|David K. Kessler is a former stand-up comic who now specializes in writing screenplays based on true stories, biographies, books, and memoirs.
He moved to Los Angeles and became a stand-up comic, performing in sketches on “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” and “The Showbiz Show with David Spade”. His “Will & Grace” spec made it to the semi-finals of the Warner Bros. Comedy Workshop.
Switching to drama, he optioned the book Minamata about the experiences of journalist W. Eugene Smith photographing mercury poisoning victims in Japan. Johnny Depp’s company came on board to produce with Depp attaching himself as the lead.
David's follow up, DREAMERS (based on the book John Lennon Vs. The US), is about John Lennon’s immigration battle with the Nixon administration which legally set the stage (many years later) for DACA/The Dream Act. That project has David Wolthoff (CONCUSSION) attached as a producer.
David was recently hired by the director of MINAMATA, Andrew Levitas, to rewrite a script about the two brothers who owned the competing companies Adidas and Puma. That project, ADIDAS V PUMA, is currently out to actors and mentioned in “The Hollywood Reporter” in March 2021.
You are originally from Philadelphia. Can you tell us a little about growing up there? What was life like? When and where did you first discover your creativity?
I grew up on the outer edges of Philadelphia, far from the center of the city where the Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin stuff, and downtown is. My parents’ mailing address says “Philadelphia” but if you drove north for about twenty minutes you’d be in Bucks County. So it was very suburban – identical houses, chain restaurants, malls, parks, backyards, etc.
I was an indoorsy kid, very much into drawing, painting, comics, animation, books, puppetry, and comedy acts from the 1930s – a little like Bobby from King of The Hill. I knew a lot about Vaudeville for an eight-year-old.
My artistic inclinations were encouraged so I was always enrolled in puppetry camp, art camp, weekend art classes and the like. I didn’t have a lot of close friends and was not athletic, so I spent many recesses sitting off to the side of the playground, against the fence, daydreaming or drawing.
You attended The Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts. What did you study or focus on, and in what way did it influence and shape your work then and even now, if at all?
I majored in Visual Arts – painting, drawing, sculpting, graphic design. QuestLove (he was Ahmir Thompson then) and Boyz II Men were also there when I was. There was a writing major, but it didn’t interest me then and we didn’t we have minors – just one area of focus.
It was kind of awesome – by senior year my first class was English and the rest of the day I sort of floated between the art rooms, working on various projects. I had filled my academic requirements with that one English class by senior year.
It just paved the way to go to art college rather than influencing my future writing and film career.
Recently, I spoke to a woman who teaches filmmaking and screenwriting at Palisades High and that sort of blew my mind, that that is an area of study now for high schoolers.
I wrote to the principal and some teachers at CAPA not long ago to see if they wanted me to speak their students about my career and screenwriting when I was in Philly next. No one ever got back to me.
From Philly you moved to New York to attend Parsons School of Design. And after graduation you worked as a designer and copywriter. When did you first become interested in design and also when did you discover you were a copywriter?
At some point in my teens, I gravitated towards graphic design – making book covers, record album covers, posters, logos and the like really appealed to me. And also it seemed a real career track vs. being an illustrator or a fine artist.
My first job out of school was at a Broadway ad agency where I was an assistant to the art director but a couple times, I ended up writing some copy.
The office manager came over to me in what we called “the bullpen” and saw my hands weren’t moving (i.e., I wasn’t doing any work) and asked me why and I said I was thinking of copy lines and stumped, she wordlessly walked away. A light bulb went off over my head and I thought, “Oh, you can get hired to THINK. Very interesting...”
After that job, I had my own little one-man design shop working from my apartment (waaaaaaaay before it was trendy and before there were three letters for it -- WFH) where I would write copy and do design for clients. I was a one-stop shop for a few clients who needed both.
Working for myself also gave me the freedom to write prose and screenplays. I wasn’t burned out after working a long, hard day for someone else.
Then you next pursued stand-up comedy. You performed in clubs and even on TV. When did you first find that you had a strong sense of humor and a love for comedy? How did you become a stand-up? Open mic nights? Performing for friends? How difficult was it to work the comedy circuit?
