|Josh Dobkin was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, but grew up in Pittsburgh. He graduated from the film school Full Sail in Orlando. A month after graduation he moved to Los Angeles and started working as an on-set production assistant on Without a Trace. Shortly after that he landed at Scrubs and has been the Art Department coordinator since the end of Season 5. His sale of The Field to Stone Village hit the trades this past January. Josh and his writing partner are repped by Langley Perer at Benderspink.
You’re from Pittsburgh. What was it like growing up there? When do you remember first becoming interested in film? Writing?
Being from Pittsburgh it’s pretty much a written law that I am by nature a Steelers fan. It’s a birth right passed down from generation to generation. I’m part of an exclusive club, the born-and-bred Steelers fan. Every city, every state I’ve been to, all I’ve had to do was wear a Steelers hat and I’d find a friend. Football was a way of life; the thing I’d look forward to most in the Burgh was football season. All the other days are just building up to the next season. I’m not even joking. That town lives on football.
The weather is absolute shit back home—it’s neck-and-neck with Seattle for the fewest days of sunshine. If it isn’t raining it’s snowing, and if it isn’t doing either of those it’s just gray. The sky has this grayish hue all year! It really fucks with your head, because 8 a.m. looks just like 7 p.m. Your brain can’t compute whether it’s day or night, and you get this seasonal depression that makes you wanna hole up in the house and do nothing. So outdoor activities are kind of limited, and the majority of free time is spent either in the bar or watching a flick. I love the Burgh though… Steelers, Michael Keaton (the real Batman), and Mr. Rogers. What is there not to like?
I have a creative family (that’s a kind way of saying “bat-shit crazy”) and I get it from both sides. I got the Sicilians and Irish on my mother’s side and the Russians on my dad’s side. How someone hasn’t wound up with a life-threatening injury at a family dinner is beyond me. We fight, we yell, we curse like sailors… and that’s the women. OK, it’s not that bad, but they are a fun group. They’re all a little crazy in their own way, so when I said I wanted to go make movies they embraced it. I think most dads would’ve instantly gone to “So what are you gay or something?” But my dad was cool with it, actually encouraged it.
I really can’t put my finger on one shining example of when I was like, yeah, I’m going to make movies. I’ve had so much exposure to films my entire life that it was ingrained in my mind. I used to run around with my dad’s camcorder and make horrible war movies (kids in camo shooting pellet guns filled with baby powder—for the smoke, ya know) to awful horror movies that might border on demented. More than likely I would’ve had to seek counseling by today’s standards.
Did you study film and writing in college? Where did you go to school?
I didn’t originally, because I didn’t know you could actually make a living in this business. For me, and I think most people can relate, Hollywood was so distant, so exclusive, a club I’d never get invited into. As far as I knew you had to be born into that lifestyle. So when I went to school I picked something reasonable and more attainable, computer science. It was about a year and a half into it when I realized I loathed programming and was horrible at it… but I was having a fun time writing for my lit classes and getting great grades in them.
I was never really a “great” student. But I could usually bullshit my way through a report by manipulating the words on the page. I might not really know what the hell I’m writing about, but bet your ass it’s going to seem like I do on paper.
I quit school and moved back home to work and sort through some personal stuff, e.g., what the hell do I want to do with the rest of my life. I still haven’t figured everything out. But one day when I was watching cable a movie came on called Clay Pigeons, and in the opening, the credit was “A film by David Dobkin” and I just about shit. I thought to myself, “Who the hell is this guy and how is a guy with my last name making movies?” I started looking at film schools and programs with the thought that I could do it too. I had someone on the inside, a Dobkin. This guy can get me the golden ticket. I can make it!
So I picked an “intensive” film program (i.e., “expensive”) down in Orlando called Full Sail. While I was there I had some correspondence with his assistant, which I completely geeked on at the time. In my mind I was making headway, people were going to know me when I moved out to L.A. I’d have no trouble finding work… What the fuck was I thinking!? Right about halfway through film school Wedding Crashers came out and did HUGE money. All of a sudden this guy who might be my eighth cousin twice removed was a hot director. My correspondence went from “Hey, how you doing” to “Hey, what the fuck do you want?” in the blink of an eye. And to clarify, I didn’t expect to be catapulted to the upper echelons overnight. My real thought was this guy knows the ropes—maybe dude can shed some light on how to get started getting an entry level job. I’m a dreamer but I’m not delusional.
