|Sean Wathen grew up in a small town in Kentucky where he first began making short films with his friends. From there he moved to Orlando, Florida to attend film school at Full Sail University. There he continued making short films with friends including “misunderstood” (Winner of Best Picture in the Project BlueLight Film Festival) and “CAN” (Official Selection of the Bluegrass Film Festival and the London Sci-Fi Film Festival). Sean then headed to Hollywood and began working on hit TV shows like “Heroes,” “24,” “Scrubs” and “House M.D.” He currently works on the feature film “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” while trying to pursue his love of writing. Two of his short screenplays have been honored in film festivals, “Midtown” which won the Vine Entertainment Short Screenplay Competition and more recently “The Roommate” which gained Honorable Mention in the Slamdance Film Festival Short Screenplay Competition. In 2009, his first feature screenplay (which he co-wrote with Joshua Dobkin) was optioned by Stone Village Pictures. Since January of 2011, Sean has sold two micro-budget scripts, “Psychology of Murder” & “The Lazarus Incident” (co-written by Josh Douglass) to producer Klaus von Sayn-Wittgenstein (“Bear” & “Wolf Town”). In addition, two other scripts have been optioned, “Case 2317” to Lucky Day Pictures and “Brimstone” to Scream Films. Presently, Sean & Josh have been assigned to adapt a graphic novel for GG Filmz (“Machine Gun Preacher”).
Where are you from? What was life like for you growing up especially in relation to writing and filmmaking?
I was born and raised in a small town I’m sure no one has ever heard of called Crestwood. Normally when asked this, I simply say Louisville, Kentucky since it’s the closest “big” city that most people recognize.
There wasn’t a lot of film going on around the time I grew up. I’ve heard that since my departure, Kentucky’s film culture has grown a great deal which makes me very proud, but at the time I was there it was pretty barren. My first experience with “filmmaking,” if you want to call it that, was making short films with my friends using our parents’ VHS camera. Old school style. Editing while you record. We were writing intricate stories involving gangsters and mobsters, all played by 14 & 15 year-olds. It was pretty genius! (Laughs.) At least we thought so at the time. The first movie I wrote that we filmed was called “For the Love of Money.” It was a hard-edged, gritty story about two hitmen who kidnap the girlfriend of a mob boss, but what they don’t realize is the morning they kidnap the girlfriend she had broken up with the mob boss and was walking out the door. Comedy and action ensue.
We ended up making a lot of these movies with the longest being a horror film called “Bloody Tears” that came in at about 50 minutes. Definitely an educational experience to say the least! But I still enjoy going back and watching these horribly wonderful filmmaking beginnings.
We were filming a horror movie once that involved a car wreck scene, so we pulled up close to a tree in a neighbor’s yard to fake the crash. Well, she called the cops. We had literally drove onto her lawn (it was night and we figured she wouldn’t care… “what’s a permit?”). I’ll never forget talking with the police officer:
(with his southern drawl)
“What’re ya boys doin’ trespassin’ on this nice woman’s lawn?”
“Well, sir, we’re making a movie…”
(eyes light up)
“Oh what, like that ‘Blair Witch’?”
(yelling to his partner still in the squad car)
“Bobby! They’re making a movie!”
“Like that ‘Blair Witch!?”
Needless to say, they let us go with a warning.
Did you study film/writing in college? Or are you self-taught?
Full Sail “University” is a great school for learning the technical side of the industry. They have state of the art equipment, all pretty much brand new, right as it comes out. However, at the time I passed through there wasn’t a lot of Creative Classes. The Writing Class taught us how to write a short film… and that’s about it. Now since then, I’ve heard they added a pretty well-received Writing Degree so that might change things for those heading to Full Sail now. Since there wasn’t much writing going on while I was attending, we had to learn the basics on our own. Outside of school, my friends Mark Dennebaum, Josh Dobkin and I would write & shoot short films for just the hell of it. In addition, I began reading screenplay books (including the “Screenwriting Bible” and “Adventures in the Screen Trade”) and started writing my first feature film scripts with the help of Final Draft. From there it was pretty much trial & error. I’d write a draft, then give it to friend for notes as well as read some industry screenplays online to see how I could change things and make sure my formatting was correct. We pretty much taught ourselves. Knowing what movies we enjoyed, we tried to write scripts that we would go to the movies to see.
