Monday, June 22, 2009

Interview with COLLEGE and DEMOTED Screenwriter Dan Callahan: PART I – The Writing Process

As an actor, Dan Callahan has appeared in 14 films over the last seven years, but lately his career has taken him in a different direction – screenwriting.

His current project, Demoted, is in post-production and stars Michael Vartan (“Alias”), David Cross (“Arrested Development”), Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings), Sara Foster (“90210”), and Constance Zimmer (“Entourage”). Last year, his first feature College, co-written with Adam Ellison, was released by MGM. The film was directed by first-time director Deb Hagan and starred Drake Bell, Andrew Caldwell, and Kevin Covais.

The film was neither a critical nor financial success. (Rotten Tomatoes currently rates it at 6% fresh.) When I touched base with Dan, however, I asked him to send me the draft of the script that sold (dated January 6, 2006). During the read, I discovered interesting differences between the draft the studio bought, and the film that they released.

Dan was kind enough to sit down with me for a 90-minute chat that should be of interest to every aspiring screenwriter. Over the next five days, we’ll trace the entire experience of becoming a working screenwriter, from finishing the script, to getting an agent, to making a sale, to dealing with notes from producers and studios; the sort that could change the entire shape of a movie.

The Bitter Script Reader: Thanks for sending me the script. It’s interesting to see the version that sold versus the version that was produced

Dan Callahan: A lot of differences.

BSR: Yeah. Many, many differences. And some stuff that was totally verbatim. Half that trailer was verbatim from your original script.

DC: There’s moments that are, and there’s moments that are totally different.

BSR: We’ll get to this later, but I couldn’t help but notice going through the reviews that a lot of the stuff you got hit over wasn’t in the original script.

DC: Probably not. I could probably sit here and point out those differences and why it was a problem that they were taken out. And I think it affects the movie. But we’ll talk about that.

BSR: Was College the first script you wrote?

DC: Yeah.

BSR: Really?

DC: I studied writing in college. I was an English major with an emphasis in writing. As a kid, I’d write stories, was always creatively inclined. Art inclined. I definitely leaned toward that kind of thing. I always liked the creative writing and I didn’t like any other type of writing. I’d never want to be a journalist or write research papers. That I sucked at and didn’t enjoy. Things like create a story, I’d love to do. So while College was basically my first script, it wasn’t like I’d never written anything before.

I’d studied many forms of writing. I didn’t realize you could make a living writing movies. I never thought that there was someone out there who made a living doing that. I used to make a lot of films when I was a kid, like in school when you had to build some sort of history project… more times or not I’d option for some sort of film-oriented project. So in a weird way I was already doing this sort of stuff. I just never thought about sitting down and actually writing a film until much later.

BSR: And as far as structuring it, how did you get started?

DC: It wasn’t like I just sat down and wrote a movie. There was a class in school, a director from NYU would come out and teach like a screenwriting course: the basics. We probably had to write a short piece or something at the end of the class, so I got an idea of that. Then for me it was reading a lot of scripts, which I think is the best thing.

BSR: Yeah, so you can see how other people do it.

DC: Yeah, you know. You read a lot of stuff and I’ve always been reading scripts. To this day I would read everything I could get my hands on. Bigger scripts and what’s selling so I know what’s selling and what other writers are doing. At the end of the day it’s hard to be too original [because] so many movies have been made, so many stories have been told. And there’s things you can learn from other people’s scripts like somebody’s style, or a device and it’s something you can incorporate into your scripts…. And also just the proper structure. Half the time you’ll read an amateur script and anyone who’s written or read a lot of scripts knows immediately if that guy knows what he’s doing or not. You know what I mean?

BSR: I know exactly what you mean.

DC: Like the structure’s off and you know that this is a problem. Odds are it’s not gonna be a good script because they’re not even gonna have it in the right structure, or format, which is all just part of being a professional writer. You’ve [probably] seen those scripts that have been randomly sent out and they’ve taken no effort to take the time to research how are scripts written. “How do I present them to people?”

BSR: “What font do I use?”

DC: All that stuff is really important to making your script look professional. And if your script looks professional, people are going to take it seriously and they might actually read it. But if your script comes in Word, or some other form, or it’s got some elaborate cover page… all that stuff [will probably keep it from being taken seriously.]

BSR: Yeah, it’s like “Strike One, Strike Two” before they even open the cover.

DC: This was stuff I didn’t even know until I was looking at professional scripts. It’s important to do that stuff so that it looks professional. So for me, reading scripts by professional writers who are out there selling, that’s the best education - that’s better than any screenwriting course or any of these books…. I’d rather sit down and read twenty scripts of working screenwriters and see what they do and try to mimic that as opposed to some guy who’s just teaching a screenwriting course, but never worked as a professional screenwriter. It’s two different things.

There’s writing and there’s the business and they go hand in hand. The more professional your scripts look, the more seriously you’ll be taken as a writer. Reading scripts was the first thing that got me… before I ever wrote College, I had read a ton of scripts. Nowadays with the internet and having access to scripts online, there’s no reason someone can’t go and find scripts and read, look at it, and go get Final Draft…. Access to interviews of writers, and some of my favorite books are just interviews with writers and how they did it.

[A short digression about DVD commentaries follows, leading me to remark on Star Trek: Generations commentary by Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga as a rare example of writers having the chance to be candid about all the different influences on the screenplay and why certain choices were made.]

