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On Writing: Q&A with Million-dollar Scribes Jake Thornton and Ben Lustig

by John - updated on September 30, 2015

Jake Thornton and Ben Lustig are relative neophytes to the screenwriting world...and they're doing amazing things. Repped by WME and New Wave Entertainment, their script Winter's Knight...a Viking-themed reimagining of Santa Claus... launched a bidding war. Sony won the script in a $1 million sale earlier this year, and Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg--who helmed the Oscar-nominated Kon Tiki and who are still attached to direct the next entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise -- have chosen it as their next project. ScreenCraft's John Rhodes recently chatted with them about their career and advice they have for aspiring screenwriters.  See below:

John:      How did you meet as writing partners?

Jake:      So, we have mutual friends.

Ben:        Mutual friends.

Jake:      We had really hung out a couple of times, had a number of acquaintances. Ben had written a movie back in 2006 called The Thirst.

Ben:        Yeah, which was a small, $2 million indie horror movie that went to DVD. Then, the partnership that I was working with at the time, we disbanded due to creative differences, and I started writing a new spec on my own and as I was writing it I realized that I missed that collaboration, so I went onto Facebook and posted to all of my industry friends and said, “Hey, anyone know or anyone looking for a writing partner? ‘Cause I’m looking for one.”

Jake:      I’d been here in Los Angeles for about a year. I had originally trained as an actor and done quite a lot of work in theatre in the U.K., but I’d started to flex my writing muscles...and I’d written a screenplay back in the U.K. that nothing had happened with. I’d moved here and I was getting ready know, six months of getting ready to write my next screenplay and have it all be out and everything, but it just wasn’t...[I needed] that creative spark with somebody else.

Ben:        Yeah.

Jake:      That kind of, gets you working. My then girlfriend--who also had known Ben for many, many years--said, “Oh, did you see Ben’s post on Facebook?” and I was like, “Yeah, I ignored it,” you know? (laughs). But we met up, we talked about what kind of movies we loved and it was all the same stuff.

Ben:        We each read each other’s material before we got together to talk business vs. friendship and we sat down and it really came down to the fact that we loved the same kinds of stuff. We both love big Hollywood tent pole-style films.

Jake:      Yeah.

Ben:        We grew up on Star Wars, you know, Indiana Jones.

Jake:      Highlander!

Ben:        Highlander was one of our favorites. We shared that sense of love and passion for the same type of material, so it just seemed like a good thing. We said, “Okay, well, let’s try it out and --“

Jake:      And, it worked!

Ben:        We worked together – yeah – we finished that spec that I had been writing and it was the first thing where we were getting our feet wet, working together.

Jake:      And, I think that’s an interesting thing, when you first really start working in a partnership... ‘cause it is like being married. You have to be able to give and take criticism really well--and, from an egoless place. So I think we spent time on our first scripts really finding our voice and making out first steps into Hollywood.

Ben:        We didn’t have any representation at that time. We were just using whatever contacts we had. Then, I think, we got a good enough response – Jake:      Yeah.

Ben:        -- that we were like, “Okay, maybe we actually can do this. Maybe this is something we can work at.” So, we wrote another spec. I think we were still probably getting that voice.

Jake:      Yeah, learning to love that voice and, also, finding out our way of working. I think each writing partnership has its own way of working and they find what works and some writing partnerships don’t work in the room. We  do a combination of both really, you know?  And, that second spec got us our first manager and our first manager, he had sold a very big film about a year earlier and basically wanted us to go away and write another big film. He basically said, “I want a big studio tent pole film from you guys,” and that changed our –

Ben:        It did.

Jake:      – changed our focus. We had been writing our, kind of, smaller-to-mid-budget film –

Ben:        Yeah.

Jake:      -- trying to find our way in.

Ben:        In fact, both of the first spec scripts that we wrote we specifically geared them to be under $20 million movies.  Our thought process at the time was: let’s write something that if we can’t sell it maybe we could find financing and make it ourselves. And, when we signed with this manager he said, “Well, what kind of writers do you want to be? Who are the writers that you look up to? What kind of movies do you want to make?”  And, as we told him the types of movies that we loved and what we wanted to do, he was like, “Then what the fuck are you doing? Write one of those.”