We had a little luck with our short films and gained a lot of experience from shooting them on our own, learning what works and what didn’t, then applying that in our next short.
Tell us about writing your first feature script? What was your approach? What the story like? How long did it take you?
The first feature film script I ever completed was called “Cain & Able.” It’s an action/thriller script in the vein of “Darkman” meets “The Crow.” A hideously scarred, mentally unstable detective seeks revenge against the criminals who made him that way... but this former family man soon learns the heavy cost that comes with vengeance. I blended it with a religious theme. It was a blast to write, but looking back now it’s a mess. The action lines were paragraphs, the dialogue seems like a joke, it’s pretty brutal just to get through it. But hey, it was my first time and like most “first times” I was nervous, didn’t know what I was doing, and was just trying to get through it with as much pleasure as I could manage.
Before I started attending school at Full Sail, I had arrived in Florida about a month before the first day. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t have cable TV or internet, so I had all the time in the world to write with limited distractions. I worked on an outline for a few days and when I wasn’t writing I was sitting in front of my fridge trying to make a story from those Word Magnets you can buy at Barnes & Noble. I ended up finishing the first draft in about two-weeks (like I said, I didn’t have a lot going on at the time) and spent several more weeks with rewrites. I recently revisited the script, changed the title, and did a major overall. Hopefully now it resembles a “real” script.
In January 2009, you and your writing partner Josh Dobkin sold your spec script “The Field” to Stone Village Pictures? What was the process like for you personally?
Um. This is a LONG story, but I’ll try to summarize it as best as possible and please don’t be mad that I’m not going to name names, I’m going to have to keep a few things vague.
On the drive to the San Diego Comic Con in 2008, Josh Dobkin and I decided we wanted to write our first feature together, so on the drive we came up with the story for “The Field,” a group of strangers awake to find themselves in an endless field, with only their instincts and a collection of seemingly random items to help them find a way out." From there, we hung out in the “Scrubs” conference room (where Josh was working) for a few days creating an outline for the script across six white-boards. We hammered out our first draft in six days. Now, we knew we were going to have to do rewrites on this, but we wanted to get people’s reaction on the story. We sent the script to several production companies and management companies at the same time. Stone Village Pictures ended up sending me an email almost the same day we set a meeting with Benderspink (management company). Essentially, we handed over the deal to our new manager to let them take the reins and broker the deal. They did an amazing job. Seriously. They ended up working out an incredible deal for us and on November 14th, 2008 we accepted the offer. It was a glorious day, we celebrated with a classy lunch at Outback Steakhouse. We were on top of the world… I wish I could go into details here but for obvious political reasons, I will just say that in February of 2009 the deal fell apart.
After that, we had a few more meetings with a few other production companies interested in the script. Each meeting, Josh and I would walk out saying “this is it, these guys are going to make this movie.” And we’d never hear back from them again. We met a director once who loved the script and had his sight on making it happen. He left for Asia on vacation with his family… never to be heard from again. Then we met with a pretty big company (again, I can’t say their name but I’m sure you “Saw,” one of the movies they’ve produced) and we had a couple meetings about rewrites with them. Once again, we thought, “this is it. It’s going to happen.” Few months later, the two guys we were chatting with left said company for other pursuits… This happened so many times, Josh and I are now in the process of outing a new screenplay called “THE SCRIPT” which is just like the “Pelican Brief” where whenever someone reads our script, they disappear…
But finally some good news, we’re in final negotiations with a new company to option “The Field.” We’re pretty much signing the contract this week and hopefully soon it will hit the trades. Fingers crossed.
Once the deal was announced did how did your life change?
Surprisingly it didn’t. Nothing really changed. In fact, not too long ago, we parted ways amicably with Benderspink and are back out on our own. Josh and I sat down a few months ago and realized we’re pretty much back to where we started. Still had “The Field” with no deal, no representation, nothing. We were starting from scratch… again.
“Never Give Up. Never Surrender.” “Galaxy Quest” words of wisdom.