I was very much into the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy when I was six or seven; but when Robin Williams came on the scene with Mork & Mindy in the late 1970s, he really blew my seven or eight-year-old mind.
I became obsessed – I parted my hair in middle like his and collected every Mork or Williams thing I could get my hands on. (It kills me that I never got the chance to meet him during my stand-up days, especially since one of my comedy mentors, Rick Overton1, was one of his closest friends for 30 some years.)
My interest in comedy took a back seat to art and design until the early-mid 1990s when the alternative comedy scene happened in New York and you could see comics without a 2-drink minimum plus door charge which kept me away from the traditional comedy clubs.
There was a five-dollar cover, no-drink minimum at The Rebar which was just a couple of subway stops from my apartment building and where you could see Marc Maron, Sarah (and Laura) Silverman, Jeff Ross, Jon Benjamin (Archer) and his then-partner Mike Lee, Janeane Garofalo, Michael Ian Black, etc. I went religiously, and fantasized about performing there but didn’t pursue it -- the level of skill there was pretty high.
Around the same time, someone from college saw a flyer around NYU for someone to portray Lenny Bruce in a play and thought of me but I didn’t pursue that either. Acting seemed like a real racket.
It wasn’t until I came to Los Angeles and was severely depressed when it was suggested I take a class to find a support system. I took Judy Carter’s comedy class and I ended up being a natural (probably due to my years of studying comedians).
But as you hinted at, L.A. is tough place to start and do comedy. It’s not like New York where there’s a lot of clubs and (more) opportunities to get stage time. I never did an open mic, but I was able wrangle some stage time on “booked shows,” sometimes with bribes / quid-pro-quos like volunteering to design flyers for the show.
To develop your chops, you really need to do it a few times a week (like New York comics can) and I was only getting up two or three times a month for 5 to 7 minutes if I was lucky and really hustled.
Contemporaries of mine like Whitney Cummings went full boar and were out driving long distances every night to score stage time like at a AA meeting in Anaheim (where you got a rare and hefty 10 to 15 minutes) and then go to a “bringer show” (where you can’t perform unless you bring paying guests) in the back of a Marie Callender's 60 miles away in Valencia.
As I was in my mid-30s and wasn’t a fan of driving all over Southern California for a few measly minutes and tough crowds, I did the math on my chance of success as a comic and decided to pivot with founding a startup that involved laundromats and advertising (a long story).
What did you learn from doing stand-up that has stayed with you? Helped with your writing?
You learn about timing, joke structure and your own voice / POV as a comic – and reading a room. That less is more.
Additionally, you build a network and make good friends. I took a sketch class from the late comedy writer Anne Beatts (SNL) and even though she wasn’t in the class – she had done the Beatts class right before me – I met a woman who I dated for a time and like fifteen years later she passed Minamata to her manager who soon became mine as well.
When did writing films and filmmaking become of interest to you? Had you always been interested in it or did it come later for you after high school and Parsons?
I was really into movies as a child and a teen – I saw the original Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, and Back To The Future when they came out; and at a couple of the art camps I went to had stop-animation classes. I also remember begging my parents to get a Super-8 camera which I never got. So, me being a J.J. Abrams type got nipped in the bud sans the equipment.
At Parsons / The New School, I took a History of Film class where we studied Citizen Kane and mise-en-scene and I got more interested in it. I actually applied to Tisch / NYU Film School for grad school and got rejected.
Funnily enough, the very story I wrote for the application almost got me an agent at Janklow & Nesbit which represented Michael Crichton, Richard Price (Clockers, The Color of Money) and other heavy hitters. I didn’t get signed but stayed in touch with one of those agents (to this day too) and I felt like I was on the right track, that I had a knack for the written word. I was 21 when they reached out. I aspired to be the next Richard Price and wrote a terrible novel over the next few years and that didn’t pan out.
What was your first script like? How did you go about learning about writing a script? Was it for film or TV?
