|Carter Blanchard grew up in Connecticut and studied film at Boston University, where he won a Sumner Redstone Award for his student film, “Frigid & Impotent.” After graduating, he moved to Los Angeles and worked for NBC and 20th Century Fox before selling his first script two years later. He’s sold many scripts and pitches since then and wrote for the USA TV series, “G vs. E.” New Line Cinema bought his spec “Bedbugs” with a pre-emptive bid in 2005 and his sci-fi thriller, “Near Death,” was optioned by Fox Searchlight this June. He is repped by UTA, Kaplan/Perrone Entertainment and attorney Peter Grossman.
Where did you grow up?
Middletown, Connecticut, next to a dairy farm at the edge of town with lots of forests to run around in. It was a great place to grow up. My mom still lives in the same house and I’ve been fortunate to have that connection to my childhood all these years. It remains a powerful source of inspiration.
Have you always been interested in writing? What first got you started?
I was never that interested in writing when I was younger. My dad was an artist and I have always been much more visual than literal. I loved to draw as a kid and made my own comic books and I was only interested in directing in the beginning. Then I moved to L.A. after college, got P.A. work and had very little time or money to make a calling-card film with. Writing was free and I could manage to squeeze in a few hours every day to do it, plus weekends. So I decided to write a feature script and if it was any good, attach myself to direct it. That sounds absurd to me now, knowing how bad a writer I was then, but that’s the kind of attitude you need when you’re starting out or you’ll never even try to do it.
I came up with an idea on the drive cross-country, then started writing it three days after getting to LA. By the time I finished, I was working as a P.A. on “Saved by the Bell.” My script sucked, but several of the staff writers were kind enough to read it and they all encouraged me to keep writing. I learned a lot just by going through the entire process; writing the script, getting people to read it and being receptive of their feedback. I did a few rewrites, found a list of agents who read unsolicited material and mailed a dozen or so copies off. I hand-delivered it to one agent who had an office near Hollywood and Vine. I still remember this frazzled guy surrounded by towering Seussian stacks of screenplays telling me to leave it on a chair. I got rejected or ignored by all of them, but by then I was already writing the next one, which I was very excited about. Writing that one was a completely different experience than my first script. That’s when I got hooked on screenwriting.
Did you ever formally study screenwriting? Filmmaking?
I went to Boston University. I was a business major for lack of a better idea and hated it. I dreaded the idea of going to work in an office every day, so I started exploring my options. My parents told me to think about what I loved as a kid, which were comic books and movies. I found out B.U. had a good film program, but it was also very difficult to get into, so my plan was to finish business school, then go to grad school for film somewhere else. Then my father died suddenly and it was a huge wake-up call for me. At a young age, I suddenly was all-too aware that life is short and didn’t want to waste another minute of my life in business school. So I applied to the film program and with the help of a sympathetic school counselor, I got in. Once I took my first filmmaking class, it was like falling down the rabbit hole. School was suddenly an amazing experience with really cool people who’d get together after class and talk about movies. It was very communal with a healthy competition. We’d go to this little theater located directly behind the school to catch the latest independent film. I saw “Blue Velvet” there which had a huge impact on me, as did “Repo Man,” “Sid & Nancy” and “Betty Blue.”
I never took any writing classes in school. The only writing class I ever took was a weekend seminar in Boston. That teacher had us all read the screenplay of “Witness” after the first day. The next day we watched the movie. That’s an excellent learning tool, by the way, especially for young writers. You start to get a real sense of how words on the page translate to images on the screen. Besides that, just read spec scripts. Lots of them. Get a job doing story coverage. I got a job as a producer’s assistant at 20th Century Fox. My boss was behind on his reading by roughly 150 scripts and dumped them all on my desk my first day. He gave me three months to do full coverage on all of them. You’ll learn a lot about writing by doing that. You mostly learn what not to do, much more than what to do, but that’s just as valuable when you’re starting out. You start developing a sense of why a story works or not and you learn what to avoid doing with your own writing.
Beyond that, I read Syd Field and other how-to books… “How to write a screenplay in 10 days,” stuff like that. “Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It” is brilliant. John Truby had a very helpful video seminar that focused on the hero’s journey in I think twenty-one steps… it borrowed a lot from Joseph Campbell’s theories, but boiled them down into an easily-digestible formula that got me past where I was stuck developmentally at the time and led to me writing my first script that sold.
