|John Cox was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, where he attended the USC School of Cinema-Television. Following graduation, John worked as an executive assistant at Sony Pictures Entertainment, and in post production for Lucasfilm THX. John sold his first script, The Yacht Club, to ABC in 1996. He’s gone on to pen projects for Warner Bros., DreamWorks, MGM, 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures, ABC, CBS, USA and The WB network. John most recently wrote the big budget actioner Sgt. Rock for producer Joel Silver and Warner Bros. His first produced feature, Boot Camp, starring Milia Kunis, Gregory Smith, and Peter Stromare, will be released later this year.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised right here in Los Angeles. The San Fernando Valley to be precise. Yes, I’m a “Valley Boy.” My parents divorced when I was 10 and my father moved to Marina del Rey (the beach) so that sort of became my second home. The beach and valley. Very Cali. I now live in the Hollywood Hills.
When do you remember really becoming first interested in film? Writing?
As a kid I was VERY into the classic Universal monster films—Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man… I loved them (still do) and studied all I could about them in fan mags like Famous Monsters of Filmland. I didn’t really think about my monster interest in terms of also being an interest in cinema, but I guess I was learning the craft without even knowing it. When I would play with my G.I. Joes, I did so as if I were making a movie—even “playing” out of sequence so I could minimize hauling my equipment across the backyard.
I can also remember being fascinated by the studios—the actual studio lots around town. I always asked my father to drive past them. They were these big mysterious gated movie factories. But I also saw them as relics of a bygone era. They were not like they are today. The movie biz was in a depressed state—or at least a transitional state—in the early 70s. The studios were rundown and their backlots were like ghost towns. Even the Hollywood sign at the time was a crumbling ruin. And the movies in theaters seemed to be for adults. Movies like The French Connection or Looking for Mr. Goodbar—these were for my parents, not me. That’s why I was into old movies. But slowly movies like Logan’s Run and Jaws and, of course, Star Wars came along and changed my universe (and Hollywood). Suddenly, I was VERY aware of the filmmaking art and the forces behind the scenes, and it was a world I badly wanted to live and work in. I wanted to get inside those gates.
In regards to writing… Funny, but as a kid, I always said I was going to be a writer. I just saw that for myself. But I never knew what kind of writer I was going to be. For a while, I thought I wanted to be a journalist. It’s weird how I didn’t put my love of movies and my writing ambitions together until film school. Screen-writing? Hey, that sounds about right!
You went to USC’s film school. Do you feel it was worth it? What did you learn that still helps you today?
If I didn’t go to USC film school I wouldn’t be a working screenwriter today, of that I’m certain. I’m not even sure I’d be a struggling screenwriter. Like I said, it was at SC that I found my calling, so to speak. And just so much of what we did in film school helped me prepare for what I would face in the “real” movie industry. Not the least of which was I learned how to be creative on a timetable, know what I mean? The assignment was to have a movie idea worked out for next week’s class. What!? What if inspiration doesn’t strike? How can you ask me to deliver like that? I’m an artist! I need understanding, not pressure! Not timetables!!! The answer is you come in with a movie or you fail, Artist. And much to my surprise, it would come…again and again. A deadline isn’t such a bad thing. I leaned to trust and control my own creative process and make it work within a noncreative structure. Then it was school. Now it’s business.
Also, college was just…college. It was a blast! I learned so much and did so much growing up. I also made the friends I still have today. Yes, obviously, I’d do it again. In fact, I still sometimes take classes at UCLA Extension just to sit in a classroom again. One day I’d like to try my hand at teaching.
Tell us about writing your first script. What was your approach like?
My very first script was a James Bond script. This was when I was still in film school, but it wasn’t for school. I did it for fun over the summer. Obviously, I could do nothing with a James Bond script, but I just wanted to see if I could sit down and write 120 pages of movie. At SC the most that was ever required of us was a 30-page first act. But could I go all the way? With the Bond characters and familiar structure as a crutch, I found I could. In fact, I thought it was pretty darn good! It was also a great deal of fun and got good feedback. So I knew I could sit down and write a movie. Next step was to do so with my own characters.
What was your first real break in terms of your writing? And from that, what happened next?
I wish I had that one big break I could point to from which my career sprung, but it really didn’t happen for me like that. I had a dozen small breaks. Getting into film school was a break, getting a job working as an assistant at Sony was a break because it showed how writers work in the real industry. Getting my first agent was certainly a break. I guess the break that counted the most was selling my first script because that got me into the Writers Guild and stamped me as a professional writer (i.e., I get health insurance). Heck, I just had my first movie produced. I consider that yet another “break.”