After finishing the novel, I saw a short documentary about Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers (“Why Do Fools Fall in Love”) that I impulsively grabbed as I was checking out something else from a New York library. It was a fascinating tale and I reached out to a member of that group (who still lived in the same neighborhood where he was discovered in NYC in the 1950s) and hung out with them for a year or so, hoping to get their life rights.
Despite not getting the rights, I spec’d a feature about them which my first and also my first about real people and real events. I was making traction with that script and Martin Scorsese’s office called me about it on my birthday in the late ’90s. Then “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” was being made by Gregory Nava (Selena) and Rhino Films and it killed any chances of mine. Me hanging out with a singing group called The Teenagers when they were bitter middle–aged men trying to make it on the Oldies circuit (despite their celebrated lead singer having been dead for thirty years) could make an interesting little movie itself.
There was only one real book on screenwriting at the library and I think it was "Story" by Robert McKee. There also were printed scripts in book form around too, mainly classics like Citizen Kane and Chinatown.
And you wrote a “Will & Grace” spec which made the semi-finals of the Warner Bros. Comedy Workshop. Why that show? What was your spec/story about? How did placing in the semis help you? Also, what kind of mileage did you get from that placement in the contest and with the script in general?
It was about Will and Grace attending a hip, rock-n-roll type church service and Grace really digging it and considers converting. It was based on when I went to a hip, rock n’ roll church at Hollywood Presbyterian (despite being Jewish) Sunday mornings for a spiritual uplift and to meet new, nice people. In the script, Jack also gets hysterically blind, but I forget why.
I got a call from them on a Sunday and was interviewed for a few minutes and was notified the next day I hadn’t made the finals. That really sucked especially since I helped a buddy of mine with his Curb Your Enthusiasm script giving major notes and suggesting plot twists and jokes and he got in. My building manager also got in the year before and was placed on Without A Trace.
It really didn’t move the needle much and was useless as a sample as Will & Grace went off the air shortly thereafter. My comedy management’s lit person left and wasn’t replaced so it became an orphan of sorts.
What did you write next? Did you stick with TV or move/return to features?
I returned to features and struggled with a rom-com on-and-off for ten years until I realized the two leads shouldn’t be together after all (based on a real relationship).
How many scripts had you written at this point? Were you also working to pay rent? Or were you writing full time?
I had the Frankie Lymon script, the Will & Grace spec, the rom-com, a spec comedy pilot about moving to LA, and a comedy short.
Once I came to Los Angeles in 2000, I was able to work remotely for my New York clients -- one being BMG which I did CD package design for. They got bought by Sony in 2006 and I lost a big bread and butter client I had had for eight years. I went through eight roommates from 2006 to about 2011 and had started the laundry ad business to make money.
In 2007, I also worked at a movie poster company reading scripts all day and then coming up with sentence fragments for the key art. That was a great (but short-lived) job and I learned so much from reading polished, in-production scripts.
I also became the building manager when the previous one was placed on Without A Trace. It was a pretty scrappy life for a decade-plus there, hustling for design and copy jobs, having the roommates, and trying to grow the laundry business and working on the rom-com.
You optioned the 1975 book “Minamata” along with the life rights of the author. It centers on the experiences of journalist W. Eugene Smith. Smith documented the effects of mercury poisoning--discharged by a Chisso factory into the town's water and food supply--on the population and the Japanese government and Chisso's attempt to hide those effects. How did you become aware of this book? What was your process for optioning it? Did you have a lawyer or rep helping you? How difficult was this to do? And what would you tell other writers about going this route? Things to be careful of?
I had been familiar with Smith’s famous photo “Tomoko in The Bath” since college, but thought it was the effects of Hiroshima rather than a poisoning that happened in the early 1970s. An older buddy of mine, who was in his 20s when the LIFE magazine with the photos came out, had made me aware of the story and book.
Getting the rights from Mrs. Smith was not an easy feat -- at all. She lives in Japan and we exchanged emails and had midnight Skype calls over a two-year span.
