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Interviews
 
Jeremy Haft and Ed Gonzalez
Wednesday, Oct 17, 2007
Author: Will Plyler
 
Jeremy Haft and Ed Gonzalez have been writing partners for eight years. They’ve sold screenplays in the drama, thriller and comedy genres. Their spec screenplay, Heckled, sold preemptively to New Line with Vince Vaughn attached to star. Most recently, they sold their pitch The Cookie Queen to Universal with Isla Fisher attached to star and are currently writing a comedy for New Regency/Fox. Haft is also a director, having directed three features and numerous commercials.

Where are you guys from and where did you grow up?

Ed: I was born in Compton, California, and grew up in the neighboring city of Lynwood. I have seven brothers and sisters and inherited the double whammy – Mexican and Catholic. Our neighborhood was so tough Norman Rockwell wouldn’t have dared to enter. Still, I wouldn’t trade where I grew up for the world.

Jeremy: I was born in Chicago and lived there during my early childhood. Then we moved to New Jersey during third grade. I love them both, but I am a huge defender of New Jersey – it’s green and beautiful. I grew up in a genuine colonial-era house on an acre of land surrounded by woods that were full of wild animals and Bon Jovi fans. New Jersey is awesome!

When did you become first interested in films and/or screenwriting? Did you write much growing up?

Ed: I’ve always loved movies, but I never thought about working in the film industry until I landed an internship at Scott Rudin Productions. There, I was exposed to various film industry vocations and I knew right away that I wanted to be a screenwriter. I read every script in development, then read anything and everything I could get my hands on.

Jeremy: I’ve also loved movies my whole life. I always knew I wanted to be involved in movies. I can still remember the first movie I ever saw, THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG – I think I was three years old. Sitting in a movie house, when the theatre darkens, and the previews start (the movie previews, not the stupid commercials) is my favorite thing in the world. And I’ve always loved writing. I played sports all through high school (and was pretty good… awesome actually, I have video if you need convincing) but I also wrote for the school magazine and newspaper. Which actually leads me to a funny story – during my senior year, I wrote a fake Playboy article about two of my friends. Unfortunately, I wrote it on the school computer, and when “the scandal” broke, I was axed from the newspaper. They informed my Mom about my handiwork, and the principal, who was expecting her to be outraged, was shocked. My Mom read the porno-like story and said: “We always knew he was creative.” Talk about family support! Ironically, I’ve since been invited back to speak to the students at my high school.


Where did you two go to college and did you study screenwriting or filmmaking?

Ed: I went to Loyola Marymount University, which has a great film and television program. However, I majored in Political Science – which, unless you go to law school, qualifies you to do nothing other than annoying people with trivia about government. My film “study” consisted of repeatedly watching John Hughes’ movies in the dorms and pretending to understand Truffaut’s films.

Jeremy: I went to Syracuse University and had a great time there. Wow, what a great time… okay I’ll stop reminiscing. I studied Television, Radio and Film Writing along with Poli Sci. So while I wrote a script or two, including radio commercials, I got a broad education. In a nutshell, the education at Syracuse was great and my focus was wider than just writing and film.

When did you two first meet? How and why did you decide to write together?

Ed and Jeremy: We were at a mutual friend’s house and Jeremy “accidentally” brushed past me several times. Finally, I went to the bathroom and he followed me. Next thing I know, his foot slid under the stall and brushed gently against mine as he mentioned he was a Senator…

Seriously, we are both huge sports fans and we were invited to watch a boxing match at a friend’s house. Like most writers, we started complaining about our then-agents. It was a very long conversation. We stayed in touch, exchanged scripts and soon realized we had a lot in common including sense of humor and writing style. More importantly, we clicked as friends who could work together. While we’ve heard that other writing teams can collaborate without being friends, we couldn’t work together if we didn’t get along.

Jeremy: Some of the above is true, except that I was wearing a powdered white wig and pretending to be a Revolutionary War Era Politico. Fortunately, that phase is over. Currently I’m chained to a pipe in Ed’s basement, and I won’t be freed ‘til we have a movie that earns a hundred million dollars or more.

