our human experience. We need longer form and fewer sound bites in terms of expressing ourselves.

John Bucher: You took this experience that occurred over a number of years and you encapsulated that in a memoir that has been further encapsulated into a film, and there’s certainly sacrifices that you have to make to get at the truth. How do you approach those sacrifices — having to compress time and events in order to get at this larger truth of what happened?

Savannah Knoop: There is just so much in the book that’s internal. And let alone in a lived experience. So, in terms of writing the script, you really just had to choose what would maximize or concentrate the emotional trajectory of the story and the emotional trajectory of the characters in the story. And so we often found that we were letting go of logistics.

For example, Savannah in the movie moves to San Francisco and the only people that she knows are Jeff and Laura, two people who served as a perfect shorthand for explaining how right and strong their connection together burned. When in fact the experience I lived through was somewhat different. I was in San Francisco already and I’d known Laura for years. But you have to find ways to maximize and crystallize these things because it’s so condensed in a visual form.

John Bucher: What is it like seeing an actor like Kristen Stewart embody you and your experience? It seems like this is an interesting artistic experience as well to watch yourself be reinterpreted. What was that like?

Savannah Knoop: Yes and especially when you’re watching the interpretation, it’s like she’s interpreting the character again. So, it’s an external performance of the performance. It’s just a strange experience.

John Bucher: If you could have audiences walk away from your story with one thing, what would it be?

Savannah Knoop: The film begins with an Oscar Wilde quote that basically says that the truth is rarely pure and never simple. I hope that this story is a testament to that complication of human narrative.

J.T. LeRoy will be released in theaters and on VOD and Digital HD on April 26.

~

John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

FIVE FEET APART: A Conversation with Director Justin Baldoni

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Since launching his television career in 2004, Justin Baldoni has appeared in numerous shows and films but rose to fame playing Rafael Solano on Jane the Virgin in 2014. Since then, he’s begun to pursue directing and creating stories designed to make the world a better place. His new film, Five Feet Apart, tells the story of a pair of teenagers with life-threatening illnesses who fall in love — but must keep a safe distance to preserve their health.

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Baldoni to discuss how the film came to be, the perils of prescriptive versus descriptive storytelling, and what he hopes audiences do immediately after watching his film.

John Bucher: Tell me about how this film got started.

Justin Baldoni: About seven years ago I just felt like I wasn’t living a purposeful, meaningful life and I decided to leave acting to try to make a difference. So I started a documentary series called My Last Days where I traveled the country and started telling the stories of amazing individuals who were choosing hope and joy in the face of tremendous obstacles — those obstacles being terminal and chronic illness.

I thought that if I could get people to ask that question — What are we here to do? What are we doing with our one life? — and they could see themselves in these individuals who didn’t have much time left and who are still choosing to live, then maybe the show could be the medicine. It could be the antibiotic for procrastination and not living the life that they wanted to life.

I met a young woman named Claire who had cystic fibrosis in season two of the show, and she and I became very close. It was my first experience meeting anybody with that disease. I had never heard of it before and she was the one that told me that two people with CF can’t touch as they could contaminate each other. And that was when I had the idea for this movie, because I just felt like automatically what a beautiful love story that could be with all the different themes that we could portray with two characters that were forbidden to touch.

John Bucher: It seems as down to earth as the story is, it’s also a larger metaphor for a lot in our society. Do you see any symbolism in the story?

Justin Baldoni: Of course, the whole movie is a metaphor and we touch on a lot of different themes in the film. One big theme here is the idea that I believe that we are living in a culture that confuses sex and intimacy and love. Young people are trained to be numb to sexual themes and we live in this hyper-sexualized world where kids are exposed to things at eight years old that we were never exposed to. Young girls and boys are pressured to do things and dive into things far earlier than any of us ever were.

I was really interested in telling a story that unravels that and showed two young people who were forbidden to touch but still loved each other and had intimacy in ways that have never been shown in a young adult movie. Because I believe that. I don’t believe that physical touch and love are exclusive. If you ask most people in healthy marriages and relationships intimacy is not just derived from human touch. Emotional intimacy is what keeps people together.

I believe that there is an entire generation of people that also believe that. So having the two lead characters being forbidden to touch gave us a beautiful backdrop to tell a family-friendly story with metaphors and spiritual ideas in a very commercial movie.

