David Aslan’s spec script Not A Chance In Hell was selected as the runner-up to the 2016 ScreenCraft Comedy Script Contest. The script —original and high-concept — centers on a couple of high school seniors who, after being hit by a meteor on prom night, find themselves traveling through the nine circles of Hell in order to change their destiny. Aslan is now represented by Circle of Confusion.
We spoke with David to discuss his background, writing process, and what’s next.
ScreenCraft: Where and when did your storytelling roots begin?
David Aslan (DA): I have to have a good story for that, right? It feels like if you’re publicly labeling yourself a “storyteller” you better not have a boring origin story. But then again, maybe feeling boring is what makes people feel like telling stories. It’d be nice if I could say something like, “Well, I was really into studying tax law, but one day I fell into a pit of radioactive waste. I made it out alive, but my DNA mutated and now if I stop telling stories, I will transform into a deadly bio-weapon.” Sadly, I don’t have a particularly exciting origin story. I’ve just always loved stories, be they movies or books or plays or even jokes, and telling a story, making up a world, and having people react to this thing you made is one of the best highs out there.
ScreenCraft: Your spec script Not a Chance in Hell was the runner-up in the 2016 ScreenCraft Comedy Contest. What were some of the influences and inspirations behind the concept?
DA: The simplest inspiration was just wanting to write a movie that took place in hell. Everything else grew from that little seed. As the concept gained momentum, I figured out what characters I wanted to see playing around in hell, and the tone followed after. There’s definitely a John Hughes feel to it mixed with a little Guillermo Del Toro, a little Silent Hill. Edgar Wright films come to mind too — Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. Zombieland and Warm Bodies also offered a lot of inspiration in how to blend a supernatural, horror-like tone with teen romance. At the end of the day, I really just wanted to have fun with realistic, hapless teenagers in a very big world filled with rich mythology.
ScreenCraft: What are some of the hardest lessons you’ve learned in your pursuit of a screenwriting career?
DA: That it takes forever. And probably that I’m not as bad at writing as I constantly feel I am. It took me a long time to learn how to trust my instincts and believe that I actually had a voice to write with. It’s funny, I wrote a blog essay about this a couple years and I’d almost rather just reference that. In fact, I think I will… (Check it out here: https://thetinyprotagonist.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/writing-is-gross-2/)
ScreenCraft: What or who are some of your most impactful influences in your writing?
DA: There are so many writers I love that it would be ridiculous to list any of them, but I will say I remember the first time I read something that showed me how much power could be unleashed with just simple words and images. It was Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children. I had to read it in college, and of course I could never write a lick the way he could write, but he wrote with so much ferocity — it was the first time I really understood what people could do with the power and weight of words, and how when you align them into formations and armies, they become these stories that can change people, how they think or live their lives.
ScreenCraft: How have you honed your craft since you began writing and what resource or activity has been the most helpful in that regard?
DA: Just writing. I’ve read a ton of screenwriting books, blogs, and essays. Probably the best thing out there is Dan Harmon’s Story Circle blog posts. He sums up the Hero’s Journey in a way where I finally understood it. Everything else is just practice.
ScreenCraft: What is your writing process like from conception of the idea to final draft of the eventual script?
DA: I start with an idea I like, then write a broad outline of what I think that movie could look like. I jot down notes in a notebook — usually try to keep it on paper and avoid the computer for as long as I can. Then, when I think I’ve got my basic outline, I form it into a very specific, detailed outline or I might use index cards — I like Scrivener for that, physical index cards are a pain in the ass and they don’t travel well. The idea is to work out as much of the story as possible before even attempting a first draft. Once the outline is ready, I rush through the first draft just so it’s out of the way, because the best writing comes in the re-writing process anyway. Super on-the-nose dialogue, all that kind of stuff. Then I work on it pretty laboriously until every scene feels exciting and interesting. I also drink a lot of coffee.
ScreenCraft: What do you think are some of the secrets behind writing great comedy scripts?
DA: Nice try. I paid a bridge troll way too much gold to just give you the secrets for free.
ScreenCraft: What other projects are you working on now?
DA: I’m wrapping up an animated web series, working on a TV pilot, and developing a few ideas with producers and directors. I also perform improv comedy every week in a show called Big Yellow Taxi at the Pack Theater in Los Angeles. Being a writer can be a lonely creative endeavor, so improv is a great way to get out of your head and interact directly with a team and an audience, while also enjoying the instant gratification of getting your ideas out there as soon as you can think of them.
ScreenCraft: What, if any, would be your dream project to work on?
DA: I just finished Stranger Things on Netflix. Everything about that show is amazing. If I could work on that — yeah, that’d be nice. Either that or a Pixar movie.
ScreenCraft: What’s the best screenwriting advice that you’ve received and what did you learn from it?
DA: William Goldman’s “Nobody knows anything” quote is pretty great. There’s also an amazing memo that David Mamet wrote back when he created The Unit for all the writers on that show. And also a piece of advice I heard at a screenwriting seminar once. “Every scene is a negotiation.” Those are some of the best.
David Aslan is a Los Angeles-based writer and director. Many of David’s scripts have placed in a wide variety of major screenplay competitions, and his most recent short film, Layover, screened as an official selection at Newfilmmakers LA and Newport Beach Film Festival, and was workshopped and produced with a grant awarded by the indie film collective, We Make Movies. David co-created, wrote, and directed the hit comedy web-series, Lesbian Cops, a light-hearted, high-octane spoof of cop movies from the 70s and beyond. He co-founded the writing blog The Tiny Protagonist, and has also directed and produced a wide range of short films and sketch videos starring popular comedians like Adam Ray, Kurt Braunohler, and Ben Gleib, which have been featured on Buzzfeed, Funny Or Die, and StrikeTV. He’s also a regular performer with the improv comedy team Big Yellow Taxi at the Pack Theater in Los Angeles and has studied and performed comedy at UCB, Pack, and Nerdist Comedy School.