Not too long after graduating from USC you started working for Lucasfilm’s THX company, where you checked prints for films. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and also why even after you sold your first script you continued to work there?
This was my “day job” during part of my struggling years, and it was a dream job for a movie buff. Essentially, I was part of a team who quality-controlled release prints of major movies. This meant sitting alone in a studio screening room, watching every 50th print the lab would produce. I would grade reels, reject flawed ones, call in any major problems, etc. Of course, this meant watching the same movie over and over again, which could make you a bit nuts. But it was fun, especially when it was a huge new movie, and I got to see everything. I also got to travel. At one point, Universal flew me first class to Switzerland just to hand deliver a print of The Lost World for a UIP screening. Good fun. I was working this job when I found out I had sold my first script. Wish I could remember the movie. It might have been Bird Cage.
I continued working for THX even after that first sale because, frankly, I just didn’t make enough money on that deal to quit. And the job was part time so I could bow out for months at a time to do writing work. I also wanted to be around when the Star Wars prequels hit because I knew that would be the experience of a lifetime. And it was. In fact, all my childhood fantasies came to life doing that job, not writing. There I was working behind those magic gates, seeing movies before the rest of the world. Writing is pretty much about me sitting alone in my house with my cat in my lap. My “movie” memories are all connected to my days working for Lucasfilm.
You’re currently repped by APA (Agency for the Performing Arts). Who is your agent? How did you find representation with them? And what is your relationship like? Do you talk often? Is there a lot of feedback?
David Saunders is my official agent—but I work with them all, especially Steve Fisher, who I have a very close relationship with. I was with UTA for several years, but my longtime agent there moved exclusively into TV and the agent I was handed off to suddenly up and left the business without telling any of his clients (well, he didn’t tell me). I was feeling a bit adrift and my manager got a meeting with APA, who really laid out the red carpet for me. I’m so happy I moved. They’ve lived up to all their promises and treat me like a star.
You’re managed by Jaret Entertainment. Why is it important to have a manager? What is your relationship like with Seth Jaret?
I never know what to tell aspiring writers about managers because they come in many guises. When I was starting out in the 90s, there was a huge wave of people who called themselves “managers”—and what that really meant was they were aspiring producers who wanted to be attached to your script. This could be a good thing as some of these guys became industry heavyweights. But some turned out to just be dudes who do nothing but appear years later to claim a “producer credit” when you finally sell that script.
I had a few fly-bys with so-called managers when this young hotshot named Seth Jaret said he’d like to be my manager. I said “no.” But Seth continued to make his case, and even optioned a script of mine (with real money—that was new). I told Seth what I needed at that time was to transition to a big name agency because I wanted to be plugged into the world of assignments. This is what he could “manage” for me. Bang! He did it, and he set me up with a top entertainment lawyer, Stewart Brookman (like an agent, a lawyer is a career necessity). Now that’s what I call career management! We partnered up and are still together and I am so thankful for his counsel and friendship and very hard work. In my case, my manager was and continues to be key to my career.
Now, does this mean you need a manger? I’d say you don’t necessarily need someone with the job title “manager,” but you certainly need a Seth somewhere in your representational world. Someone you trust to be there through thick and thin.
One of the things we’ve talked about is that even once a writer sells their first script and they are “in the club,” the work is really just beginning. There’s no easy street all of a sudden—you still have to work hard, take meetings, give pitches, etc. Can you talk a little bit about that? How do you approach the never-ending need to sell yourself, sell your material, and give your take on projects?
I guess everyone’s experience is different, but I’ve seen cases where someone gets that big break—typically a big spec sale—and a few years later they’re out of the business. I guess there is this fantasy that all you need to do is “get in” and then it’s easy. No, that’s when the work starts and stakes rise, and you can screw it up if you don’t work hard, deliver on drafts, and have new ideas. And don’t let your ego get the better of you. Watch the documentary “Overnight” about Troy Duffy. This is a dramatic example of this phenomenon.
As far as the never-ending need to sell oneself. . . Really, the only way I know how to do this is just continue to write strong scripts, whether they be specs or assignments. A good script, even if it doesn’t sell, is the best way for a writer to show he’s a writer. All my work has come via my scripts. I’m not much of a networker.
Do you do much research when preparing to write a script? Do you travel? Take tours? Visit libraries?
