|Lance Barton and Mike Mathews
|Wednesday, Aug 1, 2007
|Writer/Director Lance Barton’s first feature "One Night in Portland" won the 2006 Seattle True Independent Film Festival. Lance has 100% positive feedback on eBay, and is often told he could be a hair model.
Mike Mathews has five specs under his belt. Mike is always looking for the big screenwriting project, is an amazing martial artist, and reminds most people of James Bond.
They most recently sold their spec script “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” to actor Luis Guzman and his producing partner Israel Juarbe. The screenwriting duo is repped by Underground Management.
Where are you guys from? Where did you grow up?
Lance: I was born in Fort Worth, grew up in Oklahoma City. Went to college originally as an English major, then like a dozen different things, then film at the NW Film Center in Portland. I was about ten when I started making movies on 8mm. I attempted a shot for shot remake of Star Wars in stop motion with action figures called “Little Star Wars”. I guess I’ve always been making films, but I really only got serious about a career in Hollywood a few years ago after I made One Night in Portland, my first feature.
Mike: I was born in Amarillo, TX and grew up in Oklahoma City. I pretty much come from a finance background. The business of film is so different than traditional business in so many ways that I find it a unique challenge. Especially writing on spec, that’s a wild business to be in!
When did you guys first start getting into screenwriting? What attracted you to it?
Lance: I’ve been screenwriting since I was like twelve years old, so like 25 years later, I think I finally found my voice! I think most people get there a lot faster. Mike and I started collaborating about six years ago. I’ve always loved playing God, creating worlds that exist only in my mind and walking through them with characters I create. I’ve also always loved movies, I’ve seen about 30 movies a week for the last 20 years.
Mike: I really started getting into the screenwriting when Lance and I began to write. I love the movies and always have. My wife always says I would rather watch a movie than almost anything. Even when I was a kid growing up I could always dream up movies that I would really like to see. At that time I never thought about writing them. You know I always thought it would be great to be an architect. You start off with a blank piece of paper and create something that people might one day drive by and say, “WOW! That is a great building.” That is what I think movies are all about—you hope to create something that everybody can watch and say, WOW! That was a great movie.
Did you guys have formal training or are you self-taught?
Lance: I did go to film school. I also read every book I could find and made dozens of films, including a feature, before I really hit my stride and started to feel fairly proud of what I could accomplish in 120 pages.
Mike: I would definitely say I was self-taught. I have read several books, some of which Lance has recommended. Lance is extremely creative and very passionate and I can say that I have learned a lot through our relationship. He is very knowledgeable and we have learned through the painful but exciting process of writing and all the story adjustments that you swear you will eliminate on the next one.
When did you two first meet? Why did you decide to write together?
Lance: As I recall, we met about 1998. We had a lot in common, and a lot not in common. It seemed like a complementary writing relationship. They used to say that one guy types while the other one paces the floor. I think realizing that we both brought such different things to the table in the way of storytelling was exciting.
Mike: Yes, I think it was sometime around then. We met through a mutual business contact and from then on every conversation seemed to lend itself to movies and writing. Eventually we just sat down and started writing and having fun.
What was writing your first script like? What was your approach?
Lance: Well, we had to kind of find our places in the process. I’m the wordsmith, and I have ideas, but Mike is the really big idea guy. So I would come in with what I thought was the only way to do it, and he would just say, “What if we did this?” And I would wonder how I never thought of that before. I think our first script was a bit of an oddity in a lot of ways, and something we will probably revisit one day. As we were new to team writing we probably didn’t attack it in the simplest way.
Mike: I have to say it was great. It was, as I am sure is the case for everyone’s first attempt in writing together, probably not our best work. However, by the time we had finished with that project, we had settled into a process of writing that was comfortable and fun.
What do each of you feel you bring to your writing team? What are your strengths?
Lance: I’m the English major turned film student. I love seeing what I can get away with on the page. I have a pretty good idea where we’re going when we begin to outline, but Mike adds a lot, always looking for ways to push it, and then we are each a sounding board for the other at every turn.
Mike: Lance has all the talent and I am incredibly grateful for all the knowledge he brings to the table. I think our greatest strength on both sides is our ability to take the other’s idea and make it better. One of us might think of a good idea but the other will say “Yes, but…” and it just goes back and forth from there. We ultimately finish with something much better than either of us could have come up with on our own.
You both are represented Trevor Engelson of Underground Management. How did you obtain representation with him? What’s your relationship like? Do you talk frequently about your writing?
Lance: The Hageman brothers [screenwriters Kevin and Dan Hageman] forwarded a script to Trevor for us, or read a script and recommended us to him, I can’t really remember, but they were cool enough to vouch for us, and Trevor has been like family ever since. How do you describe a relationship with Trevor Engelson? It’s like having the coolest, funniest, hardest working guy in the business in your corner. He puts in the hours. He does everything within his power to make it happen for you. He’s a pleasure and I truly love the guy. I don’t think Trevor has ever met anyone that didn’t become his friend. He’s awesome. We talk very frequently about our writing. Trevor expects you to put in as much work as he does. He expects you to bring ideas, constantly look for and develop the next big thing. The guy doesn’t have a chair behind his desk, he just stands up. Even at my peak he makes me feel lazy.
