|David Cohen is from Mahwah, New Jersey. He graduated with a BA in professional writing from Emerson College. Upon moving to Los Angeles, Cohen worked for Chuck Gordon at Daybreak Productions for several years, and crewed on a number of movies. He transitioned into the executive ranks, working as a production executive for Mike Ovitz’s production arm of Artists Management Group, AMG. Following the company’s dissolution Cohen started writing full time, first with a partner and now solo. His horror/thriller script "No One Lives" is currently filming in New Orleans. Cohen is repped by ICM and Generate.
Where are you from and what was your life growing up like? And how did that possibly influence your writing later on?
I grew up in North Jersey right over the George Washington Bridge and I have to credit that place for my love of movies and writing. It was before parents were paranoid to let their kids play outside without them, so all my time outside of school was spent making up games and stories and running around in the woods and letting our imaginations take over.
I remember after seeing “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” spending so many nights wandering my neighborhood searching the skies for UFOs as a card carrying member of the Close Encounters Skywatching Club. Also, the 4:30 Movie and Creature Feature, two blocks of local programming genius, were highly influential.
When do you remember really becoming first interested in film? Writing?
It was my strong suit from very early on. I loved reading and would dabble in long stories that filled up composition books. I’d spend more time reading than doing homework. Unfortunately, being schooled in the works of Stephen King didn’t exactly help my GPA. However, my interest in writing for film popped in college.
Where did you go to college? What was the focus of your studies?
I went to Emerson College in Boston, but was interested mostly in becoming a novelist. I had a lot of half baked plans that finally came together during the last semester there when I worked on a buddy’s thesis film. That’s when I fell in love with the film making process and thought I could work in that field. I was still on the novelist track even after I moved to Hollywood and began working for the producer Chuck Gordon.
It wasn’t until several years later, after I became a production executive at AMG that I really began to tackle screenwriting in a serious way. As an executive, I had read hundreds of scripts and even though I never went to film school, I chalked up all my time on sets, doing everything from winding cable to 1st AD(ing), as a film school of hard knocks of sorts.
Tell us about writing your first feature script? What was your approach? And leading into the next question, how many scripts did you write before your first deal?
There were three firsts. The first script I went out with as a spec was with a writing partner and was a high concept, “Three Days of the Condor” type thriller called “Contagion.” It didn’t sell. Next was another writing partner venture, with Tony Lord, called “Black Sabbath,” which did sell and launched my career. But, my first real solo script is something called “Underground” and is a true passion project. I love to cook and I love genre so I combined the two into a slightly depraved, yet elegant exploration into extreme cuisine. It took a while to write because I was working on several projects with Tony, but once it was done, I found my stride as a writer.
My approach, solo, is always the same. Knock out a handwritten outline in a couple of weeks. Type it up in a few days, making changes, and then write the script as fast as possible, trying to hit ten pages a day. Oh, and think about the idea for three years before anything’s committed to paper.
What was “Black Sabbath” about? Where did the idea come from? How did you and Tony meet? How did/do you work together on scripts? Do you each have certain strengths?
“Black Sabbath” was a very cool idea that was generated through our agent. But I’ll get to that in a moment. While I was working as an executive at AMG I was becoming increasingly frustrated fostering other people’s ideas and not my own. But being an exec was fun and if the company stayed alive long enough to see some of those projects through, I’m sure it would have been a rewarding thing to bring even one picture to the screen. However, that was not the case. So when AMG tanked I decided to take a real do or die shot at writing full time. I felt, though, that I needed the discipline that comes with sitting down every day and if I had someone to motivate me I could get there. I knew through my agent that Tony Lord, who had been a successful producer, was kind of in the same boat. In a weird way I put it out there in the universe and one day my then friend and soon to be agent, Emile Gladstone, got us all together for drinks where we brainstormed an idea about a guy who escapes from Hell and is tracked by a bounty hunter from Hell. We decided right then and there to write it, which was terrifying, because even though we had nothing to go on, it seemed like we absolutely had to succeed. Figuring out that script, we were like idiots chasing our tails, but once we nailed down the idea…lots and lots of outlines later, we managed to write a pretty fun action/horror movie. Having a writing partner in those early days was a huge advantage because we forced each other to work hard. And it paid off. We optioned “Black Sabbath” to Summit several times over and it almost got made. I think “Drive Angry” was our logline exactly with completely different execution. Where “Black Sabbath” was very comic book, “Drive Angry” was a glossy revenge movie.