Tell us about writing your first feature script. What was your approach?
Umm, I had no approach, man. The writing class at my school kind of blew. Maybe it’s better now, but that school is a technical school first and foremost. I can load a 35 Panavision mag in the dark because of them, but they didn’t teach us jackshit about story or structure. I did what came naturally, bullshit my way through it and never actually finished it. The script 1706 was a supernatural thriller similar to Poltergeist. I still like the concept I had, but damn was the execution awful. No beat sheet, no outline, nothing. I just went into it blind and started typing. Because I walked into a feature script ill-prepared it fell apart during the second act and never got finished.
What was it like for you moving to Los Angeles? And what prompted you to make the move?
TERRIFYING!! What the hell did I know coming out here? I’d never even been to Los Angeles and I didn’t know anyone who lived here. All I knew about the town was what I’d watched on TV and film. You know that shootout in Predator 2 where Danny Glover battles the Mexican drug lords? Yeah, that was my idea of L.A. before I came out here.
If I wasn’t motivated (aka “pushed”) by my amazing girlfriend to move out here, I might not have. It’s a scary thought to pack up and leave with all these hopes and dreams, and the real possibility that they might fall to shit. I mean, it’s great to have that dream, that goal. But once you come out here—and I hate to say it—FAIL! It’s gone. If you never came out here at least you could still hold on to that and protect it. When you put it out there for the world you can’t protect it anymore, it becomes real. Did I mention the move out here was terrifying?
You worked on Scrubs. What was your experience like, and what did you do exactly? How did the job come about?
At one point I think I called and faxed my resume to every active production in Los Angeles. I day-played on a bunch of shows when I moved out here and eventually wound up getting a day-player call for Scrubs. At the end of the week they offered me a job full time, and the rest has been history. I’ve been coordinating the Art Department for Scrubs since Season 5, and I actually still work on the show. We’re shooting our ninth season right now. I’m also the Art Department coordinator on the new ABC show Cougar Town, starring Courteney Cox.
Side bar/geek moment: I did get to meet John Favreau on the show once. He was scouting our stage for the pilot he shot, In Case of Emergency. I totally geeked out and froze up. Nice guy, though.
In January 2009, you and your writing partner Sean Wathen sold your spec script The Field to Stone Village Pictures. Can you tell us a little about the script? What was the genesis of the idea? What was the collaborative process like?
The whole idea came about while we were sitting in traffic to and from the San Diego Comic-Con (and that is a long-ass time). We just started talking about old horror movies and the things that used to scare us when we were younger. One of the experiences we both shared was wandering off into a corn field at night and getting lost. Your mind races out there in the dark when you’re young. Anything and everything is possible, the scariest creature from a movie you watched could be sitting right in front of you. So we just ran with it. We sat down and threw every idea out there, a whole book of “what ifs.” Once we had that, we started working out the story. Why are we in this field, who are these people we’re with, and what is the outcome when and if we reach the end of this journey?
I think the reason the script resonated with people is the setting and simplicity of the situation the characters are in. It’s a setting most people can visualize when they’re reading through it. Everyone has an idea in their head of a “field,” and everyone knows what its like to feel lost and alone. Layer in the horror elements—a group of strangers, something in the darkness hunting you, obstacles with tragic consequences—and the thing kind of writes itself.
This was truly our first collaborative project together. We would always work through our individual projects together, but never once had we sat down and started a brand new concept together. So in essence all the previous scripts were just dates, and this was the first one where we, uh… did it.
Once the deal was announced, did you and Sean take a lot of meetings? How did your lives change?
The sale hit the trades in January. I don’t know if you’re aware (sarcasm), but that’s right about the time the economy and spec market kind of took a giant shit. Phone calls were made to our manager, people seeing who we are and what we’re about. But a ton of meetings and assignments didn’t happen.
The way our script “sold” was different. It was by happenstance really. We never put it out there with the intention to sell immediately. We were passing it around to different management companies trying to secure representation. It was sitting on someone’s desk and Stone Village placed a call looking for a good contained thriller, and that’s how they wound up with it. The script never went out wide because the offer came in before we were ready to take it out. So we missed the exposure that usually happens when you take a script out. That’s how general meetings usually happen—people are exposed to your writing and want to hear what else you have to say/write about.