She had a lot of concerns about how her and husband and especially the victims would be depicted. And had to trust someone on the other side of the world who had never made a movie before. It took a big leap of faith for her to do that.
She retained a well-respected law firm in Beverly Hills and I hired my own entertainment lawyer. So, there were legal costs and paying her for the option (and for the renewals, which also lasted years).
It’s always wise to hire an entertainment lawyer for such things (and there are many shabby and dumb ones running around who don’t know what the hell they are doing which never fails to shock me).
Dealing with real people and IP holders can be a challenge. And it is sort of like a marriage – you’re going to be in their lives for a very long time. Sometimes much hand-holding is needed and as is maintaining their expectations. Sometimes the person (or their spokespeople) can be so difficult (at any stage), and you have to bow out.
For one real-life person, a very obscure (an older and infirm) musician, I was courting their manager for one & half years until he got suddenly and unexpectedly fed up with my inquiries and told me to lose his number and never email him again (just when I thought I was making progress and earning his trust).
Another subject wanted to be very hands on and wanted a writing credit (besides the “Based on a book” by credit). They bullied me into reading the first half my first draft claiming they could be dead any day (they were also older and not well) – that they just wanted to help me while they were still here – then tore up our agreement in a fit because they didn’t like what they read.
I reached out to Mrs. Smith initially in Jan 2011. After no response, I sent the same email a full year later and she responded within a day or so. I wrote the first draft once I got the rights (in the fall of 2014) in six weeks. The movie got bought and cameras were rolling in January of 2019. The Berlin premiere was February/March of 2020; and looks like it will open wide soon in 2022. Thus, a ten-year journey.
What was it like adapting the book? Was it tough to figure out what to include or not? How much additional research did you do? Did you outline first? What was your entire process?
The book is mainly photographs and an essay that’s a bit like a travelogue. I had to do a lot of other research – articles, TV and radio interviews from the early 1970s, other biographies on Smith (and one that’s 600 pages plus).
You have to find the movie within the story / the IP. What’s the beginning, middle, end? What is the main character’s flaw and why do they have that flaw? How do they change? How to make things more dramatic (even by making things up that didn’t happen)?
I had the story in my head for ten years plus, so I wrote the script pretty quickly. I knew there was a story there and that larger-than-life Smith would be a great role an actor might want to play.
I wanted to create an “anti-asshole-artist glorification” film – I don’t like movies where the artist is so talented, that the people around them tolerate their bad behavior because they were so good in their field. I’m thinking of The Doors, Pollock, and Surviving Picasso. I wanted to depict an artist who won’t be able to create their masterpiece until they become a better person and until that happens, they won’t become the best artist – that those things are intertwined (at least in this case).
Let me back up one second here. You had your script picked up by Johnny Depp’s company before it was made into a movie, obviously. How did Depp become involved? What was that like working with him and his team? How much did he and/or his company influence rewrites? Changes?
My manager had sent the script over to his company and they passed. Then eight or ten months later, they called back and wanted a meeting the next day. I later found out that Infinitum Nihil’s (Depp’s company) Jason Forman had loved it, had brought it to his boss who passed but then he got a promotion and was allowed to champion a project and he said, “I can’t stop thinking about that MINAMATA script.” He was told to take the lead on it then and that’s when he called my manager for us to come in.
I was also told when Depp had been in the office, they pitched him the story and shortly into their spiel about the book and who Smith was, Depp supposedly cut them off and said, “I know who Gene Smith is.”
It turned out he had been friends with the late photographer Mary Ellen Mark who had taken classes from Smith in the 1960s (most likely at The New School – where I had gone to college) and had told Depp stories about him. So, the fact that Depp knew who Smith was, knew and admired his work was a beautiful coincidence, a nice piece of kismet where everything came into place.
There was another director attached but they dropped out for professional and budget reasons. Andrew Levitas who had already come aboard as a producer threw his hat in the ring to direct. He met with Depp and they really connected as collaborators and over the script and story.
How involved during production were you? Did you have to do may rewrites or production rewrites? And if you weren’t really on set, how happy were you with how the movie turned out from the script you wrote?