We continued to pursue managers and production companies on our own. Now we’re closing a deal on “The Field” and are in discussions with management companies about representation. We’ve written a few treatments for various companies and have been pushing forward as best as we can on our own. Since January, I’ve sold two micro-budget scripts to a small company and had two other screenplays optioned. All small projects but it’s a start as we continue to reach higher and higher. We love to write and we’re never going to give up on it.
Around this time, you were working on “House” as an assistant production coordinator. What was your experience like? What did you learn from doing a one-hour drama?
Working on “House” was an interesting experience on how a one-hour drama is run. I spent most of my time doing paperwork and making other writer’s dreams come true. Not much creatively going on in my position. However, I did get to meet with a few of the writers Dustin Paddock and Matt Lewis who are incredible, gracious people who took time out of their busy days to discuss writing with me. I learned a lot through my chats with them as well as seeing the transformation of each episode script as they came down the pipeline. I worked with some really fun people, but overall it was a stressful gig that I don’t miss. I’m happy for my experience there, but also happy to have moved on from it.
…although, I do miss the crew gifts at wrap and Christmas time! Hugh Laurie is the best gift giver! He once gave us each our own electric scooter. Awesome.
And in keeping with your network TV experiences, this past year you’ve worked on “Men of a Certain Age” (MOACA) as the assistant production coordinator. What has working on that show been like? How much are you exposed to the writers and their process each week?
“MOACA” is the best job I’ve had since moving to LA… actually, it’s probably the best job I’ve had in my life. It was just fun, plain & simple. The crew was great and friendly, every day we’d have Nerf gun wars in the office and things were very chill. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a lot of time with the writing staff. Because Ray Romano writes and acts on the show, the writers start months before Production does so that by the time we come in, most of the episodes are near completion so Ray doesn’t have to write and act at the same time. Ray was very friendly and would come sing Happy Birthday in the office and crack jokes about “Glee” filming above us. I really have no complains about job… I just want it to get picked up for a third season! I want to go back! Sure, it’s not writing so it’s not what I REALLY want to do, but until I can write full time, it’s the best job around.
You recently sold two of your solo scripts "Psychology of Murder" and "The Lazarus Incident" to Klaus von Sayn-Wittgenstein. Can you tell us how each project/story came about? What was your writing process for each? How did you get hooked up with Klaus?
“Psychology of Murder” is a feature version of a short I shot a few years back called “The Roommate.” Josh and I basically called in favors from friends around Hollywood and shot the short in our own house/backyard. It was another good learning experience. Right now it’s sitting in Post Production Hell. It’s about a college student who begins to suspect his new roommate is a serial killer. I just remember loving the story as I wrote the short. It’s my homage to Christopher Nolan’s “Following” that I fell in love with in college. The short script ended up placing in the Slamdance Short Screenplay Competition so I used that as motivation to expand the story into a feature. Once finished, I put the script on a website called Inktip where smaller production companies can search out low budget scripts. That’s where I met Klaus. He enjoyed the script and immediately offered to buy it, then he wanted to know what else I had written. I told him about a zombie script called “The Lazarus Incident.”
I have a lot of “Josh’s” in my life. My friend Josh Douglass and I were out drinking once and he pitched me an idea for a script he was working on. It’s "Cast Away" meets "28 Days Later" when a man washes up on shore of an Island, only to find out it's now overrun by blood thirsty creatures. He ends up running into the island's only "living" person who is a scientist who explains that the island is actually the sight of what they believe is the "Fountain of Youth." However, in their studies they found the Fountain comes with a curse, turning everyone else on the island into the creatures around them. Being a massive fan of “28 Days Later,” I was very anxious to read this script! We ended up working on an outline together, then he went and wrote the first draft, I took the second, then together we wrote the third. I thoroughly enjoy co-writing. It’s always fun to have a collaborator who’s just as excited about the story as you are and together you pitch, argue, and discuss how to best tell this particular story. Sometimes I’m sure I get heated in a debate and scare my co-writers with the passion I feel for particular parts of a screenplay, but so far both the writers I’ve worked with have been great in understanding I just want to make the best product possible. And they too are extremely passionate about the writing and will discuss at great length various ideas until we find the best possible solution. It’s invigorating.
