1. What inspired you to become a writer?
My childhood. I grew up in the 80s. Back then, we really didn’t have extensive gaming systems. We obviously didn’t have iPods or iPhones. We didn’t have non-stop cartoon channels either. We had about an hour block of cartoons after school (G.I. Joe and Transformers) and then Saturday morning cartoons. Needless to say, we had to entertain ourselves. Thankfully the 80s did offer some amazing toys from the aforementioned cartoons. My friends and I (or sometimes just myself) would set up elaborate sets of G.I. Joe toys and vehicles and man would we have some stories. Epic ones that would go on for days. We’d even mash Star Wars, Transformers, He-Man, and M.A.S.K. toys into the mix.
When we weren’t playing with toys, we’d be hiking in the woods or playing in the back ditch behind my house (just a few feet away from the railroad tracks… can you imagine letting kids do that now?). We’d come up with elaborate stories and use our imaginations as we played war, space, etc.
Movies were a BIG influence in my life and my play. I can’t tell you how many Goonies sequels we came up with while playing the characters. I was always Mikey (I had asthma just like him) and my best friend John Baumgartner (of German descent) was always Data. We acted out sequels to Star Wars, The Last Starfighter, Tron, Aliens, Red Dawn (My parents let me watch almost anything), etc. That’s probably the reason why I’m a sequel-holic to this day.
So it was only natural that I became a storyteller. I wrote short stories in grade school and middle school. In high school, for my history final, I talked my teacher into letting me write a “play” about POWs held captive in the Hanoi Hilton during Vietnam. I got an A. In retrospect, that “play” was likely my first screenplay. The rest is history…
2. Who and/or what are some of your key influences?
It started as a child in the 80s. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Harold Ramis (whom I had the fortune of meeting on set years ago), James Cameron, John Carpenter, etc. Their films were high concept and they truly defined what I really respond to today. My contemporary influences are filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, P.T. Anderson, Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino, etc.
I love high concept. I love action. I love thrills and suspense. I’m influenced by so much because the key to success in my opinion is to ingest as much as you can. I watch my favorites over and over. I watch the old and watch the new. I go to the theater as much as you can and experience that magical environment. And then I see what different angles I can take that they didn’t. That and those mentioned above are what influences me the most.
3. Did you go to film school?
My film school was the Barnes and Noble film/TV section back in the mid-90s, reading every screenwriting and behind-the-scenes book, good and bad. My film school was my local video store and movie theater. I can remember back in 1996, when I was first learning the craft of screenwriting. It was summer movie season. Mission: Impossible and Twister were out. I decided that I was going to do my own market research. I created a grading system, which I found to be very similar to the script coverage I eventually wrote for Sony years later. I’d watch each film, gauge the response within the theater, and then after, I pulled people aside and asked questions about their theater experience with each movie. Sure, I was a bit devious and said that I was a researcher for Amblin (Spielberg’s company), but I wasn’t hurting anyone.
Beyond that, my film school was trying to write my first script, failing time and time again, and continuing on, honing my skills. In my screenwriting journey, my whole life actually, I’ve only taken one screenwriting course. The best compliment to everything mentioned above was READING scripts. I read as many produced scripts as I could get my hands on.
As writers, we have a few different platforms to choose from. We could become novelists, playwrights, poets, bloggers, etc. For me, having grown up surrounded by the visual mediums of film and television, that’s how I thought and conceived. My imagination has ALWAYS been VERY vibrant, even to this day.
I have a horrible memory now. I can’t remember names. I can’t remember directions or where I put my keys. However, I have a photographic memory when it comes to visuals, whether it be a shot or sequence in a film/series or especially when I conjure something myself. I don’t take notes in my process. I hardly ever outline. It’s all in my head.
Point being, I’ve always been VERY visual. That’s why I choose screenwriting. I may write a novel one day, however, screenwriting is the medium that responds to me the most because it is 100% visual. It’s showing, not telling. And having grown up with some of the most visual films of my time in the 80s, it was only natural that I’d want to emulate that if I was going to be a writer.
4. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since you began writing?
In my opinion, the greatest accomplishment and step that a writer can make is being able to be objective about their own work. I was a script reader/story analyst for Sony Pictures. It was there that I truly learned the ins and outs of screenwriting. That experience has proven to be the most valuable asset that I’ve attained on this screenwriting journey.
Reading scripts, from seasoned vets to newcomers, taught me so much about the art and craft of screenwriting. I learned the film industry basic guidelines and expectations. I learned what studios loved and what studios hated, what they responded to most and what they didn’t respond to at all, etc. I learned how great concepts were ruined by poor execution and how excellent execution enhanced lackluster concepts. You learn so much by having to write studio coverage. Keep in mind that 95% of the scripts that came in were terrible… or just not ready. But I STILL had to write a synopsis for each and every one and I still had to offer up notes on both the positives (if any) and negatives… for scripts that I likely hated and had to suffer through.And with that top 1% that were great, I still had to have that filter and point out the negatives. When I left the studio to focus on my own writing that experience saved me.