I was on set in Serbia for a week and even make a cameo. (I am at the conference room table when Depp comes back to LIFE magazine to try and get the magazine to send him to Japan. The clip is on YouTube.)
Infinitum Nihil’s Jason Forman gave me notes for a few months (maybe a year) and it went through a few more drafts. Once I handed over the Final Draft file closer to production, Forman and another Depp producer, Stephen Deuters, did a rewrite, probably based on discussions with Depp and the director.
The bones of my original script are there – probably all my scenes are still there. The lines that characters say within those scenes have changed, but the purpose of the scene remained the same. Though, some of my dialogue remains and is in the trailer.
I was really pleased with how it came out. I mainly wanted to keep how Smith changed for the better because of his Minamata experiences (rather than portray him as an eccentric, dick-ish artist), portray the victims respectfully, and that Mrs. Smith was happy with it. She seems to be.
And Levitas was an amazing director (especially for this only being his second film); and Depp is astonishing in it and it was a thrill to see him saying my lines a few inches away from me.
The supporting cast are amazing – Minami, Tadanobu Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada, Jun Kunimura, Ryo Kase – all Japanese A-list actors – Bill Nighy (who I improvised lines with for 8 plus hours). Also, Ryuichi Sakamoto doing the music was a dream come true. The costume people and production designers were outstanding. They literally sewed clothing from 50-year-old patterns and found outfits to make it look like 1973; and they made Serbia and Montenegro look like New York and the coast of Japan. It was amazing how they did all that especially on an indie film budget.
You followed up “Minamata” with your script “Dreamers,” which was based on the 2016 book “John Lennon vs. The U.S.A.: The Inside Story of the Most Bitterly Contested and Influential Deportation Case in United States History” by Leon Wilde. The book focuses on immigration attorney Leon Wildes’ landmark 1970’s John Lennon/Yoko Ono deportation battle against Richard Nixon and the U.S. Government. The case legally sets the stage (many years later) for DACA/The Dreamers Act. David Wolthoff (CONCUSSION) is attached as a producer. How did you obtain the rights to the book? Did your adaptation process differ with this book?
This is another example of producer perseverance. I initially sent a fax to Leon Wildes’ office back in 1999, inquiring about rights for a movie. Heard nothing back.
Sixteen years later, I discovered Mr. Wildes was writing a book about the Lennon case from an obscure interview I found on the web and called his law office and told them I was going to be in New York in two weeks (I wasn’t) and I wanted to talk to him about making the (then unpublished) book into a movie. They agreed and then I called JetBlue for plane tickets.
When I met with Mr. Wildes and his son Michael in New York (in winter) and asked them if their family was a surrogate family for John and if Leon was a father figure to John – something I only guessed at, they said, “Absolutely.” I said: “Gentlemen, that’s the movie I want to make.”
“Minamata” was still in script form (and unimpressive at that stage) so I brought in David Wolthoff whose Concussion was out at time to be another producer on the project. That had an A-List actor in it (Will Smith) and was also based on a true story and a real person which made an impact on the Wildes.
The book was published by The American Bar Association, so it’s very heavy on the law and technical details about the case (appeals, motions, filings, etc.). I had to find the heart in the story and to find how the family influenced John and how he made an effect on the family, which I surmised about their dynamic in their office.
So, balancing those things was a challenge – there were a few production companies that off-handedly dismissed the project as a “courtroom drama” -- which it wasn’t / isn’t.
There was also a subplot about the late Dr. Lester Grinspoon (he died in 2020) who had provided testimony about how what John was charged in the UK with possessing hash vs pot. This played a big part in the actual trial. But it had to go after a few drafts and it ended up being a red herring that there wasn’t space for.
It had a significant director attached for a spell who kept telling me to make it more “visceral” which is a note I keep coming back with my own work and my students at the Script Anatomy. More emotional, more heart. Move your reader.