Tell us about writing your first script. What was your approach like?
Writing my first script was extremely difficult. Just getting used to the formatting was a pain in the ass. There was no Final Draft software that I knew of yet, so I’d count the tab clicks to get the character name to mid-page, then again with every line of dialogue. I had no clue of how to structure a script from start to finish yet, so I focused on writing scenes that held my interest, one after the other with only a vague idea of where I was heading. A lot of scenes would end up being 12 pages long and like short film scripts in their own right. I struggled my first few years with whether I had the chops to do this. It was just so incredibly difficult. But for some reason, I never quit. I think it all went back to my business school fear of having to work in an office 9-to-5. I was so terrified of that possibility that I just put my head down and kept moving forward no matter what. Fear is a powerful motivator.
Approach-wise, I think I emulated bits of everything I was observing in my own life and books I was reading, movies I’d just seen. Though my first script wasn’t great, I got a lot of beginner’s mistakes out of my system. I still have my first rejection letter in a file somewhere, but for years it was taped above my desk for motivation. Rejection motivates me 2nd to fear. I don’t like anyone telling me I can’t do something. I become hellbent on proving them wrong.
I consider my second script to be my first real script. It was based on my student film, “Frigid & Impotent,” which is about two sexually-frustrated serial killers who fall in love. The first draft was completely insane and all over the place, but it got a real reaction from a few people who read it. But it needed a ton of work and a friend from college was starting to write as well and loved it, so we decided to team up. Our strengths and weaknesses counter-balanced effectively. After a year of intensive work, we got an agent with that script, but I really missed writing on my own and decided to go back to that. But we’ve both done well since then and I’m pretty sure writing together at that point in time speeded up the learning process for both of us.
I sold my next script, “Blind Spot,” to USA TV. It was a modest deal, but I made enough to quit my day job. Then I got a lot of small-money jobs in a row. I remember getting a few grand writing treatments for sequels like “Hellraiser 3” and “Hardware 2”… they never used them, but I was getting paid to write. When you’re starting out, take any job you can get. I wrote one script for next to nothing for a producer, but later, as a sample, it got me two jobs with Jean-Claude Van Damme and a first class trip to Morocco to do dialogue tweaks for him on “Legionnaire.” The best part was when he called me during the Super Bowl one year and left a message on my answering machine referring to me as “Carver.” For some reason, that’s what he always called me. I had a bunch of friends over for the game and the roof came down when they heard that. They still call me Carver. But what action junky doesn’t have a soft spot for “Kickboxer” or “Bloodsport?” He was a good guy and fun to work with.
What drew you to the movie business?
“Jaws.” Period. I was obsessed with sharks as a kid, but when “Jaws” came out my mom wouldn’t let me see it because my older sister told her it was too violent for me (she still hears about it to this day). To make matters worse, my mom told my best friend’s mom not to take me to see it, so of course she applied the ban to my friend as well and then we were both screwed. I dedicated that summer to wearing down my mom until she finally caved in the 11th hour; about mid-August. My dad took me to see it at the drive-in. I saw it three more times in two weeks. I actually wrote a script about this whole experience that’s still percolating.
Over the next few years came “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Poltergeist.” “Superman” was also a big inspiration, with Christopher Reeves. It was a great time to be a kid. I started making super-8 films around then. My specialty was stop-motion G.I. Joe movies where he always got the living crap beaten out of him.
In college, I caught “Terminator” and “Mad Max” in a double-feature at the Somerville theater and was blown away. I loved the idea of taking a packed-house full of people on a ride like that. When we showed our finished films in class and then at the school festivals, I got addicted to shocking people… hence, films like “Frigid & Impotent.” I also loved the old “Batman” TV show and super-weird films like “Eraserhead” which led to another short film called “Skippy Binderman” which features the hero kneeing the villain in the balls in slow-motion while a happy little song plays.
You are currently repped by UTA. Who is your agent and what is your relationship like with him or her?
Marty Bowen was my agent for a long time until he left UTA last year to become a producer. Tobin Babst and Adam Weinstein are my agents now. Both of them came up as Marty’s assistants at different times and they’re terrific. They just did a fantastic job selling my spec. It takes a lot of strategy and work. Having good agents is very important, especially these days. UTA is also a team in a lot of ways. I’ve gotten work in the past from other agents. They have an excellent philosophy as an agency and I’ve been very happy there.