After “Black Sabbath” we got into a groove with our process that seemed to work best in TV. And the TV thing happened by happy accident. Here we were killing ourselves in features and we had a meeting at “Entourage.” They asked if we had any TV samples and we didn’t, so we ran home and wrote an “Entourage” in two days. It was painless and fun. Off that spec, we got a deal with Sony and continued to sell a pilot every year since. Our process was very simple. We would nail down an outline and each write about five pages until we hit The End. Our method in television never wavered, but oddly, we would approach each feature script differently. Maybe that’s why we work best in features as solo writers. We love each other’s sensibilities, but ultimately, at this stage, are drawn to other things. Where Tony would want to write “Midnight Run,” I want to do “Lord of the Rings,” so that leaves us in different worlds. That said, I’d love for us to produce each others’ projects. In TV, we have very similar sensibilities. We both love animation, “30 Rock,” “Wilfred,” etc. so I think that’s our strong suit. As for our strengths, Tony is very grounded and is a perfectionist, while I like to shoot from the hip. Those qualities make a very good match. I expose him to my demented thinking and he forces me to reel it in. That way we have something that exists outside the box, but that people can relate to.
In early 2004, you sold a spec comedy script you wrote with Tony Lord to Mandalay Pictures and Universal Pictures. “Head Games” was about a psychiatrist whose life gets upended when he inherits the disorders of his group therapy patients. Where did the idea/story come from? Did you do much work on the script for Peter Guber who was attached to produce? Anything happening with the project?
“Head Games” was a heartbreaker, but a totally run of the mill Hollywood story. Tony and I had just sold a horror movie, but Tony is a huge lover of comedy and wanted to flex his muscles in that arena. We are both high concept thinkers…we have a million ideas like “Head Games”…and came up with the idea together. It was one of those, “A shrink…”, “inherits the disorders…,” “of his patients, and….” We sold the R rated version that was quirky and funny that took place in Vegas, which was developed into a PG-13 version that was solid enough to entice David O’Russell to the project. He rewrote it into a different movie that got greenlit with Vince Vaughn attached. At the eleventh hour Universal pulled the plug. Doubt they’d do that today, with David. Mandalay has gone on to develop it with Cooper and Collage, but I don’t know where it is today. Sucks, cause it really is a big idea.
A little over a year later, in April 2009, you and Tony sold another spec script “Boss” to Scott Rudin and Walt Disney Pictures. The story centered on a 21-year-old who becomes his father's boss when he gets promoted. What was the genesis of this story? How long did you guys work on this? What was the selling process like? What if any re-writes were made for Rudin? What is the current status?
Another Hollywood story. We sold it to Rudin, did a strong rewrite and then our Disney exec got “let go” and our Rudin exec, Mark Roybal, a great executive, left Rudin to run Indian Paintbrush. So it became a script with no fanbase. It should come back to us eventually…hopefully. “Boss” was a simple idea that became complicated in execution because that one liner could mean anything. Tony and I approached the process differently, coming up with individual plot lines, but I think in the end we learned a lot from that experience that has greatly informed our TV projects.
You next did a “genre about face” when you set up your horror thriller “No One Lives” with Milk & Media in March 2010. You were attached to direct and Luke Evans was set to star. Was going from comedy to a horror thriller difficult for you? Was their resistance from people here in town? You also wrote this story on your own. How different or difficult was that for you? And had you always been interested in directing? Also was it difficult it to convince the producers to let be attached as director? Did you have a reel or have to shoot a test?
I could write a novel about this. “No One Lives” came off the heels of “Underground,” which was the first project I wrote with the intention to direct. At the time I hadn’t done anything to even suggest directing except lean on my past experience working on many films and drinking with actors, but the folks at OZLA, Taka Ichese’s (“The Ring”) company, thought that was enough. I did put together a look book that helped convey my vision and the price tag for the movie was set at somewhere between $3 and $5 million. I met with several investors, but none of them would commit until I met Harry Knapp who was running Milk and Media. He loved “Underground.” But there were conditions of attachment placed on the project. In other words, at that price they needed a star of certain value.