And you were also hired to rewrite the script "Adidas vs Puma." We listed the project being set up back in December 2016. For those who don’t know, it’s about the Dassler Brothers, who have survived two World Wars, but they created a new one of their own with a ‘take-no-prisoners’ mentality that changed the course of sports and the business of athletics. When did Andrew Levitas ask you to become involved? What was your rewrite process like? Also, is David Beckham involved with this project in anyway?
Beckham is attached to a limited series documentary, not this feature project.
I can’t say too much about it as it was a work-for-hire and I likely signed an NDA about a year back, but Andrew had a draft written by the original writer and revisions by someone else.
We had gotten to know each other a bit on the set in Serbia and clearly, he was a fan of my original Minamata script so it was a natural fit to do a rewrite on another true story / real people / period piece script. Levitas and his team (and the original writer as well) really took a shine to my version and took it out to actors only after one rewrite based on their notes and one polish.
I did do a "page one" rewrite of what I was given – a complete overhaul of the structure and almost every scene.
Andrew – who is also a visual artist and a mixed-media photographer -- has fantastic story and character instincts. His notes really made sense and enhanced the script as a whole.
There was a book I referred to a lot detailing the history of sneakers as well as articles I found on the web along with info on the Adidas and Puma sites. I found some great stuff on YouTube about the brothers and their companies.
You also are co-writer of “Picture of Lily.” The script is about a young boy who lives in the basement of the Louvre with his caretaker parents develops the ability to talk to works of art. When the Nazis invade the day, he is granted that power, he rescues a prized portrait of a girl and embarks on an adventure with her, making way for safety in America. What was the genius of this script? Did you and Asher Farkas, who wrote the story for it, work together? Or did you rewrite his script?
I found Asher’s script on the Black List website and reached out initially just as a producer to give notes on it; but over eight drafts and eight months, I ended up adding new characters, doing some world-building, coming up with lines of dialogue and gags, set pieces, plot twists, etc. My role organically had become more of a co-writer as if I had come in intending to be George Martin and ended being a Lennon to his McCartney, at the risk of overstating it.
Asher was very generous and cool about sharing screenwriting credit, but he deserves and gets a sole “story by” credit. It was a very collaborative, iron-sharpening-iron process like we were a two-man Pixar “brain trust.” We are currently coming up with a pitch and projects for a major animation studio that has read the final version.
What’s a typical writing day like for you? And is it any different for you when you are being paid to write?
I’m not the glue-your-ass-to-a-chair for hours and hours / getting up before dawn every day type writer. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out if something is worth spec-ing and if I do, cracking what the story is and then writing the script. Once I break the story (and on a 10-foot whiteboard I have split into act breaks and midpoint), I can write a first draft in six weeks (and not even writing every day).
I’m also reading books and articles and scripts for things to produce. My manager once told me, “I can’t figure out if you are a producer who happens to be a great writer or a great writer who happens to produce.”
I still have day job duties: some copywriting, some book cover design, and some teaching at the Script Anatomy, which includes reading and marking up my students’ work and writing up notes for them.
What is your pitching process like? How do you prepare? What do you do or not do when you are live in the room with the producers?
When I was pitching the Lennon story (“Dreamers”), I had a PowerPoint presentation with slides on my laptop and a copy of the book. I think at some point, I had 8” x 10” photos mounted to foamcore that I held up and placed on the table.
With Lennon, Wolthoff pitched and I added color commentary (humor and/or Beatles fact-checking).
It’s good to keep the whole pitch to 15 minutes or so.
How do you prepare before you begin a script? I know you have mentioned you don’t write outlines unless hired by a producer to write something and are “forced” to. But without an outline how do you keep all in your head? Maintain a structure? And have any stories/scripts really surprised you in terms of where you ended up?
I actually tend to be a pretty rigorous outliner / treatment maker. I never wing it. I’ve got a 10’ x 4’ feet whiteboard on my wall.
I break everything down on the board first, then either write the script or a very detailed treatment. My last couple treatments were 17 – 18 pages. One of those was commissioned, the other a project of mine a bigger producer wanted to read as he didn’t know what the movie was (despite the general story that really happened). I did a 6-page treatment for Adidas that got me the gig. My treatments even have little pictures in them.