DC: Yeah, and it would be nice to be honest about the process and why certain decisions were made. Why the studio wanted this, and this is how it turned out because of that, for either good or bad. [Most people] just watch the movie and that’s it. They don’t think about all the thought that went into every single line of dialogue, or every scene….

BSR: Or scenes that had to be cut, and so on. To get back to the writing, how long did it take you to write the first draft?

DC: I don’t know exactly, but it took a couple months. It was not a quick process. You’d think College is such a simple idea but part of that script was finding exactly how it was gonna work and where it was gonna go. It wasn’t something where we had a very big treatment. We had a really rough idea of what we wanted and essentially I just wanted to take high school and college and pair them together. The original idea was that it was gonna be a college town that was dominated by the local college and you have a group of high school kids and they’re always put down by the college kids that run this town. Never allowed into parties, they’re made fun of because they’re in high school and younger… That was the original idea… and they’re sort of fed up with dealing with this…

They want to meet the college girls and this is sort of how they do that. That sort of stemmed into “Is there another way to bring those two worlds together?” And that led to “What is something everyone has been through?” Most people have done college visits and once you open that up there’s many different ways. Is it with their parents? Is it not with their parents? Why are they going to this particular college? That opens up a whole new world of ideas, and the only movie that we’d seen that did that was PCU, which we liked, so we were surprised it hadn’t [been done.]… None of them had done the most simple thing you could do, the college visit.

BSR: Most everybody would relate to that. Everyone goes off for these weekends.

DC: PCU did it with a single kid and we felt there was more that we could do with the general idea. That was the start of it and then I’d say that after a couple months we had that first draft.

BSR: How did the two of you divide up the work on that? Were you always in the room together? Would you pick scenes? Would one of you write and the other rewrite?

DC: We didn’t write together. We wrote primarily by email. Some of the stuff I had written before Adam got involved because I’d had the idea for a while. Often when I get an idea, a scene will pop into my head and so I’ll write it down and it’ll give me a gauge as to if it’ll work.

BSR: Give you a tone to work off of.

DC: Yeah, it sort of sets the tone. For instance, there’s a scene where a kid in the cafeteria gives a speech about what happened to him…

BSR: The speech in the trailer.

DC: It’s this crazy, long speech that was the first thing I wrote for College. In fact, I wrote that before I even told Adam the idea. That speech kinda sums up the whole movie and it set the whole tone for the movie. From there it was “how do we take this speech?” Either we’d do the opposite of it and none of this shit would happen to [our lead characters] or they have an even crazier weekend. So then we just started bouncing ideas back and forth.

BSR: Figuring out the beats of the story.

DC: Exactly. Then the only time we sat in the room together was after the script was bought and [we had to do rewrites.] Mostly it was talking on the phone and shooting email back and forth. I’d write up a scene and send it to Adam. He’d do something and send it back. Just that process.

BSR: How do you handle disputes?

DC: I don’t remember any huge differences. The way that movie is, there are only certain things you could do. A lot of times you’ve written yourself into a position where your characters can only do one or two choices. You’d think there’d be ten different options but there’s really not because it wouldn’t make sense [for that character to do some of those things]... We work it out one way or the other. Often it was trying it one way, and you’d read it and it doesn’t work. So you go maybe the other way, and it’s like “Oh he was right.”

BSR: How many drafts did you go through and how long before you knew it was ready to be shown to people?

DC: There were a ton of drafts… because for me, I rewrite a lot. So by the time we did one or two or three drafts, we’d done so many options…. I went back through some of the College stuff the other day and we had about 200 pages of material that was alternate versions of scenes. I would take a scene and write it five different ways, and then go with the version I liked best. So in a way, my rewrites were happening all the time…. Almost to a fault because it slows me down.

I’ll spend days rewriting, where some people can just blow through a draft and get it done and fix it up later. I have a really hard time doing that because if it doesn’t feel like where it’s supposed to be, it’s hard for me to get into it. I end up rewriting until I get to the point where I feel it’s finished to me. Later, you’ll get a note that changes that, but at the time I’ve taken it as far as I can…. I could probably write two more movies out of the [extra] stuff I have. I tend to overwrite, just because I like to have options. Which also helps later when I get done because I’ve tried a lot of what people are going to suggest. I’m not saying it’s the best way. It’s not the quickest way. And with College it probably came because we didn’t have it so outlined out.

BSR: You had more of a wide-open playing field.

DC: There are a lot of different things you could do with that middle section [of the script.] It’s a long, long process. We waited a long time to show it to people. We waited until we felt like we’d taken it as far as we could take it, and were sick of it, that now it’s like “Let’s show it to people.”

The rewriting is important because when you do decide to show it to an agent or a producer, you’re not gonna get a second chance, so you have to keep rewriting this thing to the point… that you’ve got it locked down as much as you can. [The notes you get from friends] might be the same notes you get from the studio, so you might as well get them now and get them fixed, so that when you get the agent he’s not coming back with notes you could have gotten months ago. You might not get him to read that next draft.

It helps to write with a partner because you’re constantly giving each other notes. You’re fixing each other’s problems. It’s someone else to filter material through. By then you hope that you’ve got a solid enough draft to start showing people.

BSR: Which leads to the question everyone is waiting for… once you get it to that point, how do you get an agent?

And we’ll end today’s segment on that cliffhanger. Come back tomorrow for the answer to the question I certainly get asked the most often: “How do you get an agent?”

Part II – Getting an Agent and Selling the Script
Part III – Notes, Rewriting, Casting and SUPERBAD
Part IV – More Rewrites
Part V – Release and Reaction

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