5 Questions With 6 Of Our Comedy Finalists

by ScreenCraft on November 27, 2013

An eclectic group of scripts and writers made up the top ten finalists of our 2013 Comedy Screenplay Contest, and six of those finalists took the time to talk about their scripts, writing processes and influences. Read on for some interesting and very entertaining insights, and thanks again to all who submitted.

1. What is your script about and what inspired you to write it?

Brent Hartinger

Brent Hartinger

Brent Hartinger: DEAD ENDERS is the story of a man who hates life and a woman who hates people. They both have near-death experiences and discover how great heaven is, and they desperately want to go back. But they also learn that if they commit suicide, they'll go to hell. So they come up with a plan together to live life as dangerously as possible, in order to "accidentally" return to heaven. But accidentally killing yourself turns out to be a lot more difficult than they thought. But the real complication is when they start to fall in love.

My inspiration? Well, everyone says that romantic comedies are dead, and I totally agree. The genre has gotten really, really tired. So how about a "black" romantic comedy? That's what I was thinking when I got the idea.

Hamilton Mitchell: GAME CRUSH is about a tech college grad who discovers that his first love is going to marry his step dad.  My nephew is a tech college grad who actually landed the job at EA Games every kid dreams of, which is in the script.  I wrote it for the upcoming documentaries and nostalgia for video games.

Mark Simborg

Mark Simborg

Mark Simborg: THE REPLACEMENT is about a middle-aged married guy, unhappily married with two teenaged kids, who decides to swap himself out of his own life when his identical twin brother, just released from 10 years in prison, shows up to visit.

By the time anything starts happening with a script I’m usually a little fuzzy about what inspired the initial idea, but I’m pretty sure that this one was inspired by a really bad day I was having, and I got to thinking, “Hm, wouldn’t it be nice to quietly slip out of my life, free of repercussions, with a decent amount of money, and without emotionally injuring anyone?” And then I started thinking about what kind of scenario could make that possible and it snowballed from there.

Josh Berman: On the surface, my script is basically a comedy about a guy who always wanted to be an "action hero" discovering firsthand how insane that lifestyle is, and a girl realizing the "hero" she wanted all along was simply someone who valued her as a unique individual.  The script was actually pretty personal for me.  Most of the inspiration came from my own life---I basically am Ted (minus the tax agency work).  I grew up watching nothing but Die HardThe TerminatorRoadhouse; basically all those macho action films where the lead hero was so badass, that constant chaotic death and destruction around him is so typical that he's able to crack a joke while blowing a guy's brains out.  As I got older, I realized this was kind of an absurd depiction of real life, and yet still, Lieutenant Riggs had been somehow hardwired into every guy's brain as the ultimate ideal to strive for.  I always thought it would be funny to see what would happen if myself or any of my friends were actually put into a life or death situation.  I somehow don't imagine we would keep our cool as well as John McClane.

Trixie was born out of several girls I know.  Again, she's almost a parody of what Hollywood has been shoving down our throats as the "perfect" girl---basically just the hottest person we can find and put a camera in front of.  But this ideal has been ingrained into our culture for so long that a ton of women think they're worthless if they don't look like Megan Fox.  And the women who do look that good are told over and over (subtly or not subtly) that their value lies entirely in their D-cups and size 0 jeans.  So it's this weird, messed up, Catch 22 game that a lot of women end up playing every day---and there is no way to win that game.  Trixie is the epitome of women telling society and its expectations that they can kindly fuck off.
Also, after watching Underworld, Resident Evil, and Tomb Raider I've developed a strange enjoyment with watching cool women killing things---so I wanted to make sure there was plenty of that.
Thomas Radovich

Thomas Radovich

Thomas Radovich: My script is called MACHINA. It's about a part-inept, part-suicidal goth high school student who wants to start a rock band with his friends while courting his cheerleader crush. And one fateful day, she decides to date him. I've had the "pathetic goth kid protagonist" idea since my own days in high school, but the original story was just one pitiful Charlie Brown-esque letdown after another. I wanted to make him identifiable and kind of likable and have some light at the end of his tunnel, so Machina was born.
Ryan Peek: Brother Against Brother is about an underachieving man who battles his arrogant, super-successful younger brother in events concocted by their competition-crazy father who is infatuated with the Olympic Games. Let’s just say the story was inspired by real life events.

2. How long have you been a screenwriter and do you have a specific writing process?

Brent Hartinger: For the last 15 years, I've made my living writing novels, plays, and screenplays. I've had a number of screen projects optioned, and a movie based on my first novel, Geography Club, was just released in selected theaters and on VOD last weekend. Meanwhile, a movie based on my latest screenplay, The Starfish Scream, will soon go into pre-production -- I hope! -- for a spring filming.

