Despite being a working screenwriter for over 10 years, this Friday brings the release of only the second produced feature film from Justin Marks, THE JUNGLE BOOK. The writer's only previous credit was the critically-despised 2009 film STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI. If one were to assess a screenwriter based only on their credits, that might appear to be an unusual career trajectory, but IMDb pages never tell anywhere close to the complete story when it comes to screenwriting.
A few years ago, Justin chronicled some of his career and a few of the two-dozen scripts he's written in a piece for The Hollywood Reporter called "My Life as a Screenwriter You've Never Heard Of." Fans of geek properties might find his name familiar, as he was the writer behind the never-produced VOLTRON, MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, and Green Arrow spec SUPERMAX.
I recently sat down with Justin to discuss how he got his start, how one maintains a career as a writer between produced projects, and of course, the unusual process behind writing THE JUNGLE BOOK.
I wanted to reach back and touch on how you first broke in and first got repped.
I moved out here from New York and I’d been interning a lot, so I made some contacts through an internship and my first summer after graduating college I got an assistant job through those contacts and worked for a producer for three and a half years, Michael Stipe and Sandy Stern, who at that time had done Being John Malkovich. When I was working with them it was on the movie Saved!
I was just answering phones at that time and going home and writing every night, getting my scripts together. I was collaborating with a directing friend who has also carved out a career in his own right, Brad Fuhrman. But it was through my boss, Sandy, who introduced me to my first agent at William Morris. Sandy had read a script after I’d worked for him for about two years, which is about right.
Yeah! You didn’t ask on the first week, “Hey, read my script.”
I knew I had a lot of craft to work on and I had a job that was paying me while I could work on it, and I could be exposed to the process of filmmaking from production to post-production to releasing a movie and looking for new material so I had the perfect job.
Sandy read one of my scripts and passed it to a young agent who he’d been working with on some other clients. This agent read it and liked it, so I went in for a meeting with him and we just hit off. I think one of the things that agent said to me was, “It’s not about that script, or even the next script you write or the next three scripts you write. What’s important is we work on not just your craft and getting scripts that the marketplace is going to like, but these meetings and how you self-identify as a writer – what you like, what you don’t like, how you’re going to differentiate yourself from other writers.” He’d say, “you’re building a version of yourself that you want the industry to see, so you need to make conscious choices about who you are and what you’re going to sell about your life experience and point of view.
They’re not hiring a writer, they’re hiring a best friend, someone who’s going to go in and solve the problem for them or just listen to their problems about the script. They have to trust you. This is where the old “Don’t be an asshole, don’t be crazy” thing comes in. Yes, it’s about the work, but it’s about the process too, and the trust you’re building with your collaborators. That’s studio screenwriting. That’s just the job.
To go back for a second, you said it was a newly-minted agent. Did you have any hesitation about his lack of experience?
No, not for a second. You just hit it off with someone. In fact at that time I had a young manager who’s still my manager today, Adam Kohlbrenner, who when I started with him, had just left his assistant job to strike out on his own. Especially at that young age, I felt that if someone was a very successful agent, they wouldn’t pay attention to me because to be honest, I had a lot to learn. This manager had gotten some interest from other agents who’d been working for several years, and [they were trying to sell me on them]. And I said I’d rather go with the other guy. He represent the kind of writer I want to be and that’s what I think is most important. More than the big agent, it should be the person you like.
Having said that, I do think the agent or person you like should at least be at a reputable place. Which is to say, don’t go with that agent who isn’t even in L.A.
So you’re repped, you’re writing specs, I think VOLTRON is the first one—
Which is about a year and a half after I started my relationship with my agent.
That was it! That was where I was going with that! Now, was that a spec or an assignment?
In the time that I was working with my agent and manager, I generated a spec called STRAW MEN that was sort of a calling card script. It was DOG DAY AFTERNOON in a deli. It got me meetings and Craig and Adam would send me out to meet execs. I met one who worked for the Mark Gordon Company and they’d recently gotten the rights to Voltron. This was a time before TRANSFORMERS, when no one really knew what these properties may or may not be.
