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Interviews
 
Jeff Morris
Monday, Apr 20, 2009
Author: Will Plyler
 
Writer/Director Jeff Morris was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He attended Arizona State University where he graduated with a degree in Political Science. Jeff’s feature film debut as a writer/director was the 2006 award winning independent comedy You Did What?, distributed by Mar Vista Entertainment. At the Tiburon International Film Festival, Jeff won the prestigious Orson Welles Award given each year to a first-time feature director for outstanding achievement in their debut film. Currently, Jeff is writing a script for 20th Century Fox with John Davis producing. He’s constantly humbled by his two children and beautiful wife. Jeff’s represented by Julie Bloom at Art/Work Entertainment.

Where did you grow up?

Well, hopefully I haven’t grown up yet. I know my parents don’t think I have. (They still ask me when I’m going to get a real job.) But, to answer the question -- I was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Go Sharks!) After high school, I went to the University of Redlands for the big time rewards of playing Division 3 football. Oh, and to study. Forgot that part. After a few semesters, I realized I wanted more from college than what the University of Redland could offer and I transferred to Arizona State. At ASU, I blossomed into the man I would eventually become.

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

I’ve always loved movies. I mean, who doesn’t, right? But, I’m not like some writers who can trace it back to the day Star Wars came out or anything. And I probably wasn’t all that into the idea of actually writing scripts until college. If you were to ask me when I was a kid what I wanted to be when I grow up – I would have told you a professional athlete. I just wish my parents would have told me that the odds are sort of stacked against a 5' 10" white guy making that dream come true.

Did you study writing in college?

No. Not at all, actually. I was a political science major.

Then how did you decide to become a writer?

You can blame it on the Counting Crows. I’ve always been a ridiculously big fan of the Counting Crows – some say obsessed. It’s not like I have Adam Duritz voodoo dolls or anything. Well, I got rid of the one I had. I kid! I kid!

When I was at ASU, I saw that the Counting Crows were going to be playing in Phoenix. I desperately wanted to go, but I was broke. So, I needed to figure out a way to go to the show but without paying. I looked at ASU’s entertainment magazine and realized they have this huge circulation but weren’t interviewing Top 40 bands. One afternoon, I marched down to the magazine office on campus and asked why they don’t interview bands on the national level. The editor said he didn’t think they could get those kinds of interviews. I said, “ASU is the third largest school in the country – how about letting me give it a shot.” He said, “Hang on, can you even write?” I said, “Uh, yeah.” In my head I was thinking, come on – how hard can it be to ask someone a bunch of questions. (No disrespect to this interview.) He said, “Okay, do a CD review, if I like it – I’ll let you try to get an interview with a national band.” I immediately went home and plagiarized a review from the Internet. Now before anyone reading this gets all upset about me being a literary thief, this wasn’t getting published – it was just a test to allow me to go and try to get an interview. Plus, I had no aspirations of becoming a writer at this point – I just wanted free tickets to a concert and the chance to hang out with rock stars. Anyway, I turned the review in the next day and the editor said, “Wow, this is really good.” No surprise there, right? He asked me who I wanted to interview. You can probably guess. In a very short time, I began interviewing some of the world’s biggest bands – including Counting Crows. In a two-year span, I attended close to one hundred concerts. And somewhere along the way, I began to really love writing. That led to me deciding to try my hand at writing stuff that was more creative. In my last semester in college, I wrote my first script.

So what did you do to learn or teach yourself how to write a script? Did you read any books? Take classes? And what was writing your first script like?

I’ve always thought I’ve had a decent ability to tell a story, so when I first started out, I just wrote from the hip. Bookstores weren’t filled with a hundred different approaches to how to write a screenplay like they are now. It was Robert McKee and a few others. That was it. I tried to get my hand on as many scripts as I could and studied them. I’d probably say that writing my first script was a lot like how I was at having sex for the first time – it felt good but I had no idea what I was doing. But with practice, you get better. At sex too. Well, there’s a strong chance I might not be so good at that yet. Nowadays, when I outline I use a loose variation on the sequencing method.

