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Interviews
 
Geoff LaTulippe
Monday, Sep 15, 2008
Author: Will Plyler
 

Geoff LaTulippe was born in Cleveland, Ohio.  After traversing the country back and forth during his childhood, his family finally settled in Central Pennsylvania, otherwise known as the Cradle of Modern Civilization.  After graduating college and working a series of soul-crushing regular-person jobs, Geoff transcended the ordinary and moved to Los Angeles to become… a script reader.  For nearly five years.  Just at the point where life looked so monumentally bleak that it wasn’t even worth waking up in the morning, Geoff was prodded into writing his first feature script, GOING THE DISTANCE, which is currently set up at New Line Cinema.  He enjoys Disneyland, any kind of meat on a stick, and taunting children smaller than him, of which there are not many.
 

Where are you from and where did you grow up?

I’m sort of a child of all-overness.  I was born in Cleveland and then, over the next twelve years, my family moved from there to Harrisburg, PA, from there to Pittsburgh, from Pittsburgh to Denver, from there to Colorado Springs, and then to Kansas City, and then back to Harrisburg.  I have a very instable identity.  My father was a casket salesman who ended up getting better jobs in strange places.  I used to sometimes accompany him on business trips to funeral homes, which is probably why my sense of humor is so…frightening.  But less in an Alan-Ball-productive-successful kind of way and more in a why-aren’t-you-in-prison kind of way.

When do you remember really becoming first interested in film? Writing?

Like most people I was a child once, so I learned to enjoy film at a really early age.  In high school I wanted to be a meteorologist for some God-forsaken reason, ignoring the fact that I was both bad at math and criminally untalented in the field of science.  I think the main drive for writing is that I come from a family of really, really, really good storytellers, and I sort of latched onto that process.  I have stories I like to tell.  I have opinions.  I like to express them.  And once I found out what a cathartic process writing could be, that’s when I started to notice that I really enjoyed it.  I suppose that organically bonded with my storytelling gene and my love of movies.

Did you study film/writing in college? Where did you go to school? What was the experience like?

I did, though not extensively.  I took up a few short fiction courses to propel myself into modes of writing that I wasn’t inherently familiar with and a couple of film classes because I was interested in film history and critique.  Between the two, I decided that maybe a screenwriting and playwriting class would be beneficial.  And while the screenwriting class was really amazing, I think that the playwriting class was even better for me.  The great thing about playwriting is that there’s really no structure, no rules – you can write the most fucking meaningless thing ever and people will still find something to critique, something to love or hate.  The theatre world is beyond strange.  In any event, that class taught me how to really – and I hate this term, but unfortunately it’s accurate – explore characters and what you can do with them.  I think once you’ve written something that lacks a boundary set but that you create boundaries FOR, you learn how to tell a better story.

I also took Philosophy as a minor, and I think every writer should be learn Logic.  It forces you to make sense out of everything in your life, but it especially enhances your ability to look at your work objectively when you really need to.

Oh, right – I went to James Madison University.  Go Dukes.

You also wrote short scripts. Did you ever produce them?

Yeah, that was how I cut my teeth.  My professor’s theory – and I still hold to it this day, at least for myself – is that you can learn a lot from creating a story on a short, microscopic level.  When you decide then to transition to feature writing, all you have to do is build on the details and the beats to get there.  No matter what ideas I have for a script, I always write them out as a short story first.  Always, whether it’s for a short or something feature length (of which, I have to admit, I’ve only attempted three times).  I think it’s a really worthwhile exercise to focus on getting out a core story – beginning, middle, end – in 30 pages or less.

I’ve never produced any of what I wrote.  There are some people I might shoot some shorts with to be put on the Internets, but that’s more for fun than anything else.  I feel the need to expose the general public to my philosophy in some way, shape or form soon so I can gauge whether or not I should expect the government to angrily break down my door one day.

Tell us about writing your first feature script.  What was your approach?