As for my process, that's mostly a question of just getting my butt in the chair. Then, once the ball is rolling, I usually just write until I drop. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Hamilton Mitchell: I've been writing for about nine years.  I write and study everyday.  My process is to keep at it.
Mark Simborg: About seven years now. Seven blissful, rejection- and disappointment-free years, haha. No, I really do love it in spite of the ridiculousness of the business itself and trying to break in. I will always write scripts regardless of what happens. My writing process is probably too fractured and inconsistent to be called a process. I do write almost every day, but sometimes it’s only 15 minutes and sometimes it’s three hours. I can write pretty much anywhere. I don’t need a cabin in the Vermont woods. So that’s good. I always shoot for 5 pages a day but sometimes I only get 2 and sometimes I get 10.
Josh Berman: I've been writing various forms of fiction since I was 12, but I never really tried screenwriting until I started attending Chapman University's film school, four years ago.  My process is pretty simple.  I watch a ton of movies, read a ton of scripts, then steal everything I've seen and mix it up in a way that I haven't seen before.  I tend to work on the characters for a long time beforehand, writing little bios about their lives until they feel like my friends.  Then I crap out a plot in about a day, make it into some kind of outline, and start writing the script.  Why don't I obsess over the plot beforehand? Because I know I'm ultimately going to rewrite the story about 15 times and the plot will never be the same anyway.  It's the characters that matter; that have to be constant.
Thomas Radovich: I've been screenwriting for about four years, so I'm still trying different processes until I get one that makes me the most productive. However, the more I write, the more I like brief notecards and outlines. I also make a playlist of songs and movie soundtracks that get me into the mood of the movie.
Ryan Peek: I have been writing screenplays for over ten years. I especially enjoy writing comedy, though I did write a drama once. It managed to make the top 30 in the Nicholl Fellowship. Maybe I should try to write more serious material…Nah. My process involves writing in a small, cramped space with the goal of making myself laugh out loud. A little psychotic, perhaps, but everyone has their method.

3. What's the most important thing you've learned since you began writing?

Brent Hartinger: Well, depressingly, I think it's much more about contacts and access than it is about talent. And it's also really, really important to understand the business.

That said, once you get that rare break, you either need to deliver, or be a great bullshit artist. In other words, talent does count, and authenticity does too.

Basically, I've come to the conclusion that there are only two ways that movies ever get made: (1) Write something that everyone thinks will make them a lot of money, but that's easier said than done because trends are constantly shifting, and no one knows anything anyway. (2) Write something that at least one person loves so much that they'll keeping working on it even after everyone tells them they won't make any money.

Basically, go with your head or go with your heart. But going with my head hasn't really worked for me. I've honestly tried selling out, but it's so much harder than they make it sound! For my anyway, my "sell out" projects never seem to go anywhere. It's the projects I've poured my heart and soul into that end up attracting any attention.

I've also found it's really helpful to work in different mediums. Plays and novels and screenplays are all different mediums, but they're also all stories. And I feel like I've learned so much by looking at "story" from all these different angles.

Hamilton Mitchell: Screenplays are not just structure, its just the easiest thing to teach.
Mark Simborg: That it’s all very subjective and that there are no formulas for writing a great script. Obviously we need conflict, interesting characters, and goals, but beyond that it’s a big gray area filled in by hard work and intuition. Just write the damned thing and send it around and see what happens. Inevitably some are going to hate it but hopefully at least one or two will like it, and they may end up being the only one or two people you may need. I really can’t stand people who peddle formulas like the "5,000-stage hero’s journey" or whatever. Not that Joseph Campbell wasn’t incredibly insightful about what makes for great drama, but I think some people apply and adapt his theories to screenwriting in strange ways intended to sell books or courses or inflate their egos.
Josh Berman: The most important thing I've learned is write a movie you would want to see...and write it every single day.  There are a lot of "ifs" in this industry, but the one surefire way to fail is to not write at all.
Thomas Radovich: Nothing will turn off a reader faster than an overload of text on the page. You have to keep it short and keep it moving.
Ryan Peek: The most important thing I have learned from writing is how to make myself laugh. By extension, I hope to be able to make others laugh. It is my sincerest hope to share my work with a larger audience and to play some role in helping people laugh at life.

4. Who and/or what are some of your key influences?

Brent Hartinger: Well, my favorite movies are Harold & Maude, The Silence of the Lambs, The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Lord of the Rings, Casablanca, and Aliens, and I love a good, old-fashioned B-movie storytelling like Jeepers Creepers and Pitch Black. 