So from there, I told Klaus about this other screenplay I’d co-written and Klaus fell in love with it as well. They’re both scheduled to start production this coming fall and spring.
You also recently optioned your script "Case 2317" to Lucky Day Studios. What is the story about? What was writing it like? How did Lucky Day find you? What was option process like? What is the current status of the project?
Lucky Day Studios is a film production company back in my home town of Louisville, Kentucky. I actually sought them out when trying to sell the script for “Case 2317” (which is still the worst title I’ve come up with to date…working on that). I really wanted to bring a movie back to Kentucky and work with a company that grew up in the same state as myself with the same passion for filmmaking. I found Lucky Day online and [sent] their founder Tom Lockridge an email. He and I got to discussing various screenplay ideas and we landed on a script about ghost hunters that I had written a few years back. After reading it over, he made an offer which I accepted and the movie should go into production this fall. Hopefully everything goes as planned and I’ll be able to return home for principle photography of the movie.
Very recently you and Josh were asked to create a treatment from a graphic novel for GG Filmz . Can you tell us a little about the project? How the assignment came up? What are some of the challenges you are facing in adapting a graphic novel?
I can’t go into details about which graphic novel it is that we adapted as we’re still in negotiations to write the script based off the treatment we created. Again, this is one of those deals that will hopefully be closed soon and will hit the trades. We met Deborah over at GG Filmz while searching for a buyer for “The Field.” She really enjoyed our writing and said she had the rights to a graphic novel they were looking to adapt and asked if we’d like to take a crack at it. They weren’t in love with the actual storyline of the graphic novel, but enjoyed the world in which it took place and the main character. So Josh and I took the world and a few scattered characters and pitched a storyline in the vein of Han Solo meets Indiana Jones. We spent a few weeks outlining the idea on Josh’s whiteboard in his room and came up with something we’re very excited about. Everyone at GG Filmz flipped over the treatment and we’re now finishing up the deal for us to write the actual script for them. It’s a really fun story that should be a blast to write, I can’t wait to get started.
You and Josh have worked on several short films together. In 2005, your film "CAN" made the festival rounds which included the Bluegrass Film Festival and the London Sci-Fi Film Festival. Can you tell us about the idea for the movie, what was it like writing it and then making it? Also what effect do you feel short films have on your career at all?
My buddy Mark Dennebaum called me one morning while we were in Florida going to school together. He said he was hung-over as all hell and wanted to see if I’d grab him a Gatorade on my way over. I had been watching TV and saw a trailer for a movie called “Stealth” where a stealth bomber run by a computer is struck by lightning and becomes evil. I flipped off the television and headed off to 7-11 to grab Mark’s drink. While standing in line I began to think about movies like “Virus” and “Stealth” and how whenever something is struck by lightning, it becomes evil. Why is that? So I came up with an idea for a short film about a soda can that gets struck by lightning, comes to life, then goes on a quest of love to find the woman who drank from it. He ends up almost like a stalker and eventually becomes evil when he has to “take out” the girl’s boyfriend. Anyway, I pitched the idea to Mark and his response was “that’s either the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard… or the most brilliant. Let’s shoot it.” So we roped Josh into it and we all shot the movie together with the help of some fellow Full Sail students. It turned out pretty funny and we were shocked when it actually started making the festival rounds. One of the best experiences of my life was sitting with an audience for the film time watching “CAN.” We were so nervous when the lights went down in that theater, but as soon as people started to laugh, that nervousness turned into smiles. It’s a pretty incredible feeling to hear people respond to a film you’ve created.
So far the short films haven’t done very much for our careers, but during the festival rounds they were a great way to meet other filmmakers like ourselves. We still enjoy created these shorts and hope to use them one day to snag a directing gig on our first feature film. Until then, we’ll just continue shooting them for the hell of it.
And you guys are currently in post-production on your short film, "The Roommate." What genre is the project? Where did the idea come from? What was it like putting the project together in terms of crew, budget, schedule, casting, cameras, editing, etc.? And what was production like? Do you both direct?