Life hasn’t changed, truthfully. I’m still working on Scrubs, and Sean is still over at House. It’s nice to have your hard work validated by your peers, but financially there was no massive windfall. We still have to “make the donuts” day to day.
The best thing to happen from that deal was the confidence it gave us going into our next project. Knowing that you’ve already delivered a script that was enjoyed by people is an ego booster. It makes it easier to trust your instinct and write from your gut.
What advantages do you find in working with a writing partner? What does each of you bring to the table? How do you complement one another in terms of writing? How do you work out creative differences?
We both like the same kinds of material, for the most part. So when we’re writing it, we tend to agree on what should stay and what should go. The usual argument is when I get in there and start trimming. Occasionally it’s something that Sean really liked and I have to explain why I just cut that scene he wrote. We fight like an old married couple where we’ll just walk away from it and eventually come back and agree that it was a stupid argument. If that doesn’t work, then I bribe him with food.
When you write as a team you have someone there to help you break through that wall you just hit or help out with the heavy lifting. He’s married and I’ve been with the same girl for 14 years, so we’re both aware of what it’s like to be in a partnership. It’s not always perfect, but no relationship is. At least when he and I fight I can smack him around a little bit.
And along the lines of the last question, how do you two write together? Same room? Do you split up the script? Or do you work on each scene in order together?
We outline the script in the same room and try to go over every detail. That’s something I fought him on for the longest time because I used to hate outlining. I occasionally play poker with Kevin Smith, and he is totally off the cuff when he writes—no formal outline on paper. I thought I could do that too. I can’t.
We go through the entire story together and get it down on paper in basic terms: character bios, outline, and a beat sheet. Then someone has to man up and do the heavy lifting, usually Sean. He’ll get one full rough draft done solo and hand it off to me. I’ll go and do some scene sculpting on his draft, and then we’ll both come together to review. Then we do the same thing again, he does a second pass and so will I. Finally on the third pass we’ll come together and put finishing touches on.
You currently have a manager. How did you find representation with them? And what is your relationship like? Do you talk often? Is there a lot of feedback?
We landed over at Benderspink with Langley Perer. And to be truthful it was a blind query and I picked her name from their company directory because she’s from Pittsburgh. Gotta love hometown pride! It was a lucky guess. She rocks—see recent cover of THR.
When we got something in the works, we trade back and forth through the whole process, from the beginning concept through the outline and the final script. But through that whole process the notes are usually pretty minimal. If something’s not working she’ll tell us, but she never forces a direction on us whatsoever. Notes are subjective though, no matter who you get them from. If you keep getting a note on the same thing over and over again, each person would have a different way to fix it. If you hang on every word you’ll go goofy. The job is to address the area and move on. Take whatever is bothering people and remove it or fix it. How you go about it is up to you.
Do you do much research when preparing to write a script? Do you travel? Take tours? Visit libraries?
I wish, man. We’re just not at that level yet where if we want to write a story that takes place in Mexico we go to Mexico. Reading is the fundamental, cheapest and most accessible research out there.
What about feedback on your work? How do you handle that? Do you rely much on feedback from friends and/or your manager?
As long as it’s good feedback I love it—please shower me with praise. Actually that’s a lie, and I’d rather hear the truth. The purpose of a screenplay is to eventually become a movie. If you hate it on page, you’re gonna loathe it when it’s 40 feet tall.
We pay close attention to what everyone has to say. The manager shapes it into a sellable piece of material, they make it “a movie.” They’re the pros, they want your script to be the best it can be. Friends and family will generally sugarcoat it, but when they tell you something is off, it's WAY the fuck off. So yes, feedback is important.
This is the one gray area though, because again, everyone’s opinion is different and you can’t please everyone. I trust in a select few and will constantly rely on them. Sure there are times I don’t agree with some of their notes, but I expect it. If I can at least explain WHY I want to keep something in, then I will. If I find myself unable to explain why I’m right and they’re wrong, I’m probably wrong and it needs to change.
You hear a lot from working writers that after they sell that first (spec) script, a lot of what they do is rewrites, assignments, and work on other people’s ideas. What is your focus like now?