Kaplan/Perrone Entertainment is your management firm. What do they bring to the table in terms of representing you that you feel an agent alone can’t provide? And not to put you on the spot, but since this question frequently comes up, how do you feel about managers who are also producers? Does it make it more difficult at times to get a project set up with them attached?
KPE brings everything to the table, including dessert, and then they do the dishes while I go out to play. Agents are there to sell your scripts and pitches… or to sell you and get you work. Managers do that, too, but they’re also very hands-on in the development of everything a writer produces. Sean and Aaron are gifted at story development. They stop me from going too far with my worst impulses and always bring innovative ideas to the table. They know a lot more than I do about what kind of stories people in the industry are looking for. Last, but not least, they crack the whip when I’m screwing off. If you write alone, it’s way too easy to spend more time on fantasy baseball than writing and personally, I think that’s where they’ve helped me most of all. They don’t allow slacking to be a pleasant experience.I resisted the idea of having a manager for a long time. Tobin suggested Kaplan/Perrone many years ago and, as they like to remind me, they called me and I totally blew them off.
A few years later, my career was in a rut and I was approached by another manager who said all the right things at the right time. I told Tobin, who said I should meet with a handful of managers before choosing one and Kaplan/Perrone came up again. I met with them and liked them a lot, but it came down to them and two other managers. I had them all read my new spec, a small, hard-to-sell script about three young friends whose parents weren’t allowing them to see “Jaws” in the summer of ’75 (the one that’s still percolating). Sean and Aaron liked it, but they were honest about its chances of selling. Their notes were spot-on and they’d clearly put in the time and effort to give me thoughtful feedback. The other managers didn’t come close to their immediate response or attention to detail. And they’re still like that today. I’m glad they didn’t hold that unreturned phone call against me. But that’s the kind of people they are. And it reflects in the kind of company they’re building. Last year they hired an outstanding new young manager, Justin Killion, who is well on his way already to a terrific career.
The producing attachment isn’t automatic with them. It depends on the situation. When they supply me with the idea, they’re attached as producers and I’m fine with that because it’s their idea. They also do everything most producers do in developing the script with me. They didn’t come up with the idea for “Near Death” so they never asked for a widespread producer attachment. Fox Searchlight was one of the only places they were attached and they were the right producers for that territory. But I’m thrilled that they’re producing it. They already know the script inside-out and I’m used to working with them. There’s a short-hand between us already and no egos. It’s all about turning out the best possible script.
Also, your attorney is Peter Grossman of Lichter, Grossman, Nichols & Adler. You are as thoroughly represented as a writer can be. How important do you feel it is for a writer to have an attorney along with an agent and/or a manager?
I’ve been with Peter since I signed with UTA. He’s gone above and beyond the call of duty for me many times and is as reliable and consistent as they come. I’m pretty sure you need an attorney to do your contracts. My first agent did my contracts, but I believe there are more legal restrictions on what each of these people can or cannot do as your representative these days. I know that’s the case between managers and agents. Besides, lawyers only get a 5% commission, as opposed to agents and managers, who get 10% each. That’s why screenwriters get paid well when they get work. Between commissions, taxes and the time it takes to write a script as well as find your next job, there’s not a whole lot left. There is a substantial working middle-class of screenwriters. So if you want to make real money and still have your weekends free, go to business school.
What’s a typical writing day like for you?
In theory, I get up by 6 or 6:30, make a pot of coffee and start writing. Around 10-11, I’ll take the dog for a nice walk, have lunch, then write the rest of the afternoon… spend the evening with my girlfriend Joanna and get a good night’s sleep.
In reality, I spend all morning and most of the afternoon doing anything but writing. Then a gripping panic sets in around 4:30 or 5, which gets me to finally start working, right about when Joanna comes home and wants to spend time with me. I gripe about falling behind on my deadline and need to work all night. She sighs and watches TV alone while all the self-inflicted drama somehow fuels me. She deserves better, but she’s stuck with me now. She happened to come up with the idea for “Near Death” and is sharing story credit with me. She’s a very talented writer herself and is currently working on a series of children’s books about our dog Fighter (I had to mention him or he’d be pissed).
Do you outline all your scripts first? Write treatments?