The first feature-length script I wrote was while I was in college…or maybe just after.  It was about working in a mall.  It ended up being a little too similar to MALLRATS in scope and theme, which sorta blew since I hadn’t seen the movie at that point.  It sucked.  It sucked really bad.  Luckily, I got the right kind of feedback from people who mattered – the kind of people who are brutally honest – and I found out where I was strong (dialogue) and where I was weak (everything else).  After that, I read as many produced scripts as I could get my hands on and tried to learn how to move from anecdotal, somewhat sketch-based ideas to more overarching, long-flowing stories.

When you first moved to Los Angeles you started out working as a reader. How did you find the job?  How were you “trained”?  What were your experiences like?  And what have you learned about writing by reading?

While in college, I joined a screenwriters’/filmmakers’ message board on Yahoo! Clubs.  Met a bunch of the aspiring through that network.  One of those people eventually went to work for New Line and was running their story department.  He knew I had a pretty extensive background with scripts – at least having read a lot and understanding, at that point, what made a good script and what didn’t – and he offered me a job.  I’m a huge pussy, so I waffled on that offer for nearly two years before finally deciding to take him up on it.  He sent me a couple of scripts and a template, instructed me on how to do the coverage, and I did it.

For the first year or two it was great.  Made some money, was hanging out in LA, worked “in the movies,” and generally thought I was pretty awesome.  But after a while…it just starts to suck away your creativity.  After reading and writing about two, three, four scripts in a given day, you just don’t want to do your own shit.  So, if you’re me, you languish, gain 30-40 lbs, and begin to wallow in a pool of misery that you’ve filled for yourself.

But yes, you do learn a lot.  Literally all of the lessons I learned as a reader I implemented in my latest script.  If you know the pitfalls, you’re better able to either avoid them altogether or correct yourself when you slip into one.  Being a reader teaches you, overwhelmingly, what NOT to do, and for me that was key.  By learning what was wrong I was able to create my own kind of right, and that served me well this time around.

Along those lines, what advice do you give new writers out there to help them “get past” the reader and advance to the next stage? What pitfalls can they avoid to receive “consider” or “recommend”?

Unfortunately, there’s really no right/common/magic answer here.  I think there’s a misconception that there’s a trick or a scheme that you can use to interest people in your script.  I would say this first and foremost: if you have a gimmick, abandon it right fucking now.  Everyone hates that.  I remember the story of a guy that sent a box to an exec that had a script, a note, and a shoe in it.  The note read, “Now that I have one foot in the door, do you think you could read my script?”  That’s idiocy.  Don’t do that crap.  Focus on writing the best script you can possibly write, and then do everything short of gross annoyance to get people interested in it and you.  The trick is actually this: if you write a great script and can get it to one person who matters, people will notice.

There’s also one thing that people avoid talking about because it’s considered “mean” in this stupid modern world, but it’s something that every writer – myself included, at multiple points in the last couple of years – needs to consider: chances are that you’re probably not talented enough to sell a script.  That’s just life.  Everyone’s good at something.  Most people aren’t good writers.  It needs to be said.  That doesn’t mean that if you want to be a screenwriter, you shouldn’t work towards it.  You should.  You should completely bust your ass.  But eventually you’re going to get to a point where hard work will only take you so far.  At that barrier, if you don’t have talent, nothing in the world is going to make it happen.  If you go into writing knowing that’s not just a possibility but a probability, you’ll not only be able to break away if that time comes, but you’ll be able to push yourself as far as is possible.

As far as pitfalls… there are many.  Most of them can be avoided if you just read as many produced scripts as you can.  Really: read scripts.  Look at what other writers did.  Look at how they used structure.  Look at how they developed characters.  Look how they took an idea and made it their own, wrote it their own way in their own voice.  Pay attention to what STANDS OUT from other scripts that you’ve read.  And for God’s sake, have either a wholly original idea or a wholly original take on an old one.  Don’t be that guy/gal that writes the ten millionth story about a technology-savvy Santa Claus that saves Christmas with flying elves and snow bombs.  That’s shit.  If you’re writing shit, stop writing shit.  Actually, make that the Pitfall to Avoid Falling in All Pits: stop writing shit ideas.  Come up with something good.