You moved to Los Angeles in 1998 and wrote for four years. What did you learn during this time? Did you work a “regular job” to pay the bills or did you only write?

I moved to LA literally the day after I graduated college to follow my new dream of being a screenwriter. I got a job working at a bar on the Sunset Strip. I lived a couple blocks away from the Viper Room in this terrible studio apartment with drug addicts, porn stars and transvestites. My mother was thrilled. But I didn’t care – I was living the dream. Uh, kinda. I clung to the success stories of people being discovered working at restaurants, like Diane Thomas (Romancing the Stone). I guess her story probably could have had a happier ending if she didn’t die in a car crash, but you get my point. During that time, I churned out a bunch of scripts, but I wasn’t getting any real industry affirmation that I was any good. And that’s because at that point I wasn’t. I would only realize that later. But, what I would learn is to become good – you have to put in the work. It wasn’t going to just happen. No one was going to give it me. I don’t know if I would have been able to do that if I had a real job and was concerned with a 401k. Now that I think about it, I’ve never really been concerned with a 401k, which probably isn’t that bad of a thing given the state of the current economy.

In 2002, you made a short spoof. What was that project like? What exposure did it provide you?

At the time, stories were floating around of guys getting attention through spoofs. I think George Lucas in Love was the one that sort of kicked that off. I decided to spoof The Fast and the Furious. It was called The Slow and the Cautious. It was about two fat guys who race go-karts for pizza. It starred Jorge Garcia (who later landed a leading role on Lost).

Making it was a lot of fun. I had no money and no idea what I was doing. But I was able to fake it well enough to get through it. And luckily, it turned out okay. You’re probably starting to see a theme emerge where I just jump into things before I really think it through.

The night before it was going to premiere on IFILM I emailed just about everyone in the Hollywood Creative Directory to let people know about it. One response I received said, “Good luck with your opening tomorrow, I hope you have as much success as we did,” cordially Doug Claybourne – executive producer, The Fast and the Furious. He watched the short and liked it enough to ask me to send him a couple of copies so he could forward them to Rob Cohen and Vin Diesel. I ended up getting some decent exposure from it and a handful of requests to read my stuff. Unfortunately, I probably still wasn’t quite ready to seize my opportunity. Doug and I remain in touch to this day though.

The next year, you convinced a friend of a friend to hire you to write a screenplay for them. This was a paid gig, correct? How did that go? What was the process like and how did the script turn out?

An Indian financier wanted to have a screenplay written about the conflict in Kashmir. He asked a friend of mine to find a writer for the project. Luckily for me, I was the only writer my friend knew – especially since it was a paying gig and I only write comedy.

I met with the financier and he laid out what he wanted. He had a pretty specific idea in mind. I took notes and asked some questions. We discussed the main story points. It was my job to connect the dots and add dialogue, more or less.

The deal was two drafts. He paid me half to begin writing and the rest when I turned in the second draft. The first check cleared so I was good to go. We didn’t have a contract or lawyer involved. At the time, if someone offered me money to write the yellow pages into a script, I would have done it.

I went off, did a ton of research, and wrote it. I found out everything I could in regards to the region that was necessary to tell the story. Because the story was set against the backdrop of the conflict in the region, it wasn’t necessary that I became an expert – I just needed to know who the players were and what the region was like. I didn’t have the luxury Simon Beaufoy had when he wrote Slumdog. I wasn’t getting paid that much. I wrote the script in about a month and turned it in.

Even though I’m a comedy writer, I didn’t find the story all that difficult to write. It wasn’t going to win an Oscar, but I was pleased with how it turned out even though I was switching genres. To me, all stories have the same thing in common – conflict. A comedy guy just sees conflict as funny. So, in this story when someone got blown up, I couldn’t laugh about it. I had to take that shit seriously.