I hated writing treatments in the early years. I’d always say if I ran into plot problems I’d just “write myself out of it” and then inevitably I’d write myself into a corner and have to go back to square one to fix it. The time to see if your story works or not is when you’re writing the outline or treatment. Big beats and major character arcs first, details later.
How do you approach rewrites? Any method or path that you typically follow?
That depends on how much work is involved and if I’m rewriting my own script or somebody else’s. With someone else’s I pull out what works, put that on file cards, then go about creating a new structure as I normally would from scratch… with a stack of ideas for scenes and characters. If it’s my script, I organize the notes in order by act and just start going through it, unless there’s major restructuring to be done. I also have to resist the temptation to rewrite what works just fine out of being too familiar with it. You get bored when you’ve gone over the same scene a thousand times, but one rule to follow blindly is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
In May of 2000, you were hired by Walt Disney to write “Marian and Robin.” It was to be about Marian as the woman behind the man, the one who was really responsible for Robin Hood’s legendary exploits. How did you get this assignment? What was the process like working on it? What ever happened with it?
That one literally fell into my lap. I had a meeting with the executive and producer and they wanted to do Robin Hood in a totally new way. And they meant it. “Frigid & Impotent” was the sample script that got me in the room. We had a terrific meeting, but I think I only said a few things like, “…and Little John should really be short!” and that was it. I had a deal within a few days. All that was great, but then the producer who’d been in the room got bumped off the project by his then-boss, who wanted to stick to the more traditional telling of the story. He kept referring to the old Errol Flynn version and it devolved from there, which is a shame because I think it could’ve been great. Especially after seeing what they did with “Pirates of the Carribean” a few years later. I enjoyed that movie a lot, but the thought kept gnawing at me as I watched it… this is what they wanted "Marian and Robin" to be! If I were in that position again, I’d do the version I was initially hired to write. I definitely didn’t want to write or see an old-fashioned Robin Hood movie and I should’ve been more assertive about that. But so it goes.
You sold your script “Bedbugs” to New Line Cinema in June 2004. It was about a small town infested with bugs, which would burrow inside people at night. Contrafilm’s Beau Flynn & Tripp Vinson were set to produce. Sean Perrone and Aaron Kaplan were executive producers. Then in October of that same year Jonathan Liebesman was hired to direct. Where did the idea for this come from? Where do things stand now?
Sean Perrone threw that idea out at a meeting in its simplest form - “Bedbugs as a horror movie.” A few images soon popped out at me. I’d just had a bad break-up and pictured my ex being eaten alive from the inside-out by these voracious, prehistoric bugs. I’m sure that sounds horrible, but if you’re going to write effective horror, it has to feel personal or the terror won’t resonate. Another image I’d had since childhood is a pretty common one… the fear of an earwig or spider burrowing into my ear while I slept. Those two visions were enough to build a horror movie around. I wrote it on spec in seven weeks and it sold on the first or second day out to New Line via Contrafilm. They hired Jonathan, who developed the rewrites with me. The version I’d written was slightly more camp, whereas Jonathan’s version was more realistic/documentary in feel, like “28 Days Later.” I like both versions for different reasons. But then “Snakes on a Plane” came out of nowhere and more or less pre-empted us. New Line still owns it and I’m not sure what’s happening with it right now, but I love that script and believe it will get made eventually.
In June of this year, you set up “Near Death” at Fox Searchlight Pictures with Aaron Kaplan & Sean Perrone set to produce. What was the genesis for the idea?
The genesis was that Joanna came up with a great idea, I gave it a framework and ran it by Aaron and Sean. They loved the idea but thought it was too generic in its execution. Then Aaron came up with a very cool angle that we all clicked with. But I can’t talk about the plot. I’m not even letting my friends and family read this one, which is a first for me. I can tell you it’s nothing like “Flatliners.” It’s nothing like any movie I’ve seen before, which is why it was so much fun to write.
Currently what are you working on?
Right now I’m taking a lot of meetings and focusing on the rewrite. We’ll see what happens from there.
Do you do much research when preparing to write a script?
When I was starting out, I hated researching, I just wanted to write. Now research is probably my favorite part of the process. How much depends on the story and my existing knowledge about a given subject, but usually I’ll do a few weeks of research up front and then more as needed as I’m writing. In the new script, I did a fair amount of research about near-death experiences. The people who have gone through them are usually changed forever and I didn’t want to write about something like that without doing extensive research. There are a lot of incredible details that didn’t work in the script, but knowing about them informed other choices I made.