Jake:      So we wrote a spec for him and then another spec and then our third spec.

Ben:        Yeah, it was our third spec to go out to the town. Three times – third time’s the charm.

Jake:      Yeah, but that was, kind of, over the course of six years – it would be seven years at that time, wasn’t it?

Ben:        Six years in September.

Jake:      Cool.

Ben:        Six years in September, yeah.

Jake:      Can’t believe that.

Ben:        Definitely a long –

Jake:      It took us a while to get there.

Ben:        Long journey, yeah.

John:      So, would you tell me a little bit about what your writing process is like? Do you sit in the same room?  Do you trade drafts back and forth? Do you collaborate at the same time?

Jake:      Yeah, totally.

Ben:        80% of what we do is in the same room.

Jake:      It’s interesting ‘cause I think we’ve developed this over the course of many years and I think now that we have a collective voice we do our first drafts independently – well, I’ll explain that process right now – so, the way that we work is: we spend probably the first, probably four or five weeks really talking through our idea, fleshing it out into a really, solid outline and that takes –

Ben:        We do that together.

Jake:      We always do that together. That’s where we’re discussing theme and where we’re discussing our big set piece ideas and our character journeys and things like that and, fundamentally, that’s the bulk of the work. It feels like such a huge part of it is really getting a solid outline that we can work off. And if we’re working with producers we’ll obviously share that outline with them and get their feedback on that so, that there’s no confusion about what the movie is going to be about – what the story is going to be – we have a very, very detailed outline so, for instance, it might turn into a 30-page document that was scene by scene and then we break it up into sequences and we each go away and write those sequences independently.

Ben:        Yeah, we basically toss a coin -- and we go through the outline and split the sequences. We color-code them, flip a coin and say, “Okay, you’re writing red and I’m white and there you go: A, B, A, B, A, B, A, B,” and we just go away and we write those sequences.

Jake:      And that makes writing a first draft happen really quickly because sometimes writing together in the same room on a first draft can actually take longer because you're working as one rather than two; you know, if you’re two writers it should take half the time [to get that initial draft].  We create that first draft pretty fast and then we get together once or twice a week and we put our sections together and rewrite.

Ben:        Yeah.

Jake:      We match the action of something or match the emotional beat at the end of a scene to a new scene, so –

Ben:        We usually write pretty linear, so as we’re putting together the sequences, it becomes easy to say, “Okay, here’s what comes first and now that I’m going away and writing my next sequence I’m pretty up-to-speed as to any changes that might have been made in the first fifteen pages and each scene in the next section,” and I think that it helps with a real consistency, so that by the end when we’re writing our final sequences, we’ve already rewritten everything multiple times.

Jake:      Then we’ll spend perhaps a month just rewriting and detailing that. Ben:        Yeah, until we have what we really consider would be our first draft. We never send out that first draft.

Jake:      No, never.

Ben:        We do a rough draft for ourselves, and then I would say a minimum of two rewrite passes before we ever show it to anybody and every time we go into the rewriting stage – once that rough draft is done – it’s all done together.  It’s all done in the room because it’s really important for us that A) we’re both on the exact same page for every scene  and B) two heads are better than one as we’re going through and tweaking and figuring out  moments.

Jake:      Plotting dialogue, you know, there are things that the other person might not get or that the other person has a better idea for or that fundamentally don’t work in the script and that we fix together. There are always these great moments where we get really excited and go, “Oh! What if this happens and, then Ben’s like, “What if this!”” and, then it just builds, so I think it’s that being together really makes it very exciting. For me, it feels like being an actor in a rehearsal room.

Ben:        The other thing is, Jake and I both come from acting backgrounds, so we tend to read out loud a lot and we tend to take on the roles of every character as we’re doing it. It’s funny, I tell this story because for a long time we were working out of my home office and we would read sections of Winter’s Knight that were big action set pieces and at one point, you know, one of us might scream – ‘cause that’s what happens – and my wife who’s on the other side of the house would come running in and say, “Are you okay? What’s going on? Are you okay?” and we would be like, “Uhhh, we’re just reading the script.”