John Bucher: Can you talk about how you approach directing these characters — Will and Stella? Will enters Stella’s world and this relationship then builds. It’s not an easy thing to create something that feels real, that’s organic to these two people, from the moment they meet to the point where they do fall in love. I assume that Cole Sprouse and Haley Lu Richardson didn’t know each other beforehand. How do you as a director try to organically create that in the story?

Justin Baldoni: I think a lot of my job is just trusting my intuition in the casting process and choosing individuals that I feel like will be a chemistry match both off screen and on. And I think from that foundation you can build anything. From then it’s all about creating a safe space to experiment and to try things and to make silly choices and off choices.

In this case, this was a romance that wasn’t immediate. In my personal life, my marriage started off in a difficult way and my insecurities triggered hers. It caused us to have very deep and uncomfortable conversations early on, and I was also exploring that. We have this myth in America if a relationship doesn’t start off happy that means it’s not meant to be and I think that couldn’t be more wrong. Some of the most fruitful relationships that I have in my life started off bumpy.

We often trigger each other’s insecurities. Our idiosyncrasies don’t always work well with others, and that’s how Will and Stella start off. Will is a risk-taker and Stella is so desperate for control because nothing is in control in her life. The story is about them coming together, so they both teach each other the balance of the way that they should be living and give each other meaning — which is also something I believe happens in relationships. They weren’t looking for each other. They felt they were holding their own waves, but when they found each other, they found something new.

John Bucher: This is clearly a story about trying to find meaning, and one thing that I really appreciated about it is you’re not trying to be prescriptive — saying, well, this is the meaning of life. You’re very descriptive in how we approach looking for that meaning.

Justin Baldoni: I think that all comes from my faith. I was raised in the Baha’i tradition, and for me, faith can be described as an abundance of deeds and a fewness of words. I don’t do well with prescription. I’m making a movie for a generation that rebels against all rules. This Gen Z, this YouTube Generation, doesn’t want to be preached to. They want to be shown, and it all comes down to making a good story. Making a story that reminds us of our shared humanity. Making a story that is imperfect, where you see yourself in these characters, where you can relate to these characters regardless of whether you have a chronic illness or not.

That comes from grounding this in reality, and I think that if you can ground something in reality and you can get people in the first five minutes, then they’ll stick with you. So long as you don’t prescribe something and teach and say, oh, this is how you should be doing it. Then I think you can actually subversively get a lot of messages across.

I also think that we’re so sick and tired of a culture of being prescribed things by people who don’t live them. And that’s one of the issues that a lot of churches have and a lot of religious groups have — they’re being prescribed things by leaders who are not in turn living those qualities and attributes and prescriptions. And for me it’s just all about how can we get these themes across in a way that can inspire people. Because that’s what we need right now. We don’t need to be taught something. We need to be inspired.

John Bucher: If you could guarantee that one thing happened to the viewer when they walked away from the theater, what would that be?

Justin Baldoni: If I could ask for one thing from the viewer it would be, when they leave the theater they pick up the phone and they call someone they love and they tell them they love them. That’s it.

John Bucher: That’s beautiful.

Five Feet Apart is currently in theaters.

~

John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

Joe Penhall on the Nature of Criminality in MINDHUNTER and THE KING OF THIEVES

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Joe Penhall has been telling stories in theaters, across TV screens, and on stages for almost 20 years. His screenplay based on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron, brought him acclaim and opened up doors that would lead to his most celebrated project to date, Netflix’s Mindhunter.

Penhall has returned to the world of cinema with his newest project. Starring Michael Caine, The King of Thieves is a crime story based on real events about a retired crew of criminals who attempt to pull off a heist in London’s jewelry district.

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Penhall to discuss his work, his writing process, and his passion for criminals.

John Bucher: You have an amazing gift of taking source material, whether it be from Cormac McCarthy or from actual events like with King of Thieves and crafting a compelling narrative. How do you begin to approach material that already exists in order to craft it into a story of your own?

Joe Penhall: At the risk of sounding pretentious, I love to try and find the kind of quotidian humanity in these stories. These small details tend to be the things that set off a chain reaction that I end up discovering a much bigger story in. 

King of Thieves came from a transcript of all of the conversations that a gang had which was recorded by Scotland Yard because they put them under heavy surveillance after the robbery. This transcript was 100 pages long and it was an incredible document of human vanity, narcissism, and flawed grandiose dreams. They all thought that they were in a heist movie. In several places, they even talked about one day there will be a book or a film about us.