In late July 2008, you sold your spec script “Going the Distance” to New Line.  Can you tell us about the script? What was the genesis of the idea? How did you get it sold to New Line?

As with most good ideas, it germinated when my good friend Dave Neustadter (an executive at New Line) and I were drunk one night.  He’d been in a long-distance relationship a couple of years prior, and we realized that no one had really done that situation justice, given it its own film…and MILLIONS of people go through that type of relationship.  If you haven’t (like me), you know someone who has (Dave).  So he gave me the skeleton of his story, and I wrote a script around it.  Once that was finished, we kicked around ideas, figured out what worked and expanded it, cut the stuff that was DOA, and turned in a draft we were really proud of.  We ended up sending it out to a couple of people we trusted, and to our surprise, they all flipped for it.  To this day the reaction still confounds me.  When we finished the first draft, we knew we liked it, but we were REALLY unsure if anyone else would.

At the end of the day, we’re both huge film fans, and we’re both really big proponents (and, to be honest, damn-near worshippers) of what Judd Apatow is doing in comedy right now.  At the same time, we knew there was room in that niche – that sort of slice-of-life, familiar-to-everyone observational comedy that doesn’t have to rely on huge set pieces and slapstick gags to generate laughs – to create something that a lot of people could get behind.  I think all of the best comedy comes from real life, from those situations where you go, “I couldn’t have made that up if I tried.”  So I stopped trying.  Dave and I just drew from our own experiences, worked to make the story as down-to-earth as possible, and people seemed to respond to it.  I joke sometimes that we certainly didn’t reinvent the wheel.  But if anything, we shook people into thinking, “Hey, sometimes a wheel by itself is pretty friggin’ OK.”

Do you have an agent?  And if so, how did you find representation with them? And what is your relationship like? Do you talk often? Is there a lot of feedback?

I do.  I took a bunch of meetings after the script sold and landed with Sarah Self at Gersh as my agent and Michael Lasker at Mosaic as my manager.  The two of them are terrific and they’re already helping me develop as a writer (Christ knows I need every bit of guidance they can muster).

I was lucky enough that the script got good word of mouth and opened up a lot of doors for me.  The process was actually a pretty difficult one, because I met a lot of really successful people who are smart and capable and really, really fucking good at what they do.  The decision wasn’t easy, but at the end of the day I did what was right for me, and I couldn’t be happier about my choices.

Michael, Sarah and I are in contact pretty much every day.  Right now I’m focused on rewrites for GTD and putting together my ideas for my next project, so they’re keeping me in line and more or less coaching me on my next steps and how I should proceed.  They’re less like an agent/manager combo and more like friends who tell me what ideas float and which I need to take another look at, make sure I don’t fuck up too royally, keep me from getting sent to jail, and cackle loudly as they take a combined 20% of my future.

Kidding.  Mostly.

Do you do much research when preparing to write a script?  Do you travel? Take tours?  Visit libraries?

So far I haven’t really tackled a concept that’s required a lot of research.  Obviously if you’re referencing something in the real world you ALWAYS want to check viable sources and sure you know what the hell you’re talking about.  But as far as writing something that’s required me to study…just hasn’t happened yet.  That brings up a good Maxim for writers to heed, though: if you don’t know something you want to write about, you had better be damn good at faking it, because there is always someone somewhere who will sniff out your mistakes.  Better to buck up and do your homework rather than wing it and come off like a charlatan.  That’s the quickest way to make people loathe you.

As far as travel, I plan to talk a lot about writing scripts that deal with Hawaii, Ireland, and a bunch of other places I’d like to visit.  Because if I pretend I’m researching these places for the purposes of scriptwriting, I get to write off my vacations as “business trips.”  Also, I hope no one at the IRS reads DDP or I’ve just hamstrung myself.

What about feedback on your work? How do you handle that?