Mike: Just LUCKY! Trevor is great to work with, extremely dedicated and very accessible.
How do you handle feedback on your work? From Trevor? Producers? Friends? Who do you go to as a sounding board? Or do you simply rely on each other?
Lance: We absolutely do not rely on each other for feedback after the first few hidden drafts. You can’t trust yourself when it’s in your best interest for it to be perfect right now, and it never is. Trevor and producers give us the kind of feedback we take very seriously, because it’s the kind of feedback that will make your script sell. We solicit feedback from industry friends, directors, actors that are hardcore in their criticism. Friends and family will tell you it’s perfect and that doesn’t do anything for you.
Mike: We both decided early on to listen. First, we attained a comfort level where we absolutely trust Trevor with any and all feedback on scripts and decisions regarding our careers. Second, we feel we will always see the story as complete, the characters very defined with smooth transitions, because we have played it over and over in our heads and we have a tendency to fill in the holes. We just feel you must have a lot of outside feedback to see some of your errors.
Have you guys done many pitch meetings? How have things gone for you? Do you have any recommendations for other writers?
Lance: I wouldn’t say “many.” We’ve done some and I wish I knew then what I know now. We’re not the pitch team authority, but the basics apply—don’t be an asshole, people want to work with people they like. Be enthusiastic, but don’t be a nuisance. Let the material speak for itself in the end, don’t try to make it something it’s not. They are shit fire in love with the idea or they aren’t. Leave them wanting more.
Mike: I would say as far as recommendations, really believe in your project and let it show wherever you go. I think we need to guard ourselves against a certain pride of ownership in writing. Never get rattled when something is said about certain things that they do not like about your script. Sometimes I wonder if they are just trying to see how easy you are to work with. I figure we can be artists and not really sell anything until we are dead, or we can give them what they want and sell a script the way they want it.
Do you do much research when preparing to write a script?
Lance: We certainly have, and I think we will be getting back to that, but the things we’ve been doing that have gotten us attention are really written from the perspective of our own experiences.
Mike: We have. The nice thing is that I think we both enjoy it so we have gone to great lengths in the past, just because we really got into it.
What’s a typical writing day like for you? What is your process like in working together?
Lance: Well, since we’re usually 2,000 miles apart, its web cam and screen sharing. I’m in Portland, Mike’s in Oklahoma or somewhere in the wide world at any given time, and that’s just what we have to deal with. It’s easy to go to LA for meetings or whatever, and once you get used to it the energy is the same as sharing a room on the writing front. Typically, we start with a goal for the day based on our overall plan and then work it until everyday life dictates that we break off and take care of kids, paying bills, eating and the like. Sometimes it’s a long day, sometimes it’s short.
Mike: I think working this way keeps us more focused for some reason than in person. Maybe it is because you are just focusing on the screen and the script and do not get sidetracked as easily as being in the same room, walking around the room and talking. It forces you to sit down and concentrate.
When you’re starting a new project, do you outline? Write treatments?
Lance: We go through a fairly complex set of exercises to ensure that what we’re about to do makes sense, that it’s compelling, and that it’s going to end up where we want it to. We then create a logline and a one-page. From there we use an outline, or a bit of a hybrid outline/beat sheet. We document every single nuance of every single scene. Once there we generally have a plan for every two pages, so we’ve broken a monumental task (writing an entire screenplay) into a series of little two-page tasks, and two pages is something you can handle.
Mike: We spend a lot of time up front. We have come to really respect this approach, as it has saved us a lot of time in the end. By having the framework in place it keeps us a lot tighter. Before we really concentrated on this approach, we would get going down a path because we were so into it, only to realize we had cut it back later. It is harder to decide what to cut after it is written than to make sure you only write to a certain size to start with.
How much of theme do you keep in mind overall? Scene by scene? And do you find yourself initially or eventually asking what’s the point of your story?
Lance: We nail every question about the theme and the point of the story before we even start. There’s nothing worse than writing an entire script and then going, “Why did we even write this? Who cares?” So we make sure the story and everything about it is rock solid before we even outline. By the time we have our writing plan, the theme and the story, the A, B, and C stories, is woven all the way through. Or so we think!
Mike: Yes, we definitely know by the time we get to actually writing a scene what elements should be included. Right or wrong, it is already laid out for us at that time.
How do you approach rewrites?