So, I’m always interested in something that looks like genre but actually reveals some kind of universal truth. The other thing that’s fascinated me is serial killers, and that’s because I grew up in a town in Australia where there had been a space of about five terrible bizarre serial killings in the ’80s and ’90s through my adolescence. When they happen in your town and you’re a child, they sink into your imagination and in a way, you see the world through that prism. Mindhunter was an opportunity to do something with one of the greatest filmmakers around (David Fincher) that was genre and that was going to be a Netflix show but was also an opportunity to really explore a facet of humanity that I’d experienced and was intrigued by.

John Bucher: With both Mindhunter and King of Thieves, you really get into the psychology of criminals and you have deep insights here into the way that people who have committed and plotted crimes look at the world. How do you approach these characters to understand their psychology?

Joe Penhall: The first and only regular job I ever had was as a crime reporter in my early twenties, and occasionally, the detectives would give me a transcript to read. One of them was an interview with a serial killer and we would analyze it and we would talk about it and they would give me their insights, and over the years, I’ve just become more and more interested in psychology and the kind of pathology of people’s behavior, because the only way to know anything about people is to try and develop a proper kind of psychological perspective.

What fascinated me about Mindhunter was how these FBI agents are expected to get crew cuts and lock people up and they’re at a time in history when that’s not good enough anymore.  We have to develop a more nuanced, more academic, psychological understanding of this and I think that that’s true. People accept criminals. They accept politicians. They accept the bad people and the good people in society without ever really analyzing or pathologizing them in any way at all.

Mindhunter on Netflix

These things are an opportunity for me to try and dig down and understand what makes criminals tick. These criminals are a big part of our society, and certainly when I was doing Mindhunter, I know David and I were both fascinated with psychopathy and narcissism and personality disorders because I think we felt, somewhere on the grapevine, there were other people out there who weren’t serial killers who were high-ranking politicians who had psychopathy, who had personality disorders that resembled very closely the kind of villains in our piece.

And it came to pass. Since Mindhunter was written, there’s been this book about Donald Trump’s personality disorder. It’s well known that many of history’s dictators had personality disorders. They had psychopathy. They had sociopathy. They had antisocial personality disorder.

And it strikes me as self-evident that there is a pathological way of understanding these things without just calling it evil or without just calling them monsters or without just ringing your hands, you know. I think we were on a mission with Mindhunter to show that these people were actually ordinary people, sad to say. 

King of Thieves is a much lighter version of that, but it’s the same thing. It’s not Warren Beatty in a heist film. It’s not George Clooney in a heist film. They’re banal people. They’re banal people that can’t be socialized the way most people can and they end up doing odd things like robbing vaults. I just find it fascinating but fascinating for slightly different reasons than people generally find heists fascinating or criminality fascinating in the movies.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gZCfRD_zWE

John Bucher: Many in our audience are writers themselves and are always curious about other writers’ creative process. Can you speak to that? Are you an early morning guy, a late at night guy? Do you write in chunks or everyday? What’s your process look like?

Joe Penhall: I’m definitely better in the morning and I think most writers will probably attest that sometimes, if you’re lucky, there’s a golden hour between about 6:30 and 9:30 where fantastic ideas just download from the cosmos and you have to leap out of bed and write them down. I think that neurologically and psychologically, it’s well known that we get our freshest and best ideas first thing in the morning.

So, the morning’s definitely when I write, and then after lunch it’s a bit more sporadic, but I do get ideas at odd times and out of the blue and I have to rush and write them down. I could be in bed. I could be asleep. It could be in the shower. It could be in the car. And by and large, I try and do six or eight hours a day, although it’s not always writing. I do a lot of reading as well. I do a lot of listening to people and talking to people and I watch lots of rolling news.

John Bucher: Between film, television, and even the stage with Blue Orange, how do you approach writing for different mediums? Do you think of the story in a different way? Do you take the story first and decide what medium would be best for it?

Joe Penhall: It’s confusing even for me. I think the simple answer is that stories lend themselves to a certain form and for some stories it’s clear what the form should be. Plays are very often one argument or one encounter drawn out and investigated in all its minutiae. A TV series like Mindhunter is an epic story that has many, many, many chapters to it. So that’s kind of an obvious decision. I guess you just try, and broadly speaking, let it find its own medium.

But I think the hardest thing is not so much the structural placement. The structure of something presents itself to you quite quickly and easily. King of Thieves was obviously a film. It would be silly to try and make a series out of that. It was obviously a heist film with a build up and the execution and the fall out.