Seems like with every project I tell myself I’m going to take a research trip, etc., and then I realize I have to deliver a treatment in X weeks and a first draft in XX weeks and I have to start writing—now! Of course, all projects require some preliminary research. Thank goodness for the Internet. Back in the day I’d have to go to the library, and that was pretty grim. When I sold a sci-fi spec to MGM, I needed some info on spacecrafts. All I could find were these ratty old books from the 70s. Not helpful. But I also went to JPL and got a private tour.
Ah, here’s a tip I recall. Children’s books! Go to the children’s section and get children’s books on the topic. They tend to be up-to-date and loaded with pictures and simple summaries. This really helps you get a very fast overview of any topic. Children’s books are the best.
I also try not to over research. Too much research can overwhelm you and you can lose the dramatist’s perspective. Sometimes I’ll do my most intense research only after I have a rough draft. I want to get the basic dramatic story down first, makes sure it works as a movie, then flesh it out with specific directed research.
Oh, here’s a research story for you! When I do anything based on a true story, I like to visit as many of the real locations as I can. Well, a few years back, I was hired to write a (yet to be made) movie about the 1983 Cotton Club murder. In short, a producer named Roy Radin was taken out into a desert canyon near Gorman and murdered by hit men. It all had to do with financing the movie The Cotton Club with drug money, and Robert Evans got pulled into it, and it’s just a wild coke-fueled tale of 80s Hollywood. Anyway, it’s a somewhat infamous L.A. crime, but not so well known that the murder site is visited by the curious. In fact, I couldn’t find any info on exactly where the murder canyon was. Even the local sheriff had no idea. But eventually I found what I thought might be it. It was set way back along a dirt road and I didn’t want to risk getting my car stuck, so I parked and started walking. As I was walking, I was thinking this is a pretty cozy spot for a murder. Also, it wasn’t an accident that they came here. This was probably a well-known and reliable mob murder and/or dump spot. In fact, who’s to say it wasn’t STILL?
Right about then, a pickup truck come barreling down the dirt road after me. It slams to a stop, and this guy jumps out and says this is a private road, get out of here. I tried to ask him a few questions and he just kept barking “No!” to every question without letting me finish and he kept getting closer to me. I finally said I was leaving, and as I turned and started walking away, I hear him growl behind me, “Keep walking.” It was classic menace! (I ended up having one of my killers say this to Radin as he’s marched into the canyon.) I don’t know. I can’t help but wonder what might have been back in that canyon that he didn’t want me to see. It was pretty spooky. I was checking my rearview mirror all the way back to L.A.
You’ve done various pitch meetings. How have things gone for you? Do you have any recommendations or pointers for other writers?
Pitching, for me, is a necessary evil. I’m a bit of an introvert so I’m not a natural performer. In fact, I think many writers are introverts—that’s why they’re writers and not actors—so I see the necessity of pitching as institutionalized sadism. But I can do it, and occasionally I do it well. How well it goes usually depends on how receptive the person on the other end is—what vibe they’re giving off. If I’m pitching to a stone face or someone browsing the Internet, it can be a long meeting.
My advice would be to just be enthusiastic and don’t go longer than 20 minutes (which may actually be too long, but I can never seem to do less if I’m pitching the whole movie). I also like to let the people know exactly how long the pitch is going to be before I start, because I know when someone pitches me I wonder, “How long is this going to go on?” Work in as many twists and reversals as you can and really hit those beats. That keeps it lively. Don’t get into too much “he says and then she says” dialogue. That will drag it out and bog you down. If you must include dialogue, make sure it’s VERY relevant to the plot or character (i.e., it pays off in a big way later). Make sure you are always telling a story instead of just explaining what happens, if that makes any sense. It can be fun. And it can be horrible. But even a pitch gone wrong gives you a war story to tell at parties, so…
What about feedback on your work? How do you handle that?
This goes back to film school. Remember those days when you’d go around the room and everyone rips on your script, or dailies, or idea? Well, that’s pretty much the movie biz! Getting notes. Except in the real industry, they’re less snotty and sometimes have valid points. But I still always seize up when the notes start coming because you just can’t help but have the fantasy that there will be NO notes—it’s as perfect as you think it is. But then a note comes along that makes my mind click and suddenly I see new possibilities, and I can’t wait to make the changes and I can’t believe I didn’t see it myself. I frequently get to the point where I don’t want the meeting to end because, with the right creative people, they can be very stimulating and helpful.