I turned the script in and the financier was pretty happy. His big notes for the second draft was, “more sex.” Welcome to development. That note was great. Here I am trying to come up with a cool theme, good arcs and awesome subplots – he says, “more sex.” And that’s what he got. In a scene in the first draft where I had the two leads kiss – in the second draft, they boned. Hey, I was a writer for hire. He was paying for my services and it was my responsibility to give him what he wanted. As for how the script turned out – the financier liked it and that’s all that mattered. But I won’t be using it as a sample. The man went back to India and I have no idea what ever came of it.

In 2004 you wrote another script. How had your writing process changed? And it landed you a manager. You’ve said that it didn’t get things rolling for you like you would have thought. What played out?

Before 2004, I wasn’t writing big idea scripts. I was writing too small and it’s probably why I wasn’t breaking in. That or I still wasn’t that good. Maybe both. So, in 2004 when I wrote what I think was my first truly big concept, industry folk began to request it. It landed me a manager and I had my first experience of having a script go wide. The script didn’t sell out of the gates but was optioned by Rich Hull (Daddy Day Camp). It also led to my first series of meetings with development execs at various production companies. I learned that to get people’s attention you really need a killer concept. I started to see how much Hollywood needed to be able to convey your idea on a movie poster. Rich’s plan with the script was to take it to various studios and try to sell it as part of a slate of films. I did an additional pass on the script and let Rich run with it. Nothing ended up happening and a year later, the script was mine again.

The following year, 2005, you made a feature length film. What did all of this entail? How was production? What did you learn from the whole process, particularly as a writer?

After watching a couple of scripts go out and die a slow death, I reasoned that if I had a feature film produced, perhaps people would take me more seriously. I had directed another short at this point as well and I was starting to get a bit of the director bug. Not the one where you berate crew and have a God complex – the one where it’s really fun to shape your work into something that will later appear on screen. So, in January of that year, my wife and I set out to make an independent film. We chose a script of mine that we could make for not much money. The budget was $1.5 million, but we made a deal to ourselves that we would shoot it in the summer no matter how much money we had. I was a big fan of Ed Burns and Kevin Smith – I knew we could do it for next to nothing if we had to. Well, we had to. We went out and started asking everyone we knew for money. My dad was our first investor despite his reservations with what I chose to do with my life. When the summer came around, we only had $190,000. But my wife and I had a deal and we stuck to it. We made it work. We had to. It was awesome. I shot You Did What? over four weeks and worked with some really talented people. My wife, Kathy Wagner (Wonder Years, How High), starred in the film with some great actors, like Ian Gomez (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and A.J. Buckley (CSI New York). I’m extremely proud of what we pulled off – especially considering the limited resources.

Where I really learned the most during that process about writing was in the editing room. I began to realize how much you really don’t need in a script. You see what is going to work on film and what won’t. You also see how important it is to make sure your script is one hundred percent ready to go before you have cameras ready to roll and actors ready to say your lines. My writing improved exponentially after that.

And were you able to keep writing during the making of your film?

I wasn’t able to write while I was shooting or editing – I was just too busy between wearing a director, writer and producer hat. When the film was completed and we started playing festivals and looking for distribution, I quickly began writing again. I knew if the movie received any kind of attention, I would need to have a new script ready. Because You Did What? was a romantic comedy, I didn’t think it would be smart to follow up with an action comedy. I wrote a script called Right Next Door – it’s about a newlywed groom on a quest to consummate his marriage, but must conquer his bride’s extremely overprotective parents first.

Your film played in a number of festivals in 2006 and you got some meetings off it. Did much happen?

We had a fun festival run. We won some awards. Traveled all over the country. Went to some great parties – including one thrown by Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago for the Palm Beach International Film Festival. We felt big time, but no, not much happened. I started to realize that even though I had an indie feature under my belt, I was competing against guys who had $20 million films under their belt. I still needed to have a script that got everyone’s attention.

I shouldn’t say that nothing happened as a result of making the film. The film received distribution and I had a lot of people willing to read my material. It just didn’t lead directly to a paying job.

