Adam Dick is an indie filmmaker whose scripts have placed in 3 different ScreenCraft competitions! He recently wrote and directed the feature film Teacher, which was coincidentally edited by ScreenCraft-winning filmmaker Daniel Hanna (winner of ScreenCraft’s 2013 Comedy Screenplay Competition), and it was produced by Buffalo 8 Productions, the same company that partners with ScreenCraft on our annual Film Fund grant program.
Teacher has been getting a lot of attention lately in the press, and we wanted to follow up with Adam about his success thus far as a filmmaker. As someone who works full time and made a movie on the side, he’s got a unique take on what it means to be successful and get your work made in the world today.
ScreenCraft: Can you tell us a little bit about your project Teacher? What’s the premise? What’s your role? What was the origin of it?
Adam Dick: Teacher is a drama/psychological thriller about a high school English teacher who goes to extreme lengths to protect his favorite students from bullies. More broadly, it’s about the way that cruelty and trauma is passed from person to person, generation to generation, and the varying ramifications that can have on people’s lives. I wrote and directed the film and also served as a producer.
SC: Can you walk us through the process of how you financed and produced the film?
AD: Financing came from a variety of private equity sources and a loan against the Illinois Tax Credit, which proved to be very helpful. It took about two years to get everything together before the movie really could begin the process of getting made, pitching to investors, sales companies, etc, across the country. I credit my producing team of Matthew Helderman of Buffalo 8 and Zachary Kamen for sticking with the film through a long limbo period. The major two elements that make producing the film possible are of course the financing and the cast, and once David Dastmalchian came on board and somehow had the smallest open window amidst Ant-Man & the Wasp, it was time to set the schedule and get moving.
SC: How can we see the film? What kind of distribution did it get?
AD: We were very fortunate to be picked up for our domestic distribution by Cinedigm, facilitated by Matt & Buffalo 8. With them, we’ve coordinated a limited theatrical release at the Laemmle Glendale in the Los Angeles area from August 2nd-8th and a one night only showing at The Logan Theater in the film’s home city of Chicago the night of August 3rd. After that, we release in North America digitally and on DVD on August 13th.
Internationally, we’re being represented by Octane Entertainment, who are locking in our first deals for distribution across the globe, such at the UK, Taiwan, various nations throughout the Middle East, many more. It’s all very exciting.
SC: Most filmmakers have to find the time, energy and passion to write while still working full-time jobs. Do you have a regimen that works for you?
AD: The great Japanese author Haruki Murakami wrote this memoir called “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” which really breaks down the parallels between his passion for writing and that for marathon running. It’s a very apt metaphor for the process because it really comes down to forming long-term habits that often go against short-term impulses and desires. Personally, I find establishing that rhythm is very important, to start putting in a little time consistently, and not letting it all roll around in my head all the time. Thinking is working to a point, but starting to get those ideas on paper on some consistent basis, even if they’re not great, is really what’s going to help dispel those notions of writer’s block or keep a writer from being a hostage to their own need for inspiration: that is, the belief that one has to be really pumping in order to do the work.
Even if writing isn’t a full-time job, any aspiring writer needs to approach it as both a professional and deeply personal endeavor. Even with Teacher, which was in large part self-made, the requisites of the film and the process became externalized, to where I had to professionally serve the film and its needs. If a film as personal as that still becomes a J-O-B job, then anyone with professional aspirations for writing needs to find a way to lock into doing it consistently. Like exercise, the consistency of the desire and ability wanes if not regularly engaged. Yes, there can be great spurts, but if that pattern of behavior isn’t formed, you’ll find yourself waiting longer and longer for those productive periods and will start being a thinker or ruminator and not a writer.
Of course, of course, of course, it’s hard to write through fatigue, a house full of kids, two full times jobs, health problems, anxiety. I’m not saying the above is easy, but even if a writer can only get a paragraph or a quarter-page done every three days, then that would still lead to a completed screenplay as long as they stick to it. Same with marathon running. If you somehow are able to keep running, or walking, or crawling, you will eventually get to a finish line.