So while we tried to put that movie together, I wrote “No One Lives” and suddenly, with a much lower budget, I was attached to direct that movie first. The conditions were different, but we were fully engaged in getting NOL made. In a stroke of luck the management company Luber/Roklin read the script and loved it for their up and coming client, Luke Evans. I spoke to Luke and we totally got each other, so I cast him. Since then he's playing opposite John Cusack in "The Raven" and just nailed a lead in "The Hobbit." We had cast, crew, and a great location. Then money began to fall out and in an effort to find more cash we found Pathe. The only problem was that, at the budget level they felt it could be made, they wouldn’t finance it with a first timer. The good thing was they wanted to put a lot more money into it. Being pragmatic, I stepped aside. We were extremely fortunate to get Ryuhei Kitamora and kept Luke Evans, thank God, and pushed forward. After some thought I did the same thing with “Underground” and attached Neil Marshall.
In genre, it’s all about the director, while in comedy it’s about the actors. I absolutely want to direct, but to get it done and be cost efficient, I realize that it has to be done at a much lower budget. I’m working on that script right now.
In August 2010, you set up another horror thriller project called “Underground” with OZLA Pictures. The story follows an ambitious young chef who ventures into the terrifying underbelly of extreme cuisine. Where did this idea come from? How did this story come to you? And for this film, Neil Marshall is attached to direct and you are set as a producer. Was it difficult for you as a writer to put yourself on the film as a producer?
“Underground” is my baby. It explores all the loves in my life. Cooking. Ambition (or lack thereof). Loyalty and horror. Because I initially wanted to direct it and based on my experience as a writer on “No One Lives,” I wanted to stay as involved in the process, not only the development but the production, and the only way to do that is as a producer. I’m an executive producer on NOL, but that doesn’t get the writer on set. As a producer on “Underground” I feel my participation as a creative entity can be influential…helpful at least. I’m extremely excited to work with Neil and be as supportive to him as I possibly can. We are in the process of putting money together and should be in production shortly.
Then in May 2011, WWE and Pathe came aboard “No One Lives” but Ryuhei Kitamura is now set as the director. Was it difficult for you to step aside? How will the project move forward now in terms of the writing you will do for it?
It was tough to step aside because I had become so close to NOL as the director, which is a very different experience than as the writer. I had cast it, scouted it, broken it down and dealt with many of the trials and tribulations that come with getting a picture made. For months we were constantly one month away from real pre-production. Stepping aside from “Underground” was much easier because I hadn’t put the mental energy into the directing process. It became a simple pragmatic decision. But “No One Lives” was hard.
Once Ryuhei came aboard and our relationship evolved, everything felt right. But being the writer is very different than being the director. There’s room for collaboration that ends at principal photography. I’m no newbie so the process wasn’t lost on me, but the eager, optimistic me would love to be on set every second helping steer the picture toward the last day of wrap. That’s rarely the case. And at our budget, somewhere around $3 million, there’s little room for putting up the writer when you have Skype. My demands are frequent updates, a call sheet so I can pretend I’m actually there, and maybe they’ll give me one of those cool director chairs. That said, this project, once it hit its stride, has been smooth and I’ve been treated with great respect. I know how rare that can be in this business. Everyone involved signed onto this project because they like the script just the way it is. We made some changes for budgetary reasons, but the voice is consistent.
That’s the difference between thrillers and comedy. Comedy is subjective while thrillers need specificity. It either makes you jump or it doesn’t and I like to go for the jumps. My producing partners and most importantly Ryuhei are on board with the original vision, so if there are changes, there’s usually a discussion, Ryuhei, in his awesome visual way of conveying things, lays out what he’d like and I nod and give him my version. It’s very collaborative. And now that the picture is shooting, I have to say, in this part of the process, my most fun moments have been when I've visited the set, getting hit with rewrites, knocking them out in minutes and then seeing them committed to film. It's pretty bad ass.
Your agent is Emile Gladstone at ICM. How did you find representation with Emile? What is your working relationship like on a week-by-week basis? How much does he guide and influence what you write? Any words of wisdom his passed on to you?
Emile and I have known each other since middle school. He’ll pale at this, but we became friends playing D&D together. So finding an agent was one stop shopping. I did have to prove to him that I could write, though. By the time he began representing me, he was already a huge agent. But it was Emile’s idea to put me and Tony together and he generated the nugget that became “Black Sabbath.” And then when I decided to write “Underground,” the idea originally came when Emile and I were out to dinner and I saw Bobby Flay eating at the restaurant and thought, “Hmm. What wouldn’t that guy eat?” Being a foodie himself, Emile loved the idea and that was that. So he’s been great at steering my career and pushing me to do more daring things. He is waiting for that tent-pole movie. Maybe that’ll be next.