Jake:      We’re acting! So, it definitely informs our work.

John:      I imagine writing with a partner you inevitably develop, like, a shared vocabulary for plot and character and tone and dialogue. Did you both have similar training in screenwriting or did you read the same books as you were developing your craft or is that something that you developed together?

Ben:        Interesting. I will say that I did not have any formal training in screenwriting. I had a lot of formal training as an actor, which I feel really informed my screenwriting abilities because the training that I had was all about the imaginative process and creating worlds and creating characters as an actor. Ultimately it’s all storytelling, so it all feeds into each other. When I decided to write my first script I definitely read some books – very similar to the same books that Jake read – and a lot of our education has actually, since then, come from reading other great scripts. And, getting feedback on our work and making adjustments from there. I think the biggest learning experience has been writing together and seeing what works and what doesn’t. I mean, the format stuff is very quick, especially if you’ve got a program like Final Draft. But if we ever do have a question, which does come up –

Jake:      All the time, all the time.

Ben:        "How do we do this montage properly?"

Jake:      Yeah.

Ben:        That was our first time trying to do that. Hmm, let’s Google it! Jake:      I haven’t had any formal training in screenwriting either. Like I said, I trained as an actor, but I had begun, even back in the early 2000s, I had begun to really research and write my first screenplay and learn what that form looked like. It is a very unique literary form. It’s not meant to be the final product, it’s meant to be a step towards a final product, and yet it also needs to be a good read in and of itself and stand up on its own and as a piece of work. I think everybody’s read Syd Field – I used to train – I worked at the Apple store in Los Angeles – and he used to come in and I said to him, “Oh, you know, [Screenplay] is the very first book I ever read on screenwriting.”. Ben:        I have to admit this, and I’m ashamed, I never read Syd Field. I’ve read Robert Mckee – Story by Robert McKee.

Jake:      Yes, yes.

Ben:        Read The Hero’s Journey [by Joseph Campbell].

Jake:      Yeah.

Ben:        And, we both read a great book, which is a newer book and just a fun read –

Jake:      Yes, How to Write Films for Fun and Profit.

Ben:        Fun and Profit, yeah.

Jake:      Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant.

Ben:        Which is actually quite a decent book.

Jake:      It’s actually a decent book, yeah.

Ben:        A very fun read and it talks a lot about the industry side of things. Jake:      I also really became obsessed for a while with John Truby because I felt that his take – really understanding story, but it was also not necessarily about following a paradigm of a three-act structure, but fundamentally it still falls into a three-act structure. He didn’t like to call it that. (laughs)

Ben:        But I feel like, Jake and I, because we’ve read books and we’ve read screenplays and because we obviously love movies and watch a bazillion of those, when we approach a script there’s a certain level of, “Okay, here’s the technical aspects of what happens on page 15, what happens on page 25.”  And we do go through that process. But then we just say, “Yeah, but, then what’s right really for the story?” And, you know, our act one in Winter’s Knight is like 40 pages.  And, normally, people would be like, “That’s crazy.” But when you read it, it works.

Jake:      Absolutely, yeah.

Ben:        It’s more about the emotional beats than it is about [what] actually has to happen on a specific page.

Jake:      The other thing that really helped me is that I was a screenplay reader for a little while for Film Independent and that was a fascinating experience ‘cause you were required to read all kinds of screenplays. Some being really amazing screenplays and some that were by very definitely aspiring screenwriters.

Ben:        Reading and watching bad movies is just as educational as reading and watching good movies.

Jake:      (laughs) Absolutely, there’s no question.  I think the way that we developed our vocabulary just came out of...

Ben:        We have a changing vocabulary on a daily basis. But, it’s part of the fun and we laugh about it all the time.

Jake:      We do.

Ben:        He has his British words that I’m like, “What the – what does that mean?”

Jake:      Yeah. (laughs)

Ben:        He’s like, “What? You don’t know what that is?”  I’m like, “We’re in America, Jake,” – and I’ll say something and it’ll be the same thing - he’ll be like, “You’re wrong. That’s not what the word means,” which usually he’s right. I usually use the wrong thing. I’m one of those stupid Americans like, “No, that’s what that word means.”