By the way, I once did have that magic no-notes fantasy come to life. It was on a cable movie for USA. I went into the boardroom with the producers and all the network execs, and the President of Production asks who has notes and no one speaks up. Everyone just looks at each other, and then everyone starts laughing. I think someone scrambled and found a typo and that was it. Meeting over. The producer hugged me in the hallway.
Do you rely much on feedback from friends or your agent or manager?
I used to. I had a group of friends from school, all aspiring writers, and we’d go over each other’s work and gives notes. It was very helpful. I still have a close friend who I show my work to before I turn it in and I will do some additional work. But, really, at this point, it’s more about just hearing from someone that it’s not a total embarrassment. It gives me the courage to turn it in. The feedback and notes that are going to really matter are those from the producers and/or director, so why not leap right to that stage ASAP.
You hear a lot from working writers that after they sell that first (spec) script, a lot of what they do is rewrites, assignments, and work on other people’s ideas. What is this like for you? What do you hear from your agent on the subject?
Oh, I enjoying working on assignments or doing rewrites because, frankly, I like getting paid to write from day one. I’m also not guessing what Hollywood wants, gambling with time and creative energy, know what I mean? They’ve already bought that book or comic or article or script—they just don’t know how to make it into a movie. I’m happy to come into the process at that point. Oh, it can still take jumping through hoops, but at least I eliminate the leap all the way on the outside. But my agents do want me to produce the occasional spec because a big sale can bump up your quote on assignments.
Can you tell us a little about some of the different projects you’ve gone in to meetings for? How did prepare? Are there some you really wish you had gotten? Are there some you got and wish you hadn’t?
Actually, I just missed out on a project that I would have loved to do, a live action Jonny Quest. Remember I told you I wrote a Bond script? I love this spy-fi world and I thought I had a take that was terrific. But the producers and I just weren’t on the same page tonally.
It’s funny, but the only project I can say that I really hated and struggled through turned out to be my first produced movie (called Boot Camp). I’m sure at some point I wished I hadn’t gotten that job, but now thank goodness I did.
Most recently you turned in a draft for Sgt. Rock to Joel Silver and Warner Bros. They really liked your take, and the project seems to have new life again. Rock has a history of famous writers attached. Can you tell us a little about the history of the material and how you became involved with the project? Did you know much about the comic book beforehand, and if not, how did you prepare? Also, what challenges did you face?
Rock sure does have a long history, and that history is sitting on my shelf right now. I have a box of research material from Silver Pictures, which I’m guessing is passed from writer to writer. I also have many of the earlier drafts. There are some major names here—John Milius, Brain Helgeland, David Webb Peoples… The guys at Silver said I could and should use anything from these old drafts because they sure paid enough for them. I tried…but every time I used even a line of dialogue from one of these drafts, it just stuck out like a sore thumb. In the end, I think my script might only have one line of dialogue, from Milius, I think.
Sgt. Rock came about via a “meet and greet” at Silver Pictures. That’s when a producer likes your work and just wants to sit down and introduce themselves and have a chat. Totally informal. As a writer you do a lot of these. I love them because I get to see inside all kinds of offices and it’s zero pressure. The Silver meeting was probably the first time something tangible has ever really come out of one of these. I met with Eric Olsen and David Gambino, who liked a script I wrote about the Black Dahlia (my best unproduced spec and still my best sample). They asked what I was up to and I said I had just come back from the San Diego Comic Con. Well, so had they! The conversation turned to comics and that brought up Rock. They sent me off with the Sgt. Rock material. I came back with my take. We then took it into the studio, and bingo.
I had never read a Sgt. Rock comic before I got the job. The comics I got via the inheritance research box were from the 70s, and there was also the newest Rock graphic novel. Honestly, I didn’t find them all that useful or even all that enjoyable. Then a good friend who runs a comic book store in Burbank recommended I read the DC Archives Collection, which are the original “Our Army at War” comics featuring Rock and Easy Co. These are fantastic and are all I’ve ever looked at since. I’ve even built into the movie—in a fashion—the very first Rock story (issue 68) when he was called “The Rock.” They asked me to cut the “the” for obvious reasons.
I can’t say I faced any real challenges outside of the typical day-to-day challenges of trying to make every scene work as well as it possibly can. At one point I tried a radical rewrite of the first act to solve a particular problem. But once I did it, I realized it solved the problem, but created another that was far more damaging to the story. So I went back to the original. I’m happy to report the script went over great. My very first draft is out to talent. After the history of the project and the names that came before me, it felt great to finally deliver the script that worked for Joel and Warners.
What’s a typical writing day like for you?