I’m really not good with compliments.  Most of the reaction to GTD has been amazing and, truly, far more positive than I would have ever imagined.  Mostly I just look at the ground, shuffle my feet, and thank people sincerely.  When I was writing it, really, I was thinking about how thrilled I’d be just to get a meeting with some agents.  It’s nice to know you have ability, but there was also a lot of catching lightning in a bottle here.  I’m really, really lucky to know the people that I know and have the support system around me that I have.

I’m also lucky in that I was given a solid piece of advice very, very early on my attempts at writing: develop a thick skin and never shed it.  No matter what you do, no matter what you create, there are always going to be people who don’t like your creation for one reason or another.  That’s life.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  The trick is to find that proverbial balance, that place where you’re entertaining as many people as possible while still staying true to yourself.

But there’s a deeper lesson there, too: don’t ever, ever, EVER ignore someone who offers their opinion as to why they dislike what you’ve done.  OK, yeah, sometimes you can tell that someone is writing you off just to be a contrarian douche.  More often than not, though, your detractors have really valid points that you don’t want to gloss over.  If you have the chance to learn WHY someone dislikes something you’ve done, take the chance to cultivate it.  A lot of times you’ll find that they’ve hit on a key that the people who really loved it might have missed.  The idea isn’t to convert someone into liking your work, but in understanding their aversion to it and making the next thing better.

That said, you’re just never going to win some people over.  If you know that, you also know that it’s not something you can change or worry about.  So just keep pumping out the best material you can despite them.

Do you rely much on feedback from friends and/or your representation?

Absolutely.  I’d be lost without it.  The biggest mistake a writer can make is believing that they have all the answers and/or that they’ve done it perfectly the first time around.  That happens once in a thousand purchased scripts.  If you think you’ve done it, you haven’t.  That old saying holds: writing is rewriting.  Being close to a script almost immediately cancels out your ability to see all the angles.  To get the big picture, you need the opinions of other people you not only trust, but other people who know what they’re doing.  You take their notes and find a way to blend them with your own instincts when you’re diving into that second draft.

How has selling your script changed your life? Are you still at New Line? Or have you “quit the day job”?

Um…I’m paying off college.  That’s huge for me.  And I got to quit being a reader, which was nice as well.  Now I can focus on what I came out here to focus on: writing and being the best writer I possibly can be.  And doing that for as long as I possibly can.  Other than that, things aren’t going to change much.  I’ve got the same apartment, the same dog, the same friends.  All the girls that wouldn’t sleep with me before are now still not sleeping with me.  It’s another day at the office.  The day just takes place in an office I like much better.

You hear a lot from working writers that after they sell that first (spec) script, a lot of what they do is rewrites, assignments, work on other people’s ideas, etc.  Have you gotten to that point?

You know, the sale for me has been so recent that I haven’t even really stepped into that world yet.  Right now I’m planning to do what I can with the original ideas I have.  We’ll see how/if they float and if I can turn that into something consistent.  You never want to close yourself off to the idea of a really great adaptation or assignment or rewrite, but I first want attempt to pry out all of the ideas I’ve had floating around in my head for the past couple of years.

What’s a typical writing day like for you?

I don’t think I have a typical writing day.  I’m totally scattered.  I’m a monkey.  It all depends on my general mood and motivation level.  On one day I could get into a groove and write 60 pages.  Then I might not write something for two weeks.  I think the best writing always comes out of that place where you can’t stand to NOT write.  The “Have To,” if you will.  And yes, I just fucking quoted ROOKIE OF THE YEAR.  Don’t judge me.

Do you outline all your stories first?  Write treatments?

No, I don’t.  And I know that’s a big no-no for some people, but I just don’t want to write scripts with TOO much structure, with TOO much rigidity.  I start out with a short story, and then I just write the script.  I throw down everything that comes into my head.  GOING THE DISTANCE was basically an exercise in me having very minimal and flexible boundaries.  The first rough draft ended up 130 pages.  Then I got feedback and went back through.  I cut out the stuff that just didn’t work, fluffed up the stuff that needed depth, and rearranged scenes here and there that fit better there and here.