Tell me about writing your first script? What was your approach like? What was it like working together?

Ed and Jeremy: Our first script was something we wrote specifically for the marketplace. It was not a movie either of us would see, but honestly, we were both broke. I had just gotten married and lived in a tiny one bedroom apartment. Jeremy lived with four roommates (Jeremy note: It was Humphrey Bogart’s old house in the Hollywood Hills and it was awesome!). We were looking at this purely as a moneymaking script. Big mistake. It never sold and it taught us a lesson: only write movies that you yourself would want to see.

Our approach to that first script is pretty much our approach now. We brainstorm for several weeks, sitting in a room together throwing out ideas until we craft a 6-7 page broad stroke treatment. We mull it over for a few days, then break the treatment down by acts. Next, we turn the first act into a five page scene-by-scene treatment. After that it’s somewhat like a relay. One of us takes the first pass at act one, then the other guy rewrites the original pages while the first guy moves forward into the second act. Once we finish the script in that manner, we do multiple rewrites, show it to a few friends whom we respect, and then implement more changes. We then give it to our agent and manager.

What do you each bring to the writing team?

Ed: Jeremy is a fast typist so he’s good at typing what I say. And being Mexican, I’m a helluva cook – which comes in handy when we’re brainstorming - although I don’t enjoy wearing the maid’s outfit. That said, I think we bring our very different lives to our stories. I’ve been married for 8 years. Jeremy is not married. He’s East Coast Jewish, I’m West Coast Mexican. From a specific craft perspective, I think my strength is in overall character arc and structure while Jeremy’s strength is making funny funnier. There’ll be many times when I think I’ve made a scene pretty funny and he’ll come in and push the envelope further, making it even funnier. Jeremy is also very good at coming up with set pieces. He thinks big – largely due to his background as a director.

Jeremy: Since I’m chained to a pipe in Ed’s basement, I have to agree with what he says or I won’t get my daily ration of turkey jerky. Aside from that, we complement each other very well. It’s great to have someone tell you if an idea works, or is stupid, or if it’s already been done. I think we’re both good at structure, character and comedy, but where Ed focuses more on structure and making sure we hit our marks, I’m constantly trying to boost the comedy in the scene.

What was it like getting your first agent? How did that come about?

Ed: I got my first agent after writing my first spec called The Catch. I was inspired to write the story about a kid who catches a record breaking baseball after I caught three balls in the span of two months at Dodger Stadium. I gave the script to my buddy, a former co-worker at Scott Rudin’s, who was then working at a big agency. He read it … and hated it. I still attribute his reaction to fact that he wasn’t a baseball fan. How do you spell “denial”? Anyway, he passed it on to a new agent who loved it and immediately wanted to go out with it. I was pumped. We went out wide and it went to every studio, but ultimately it didn’t sell. That was my introduction to the cold hard reality of writing.

Jeremy: I got my first agent on a combination of a movie I directed, GRIZZLY MOUNTAIN, and a Santa Claus comedy I had written. I was so excited to have an agent, at a big agency… I thought my life was set. Then nothing happened and I realized that you had to do everything on your own. Now we have an agent, Sandy Weinberg, and a long-time manager, Matt Luber, who are supportive and very good.


You recently sold your pitch THE COOKIE QUEEN to Universal. How did that come about?

Ed: A few years ago, I was driving cross-country and saw a sign in a small Midwestern town that read “Home of Missy Jones as seen on Real People.” I called Jeremy with an idea of someone whose entire life was based on a childhood achievement. Jeremy could relate as he still carries the dog-eared newspaper clipping of when he won the batting title in sixth grade. Seriously though, I did see this sign, and while we didn’t come up with a movie idea at the time, it remained in the back of our minds. So years later, we were running through our list of ideas and characters, and this sign sparked THE COOKIE QUEEN.

Jeremy: First of all, in the interest of historical accuracy, I won more than one batting title… but, back to adulthood, we already had a relationship with Mosaic Media through HECKLED, a script we wrote for Vince Vaughn at New Line. So we met with the Mosaic execs and they loved the idea for their client Isla Fisher. Both of us are huge Isla fans and felt she stole Wedding Crashers. After several meetings with Mosaic and Isla, we came up with a tight pitch and went out with it. We sold it at the first place we went to, Universal. There was even a bidding war with another studio. It was one of those moments you dream about and we were very fortunate.