Screenwriting is a solitary task. I don’t spend a lot of time talking to other screenwriters but when I do, I love it because we all have the same questions. Whether we voice them or not. I saw a fabulous interview with Andrew Bovell recently where he asked himself the same thing: What should I be doing as a screenwriter? And in some ways when you’ve done all these different things and been lucky enough for them to be successful, in a way, the world is your oyster, but in a way it’s also your clam because you kind of clam up and don’t know what to do next. I don’t know. I muddle through.

John Bucher: What advice do you have for storytellers and screenwriters who are trying to tell the best story they can?

Joe Penhall: There’s so much. I think the question that is obsessing me at the moment and has been obsessing me for the last few years starting with Mindhunter is why are you writing this story? What of you is in this and what obsession of yours? What fascination of yours is in this and how deep does it go? What I’ve discovered as I’ve gotten older is that the things that I’ve done that have been really successful and I think that are good, the best things I’ve done have inevitably come from a profoundly deep place.

I ask, is this something that any screenwriter can write? Or is this something that only I can write and therefore I have to write it, and if I do write it, then it probably will be quite good and original. There’ll be something about it that has a profound searching, grounded quality that won’t necessarily be there if I write something that’s just a confection that doesn’t come from a deep place.

Mindhunter is currently on Netflix.

King of Thieves is in theaters, On VOD, and Digital HD today.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.


ALL THESE SMALL MOMENTS: The Fearless Writing of Melissa B. Miller Costanzo

(L-R) Brendan Meyer as Howie Sheffield and Jemima Kirke as Odessa in Orion Classics’ drama ALL THESE SMALL MOMENTS. Photo courtesy of Orion Classics.

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Writers know the value of small moments. Observing the simple, often forgettable minutia of life and being able to offer insight about it connects us in ways both conscious and unconscious.

Melissa B. Miller Costanzo has made a career out of observing the details. Her ability to do so has afforded her the opportunity to coordinate the art department on projects such as If Beale Street Could Talk, PreciousThe Fighter and Showtime’s The Affair. In her own debut feature, All These Small Moments, which she wrote and directed, Costanzo is daring in submitting moments great and small, personal and universal, for our consideration.

“So many moments in the film either came directly from my life or were heavily inspired by things I or someone I know experienced,” Costanzo told LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher.

While the film looks at infatuation, first loves, and how the pain we experience is a source for projection on those we encounter from day to day, Costanzo doesn’t shy away from more complex and rarely examined topics of taboo and forbidden love. In the film, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, Howie (Brendan Meyer) deals with romantic feelings for an older woman named Odessa (Jemima Kirke) that he sees on the bus each day on his way to high school. When the two actually become acquainted, confusion and curiosity compound into possibilities and realities.

While the story centers around Howie, Costanzo uses the character as a lens for exploring three different phases in the lives of the women Howie has relationships with, embodied by Odessa (Kirke); his mother, Carla (Molly Ringwald); and a girl named Lindsay (Harley Quinn Smith) he meets in study hall. “Specific experiences each one of those characters have are taken from my own life,” Costanzo said. “There’s a rumor going around school about Lindsay that went around school about me. Carla has a tense moment about ordering bread at a restaurant that my husband and I also had. And I saw a group of high school boys every day on the bus on my way to work and sometimes wondered if they ever thought of me in that way,” she chuckles.

Costanzo has had to face many of those whose lives make appearances in the film. She still knows the man who spread rumors about her in high school. He attended a screening of the film in New York and likely noted that the character having an affair with Howie’s father shares his last name. Costanzo’s husband has rolled his eyes about less flattering moments from their lives that ended up on the screen as well. In taking such chances, Costanzo has demonstrated that she’s willing to pay the artistic cost of speaking about reality – that it can be messy and you must be willing to open yourself up in a revealing way to the audience.

Her willingness to do so makes scenes that are crafted in the imagination feel real as well. A particular scene, where Howie discusses a film with his brother while they brush their teeth, feels like an occasion Costanzo must have shared with one of her own siblings. However, she admits the moment is only what she imagines two brothers in this situation might talk about.

Coming of age narratives are a staple of storytelling. With such a sizable number of writers having explored this theme, they can be difficult to bring originality to. Costanzo’s story resonates because of the chances she takes, the courage she demonstrates in bringing herself into the characters, and the insistence she maintains throughout the film that people are complex and never binary.

All These Small Moments comes to theaters on January 17 and On Demand and Digital HD on January 18.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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