I’m not a fan of structure for the sake of structure.  Obviously you need SOME semblance of structure for cohesion and flow, but I think most people go overboard trying to fit their stories into cookie-cutter, paint-by-numbers templates.  A great story is a great story is a great story, no matter the constraints you put (or don’t put) on it.  So I just try to write a great story if I can.  That’s the best anyone can do, and if you do that, people will notice.

Any method or path that you typically follow when approaching rewrites?

The rewriting process has been a pleasant surprise for me.  But again, this is where I’m sensationally lucky: all the rewriting on GTD now takes place in consort with Neustadter, who’s just as invested in the project as I am.  And we’re working with really smart, capable people at New Line who happen to share our vision of how this movie should be made if it gets that far – which is HUGE, because that doesn’t always happen.

I think the trick that we’ve found isn’t really a trick at all – your best bet is to take on the notes that you get from the studio, and find out how to implement their ideas in your own way.  Sometimes the notes you get will just make a lot of sense, and you look at them and think, “Oh Christ, that’s WAY better than what I had there.”  And then you just go and do it.  A lot of the ideas are compromises, though, so you meet, you hash out a few ideas, and you try to give the studio what they want while still trying to keep your vision intact.  It can happen.  Again, I’m ultra-fortunate in my first go-round to be working with a group of people who happen to support many of my ideas while trying to get the script to function in the right way for the studio, so there have been very few headaches so far.

What things do you feel more writers need to know or recognize about themselves and/or the industry?

Like I said above, know – not just believe, but know – that there’s a good chance you just don’t have what it takes to make it.  Use that notion to fuel you to be as good as you can be, but also allow it to turn you onto something else if screenwriting doesn’t end up being your thing.  I’m not a fan of the “You Can Do Anything You Put Your Mind To” mindset.  No, you can’t.  There are always going to be some things you can’t do.  If writing is one of those things, don’t prevent yourself from finding what you ARE good at, because you’ll miss out on something you really CAN do.

Don’t make excuses for yourself.  I meet a lot of writers who say, “No one will meet with me because I’m too old,” or “No one will meet with me because women writers are looked down upon,” or “I’m of (insert non-white ethnicity here) descent, and people like me don’t get taken seriously.”  It’s all bullshit.  Hollywood is a player in a huge money game.  They do not pass up on opportunities because of age or gender or race.  You could meet with the one exec who hates everyone to the point of hopelessness, and if he/she thinks they can make money off of you, it won’t matter for a second who you are or what you look like.  If you write something great and someone can make money off of you, they’ll jump at the chance to do it.  The problem is almost never you; the problem is almost always your writing.

Perhaps most important: don’t write something because you think the market is hot for it.  When THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST hit, everyone came out of the woodwork with a Jesus story.  Now that TRANSFORMERS is popular, every sci-fi addict is doing a robot script.  For every crap romantic comedy you see, there are a million other scripts with the same story that are, somehow, actually worse than what makes it to the screen (romantic comedy is a frighteningly vapid genre).  Don’t worry about all that.  Write a story that you care about.  Write about something that amuses you or inspires you or makes you laugh.  Write something that you think is important.  Be creative.  Break some rules.  Crack some eggs.  Show us something we haven’t seen before, or show us a new way of looking at the same old thing.

I’m currently experiencing my first cheerleading-induced headache.

What are you working on next?

Right now I’m working on a couple of original ideas that I probably shouldn’t get too specific on, lest my agent and manager silence me with chloroform.  One is going to be another comedy, and the other is a sort of off-kilter project that I’m going to try to approach first as a graphic novel.

I really want to do a documentary on karaoke also.  No one steal that idea.  I will be very upset at you.

Finally, what are some do's and don'ts you discovered along the way?

Honestly, I’m still figuring most of them out.  I think if you start from a place where your overall goal is to just write the most original material in the most entertaining way possible, you’ll be fine.  Easier said than done?  Of course.  Doesn’t make it invalid, though.

 


 

 

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