Speaking of HECKLED, what's the story about and what took place with the deal?

Jeremy and Ed: Heckled is the story of an NBA ballplayer that turns the tables on a relentlessly heckling fan. The ballplayer begins heckling the fan at his job, at home and just about everywhere else. We wrote the script on spec, with Mike Karz, the producer, giving us notes. Once we finished the script, Mike asked who would be our dream star for the movie. We shot for the moon and asked for Vince Vaughn. Amazingly, Mike called Vince's manager who loved the script. With Vince aboard, we sold it to New Line preemptively.

What was the first thing you guys sold together?

Jeremy: Now that was a great experience. We sold a pitch to Canal Plus with William Friedkin as the producer and director. Friedkin had a nugget of an idea, and we worked with him on it, and wrote numerous drafts of the script under his tutelage. Working with such a legend was an incredible experience. Not only did he share amazing stories with us, but we learned a lot from him.

Do you guys talk often with your agent? What do you look for from them?

Ed and Jeremy: We talk to our agent and manager almost every other day. They’re very accessible and very supportive. You hear nightmare stories from writers who can never reach their team – it’s the opposite for us.

Our agent and manager give us career guidance, detailed notes on scripts, feedback on ideas, set meetings and introduce us to new potential employers. They are truly a great team, and we’re fortunate to be working with such passionate and hard-working people. They are never about the spec sale, but about building a long career. When we were each represented by big agencies, we felt that there was far more emphasis on the spec sale. And when we didn’t sell one, we felt like we were in limbo. With our reps now, it’s not like that. A failed spec sale is just part of the whole process. You can kind of equate it to a baseball player who goes through a slump. The season is long and there are still over a hundred games to go. You have to work through it, and before you know it, the singles, doubles and even homers come. Not to sound preachy, but one piece of advice we’d offer to writers searching for agents is to put the agent on the spot and not just talk about your next spec but about a career arc because the reality is, most specs don’t sell. You need a plan for when/if that spec doesn’t sell.

Do you do much research when preparing to write a script?

Jeremy: Yeah, for about ten years Eddie has been claiming to do “research” for a stripper movie. With all the time he’s spent, he’s become the Ken Burns of lap dances. Seriously, we do whatever research is needed. For THE COOKIE QUEEN, we did a ton of online research on the Girl Scouts, and even met with some Girl Scout leaders. For HECKLED, Vince Vaughn plays a car salesman, so we spent time hanging out with a car dealer on the lot.

Ed: You have to do the research; otherwise, it will show in the script. The last thing you want is for an exec who’s reading your script to feel like you don’t know what you’re talking about. Even worse, we think it’s disrespectful to your characters if you don’t know “their story.” You end up short-changing everybody – and yourself.

Have you had many pitch meetings? Do you have any recommendations or pointers for other writers?

Ed: We’ve had plenty of pitch meetings. It’s part of the process. I used to really dread pitches. However, the more we pitched, the more my anxiety lessened. More importantly, my attitude about pitching changed. Whereas I used to go in to meetings hoping (almost pleading) for a sale, now we go in feeling like we have a killer idea and we’re going to do this – be it here or at another studio. It’s not arrogance, but confidence in the fact that we believe we have commercial ideas to offer.

My advice to other writers is NOT to look at a pitch as a “make or break performance.” Better yet, don’t look at it as a performance at all. Rather, it’s a meeting where you have a chance to highlight your story-telling talents. And just keep pitching… you have to be out there hustling, showing the town how prolific you are or they’ll forget about you. And one final thought on pitching… get an element attached whenever possible. Your odds increase tremendously when you have an actor or director attached.

Jeremy: I'm just glad Ed got over his anxiety about pitching. I was about to hire a Dog Whisperer. I also second Eddie’s comment on the importance of getting an element attached to a project. If I could go back in time, I’d kiss a lot of young actors’ asses.

What are some of the things that you know now that you wished you knew when you were first starting out?