This story came about when I was at Full Sail in Florida and I signed up for a roommate placement program. I came home one day and there was someone in my apartment unpacking his things. We shook hands and he said he was my new roommate. I remember going to my room thinking about this… I had no idea if he was really telling the truth. He was just there. In my apartment. He said his name and I believed him. Why wouldn’t I, right? But that’s the thing, people introduce themselves to us all the time and we immediately trust that they are who they say they are… well what if they’re not… That’s kind of where the story came from. I developed that into a short script about a guy who suspects his new roommate is a serial killer. Josh did some rewrites on the script with me and after it placed in the Slamdance Short Screenplay Competition, we decided we’d film it ourselves. We once again teamed up with Mark (Dennebaum) and called in favors from every friend we have in LA. Over three weekends, we shot the short in and around our house. We had a rough schedule that we put together, but the shot order would change on the fly. That’s the fun/shitty thing about shooting these no-budget short films, you have to be able to adapt. You have to work around the parameters you’re given because we didn’t have a lot of money to throw into it. Luckily, our friend Zack Wilcox works locally as a gaffer and had access to some equipment he got for us on the cheap. We called in every favor we could for gear, talent, extras, etc. We dropped a lot of money on food but it was well worth it, a fed crew is a happy crew (especially when they’re working for free). Right now it’s stuck in post production, we’re still trying to fix a few audio issues and put the final touches on it. It’ll get finished… one day.
Do you do much research when preparing to write a script? Do you travel? Take tours? Interview people?
I haven’t traveled yet to write any scripts, but I hope one day to do such a thing. Josh and I have an idea for a mid-mid-life crisis script about a guy in his 30’s who decides to travel the world, and I think we’d both like to do said traveling first to gain the experience. In the meantime, we have done extensive research on rewrites for “The Field” and we have a heist movie outline in the works that we’ve done a lot of research on. There’s also a crime drama script that I have a few drafts on that Josh is now going to take a crack at, I think for that project we want to interview some real cops and retired detectives, we want a real feeling for this one. Once our careers get fully up & running, we’d both love to travel for research and interview real people to get a feeling for actual stories to add a deeper feel to out scripts.
What about feedback on your work? How do you handle that? Do you rely much on feedback from friends? Fellow writers?
I heavily rely on feedback on my scripts. I’ll listen to any and every opinion out there. What I end up doing with the script in the end is my decision, but I welcome every voice out there. The only issue is actually getting someone to READ your script! People in theory will always say, “Yeah, I’d love to read it!” Years have gone by and some people still haven’t read my work. And I’m guilty of this too. People just get busy, they’re working on their own scripts, and have probably read so many BAD scripts that they’re afraid yours will be just another to add to that pile. I’m actually looking for more writers to share ideas & scripts with, the only problem is where do you meet a GOOD writer? (Besides the Done Deal Pro forums, of course). Walk outside and you’ll run into a “writer” but where can you meet a “good” one? Do they have an eHarmony for screenwriters? If so, let me know.
What’s a typical writing day like for you when you are writing on your own vs. working with Josh?
Solo writing is usually filled with a lot of basketball, working out, or just listening to music in my room. Most of the time I need to be doing something where I can take my mind off the rest of the world for a few hours and just be. Movie scores help a lot. Currently I’m writing to “Hanna” and “The Social Network.” I usually try to outline as much as possible, jotting down a few lines of dialogue here & there just to keep the flow going. Once I finish an outline, I’ll usually let it set a few weeks. I’ll come back to it every couple of days to reread and make notes. I constantly try to look at the story from an outside perspective to make sure I’m getting the point across that I’m trying to make with the story. I continue to add to the outline for a few weeks until I think it’s time to finally sit down and face the blank page and that dreaded blinking cursor.