The thing about Emile is that he’s a tough audience. Any of his clients will tell you that it can be demoralizing when he doesn’t get what he demands. But he’s one of the best note givers I’ve ever worked with and he’s highly creative and comes up with amazing ideas. Emile can write a book on what I call Emilisms. The best thing he ever told me as an agent was simply, “Just write The End.”
You are managed by Jeremy Platt at Generate. How did he come to be your manager? How does he help and shape your career and even projects?
When I first started writing genre stuff I felt it was important to have someone on my side who understood that world. Jeremy is a fan and highly intuitive when it comes to, in my case, finessing story. I’m the kind of writer who loves to write a spec, something original, generated solely from my imagination, so most of the time, I know the entire story, have seen the movie before I write it. Jeremy gets my vision and helps me shape it into something that will appeal to more people than just me. He’s been great at getting the word out on me, finding execs who aren’t too repulsed by my work and teeing me up for the next step in my career. All Hail Jeremy Platt.
And last but not least your attorney is Mitch Smelkinson. How important is it for a writer to have an attorney in their corner? What does Mitch bring to your team in terms of keeping things running smoothly for you?
Mitch is a god. He makes the best deals. The best. He’s been so important in every contract I’ve ever had, writing comedies with Tony, our TV deals, and really stepping up in the most thankless way, making sure I was protected in my solo stuff. When it’s deal making time, I spend more time hammering it out with him than anyone. Mike Shutello at Stone, Meyer, Genow, Smelkinson, and Binder is also indispensible. He’s an absolute genius. These guys care so much it usually makes me feel bad. But they’re invested in making careers. It’s important to them that I’m not just making a deal on a napkin, but getting out of a deal what’s going to push me forward into the next phase, whether it be directing, producing or creating.
What about feedback on your work? How do you handle that?
It’s impossible to please everyone, so general feedback means very little to me. I don’t take it too personally if someone dislikes my work because it’s usually a case of personal taste. I do, however, take notice if someone points out a flaw in my style. For example, I was really happy to get a favorable review for “Underground” on Scriptshadow. There was one comment that struck me though, that pointed out my use of ambiguously described “looks,” such as “he looks at her” or “they look at each other,” without conveying a sense of emotion behind the look. Now, when I write, I’m always aware of addressing that action with something more specific. There’s nothing better than constructive criticism. If someone says they hated it, then it’s not for them and I’m rarely offended. I have a specific voice and not everyone can enjoy the mayhem. But my wife, Dotty, always tells me to be true to my voice. If she sees I’m pandering then she’ll call me on it and I feel like an asshole. So I’ll dig in and Dave it up. We’ll see how I deal when movie reviews come out. I can only imagine how that tests the mettle.
Do you rely much on feedback from friends and/or your reps? How do you juggle the advice, suggestions, critiques and notes?
I usually hand my rough drafts off to three or four people and get their thoughts. But at the end of the day, unless there’s some huge thing I’ve missed, feedback is typically structural stuff, pacing. That’s what I’m looking for. Dorothea Coelho, my wife, is the harshest critic, so apart from her everything else is gravy. She’s kind of a brilliant writer who intimidates me with her use of language, so if I pass her test I know I’m onto something. If I don’t, then it’s back to the drawing board. More specifically, though, there’s a pecking order.
My wife and Jeremy read the rough draft. Emile, Jeremy and my wife read the 1st draft. And then I’ll hand it off to several friends for thoughts. Friends are tough, but I gauge what they like about my work more than what they dislike. Tony is great, because he’ll zero in on stuff he finds confusing and make me explain and finesse the details. After I get their notes then I’ll spare them the cruelty of another read… except Emile, Jeremy and Dotty. They’re always getting hit.
Do you outline all your stories first? Write treatments? How do you prepare first before you begin a script?