SC: For your process in general, do you do a lot of revisions as you go, or do you do the vomit draft then go back and revisit?
AD: Outlining has become more and more important as time has gone on for me. I actually spent about threefold more time outlining Teacher as I did writing the first draft. I outlined it in a month, and the first draft came super quickly, about ten days. I then spent a month revising and tweaking it before giving it to others to start reading. From there, the revisions continued – revisions first based on creative impulse, and then, as the actual production loomed, based on logistics. And then, of course, was the editing process of the film, which in a way is still revising the script.
So rewriting is writing, absolutely, and it’s also filmmaking itself. Every take of every shot in a sense is a form of revision, variation, adaptation.
However, I absolutely, enthusiastically support a vomit draft. Get to The End. Get to The End. Get to the End. And then revise and revise. Something happens psychologically when you get to the final page of your script and know, even if you hate it and have to revise 80% of it, that you got to a destination, accomplished a goal. If the script remains unfinished, it exists as an abstraction in the mind, and that can develop a type of intimidating gravity that is not helpful.
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SC: How many years did you work on your screenplays until you felt they were at a sellable level?
AD: That’s an interesting question. Sellable is a tricky term because it evokes rationales from the business or larger world that may not necessarily apply to the overall quality of a work. In terms of a general level of professionalism, it took about ten years, from when I started writing my first feature at 16 to when I started working on this lovely film NightLights that I co-wrote and produced. There were several projects before that which had merit, and I’d say deserved more attention than they got, but I had so many blind spots on a personal and professional level at that point that I’ll at least say I’m glad that I learned more before making the leap and moving to Los Angeles almost seven years ago, which was many many years after I got started.
SC: What’s your screenwriting process? Outlines? Treatments? Beat sheets?
AD: As I mentioned before, outlining has become very important for my process since about 2014, when the first draft of Teacher was written. Before that, I’d still do the work consistently, but it was a lot more waiting, wringing my brain, staring at the screen and waiting for the late train of inspiration to arrive. I still got a lot of writing done, but it was a sloppier process. Outlining to me is like turning on the lights before you walk into a room. Otherwise, even if you’re familiar with the room, it’ll be a more alien place where more mistakes can happen, and getting through it will ultimately go more slowly.
Now, at my most detailed, I outline every beat of every scene and even try to approximate how many pages each section will occupy. If I get within about 10%, I know that I’ve really honed in the idea. If I’m not in quite as prescriptive a mood, I’ll kind of just summarize “this happens then that happens” and write out a basic book report summary of the movie. Either way, the logic of things becomes clearer. The story will always change as I write it, but having that foundation makes me feel so much safer, more confident, more directional. I can confidently look any producer in the eye and tell them that I can absolutely hit a deadline (unless it’s insane, which would make this person a bad producer anyway) because I have that much confidence in my process. I think that’s an important thing.
SC: From a production standpoint, what has been the hardest part about getting an independent film project off the ground?
AD: Financing is always hard because, unless you are really hooked into a lucky situation, there is no set blueprint for how to get money. You really have to just meet people and make work as good as possible with whatever is available. There is an amazing idea out there in the ether for a $1,000 Oscar-caliber film, but it has to be the right idea.
Beyond the financing, assuming that somehow isn’t an issue, then it’s about finding the right people who can help you do the level of preparation and work necessary for a successful production. Thousands and thousands of details between dozens of departments requires the right crew, and of course, the right casting is so necessary. That’s another very difficult thing because getting a yes from the people you want isn’t fully ever in your control.
Most broadly, learning how to surf on top of the elements beyond your direct control is always the most difficult. You can help guide the process, but a lot of making a movie from beginning to end is responding and adapting to changes in the landscape that you weren’t expecting. From a location falling through to weather messing up your shoot, or a handful of background actors don’t show, or financing pulls out, or your computer dies, or one of your actors has to axe a shoot day due to prior commitments and you have to reschedule shooting, it never ends. I can go on and on. Learning how to adjust, in a sense rewrite the process, is tough but necessary.