It depends on what stage of the process I’m in or what my deadlines look like, but typically I’m up at 7 or 8, I make coffee, then head right to the computer. I used to leap right to work, but now I spend some time on the Internet, which can be a deadly distraction. But once I start writing, I work hard and without a break until 1:00 or so. Then I take a shower, and if the ideas and dialogue are still flowing, I go back to the computer and work for a few more hours. If not, I don’t beat myself up. I’ll do errands or surf the net. Regardless, my workday ends at 5 or 6. I’ll exercise, make myself dinner, then watch my latest DVD from Netflix (usually with a notepad beside me because watching movies often gives me ideas). I live alone, so I can get into this very creative meditative groove that lasts for days. I have experimented with writing at night, etc., but it just doesn’t work that well for me. I like my routine.
Do you outline all your scripts first? Write treatments?
I outline my spec scripts with very sparse outlines. Just two pages broken up into acts and sequences, just so I have a roadmap. I like to know where I need to go, but not necessarily how I’m going to get there. This lets the scenes come to life naturally, and when it’s really working, the characters start doing things that surprise me.
When I work on assignment, treatments are typically a required step. Interestingly, I don’t do outlines for treatments. I write them free flow and then revise. I try to keep them under 15 pages and not overly detailed. I once did a very detailed 35-page treatment for a DreamWorks project (a comedy about magicians for Judd Apatow), and I really think it hurt the script. It was just too worked out. We even did notes on the treatment. Not surprisingly, the script didn’t come to life for me.
How do you approach rewrites? Any method or path that you typically follow?
One thing that can be very helpful is when you have your rough draft, look at it with a different hat. Don’t look at it as a writer. Looks at it as a film editor. Here’s a fat precious overlong assemblage of words from some bum writer, now it’s your job to shape it into a tight, entertaining MOVIE. See if there’s a better way to get from point A to B. Experiment. Make brutal cuts. Identify the moments that need to be extended and get into those. They always say the editor is the final rewriter anyway.
Also, if you have the luxury of time, it really helps to step away from the script for a while. The longer the better. It’s amazing how easy it is to see problems and come up with solutions when you have distance on the material.
What things do you feel more writers need to recognize about themselves or the industry? What harsh realities do aspiring screenwriters need to keep in mind?
I’ve heard some aspiring writers say they hate writing. They struggle to get scripts done. Well, I don’t know why they want to be writers because, I’ll tell you, writing is the only really enjoyable part. Getting loads of notes isn’t fun. Fretting about your next paycheck isn’t fun, and that doesn’t stop even after you’ve “made it.” You’ve got to love the writing. Also, you’ve got to be able to handle criticism of your work and be prepared to change it, sometimes radically, and sometimes in ways you know will hurt it. That’s the biz. I deal with this by having a few untouchable scripts. My babies that I don’t compromise for anyone. Maybe one day I will make them myself. Other scripts…hey, I’m happy to sell them and bend ‘em in every which way you like. I figure that’s what I’m getting paid for.
What are you working on next? Spec scripts? Assignments?
I’m not working on a spec at the moment, but Seth and I do have a pitch we’re about to take out, and I’m considering a couple writing assignments. I’ve had a few months to catch my breath after Rock, and now I’m dying to get back into a script—writing scenes, having characters walk and talk, watching the page count grow every day. Like I said, that’s the part I love the most, and when I’m not actively doing it, I miss it very much.
Finally, what are some things you know now that you wish you’d known when you were first starting out? Any do’s and don’ts?
Hard to say, because I feel like even my failures or missteps were all important learning experiences. I do advise writers to take care during the search for an agent because there are scams out there. If an “agent” ever asks you to pay a “reading fee”—don’t pay and don’t give them your script. They are frauds. No real agent or agency asks for money as it’s against WGA rules. And beware signing over a “free option” to a producer who says he needs it before they can shop your script. No they don’t. Real producers don’t operate this way. Not to say they are crooked, but it’s a clue they are inexperienced. And if they are crooked and have signed papers with you, it could lead to trouble.
I also advise writers to take full advantage of screenwriting competitions. This is something I feel I did right, and I’m surprised at how many writers brush these off. Competitions are a great way to get your work read by agents. Agents troll lists of not just the winners, but also finalists. My break came via the Nicholl Fellowships. I didn’t win—but I was a finalist and that’s how I got my first agent.
Also, always be working on a new script. Don’t pin all your hopes on one script because when the rejection comes, you’ll feel devastated. Have a new script in the works at all times. This lessens the pain—a lot.