Assignments aren’t as prevalent as they used to be. You have top-tier guys competing for every scrap out there right now, so it's fucking brutal when you’re at the bottom. The game is changing and I’m not sure anyone has a definite answer on where it’s going to wind up. Branded material is king, and those gigs go to the top guns. Specs are selling, just not like they used to be. I wish I had the answer on what’s going to happen for us next, but I just don’t. We’ve got two specs we’re working through right now and a couple that are on standby.
What’s a typical writing day like for you?
Ha! Before I started coordinating two TV shows it was filled with writing. Early morning cup of coffee, a couple hours of writing (aka Internet surfing)… basically I find every distraction within 20 feet and do that. Guitars, Xbox, Internet—all productivity killers.
But I do make an effort to make it a job. I treat it just like going to work on Scrubs, because in the end you want this to be your job, your career. So I take it seriously. Out of bed early, right into the shower, coffee, clean clothes and work until lunch. I take a break, try to clear my head, and get back into it for a couple hours before I close out at 6. That’s an ideal situation, and it very rarely happens just like that. Sometimes I get that lighting strike at 10 p.m. and go on an assault till 3 a.m., cranking out 25 pages. It comes in waves. One day it’s three pages, next week I catch a break and do 25 in one day.
When I’m on hiatus I have more of a routine. But when the shows are in production I find time wherever I can.
How do you approach rewrites? Any method or path that you typically follow?
Writing is hard, rewriting is painfully hard. It really is like treading through a bog over and over again. It just keeps getting more painful on every pass through the bog. This is the area where having a writing partner can really get you over the hurdles. It’s writing like a micro-surgeon, every little piece cut and stitched to get it pumping like a well-oiled machine. The only thing that keeps me moving is that I know it will be better when we’re done with the rewrites.
I red-pen the script like a madman to figure out where I need to go on the next pass. It looks like a football schematic with X’s and O’s all over the place and giant arrows pointing where things need to be moved. Eventually scenes wind up on note cards, and we lay out the entire script from start to finish. Visual aids are great! Pacing, story arcs, set pieces all laid out in front of you. It’s editing before the movie is shot.
What things do you feel more writers need to recognize about themselves and/or the industry?
The harsh reality is that most people, myself included, probably won’t make that huge life-changing sale. There are so many talented people out there that at a certain point talent will only get you so far. It’s the writer that has the determination first and the talent second that rises to the top. You have to love what you’re doing wholeheartedly, enough that no matter how many times you hear no, you still drive forward in search of that yes. I love the line from Rocky Balboa, something like, “It’s not how hard you can hit, it’s how hard you can get hit and keep getting up”—something to that effect.
I remember when our sale hit and there was a website, I think it was Empire UK, and a couple people bashed us saying “Imagine that, another pair of connected Hollywood people breaking in.” Sean and I had TV show credits listed in our article, and in some way us working in TV magically got us a leg up. It didn’t! Without the time spent networking, writing, querying, reading trade magazines, we wouldn’t have made any progress. The fact is we put in the time, the hard work, and the long hours. Sixteen-hour days aren’t fun, being rejected over and over again isn’t fun, paying $1,700 for rent BLOWS! I almost went broke out here and had to move home before I got my first gig. I spent nearly all my savings, got turned down for work left and right, and almost had to pack up and call it quits. But we put ourselves out there and worked our asses off for it. We made sacrifices to make this industry our lives, living and breathing it every day. It’s hard, but anything worth fighting for is, and we love it.
I’ve watched a lot of friends flame out and move back home… good friends. This town is brutal; you have to earn your right to survive out here, and we’re still fighting for that right.
What are you working on next? Spec scripts? Assignments?
I have a solo script I wrote that Sean and I are working into a graphic novel series. It’s an outbreak/vampire series that I really love. I have some prelim artwork done, and its pretty amazing. The things artists can do always blow me away. I wish I had that ability to put the images I see onto paper when I’m writing. All I can do is type.
Right now we’re working on a contained supernatural thriller and a big action sci-fi spec. We’re both huge Battlestar Galactica/Ronald Moore fans and would love to do something in the realm of BSG. I can only hope we get close to the level of awesome they delivered with the Battlestar series.
Finally, what are some things you know now that you wish you’d known when you were first starting out?
I wish I would have started sooner, I love this job.