But I also believe you can learn just as much from failed projects as you can from great ones. I think Prometheus was one of the shittiest movies of the last 20 years -- just a complete failure on almost every level -- and I've spent hours trying to figure out why.

Hamilton Mitchell: Too many to name, but The Farrelly Brothers, Judd Apatow, Will Ferrell... the giants of laughing comedy.

Mark Simborg: Joseph Campbell, haha. No…actually Woody Allen is one of my all-time heroes as an artist. Of my top ten comedies, probably half are by him. He also has a really sane attitude towards his work. He just does it and puts it out there, knowing full well it may suck (and a few of his movies have sucked, but not many) and then he forgets about it and moves on to the next project. As screenwriters, I think we would do very well to follow his lead. Besides him, I’m a huge fan of Harold Ramis and pretty much everything he’s been involved in.

Josh Berman: I've got a bizarre list of influences.  I've seen everything Tarantino, Apatow, and David O'Russell have ever done. And even though their genres are dramatically different, the dialog is always fresh, and I'm always sucked in. But then, I like a lot of the cheesy John Woo films.  And the weird-ass Charlie Kaufman stuff.  It's hard to pin down one singular influence.  I like filmmakers who have their own unique style, a stamp they put on their work.

Thomas Radovich: How can any comedian not be influenced by Mel Brooks? When you feel like you've hit a creative wall, just pop in SpaceballsYoung FrankensteinBlazing Saddles, or any of his works. I also like John Hughes, Sam Raimi, and all the Mystery Science Theater 3000 writers. When it comes to the craft of screenwriting, I follow John August (FrankenweenieBig Fish). His screenplays flow so well, that it feels like 90 pages have gone by in a flash.

Ryan Peek: Influences on my writing can be found in the works of Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker, the Farrelly Brothers, Coen Brothers, and Judd Apatow among others. Comedic inspiration often comes when you least expect it, too. Usually, it’s a byproduct of being a good listener.

5. What other projects do you have or are you working on?

Brent Hartinger: I have a sci-fi thriller called CLOUDKILL, about the world's first "space elevator" and a mysterious, angel-like predator that lives in the clouds. I have a new puzzle box thriller I love called GRAND & HUMBLE, about the most popular kid in school and the least popular, and the mystery of how their lives intertwine at the corner of one downtown street. And I have a comic teen caper called PROJECT SWEET LIFE, about three 15-year-olds whose parents insist they get summer jobs, so they invent fake jokes, then embark on a series of get-rich-quick schemes to make they money they should be making from hard work.

It's all here, along with all my novels:

Hamilton Mitchell: Teen Jesus.  Redd Herring.  Model Citizens.

Mark Simborg: I have two sitcom pilots currently being circulated by established LA producers. One of them, SYCAMORE PARK, was a finalist in the TrackingB TV competition back in March. Earlier this year I optioned a romantic comedy to an independent producer (I have no idea what’s happening with it). I also have a dramedy called FINDING YESTERDAY that Penelope Spheeris (“Wayne’s World”) is attached to direct, and a genre-bending romance/dark comedy/drama that Clare Kilner (“The Wedding Date,” “How to Deal”) is attached to direct. Clare and I are also planning to turn another sitcom pilot of mine, THE LAND OF A, into a web series.

Beyond that I have a long list of feature-length projects that I want to do. The one I’m working on now is called CHASING THE SWILL, and it’s about three guys who go in search of a legendary and perhaps mythical beer that is supposed to be the best tasting beer in the world. Quite sadly, that one could be based on my own life.

Josh Berman: I'm directing a short film this December, and I'm developing a web series with some guys right now that draws from a lot of the same humor as Burning Love (I won't tell you what reality show we're mocking...yet).  Just wacky, fun stuff.  And, of course, I'm always looking for an agent or some other means of selling one of my features (I've written several) so I can replace my moldy couch with something a little less gross.

Thomas Radovich: Right now, I'm producing a movie about Elvis Presley in high school called Nobody. We're shooting in Memphis at Elvis' actual high school and Sun Studio! Writing-wise, I've just finished a Thriller/Comedy/Sports spec script and am now working on a Family Christmas screenplay.

Ryan Peek: I have written several screenplays that have finished in the finals in a number of large competitions. In addition to the drama that made the semi-finals in the Nicholl Fellowships, I have three comedies (not including Brother Against Brother) that have placed in the top 10 in the American Screenwriting Competition. Most notably, in three consecutive years, three different scripts placed 7th, 7th, and 4th out of 2,000 entries. I have a few ideas for new scripts that I’m excited about, but I am currently working on a Young Adult science fiction book series. It occurs to me that the Young Adult genre could really use a hybrid vampire/wizard protagonist who has killer abs and wields a wicked bow and arrow. It will make one hell of a movie.

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