So this is about 2005?
Yeah, 2005. And remember, at this time I was still an assistant so I was still working my day job and after two and a half years, my boss was – it’s kind of like that Ben Affleck thing in GOOD WILL HUNTING, “I look forward to the day when I call into the office and you don’t pick up anymore.” My boss was so great about letting me go on those meetings. Provided work still got done at the office, I could leave once a day for a general.
I met this exec in a general who said “We’re looking for a take for VOLTRON.” We worked together for months. I came in with something he liked, we reworked it, brought it in to his boss, who said “Sure, go with it.” We had a pitch that we took out to every studio in town and ever studio passed on it, whether it was because my pitch was terrible, or no one really knew what to do with it… it’s probably a combination of the two.
Also, now we’re at the point where everybody who grew up on VOLTRON is at the executive level, but in 2005 you have to figure those people were lower on the totem pole.
Exactly. You had to educate people about VOLTRON. So what Mark and this exec did was find independent financing, this guy who would pay me guild minimum to write the script. That was enough to get me out of my day job and write for a living and go to more meetings than I ever went to, and be ready for it. A year later, after a few rewrites we took it out as a spec and New Regency bought, and by that point it had kinda started my career. I knew enough people that I could start going in on other pitches and building on it.
Did this brand you as sort of the toy-adaptation franchises guy, because MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE was soon after this?
These weren’t franchises at the time, they were just toys that no one what to do with. They still are. Look at HE-MAN. We’re talking about movies that never got made. And also I liked this stuff like anyone our age who grew up on it. It seemed like they wanted young people to write it because the older, more experienced writers weren’t taking those jobs. So I was just getting the leftovers of the leftovers of the leftovers and doing whatever I could to keep making a living as a writer so I could keep writing other specs and doing other, more serious things on the side.
And were your other specs different from HE-MAN or VOLTRON?
Oh my god, yeah! One I wrote was called BORDERLINE, which is now called COME SUNDOWN, which is one I’m still working on with a great director named Elgin James. It’s set in New Hampshire and it’s just about a family taken hostage in a car by fugitives trying to get across the Canadian border. It’s a battle of wills between this doctor and this criminal who find they actually share more in common than they ever knew. I wanted to do a story where basically the villain is the character you cried for at the end of the movie.
So I would do that stuff on that time and I think that would continue to boost what I was doing for money which was getting a job to write HE-MAN for Warner Bros and doing that kind of thing.
And then STREET FIGHTER came along.
STREET FIGHTER was in the middle of that. STREET FIGHTER was a job I got after VOLTRON. I wrote it for Hyde Park. It was something that Capcom was really keen on making and I think they financed half of it. So they had a lot to say about the story so I think they just wanted a writer who’d maybe say “yes” to everything. I was a 25 year-old kid - you say “yes” to everything. Today I look back on that as a mistake, but honestly—
“What else could you have done?”
And I don’t have any regrets. It kept me going. It gave me another year’s pay that would keep me looking for the next job, so in spite of the creative regrets that one might have with it, I still look back on that one fondly.
And just to underline this, how long from when you got repped to your first produced movie in STREET FIGHTER?
I got repped when I was maybe 24 or 25 and I visited the set on when I was just shy of my 28th birthday so..
So probably around four years from repped to produced? That’s actually a pretty good rate in this town!
Yeah, very fast!
And probably many specs in between there too.
A lot of them. Every year, doing a spec. And it’s fast to the point of being too good to be true, as STREET FIGHTER is evidence. The kind of first movie a guy would write within a couple years of being repped is gonna be something like that. You take the good with the bad.
We'll continue my chat with Justin tomorrow, with a discussion of assignment work and SUPERMAX.
Part II - Assignments and SUPERMAX
Part III - Making THE JUNGLE BOOK