Yes. Always. First in longhand and then on the computer. My outlines are like treatments, just beaten out. I’m a stickler for structure and typically know where every beat falls and on what page. And then I’ll steamroll the script. I know some writers are faster, but I’ll try to get it out in three weeks. Less if there’s a deadline. I never rewrite until the last line. Usually, when I’m preparing and while I’m writing, I’ll watch tons of movies. Mostly Tarantino flicks, every movie that influenced his movies and then the films that informed those. All roads lead back to Tarantino for me. I just love his approach to storytelling and the language of his characters so I try to amplify that massive pantheon of conversation in my head while I’m working.
One thing I try not to do is read scripts while I’m writing. I don’t know why, but it tends to undermine the creative process for me. Maybe because film feels so alive and in a way, when I catch something great, I feel that the universe is speaking to me, pushing me to write in a certain direction. Writing as metaphysics. Who knew?
What’s a typical writing day like for you?
A fight against procrastination. But I’ve gotten better. I write every day for about six hours a day. Recently I bought a program called Freedom that takes me forcibly offline for any length of time I set it for. So I’ll usually write for two hours, have lunch, surf the web or socialize (I write at the WGA Members Lounge with a rotating cast of other writers who all know each other) and then go in for another hour or so, take a break and finish off the day with one last punch of time. If I’m outlining, I might screw around more online or reading or watching movies, just to generate inspiration or ideas.
How do you approach rewrites? Any method or path that you typically follow?
I’m kind of good at compartmentalizing pieces of my script which allows me the ability to go in, change something, and then address it throughout the rest of the draft without pulling strings. I’ll make a list of notes and then check them off as I hit them. Once I’m done then I’ll do a polish pass. If it’s a major rewrite then I prefer to just do a page one and maybe save a scene here or there. I detest cutting and pasting if it’s too extensive. I don’t mind the writing and very often, when writing from scratch, I find that I’ll discover a new way into the plot or dialogue that was never there before. And the thing with rewriting that’s so annoying is that it’s always better. Always.
What’s things do you feel more writers need to know or recognize about themselves and the industry? (What “hard” realities do aspiring screenwriters need to be aware and keep in mind?) And how has your view changed over the last seven plus years of the process of writing scripts, getting them sold and then possibly even made?
When I got in I was so naïve. I knew nothing about navigating this business as a writer. Now there are so many tools to be recognized. But none of that changes the choice you make when you decide you’re going to make a career out of being a writer. It’s one thing to sell or option a script. Great. Someone likes you enough to maybe want to make your idea into a movie. But unless you’re a writer, a real writer, you’re never going to do that again because after you’ve drained your last congratulatory shot you have to sit back in front of Final Draft and do it all over again…for the rest of your life. So unless you feel like you’ve got what it takes to generate a sellable/makeable idea over and over again like the rest of us diseased idiots, don’t do it. Be happy where you are. That said, if you’re crazy and you have no compass to your limitations, then write. And write and write. And read. Read every single script you can get your hands on. And watch every movie you can. And don’t write that same script for ten years unless you’re writing ten others while you’re doing it.
It also helps to have allies. Become friends with other writers who can help you out. Writers will lend a hand to you if you’re not competition, so don’t ask your buddy who writes thrillers to hook you up with his agent to rep your awesome thriller. And finally, do everything yourself. Don’t rely on friends, family, representation, anyone to make your career. You’ve got to be your biggest fan, getting yourself out there and making stuff happen.
The business is constantly evolving so as an artist, writers need to be flexible, changing with the tides of the industry. I’m always envious of those writers who act and direct and have a gang of incredibly talented people at their disposal, but all that comes with hard work and massive ambition. So do everything you can do get your projects made the way you envision. And be proud of your work.
What else are you working on now or next? More spec scripts? Assignments? Will you write comedy again? Or are there other genres you’d like to explore?
I love movies. I still want to write that great comedy, but I’m not sure yet if I want it to be a personal, indie type self deprecating thing or something big and bawdy. Until I get there I’m going to keep exploring the dark side of people. I’m moving on to the next stage in genre stuff, away from slasher and gore, but now I want to nail the monster movie. I just finished a spec that’s kind of a father and son monster movie. I’m outlining a new spec that’s a supernatural love story along the lines of “Carrie.” After that it’ll be big action, because I love to write action and figure out new fun ways to blow shit up and twist up people’s lives.
I’ve done one assignment this year, which was fun and fast, so I’m getting in that mix, which is nice. I’m going to knock out something that I can direct for a nickel and finally get my rocks off doing that. But the big thing is still that novel. I think I just figured out the story so I should probably start writing it in a couple of years… or never.