I could honestly look at most of my writing objectively and still do to this day. Sure, each script is still my “baby” and I may forgive things here and there, but that development experience taught me when to allow my head to go into the clouds (good writing) and when to slap myself and say, “Wake up… it sucks!” (bad writing). So, the lesson I learned? READ, READ, READ. Read produced scripts.
Read scripts from newcomers. Analyze them. And then learn to be able to do the same thing to your own scripts. That’ll be like going from Jedi Knight to Jedi Master if you can accomplish that.
5. What other projects do you have or are you working on?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some earlier success as a screenwriter. I’m what I call a blue-collar screenwriter (thus far at least). I haven’t made those six-figure deals, but I’ve had a script optioned by Lionsgate back in 2007 and have had two writing assignments, one of which was a page-one rewrite called Blackout, a four hour miniseries with a name cast (Anne Heche, Eric La Salle, James Brolin, Bruce Boxleitner, etc.). It rose to #2 on iTunes a few months back, beating out the likes of Game of Thrones and True Detective (Note: It suffered from a low budget and some questionable production rewrites).
The blue-collar term relates to blue-collar money, thus I haven’t earned big paychecks despite some success. Just a good amount here and there (and under the limit of ScreenCraft’s rules, of course). That’s the reality of screenwriting until something hits really big.
Lionsgate optioned my sniper script One Shot in 2007. It’s Top Gun with snipers meets Good Will Hunting. I’ve had a number of other spec scripts on the market as well. My script Doomsday Order nabbed me meetings at Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, WB, and Disney awhile back. It tells the story of a nuclear submarine crew that is ordered to launch their arsenal at the brink of WWIII… and they do it. The story centers on the aftermath as they struggle to survive amidst chaos, paranoia, and mutiny. Think Crimson Tide meets Lord of the Flies.
I have The Mark, which is a great smaller action piece about a rural town sheriff dealing with a string of bank robberies across his county. It’s No Country For Old Men meets Point Break. There’s Soldier of War, my answer to sci-fi action along the lines of The Matrix and Akira. Another recent spec is Revelation, which is an apocalyptic survival journey. A great mixture of genres with character driven action. My most recent is Gunnar, which was originally written as a Rambo V script that I had pitched to Millennium. Unforgiven meets the action genre.
6. What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?
Have a stacked deck and never stop writing. The most common mistake most screenwriters make early on is that they write that first script, stop writing, and put all of their eggs in that basket. I did that when I first started out years ago. Your first script is always your worst script. Guaranteed.
You hone your craft as you go. When I first had some success, with meetings and what not with studios, for me, at that point, it came too fast. I only had one marquee script (the few before it weren’t up to par) and the first question people ask is “What else do you have?” With every meeting or call, that question always came up. So it pays to be ready.
Before you even start marketing scripts, you should have at least three strong ones that you can pitch when that question comes up. It shows maturity, it show professionalism, it shows that you’re not a one hit wonder and have a proven body of work on hand. That’s the best advice I ever had and I learned it the hard way, sadly.
7. What’s your dream project to work on?
Where do I start? It was always my dream to write a sequel to some of my favorite films from my youth. I’ve had a Goonies 2 script in my head for years. That would be a dream come true. My Blackout miniseries was secretly my own Die Hard installment. It didn’t end up that way on screen, but I did my best. I’d kill (figuratively) to write a sixth Die Hard film and send John McClane off properly, harkening back to the original. I’ve had a solid E.T. sequel in my head. With Disney handling the Star Wars franchise, the obvious dream job would be to tackle a Star Wars installment, but that’s really shooting for the stars (pun intended).
I’ve been fortunate enough to realize some of these dreams to an extent. Writing a Rambo V (Mine was titled Rambo: Last Blood) script was a thrill, even though it was on spec. I’m a top writer on Quora (I suggest ALL screenwriters and filmmakers check that amazing site out… look me up and follow me) and I’ve had fun answering film industry questions, some of which have asked how certain as-yet-made sequels could be written. I’ve written “treatments” for Matrix 4, a The Dark Knight sequel (if Heath Ledger had not died and the Joker was in it), Indiana Jones 5, etc. It’s been fun. And that’s what writing is supposed to be. Fun. Sure, it’s a job when you get to a certain point, but if I’m not geeking out a little with each project then it’s just not something I’d want to be doing.
A true dream project would be seeing one of my favorite directors take on one of my scripts. Spielberg, Cameron, Carpenter, etc. At this point, as I’m pushing 40 soon, just seeing a studio pick up one of my specs or greenlighting an assignment that I wrote would be amazing.
That said, it’s been a dream to have the fortune of winning this competition that ScreenCraft has offered. This is the first competition I’ve ever won and it feels great. The response thus far has been exciting and it’s offered me a chance to get back into the game a bit. So many thanks to any and all involved! Keep writing…