John:      That’s interesting. Do you think your unique cultural perspectives help you write films with maybe broader appeal – international appeal?

Jake:      I think there’s such a market for American films in the U.K. anyway, so I don’t necessarily think that that’s completely true, but I definitely feel that our unique cultural backgrounds, you know, spanning the Atlantic –

Ben:        Yeah.

Jake:      -- definitely help and I feel that it does give a unique voice to our work.

Ben:        We each come from very different backgrounds with very specific upbringings...cultural, family lives and religious backgrounds and things that I think give us a lot of legs to stand on –

Jake:      Yeah.

Ben:        – as far as how to approach different situations and there are still plenty of times where we go to Google (laughs).

Jake:      You know and also, we have film ideas that are taking place in London and things like that and we have some ideas that are taking place in America, which totally are like, “Okay, what’s that? Let’s write something about that.”

Ben:        Right.It’s – we joke because we wrote this Santa Claus script  and I’m Jewish and Jake’s a Buddhist...and so a Jew and a Buddhist write Santa, how awesome!

Jake:      But when we first had the idea... the U.K. Santa isn’t necessarily the... we actually call him Father Christmas...and it was more of a cultural icon rather than a religious icon and that definitely informed me. I was like, “Oh, I want to tell this story about this guy,” and Ben had concerns about was it going to be too much of a religious film and I was like, “But, he’s not a religious character where I’m from.” So that was an interesting thing.

Ben:        And, you know, we put a lot of research into all of the different mythologies and I think because we do come from diverse backgrounds it actually, I think, worked better than if either of us came from a Christian background.

Jake:      Absolutely, yeah.

Ben:        We were able to write it so that it really appealed to – it’s the Santa Claus for everybody.

Jake:      Yeah, absolutely.

John:      How did you guys learn more of the business side of screenwriting and how did you secure representation and how has that helped you?

Jake:      Well, trial and error.

Ben:        Trial and error and continuing to this day trial and error.

Jake:      Honestly the business side of Hollywood can be an absolute minefield and it can get in the way of the creative process sometimes. It absolutely can. How we originally secured representation was, we had written his spec script and – we didn’t send this out to managers but we got some good feedback from one of the agencies at the time. We weren’t actually trying to get representation at the time. We were trying to get it made.

Ben:        Right.

Jake:      It’s absolutely fine and we had some contacts. Anyway and it was by pure blind luck that we got our first manager. I went out to dinner with a friend of my wife’s and she was going out with a producer at the time. He had Steven Schneider, who made all the Paranormal Activity movies – and he used to be, from my understanding, a script scholar. He spent years in school learning about scripts and screenplays and films. He’s a really big authority on it and, so I was just talking with him over dinner and saying, “You know, me and my partner have written a couple of screenplays. I’d be really interested to see if you think these are good screenplays.” Not, “Can you help me?” But, “I’d be interested in your feedback on my screenplay ‘cause I want to get it to be better.” And so I gave it to him and he read it and loved it and passed it on to his creative exec who read it and loved it. Then he gave it to his manager and it just happened quite organically, but utterly unplanned. (laughs)

Ben:        But, I think that’s honestly the best way. My first manager was a simple situation of one of my writing partners was working in a café and one of her regulars happened to be a talent manager who eventually asked her, “What do you do?” “Well, I write.” “Oh, do you have anything that I wanna read?” I think this town is so much about relationships and about being someone that’s approachable.

Jake:      Yeah.

Ben:        Everything that we’ve managed to, kind of, achieve on the side has always been pure referrals.

Jake:      There is obviously this ongoing debate in the aspiring screenwriting community about whether or not you need to move to Los Angeles to succeed in this business and I would say, “No, you don’t have to live in LA.” You know, if you are a really good writer, you know –

Ben:        I completely disagree.

Jake:      -- it will work out. We have different opinions on it.

Ben:        We have different opinions on it.