In 2007 you signed with new management representation. Who with, and how did this all come about? How were things different this time compared with your first manager? And at the time, did you feel comfortable with having only a manager and no agent?

Right Next Door landed me representation at Zero Gravity. That happened through a simple query letter. I guess the big difference between my old manager and Zero Gravity was that Zero Gravity was much more connected. When we went wide with that script, it was read by a lot more people and it led to more meetings. I thought Zero Gravity gave better story notes too. They taught me to not hold back. They really pushed me to take chances with that script, and trust me – we took some chances. Too often writers limit themselves.

At the time Right Next Door went wide, I had a small agency on board. But that didn’t work out so well for a bunch of different reasons – so I’m not going to say who it was. After the script went out and didn’t sell, the agent and I quickly parted ways.

One of the meetings landed you an opportunity to write a script based on an idea you had. You showed it to a company, they liked it and it started getting passed up the chain. But at the same time, in early 2008, the same company asked you to write a different script for them based on an idea they had. What was that process like? How did it all play out?

In every meeting, execs ask what ideas you have or are working on. In a meeting with Davis Entertainment, I pitched an idea to an exec that he absolutely loved. The exec at Davis passed the idea on to the president of the company and he loved it too. They asked if they could develop the idea with me. This is one of the most successful production companies in town – their films have grossed $6 billion. I jumped at the chance. The execs were great and I learned a lot from them. We had a lot of fun developing that script.

When the script was finished, the execs took it to all the studios and tried to set it up. Unfortunately, it didn’t sell. But, right after we finished that project, the execs approached me about an idea they had. I pitched my take to John Davis and he bought it out of his discretionary fund at Fox. After the birth of my two children and my wedding day, it was probably the greatest day of my life.

Once the deal was announced in the trades, did everything change? What new challenges did you face? What projects, rewrites, and/or assignments have come along? Or have you been focusing on your own ideas and writing specs?

After the articles came out in Variety and Hollywood Reporter, I had the hardest time keeping women and fans away. It was crazy. Everywhere I went there were autograph hounds and paparazzi.

Okay, that didn’t actually happen.

Since the articles came out, I’ve spent a lot of time working on the Untitled Jeff Morris Project to get it to a place Fox will be happy with it. Having a major studio hire me added more legitimacy to me as a writer. I’m now in a position where I’m up for rewrites and assignments. I also spent time working on a new spec that I’m pretty excited about.

What is your relationship like with your current representation? Do you talk often? Is there a lot of feedback?

A few months ago, I parted ways with Zero Gravity and I signed with Julie Bloom at Art/Work Entertainment. Julie is awesome. I seriously can’t describe how great she is. We talk just about every day. She’s constantly working on my behalf to keep things moving forward. If a producer reads a script of mine or I’m up for a job, anything she knows, she lets me know.

Was it difficult or awkward to part ways with ZG? And how did you end up deciding on Julie? What was your process for finding a new rep?

It was extremely difficult to leave ZG. I learned a lot from them and I considered my manager a friend. When I started looking for a new manager, I went back to the tried and true query letter armed with a new spec. Julie was one of several managers who responded. It was great to be able to choose who I wanted to sign with, but it was a no-brainer. I met with Julie and we absolutely hit it off. It was an easy choice.

Why no agent at this time? Or even an entertainment lawyer? What’s your position on just having a manager?

For the most part, I’ve always had just a manager. I like the closeness of the relationship. I like being able to bounce ideas off someone. And I’ve never felt like I haven’t had access or was unable to be read. Because I had such an unproductive experience with my previous agent, I didn’t want to just bring on an agent for the sake of having one. But with the response I’ve received from the latest spec, I have some agency meetings coming up. We’ll see if one of them is a good fit for me. Luckily, I have a big law firm on my side and a fellow surfer as my lawyer representing me to do the legal stuff. I’m represented by Julian Zajfen at Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca, Fischer, Gilbert-Lurie, Stiffelman & Cook. I know, a mouthful.