As far as co-writing, my roommate Josh and I will usually sit on our back patio pitching ideas around. Sometimes we’ll take a drive to Chik-fil-A or somewhere else just to be out and about while discussing possible story ideas. Then we’ll split off to think over things. Each day, we come back together and usually walk somewhere for lunch as we discuss whatever we’ve come up with. Generally the best brainstorming for us is done outside the house somewhere, out in the world doing something. Once we feel we’re getting close to a solid story, we’ll either board it on the whiteboard or note-card out each scene. We usually will create a scene by scene outline that starts small with a sentence or two for each scene. From there, one or both of us will sit down and write a more thorough outline/treatment in Final Draft. After that, typically I’ll go off and write the first draft. Then I’ll hand it off to Josh and he’ll take the second draft. Then together we write the third and forth, etc. This is the typical way we work on a script, but sometimes we mix it up. On a recent project I got stuck on page 40 and handed the script back to Josh who picked it up from there.
Do you outline all your stories first? Write treatments? How do you prepare first before you begin a script?
So far we’ve always outlined. Every writer writes differently so I will never tell anyone how to write, when to write, whether to outline or not, it’s always up to what the writer feels. Personally, I never write unless I’m “feeling” it. If I sit down at my computer and start typing, I’ll get into this trance where the computer almost fades away and I see the scene playing out before me, I see the characters and transcribe what they’re doing and what the characters are saying. Other days, I literally feel EVERY SINGLE WORD I type. It’s brutal. That usually turns out to be junk that I have to rewrite. I have to “feel” it before I can actually write it. It sounds cheesy and I’m sure I’ll catch shit from friends when they read this, but it’s truly the way I work.
How do you approach rewrites? Any method or path that you typically follow?
I usually do a pass with my own notes, reworking dialogue, etc. But I mostly do rewrites after discussing the script from an outside source, be it a friend, colleague, or fellow writer, I always listen to outside opinions. I don’t always use the person’s notes, but I appreciate what they have to say and will usually attempt to tweak things based on what others have told me. Being very old school, I hate reading on a computer. I’ll print the draft of the script so I can have it physically in hand as I apply rewrites with a red pen. Once I’ve finished this, I’ll go onto the computer and rewrite based on the red pen notes I’ve assessed from all those who have given me notes and what I’ve decreed as the final changes. Then I put the script down and let it sit. Sometimes for a month. Sometimes for several months and even years. Then I’ll come back to the script and read it with “fresh” eyes, then start the process all over again.
What things do you believe more writers need to know or recognize the industry when trying to break-in? Any do’s and don’ts you would suggest?
Write. That’s the biggest advice I can give someone who’s looking to break in. Write. Write. Write. Just because you’ve written one script, doesn’t mean its gold. Keep working. There are a lot of people in this town who talk and talk and talk about writing and say they’re “writers” but when you’ve asked what they’re written they tell you “Oh, I’ve been working on a few things…” Meaning they haven’t written anything. They have an “idea” for a movie, but so does everyone else on this planet. Write. Sit your ass down at the computer and start typing. Too many people talk, not enough DO.
If you have written, GREAT! Now listen. Listen to other people who read your work. Listen to everyone. Even if you don’t agree with some of their notes. This person took the time to read your 120 page opus, the least you could do if hear them out. What notes you actually apply to your work is up to you, but definitely LISTEN to what they have to say. I recently was working on a script that had these bookend scenes that really have nothing else to do with the rest of the script, but were more about the message I was trying to say in the story. I heard from someone they really didn’t fit and I should take them out. I left them in. Another person read it, said I should take them out. I left them in. Eventually, I heard it a third time… it brings me to an old saying, “Someone calls you a horse, walk away. Someone else calls you a horse, punch them in the face. A third person calls you a horse, well maybe it’s time to go shopping for a saddle.” Sometimes we get too close to our work, we can’t see the forest through the trees. I’m not saying this is the case every time, others you should fight for what you believe should be in your story of course, but still LISTEN to those who read your material.
Lastly, don’t give up. For the last four years, I dove into the belly of the beast, was chewed up, spit out, and dove back in again… and again… and again. A lot of people move to Hollywood with the “writer dream” every day… but a lot of people move away as well, they can’t take the heat so they bail from the kitchen. You might strike it big right out of the gate or it might take 20 or 30 years before you sell your first script, but you can’t give up. I can’t imagine doing anything else, so giving up isn’t a choice for me and if you really want to be a writer it shouldn’t be a choice for you either. Hollywood is a place of dreams and nightmares.
"Never Give Up. Never Surrender."