Ed: Mainly, that everything takes a lot longer than you think. Meetings take forever to set up, scripts can take months to be read. I used to agonize over why things couldn’t be done faster. Because of the time thing, careers can take a lot longer to gain momentum. I’d recommend bracing yourself for financial debt (a lot of debt) or take a part-time job while you’re writing. And even with the part time job, just remember that debt is part of the whole process. I never went to grad school, but I easily built up as much debt as I would have had I attended grad school. The funny thing is, I’d do it all over again for the chance to keep writing.

Jeremy: Yeah, everything does take much longer than you think it should. When we first started out, we'd be working on one thing at a time, and while we waited for feedback our whole world was wrapped up in that one script or idea – whereas the execs had twenty or thirty other projects they were working on. Now, Ed and I are working on three or four things simultaneously, so when we're waiting for feedback, we're more than busy on other projects.

What are some of your favorite scripts? Scripts you’d say every writer should read and learn from?

Ed: Seven, by Andrew Kevin Walker, comes to mind immediately. It is one of the most powerful scripts I have ever read. Juicy dialogue, great characters and a story that sucks you in from page one. Along those lines, Andrew Niccol’s Truman Show is one that I’ve re-read several times. One of my all-time favorite unproduced scripts is called My Ride with Gus, written by Mark Kamen and based on a book by Charles Carillo.

Jeremy, I know you've directed movies, how does this affect your writing?

Jeremy: As a director, I can picture and block the scene, and that helps us with the writing, especially if we're trying to figure out physical comedy or an action set piece. Also, some writers create scenes that are impossible to stage, or way too expensive to create, but my background helps keep things realistic. In short, everything I write is written with two hats on – a writing hat, and a directing hat. It's just the way I think, and, ultimately, I think it makes the script more real and more shootable.

Jeremy, I noticed that the movies you've directed are action and horror, but the recent scripts you and Ed have sold are comedies. Are you hoping to direct those?

Jeremy: Both Ed and I have set a goal of having me direct one of the next comedies we write. Thankfully we've sold a few comedies recently, so we're getting some tiny bit of leverage and notoriety in that world. And, as you mentioned, I have directed features. That experience, combined with the comedy commercials I’ve directed, hopefully will position me to direct one of our new comedy scripts.

What are you working on next?

Ed: Picket signs. We’re bracing for the strike, so Jeremy’s busy hammering a 2 by 4 to a massive poster board. Aside from that, we just wrote a college comedy for New Regency that we’re hoping will go into production early next year with Jeremy directing it. We’re also currently developing a comedy for Will Smith and working on a few original ideas as well.

Jeremy: In the short-term, I just want to get out of Ed's basement!

What things do writers need to know or recognize about themselves and/or the industry? What hard realities do screenwriters need to be aware of and keep in mind?

Ed: This is a tough business. You have to be tougher. I know it sounds like a cliché but it’s true. You need to have thick skin and suck it up. We pitched a project 17 times and got 17 nos. We then wrote the script (of that same pitch) and sold it preemptively. You also have to ask yourself why you are writing in the first place. Is this my dream job? No. Playing shortstop for the Dodgers is. But writing is a close second. And for me, the answer to why I write is simple: I want to make people laugh. Or cry. Or think. Maybe it’s some ego trip or maybe I wasn’t hugged enough as a kid – with 8 kids there’s only so much hugging to go around. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.

You also have to know when to move on. I know this contradicts my earlier comment, but sometimes “No” really does mean “no.” I’ve met writers who claim to be writers, but are working on only one script – for three years. Enough! Let it go and move on to the next idea. Execs don’t want to keep hearing the same idea you pitched them a year ago. And I don’t blame them.

Jeremy: The main advice I give people who are thinking of entering the film business is that if they love movies and the movie business is the only thing they can picture themselves doing, then go for it. But if you can imagine yourself being happy doing something else, then do something else. The entertainment business is so competitive and difficult, that if you can work elsewhere and be happy, do it. Another piece of advice is that just because you write good emails, funny letters, or got A’s on all your English papers, it doesn't mean you can write. There’s a lot more to being a writer!

 


 

 

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