What about feedback on your work? How do you handle that? And who do you rely on most for feedback on your writing?

I think I handle feedback pretty well. I’ve always had thick skin. But more than that, I welcome feedback. A fresh set of eyes is crucial to work you inevitably grow too close to. And you never know when you might get a great idea that you’ll get to pass off as your own. For me, when I finish a new script, I have my wife, family and fellow writer friends read it. I even let my wife’s grandparents read it. (They do not like the profanity.) Once it gets to a place where I’m happy with it, I turn it over to my manager. I really try to look at every note from every angle and try to see if there is some validity to it. If I get the same note from several people, I know they are on to something. When I filter notes, I try to be as subjective as possible. I ask myself if I think the note is a personal taste issue or something legitimate. If I’m unsure, I’ll run the note by my readers to see if they thought the same thing but didn’t vocalize it the first time around. I don’t just hack away on my script every time someone has a different opinion. At the end of the day, it’s my job to be the arbitrator. But, I definitely give every note serious consideration because I want the script to be the absolute best it can be when it’s time to go out.

What’s a typical writing day like for you?

My son (two years old) wakes me up around six. We have breakfast together. He watches Blue’s Clues and I check the surf report. If there are waves, I quickly turn parenting responsibilities over to my wife and I go surf. When I get back, I make a huge pot of coffee and get to work in my office. Okay, that’s probably not entirely true. I dick around on the Internet a tad too much before settling in. (I completely blame Done Deal for that!) I’ll work for a couple of hours and then take lunch. After lunch, I make another huge pot of coffee and work for a few more hours. I mix in some time to play with my kids. After my kids go to bed, if I still have something I want to work on, I’ll work till ten or eleven before calling it a night.

How do you prepare before you begin writing a script?

The first thing I do is come up with a logline. As soon as I like the logline, I spend a couple of days pitching the log to my friends to see what kind of reaction I get. Because I write comedy, if my logline makes them laugh, it’s pretty easy to see if it’s an idea worth pursuing. It’s a lot like telling a joke. After that, I’ll do a loose outline and write a treatment. If I’m happy with it, I’ll go off and write the script.

And how long is this overall process for each script? How quickly do you write?

I write quickly. Outline and treatment – a few days. A first draft of the script – three to four weeks. I’ll then spend the next week getting it to a place where I’m comfortable showing it to my trusted group of readers, who won’t pull any punches.

How do you approach rewrites? Any method or path that you typically follow?

If the logline, outline and treatments were any good, the first draft should be pretty easy to write. The structure should work. Any significant problems should have already been identified. I try to write the first draft as quickly as I can. The heavy lifting comes after I get what’s in my head onto the page. The first thing I do when it’s time for rewrites is a fat pass where I try to cut as much fat as I can. Then I’ll do a pass where I look at nothing but action and description and try to make sure the words really fly off the page. Next is a dialogue pass to make it as snappy as possible. Then I’ll do a comedy pass. I’ll then print the script and go to a coffee shop and read it straight through. If it flows and I’m generally happy with it, I let my friends and family begin reading. I’ll then evaluate the notes and thoughts they have and proceed from there.

What things do you feel more writers need to know about breaking into the industry?

I wish more writers knew it takes a really long time to develop their craft. It doesn’t happen until you’ve written thousands of pages. Okay, maybe for some people – just not most. If someone wants to pursue screenwriting, don’t do it half ass. Give yourself a fighting chance. Outwork the other guy. I’d also say early on, pick a genre and stick to it. Assuming you do it well. Read every script and see every movie in your genre that you can. Those are the people you are competing against. Oh, and if you can marry rich – definitely do it. That will really help free you up to write more.

What are you working on next?

Besides my golf game? I’m out with a new comedy spec as we speak. The response has been incredible and fingers crossed it sells. After this, I’ll be getting back into the assignment/rewrite game.

 


 

 

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