SC: In hindsight, were there any aspects of filmmaking that were much harder than you expected? Anything that was easier?
AD: Easier? Hmmmmmmm. I’d say the easiest part is understanding how profound it is to simply try. If you’re trying, you’re alive. You can’t control success. You can’t control how other people react to your work. You can only control yourself and your actions (insomuch as the world even lets that happen). You can control whether to jot down those two bullet points in your outline before bed, you can control whether to have that extra beer and make yourself too tipsy to write, or instead to get a page written before the beer. The only thing that’s easy is trying because once you establish trying as a pattern, you are already living a version of your dreams. Sorry if that’s sappy.
Otherwise, it’s all harder because the auditioning never really ends. First, as a writer, you’re auditioning your own ideas to yourself. Then you write the script, and it has to audition for other people to like it. To producers. To financiers. Heck, even just close friends. Then you move to casting, and while actors are auditioning for you, the script is doing the same for them, especially if you’re going for established, working actors. Then your department heads have to jump on board the film. Tax credit applications. Locations have to let you in. And then you make the film, and the film has to audition for agencies, festivals, sales reps, distributors, then critics and the audience, and then for a place in the culture, for this year, and every year after. The process never really ends, and so it’s important to accept that and to find a way to cherish the work and the small moments where you know you’ve created something just a little bit special or unique or at least something resembling what you intended. Heck, just cherish doing the work at all. If you’re writing, if you’re putting in the time, then you’re doing your job, no matter how it turns out.
SC: Facing rejection is a common experience for filmmakers and writers. Having successfully created multiple films, how do you navigate the inevitable rejections along the way?
AD: Let me be blunt: in my mind, I am not at all a successful filmmaker. I still have a day job (albeit flexible). I am not represented. Not one second of this has been easy, and I don’t know in the here and now if I’ll ever have the opportunity to direct a film again. I have been rejected from many many dozens of film festivals, many dozens of writing competitions, of jobs, rejected all the time, for years, and then a few more years. Any success I have is the frost on top of the tip of the iceberg.
But I sure as hell can keep writing scripts. And keep supporting my friends’ efforts. I can still watch movies that I love and feel that love. I can enjoy the company of my friends and family and really savor any precious moment of relaxation that I have.
In order to deal with rejection, you have to invest and find real, non-bullshit happiness in the other aspects of your own life, as much as time and the day job allows. Rejection hurts the most when it means everything. It shouldn’t mean everything. Even when it does, it shouldn’t, and understanding that little notion can help a lot. Have the wisdom to be critical of your own despair.
SC: If you could go back 5-10 years and give yourself one craft or career tip, what would it be?
AD: Maybe the last part of my previous answer. I to this day spend way too much time worrying and waiting, and worrying about waiting.
If I told myself ten years ago where I’d be today, I’d be overjoyed, but now that I’m here, I understand the immense pragmatism that comes with any career progression. I’d tell myself to get comfortable with never getting my lottery ticket. It’s going to be a process. There will not be that orchestra swelling movie moment where everything is different and better than it was before.
Okay, the first time I kissed my fiancee was pretty great. I’ll give you that one, life!
SC: Now that the project is getting attention — what’s next?
AD: I’ve jumped on board as a Co-Executive Producer on this wonderful coming of age film Raise Your Hand, produced by my friend Evan Allen-Gessesse and written and directed by my new friend and colleague, Jessica McMunn, who is just so talented and has lived everything that I’ve written about here. I’m glad to be able to provide some assistance and bring my own mistakes (otherwise termed as expertise) to bear so that this film can find its proper home. That’s the plan, anyway.
Beyond that, I’ve written two fresh pilots, a one-hour and a half-hour each, and am starting the drafting process for a new political thriller that I’m really excited about. Several more ideas after that. The process continues.