Have you done many pitch meetings? How have things gone for you? Do you have any recommendations or pointers for other writers?
I’ve done a lot of pitches. I never like them until they’re over. If I’ve done a good job, it feels great when it’s over and worth all the hell I went through to get there. But I haven’t met a writer yet who likes pitching. We write because we don’t want to perform in front of a room full of people. We’d be actors, otherwise. I’ve always felt writers are just actors who suffer from crippling stage fright. The paranoid side of me suspects the studio execs enjoy making us dance for our money. Otherwise, why not just read the ten-page treatment we’re essentially reading to them? They’re some of the fastest readers on the planet. I’ve heard over and over again that the best pitchers aren’t usually the best writers and the best writers usually can’t pitch. “Adaptation” does a great job of portraying that.
Pitching is all about passion and preparation. I’ve had some great pitches but a few times I’ve gone the way of Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News.” Last year I made some substantial last-second changes before pitching to a studio President, lost my place halfway through and suffered a total meltdown. I was ultimately reduced to just reading straight off the page in sweaty, monotone agony until it was over. So my #1 recommendation is, don’t significantly change your pitch an hour before your meeting. Keep it under 20 minutes and commit it to memory. I’ve had people take phone calls in the middle of pitches. If you aren’t prepared, that can mess up your flow. But if your nerves trip you up no matter how much you prepare, there’s always Valium.
How do you handle feedback on your work?
The first draft is just that – a first draft. The real writing is in the rewriting. Feedback is essential. Writers who get too defensive about notes… good luck to them. I’ve known writers who had the talent to make it, but didn’t because they couldn’t take notes… or they could, but then wouldn’t ever do the rewrite. They just kept showing the same flawed draft to people. One way to get a bead on script problems is when more than one person gives the same note. Pay attention to that because regardless of how you feel, they’re probably right.
You also need to consider who’s giving the notes. Is it your dear old Aunt Helen telling you she doesn’t like all the sex and violence in there or is it a studio V.P. saying you’ve got to remove a few expensive set pieces in order to bring the budget down? Taking notes and then employing them well is a skill. One that you hone over the years as you learn to trust and weigh your own instincts against the opinions of smart, experienced people who have the same objective in mind as you… to get your script produced.
What are some things that you know now that you wish you'd known when you were first starting out?
I wish I had been a little more humble at first and not expected everything to come easily once I sold my first script. Someone told me when I was starting out that once you sell a script, you’re all set and will get writing jobs forever. That’s not true at all. If you get a break, great, but don’t take it for granted. Don’t assume this means you’re really good at what you do yet. Keep working just as hard if not harder. Don’t ever assume you know more than anybody else. Make time to write every day, even if it’s just 5 minutes. Nurture and maintain every relationship. Don’t be a jerk to anybody’s assistant, you might find yourself pitching to them one day. And never, ever drive to Vegas on a drunken late-night whim because you “know” you’re going to win this time. I think that covers it.
You’ve been in the business for 14 years. What things do you feel beginning writers need to know about themselves and the industry?
Just make sure you get into it for the right reason. The one and only reason you’d try to do this for a living is because you have to write, you have to tell stories. You must be the kind of person who would be doing this whether anybody paid you or not. Then I’d suggest getting a foot in the business where things are happening… an assistant at a studio or an agency mailroom job can lead to invaluable relationships down the road. Connections are important when you’re breaking in. So is living in Los Angeles… maybe New York, but this is where it’s all happening. I tried the bi-coastal thing briefly and it didn’t work. Only the most established writers can live elsewhere and still get jobs. LA is a hard transition for a lot of people to make – it certainly was for me – but if this is what you want to do, that’s part of the deal.
Industry-wise, they’re buying less and wanting more things like director or actor attachments, which makes it harder for new writers to break in. It’s hard to do this for a living even if you’re successful. Over the long-term, you’re going to have your bad stretches. Writing is a lonely enough job, but when the phone’s not ringing, it’s on par with working at an Arctic research station. Only there at least you’d be getting a regular paycheck. So make sure that’s a life you can deal with. But if you really love writing and have that driving need to tell stories, this shouldn’t sway you. Nothing should.