“Picture of Lily” we just worked off the script Asher had.
I had made a Minamata treatment / pitch book as a sales tool before or right around the time of writing the script.
Even when I do a rewrite, I’ll chart it on the board.
How do you approach rewrites? Any method or path that you typically follow?
Notes can be great, but often there’s a “note behind the note” – you have figure out what the real problem is. It’s like someone telling their doctor their leg hurts, but you have to find out if there’s a break, a sprain, pulled muscle, etc. That’s a real talent to figure out.
But it’s all part of the process. Everyone will have notes – the producers, the director, the actor and probably the studio if they are paying for it.
I completely rewrote the third acts for Minamata and Adidas V Puma.
You seem to be particularly drawn to biographies, memoirs, true stories, etc. Any reason why? Were you always drawn to these types of stories as a kid and then later student? Or was it something you discovered once you started writing scripts?
When I was a stand up, it made sense to write comedies that were features and pilots and spec scripts. But the Minamata story was so thoroughly a movie – it had a flawed main character, a love story, a bad guy, a fish out of water scenario, a beginning, middle and end – I almost couldn’t not write it.
True stories have beginnings, middle and ends which I am drawn to as well as the stories about real people the public generally doesn’t know about who did a big, amazing thing(s) that changed both them and the world around them.
It’s much easier to be given a skeleton of a story vs. something that has infinite story possibilities, which I find overwhelming.
Do you do much research when preparing to write a script? Do you travel? Take tours? Visit libraries? And is this all done on your own dime or via the producers?
I did fly to New York in a January to meet with the Wildes. I almost went to Japan to meet with Mrs. Smith before she agreed to the option. (Later, the director and Depp’s producers did go to Minamata and met with Mrs. Smith and the victims.)
Yeah, all on my own dime. I think I spent a few grand on Minamata options and various books and videos.
I do a lot of Internet research; and I buy out-of-print books on eBay and Amazon. And do a lot of interviews.
Do you ever say “No” to projects you are offered? If so, why? In general, would you recommend that other writers turn down work, or should they take whatever they can get and be happy?
My and other managers and some producers have brought me some IP – a book or article and I don’t see the movie in it and I have to turn it down. Or I’m not the guy to write something that may be a culturally and/or identity-centered sensitive topic.
You have to put a piece of yourself in it, even with other people’s stories. There’s a little bit of me in my portrayal of Gene Smith. I know what it’s like living the scrappy, uncompromising life of an artist, and not wanting to leave the safe space of your apartment, surrounded by your creations and treasured belongings.
What things do you feel writers need to recognize about themselves or the industry? What realities of writing professionally do aspiring screenwriters need to be aware of? What common “mistakes” do you see and/or hear about?
I think many people believe they are better writers than they are. That they are much further ahead in their craft. When you are a stand up and no one laughs at your joke, you know something’s wrong. Or you’re a bad singer, it’s pretty obvious – people flee the room and cover their ears. Or your guitar playing needs work. But on its face, a bad script looks like a real professional script. It’s got words and is formatted correctly with Final Draft or whatever.
I have even read a lot of Black List and “buzzy” scripts, and I’m puzzled how they got optioned or on the list in the first place.
When I was at the movie poster ad agency, I was reading scripts like Enchanted, Juno, Hancock, Stepbrothers – this was some top shelf stuff. The script for The Mist gave me nightmares. Stepbrothers made me laugh so hard (the balls on the drum scene), I couldn’t breathe in my cubicle.
And it’s really, really hard to get a movie made. The odds of mine getting produced was .00004%, I estimated once.
And once you have a movie, even with a movie star producing and starring in it, it doesn’t mean someone will buy and make your next project. Or even hire you to write something.
My friend who used to work at Miramax was perplexed this AM on a call we had that I wasn’t being hired to write more features, that the doors of Hollywood weren’t being thrown open for me.
It’s like I spent 20+ years getting up a mountain and then looking up and there’s so much more mountain.