Jake:      However, I would say, that if you are a decent writer and live in LA it’s, you know, it’s so much easier –

Ben:        I have a different opinion. I feel like if you want to be a screenwriter – a real screenwriter with any sort of work within the Hollywood system – you absolutely, 100% must live in Los Angeles and, if you don’t live in Los Angeles, you better be traveling out here multiple times a year. The relationships are so important, and you will never develop those by living in Indiana.

Jake:      It’s interesting, you know, because Gary Whitta – who’s doing the new Star Wars – lives up in San Francisco, but I think it’s still manageable. You can come down for a meeting it’s, sort of, an hour’s flight, you know? Ben:        Now, when you become of that caliber where you can do a Star Wars movie do you have to live in LA? Absolutely, not. When you’re starting out as a writer and don’t have representation – I mean, the reality is –

Jake:      Yeah.

Ben:        -- after we sold Winter’s Knight we went on a slew of over 30 – 40 meetings. You couldn’t do that if you didn’t live in Los Angeles.

Jake:      Yeah, yeah. It was over, like, several months.

Ben:        It’s just not possible and the reality is, it’s those types of meetings that propel your career forward. Even just the idea of getting representation – the number one thing – yes, your work speaks for itself, no question, good writing is good writing – but nobody wants to represent someone that they haven’t met in person.

Jake:      Yeah.

Ben:        Nobody wants to represent someone that they don’t have confidence that they can send to a room with a studio executive and feel like they’re not gonna embarrass them. (laughs) You know, so it’s important to be here and important to be able to meet those people and to be able to go into those rooms at a moment’s notice. We’ve had times where –

Jake:      It was like, “Can you come in tomorrow?”

Ben:        “Can you come in tomorrow?” You know, and, “’Cause I’m gonna be on vacation for the next three weeks.”

Jake:      Yeah, right, “We live down the street.”

Ben:        Yeah, “We can because we live down the street.”

Jake:      Yeah. Circling back to the question there, I think it is part of the business aspect of it and the rest of it...having a good manager, having a good lawyer – I mean, our lawyer is fantastic and has really helped us understand, kind of, the ins and outs of the –

Ben:        Yeah.

Jake:      – kind of, business aspects – that we would have no idea –

Ben:        There are definitely debates on that. I mean, technically, you don’t need a lawyer –

Jake:      Right.

Ben:        – if you have an agent and when we were first going out with our first project it was something that we had talked about, you know, it’s an additional 5% commission –

Jake:      Yeah, absolutely.

Ben:       – but –

Jake:      It’s been so worth it.

Ben:        It’s been so worth it.  And, everyone told us, “Get a lawyer.” And we’re so grateful.

John:      That’s great. How did you find the lawyer that you chose?

Jake:      Again, through a referral. You know, my father-in-law was dating somebody who was a producer at one of the studios and got us hooked up with one of the best lawyers in town just through sending an email.

Ben:        I think the one thing that I’ve learned and that I think we have grown to learn is that if you don’t ask it will never happen –

Jake:      Right.

Ben:        -- and, yet you don’t ever want to be pushy because then people are turned off.

Jake:      Right.

Ben:        So, it’s like this fine line of you need to put yourself out there, you need to say, “Hey, this is what I’m doing,” and ask, “Do you know anyone that might be able to help?”

Jake:      What we’ve learned and that we’re continuing to reinforce in our career is the importance of those relationships. In every way, and it starts when you go into a room. Once we’ve met with someone, we send them a follow-up email the next day to say thank you. I had this great piece of advice from a friend of mine: he calls everybody in his Rolodex every three months. Not to have a big long conversation about something, but just to check in with them and, so we now have this running system where if we’ve met with someone we send them an e-mail every three months, just to say, “Hey, here’s what we’re doing. How are you doing? How was that project?”There are people who we note about what they’re into and we’ll mention that, “Hey, the new trailer for this, blah, blah, blah.” Maintaining those relationships becomes an incredibly important aspect of the business.

Ben:        Hollywood is such a crazy place and you meet so many, so many people. If you’re not the kind of person – which I’m not – who can just remember everybody’s name and what they do and what their title is...we’ve taken an active role in making sure that we remember people that we had a great conversation with and that we make a note, so that we don’t forget.  

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