Lance: We approach rewrites with anxiety and alcohol. But seriously, the old saying is true: Writing is rewriting. One thing that was frustrating for me, before I really understood the process, was that once you think you have a bulletproof script, your work really begins. It’s not as good as it could be, or should be—you’re too close to it. You must solicit professional advice, and making changes causes ripple effects. Even rewriting a small thing can turn into a big job, and everything must be reevaluated in the face of the change.
Mike: I think for me I struggle more with our own rewrites than those that come from outside our team. It was not always that way, but at some point you develop more respect for outside influence’s ability to make your script better because you are so close to it. They are difficult and time consuming; however, we have realized that we better embrace this process because it is that last part you need to hopefully put your script over the top.
You recently set up your script “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” with actor Luis Guzman’s company. He and Israel Juarbe, his partner at Masaryk Towers, are set to produce. First, how did this story come about? How did Luis get attached?
Lance: Well, the story was based on a period in my life, and of course, I wasn’t an agent. But it’s not a story about Hollywood, it’s about people, and I just chose Hollywood as the backdrop. It’s often considered a rookie mistake, writing about Hollywood, but that’s not what we wrote about. In terms of how realistic a depiction it is of a typical agent, I would have to say it’s not, but it’s probably far more realistic than “Pretty Woman” was a depiction of the life of a prostitute. It’s certainly a story people can relate to on a human level. I’m very interested in the projects that people say can’t be done. When you say you want to make a dramatic love story and cast everyone against type set in Hollywood, everyone says, “Oh, Hollywood doesn’t like to make movies about Hollywood. Movies about Hollywood don’t make money. This it totally unconventional and I don’t give it a chance in hell.” And I say, “I like those odds.” So I’ve admired Luis for years, he’s fucking awesome. His talent is undeniable, everyone wants to work with him, what he can do with a character role is just amazing. I mean, you don’t get to be a favorite of PTA [Paul Thomas Anderson] and Steven Soderberg by not being good. So I sent him over the script and he flipped. We’ve been like family ever since, he’s an awesome, sweet, wonderful guy. I think when people see this film they are going to really question what’s possible, and what guts really are in filmmaking.
Lance, you are set to direct the film. How difficult was it to get you on as the director? Have you directed much in the past? Is directing a primary goal for you?
Lance: It wasn’t super difficult because these people have balls, they’re willing to take a chance. Having said that, my first feature won at Seattle last year, I’ve directed dozens of shorts, commercials, television, worked on countless other projects, so I’m not just some guy off the street, but by Hollywood standards, I’m pretty much a first timer. Luis is the kind of guy that as a producer says, “This is your story, you should tell it, otherwise, what’s the point?” I’ve been directing since I was ten years old. Writing is a love, but directing is where my head is at. I want to do both. Like everyone I guess.
What things do you feel more writers need to recognize about themselves and the industry?
Lance: Well, okay, I’m glad you asked that question. You have to write because you love to write. If you can’t live without writing, then do it, if you can, don’t. Here’s how it works: You write a killer spec. It’s not going to get made, but hopefully it will get you in the door with a manager or someone that will champion you inside the business. Then you go through the long process of developing an idea that everyone involved agrees is a winner. Then you start writing, and even if you’re a prodigy, your first draft will take a while and probably be shit, if not a far cry from the final product. Then you begin rewrites, probably more than ten of them. Then, if all involved don’t decide to abandon it and start with something else, it begins going out. If someone has an interest you have meetings. That’s probably the end of it, and you start all over again. It’s not an endeavor for quitters. Like Trevor says, “If you’re not willing to give it five years, don’t give it five minutes.” Do be persistent. Do be responsible and feed your family in the meantime. Do stay on top of your Hollywood contacts. Don’t be a nuisance. Don’t move to LA just yet. Don’t expect to sell the script you’re carrying around in your back pocket. Don’t even daydream about writing assignments; those are in your distant future. Don’t be full of shit. Do be who you are. Do fight for what you think is right, because nobody really knows anything.
Mike: Write, write, write, and if someone likes it and wants changes because they don’t agree with the direction, then change it. Your writing ability gets you in the door; to make money, give them what they want.
What are some of your favorite scripts? Scripts you’d say every writer should read and learn from?
Lance: I think “Pulp Fiction,” “Adaptation,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Fight Club,” and of course, our new opus, “The Gatewood Project.”
Mike: Well, I would have to say that after reading scripts my favorite script is not necessarily my favorite movie and vice versa. However, as far as scripts go, “Chinatown” was a great script, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” developed one of the greatest heroes in film, “Cast Away” should win an award for best research, if people knew what went into that script.
What are you two working on next? Upcoming projects?
Lance: “The Gatewood Project.” It’s a true story with an amazing cast and I’m directing. It’s unlike anything anyone has ever done and I think it’s going to change the world. No shit, I’m so proud of it and we haven’t even started production. I can’t imagine a more exciting project on any level. I was born to do this one. I plan to do so many great films over the next several years, but I think this will be my legacy.
Mike: And you can expect a lot more from us.