Any suggestions for navigating the waters of the film and TV worlds? Do you feel writers need to target particular producers, agents, etc. based on how established they are as a writer in comparison to how established the producer or rep is? Does that make a difference in your mind?
When I was a stand up and only a few months or a year into it, I asked the Sklar Brothers about getting management and they said, “When you’re ready, they’ll find you.” And they were right –– a year or so later, I did 5 minutes that killed at a showcase at the Improv and a comedy manager rushed me just as I got offstage, shoving her card into my palm.
The Black List website sends emails to producers who are on their email list about scripts that hit an “8” – that’s how I found Asher’s.
If Jordan Peele was an unknown and submitted “Get Out” to the Black List website, I’m sure it would have gotten high marks and been discovered.
(Although full disclosure: Asher re-submitted our version back on the BL website and it got a LOWER mark than his original version and this last co-authored version got us a meeting with a top animation studio – the one we are pitching projects for – and previously, a glowing review from an exec at Sony Animation.)
I don’t know about query letters anymore – they were the tool 20+ years ago. There’s a bunch of contests that have popped up in the last few years – they seem to attract reps for the people that win or score high – but I don’t know much about them besides a passing glance about them on Twitter or e-mail newsletters I get.
I mean, I don’t even have an agent – only a manager. And I have a Johnny Depp movie under my belt with a “Fresh Tomatoes” rating.
Specifically, what advice can you give writers who might want to adapt a biography, autobiography or even a news story/true story? What steps can they take to try to at least be as successful as they can with gaining and maintaining rights to a story? Are there things you’d suggest they do? Also, what about things you might say, never do or say?
Even if you are not produced (like I wasn’t before Minamata), express your passion for their story or IP. Being authentic and passionate will go a long way.
Sometimes, they’ll ignore you or tell you never to bother them again. If they do, you just move on and try & find a better match and fit.
Don’t let them see the script until absolutely necessary. Play ‘keep away’ for as long as you can. One of my real-life subjects was like “I never would have said that” to every line. On. Every. Single. Freakin’. Page. “I would never taken a left on Wilshire – it’s all wrong!”
Find an older book – something’s the public forgot about. The author or their estate will be thrilled that you have an interest and maybe will give you an option for free or a few hundred bucks.
But anyone’s who’s dead or their stuff is in the public domain, just do whatever you want. Look, Frankenstein is in the public domain – there’s so many ways you can go with it. Ex Machina is basically Frankenstein. As is (of course) Frankenweenie. And RoboCop. And Re-Animator. And Upgrade.
The Invisible Man is in the public domain (first published in 1887) and wow, how they updated it with the Jason Blum-produced feminist / Silicon Valley tech version from last year! And H.G. Wells has a ‘story by’ credit on that one!
Finally, what’s next for you, David? Do you have any other assignments you are working on? Do you feel you will always stick with bios & true stories? Or would you consider writing comedies or other genres?
Because I'm used to rejection, doors being slammed in my face, and taking big swings, I’m trying to do a bio-pic of a(nother) significant musician from the 1960s/70s. My presentation and treatment are currently ping-ponging from various players to various players and lying dormant on someone’s desk. This is after the rock star’s management told me initially to go away and forget it (in the nicest way).
I have a reputation for fixing broken bio-pics, so I got recommended to a few places and had a couple of incoming calls for that. One I got paid for a treatment and they didn't like it, so I didn’t get (paid for) the script writing part of it. Another I read a 1200-page biography; and then finally figured out what the movie could be, pitched it and now have been ghosted by the producer.
I also have a comedy based on my family I’ve been tinkering with but I don’t want to confuse the marketplace and want to stay in my lane as the biopic guy.
1. It turns out that Rick Overton is the son of Hall Overton who literally was the next-door neighbor of Smith. I think there were only two doors on that floor in that building -- Smith had one side of the floor and Overton the other. A recent documentary, "The Jazz Loft: The World According to W. Eugene Smith," goes into depth about them being neighbors and Smith going over to photograph the jazz musicians who’d jam there until the early morning hours in the early to late 1960s.