|Creighton Rothenberger was born and raised in suburban Philadelphia, and graduated from the English Honors program at the University of Pennsylvania. After spending several years working as vice president for a financial services company, he won an Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting for his Korean War epic The Chosin in 2002. He made his first script sale (with writing partner Katrin Benedikt) to Millennium Films with the action spec Olympus Has Fallen in early 2012. The movie was put on the fast track and released in theaters exactly twelve months later, grossing over $160M worldwide. Since then, the husband-and-wife writing team has been hired to script The Expendables 3 and London Has Fallen (the sequel to Olympus Has Fallen) for Millennium, The Drowning for Radar Pictures, Twice and The Sentence for EuropaCorp, and the English-language remake of Takashi Miike’s Shield of Straw for Depth of Field/ANEW. They are repped by UTA and Kaplan/Perrone.
You grew up in suburban Philadelphia. What was life like for you there, especially in relation to writing and/or filmmaking?
I grew up in a small town about an hour northwest of Philly. It was a great place to grow up, absolutely wouldn’t change it for anything. Though I must admit it wasn’t until well after college that the idea of ever making a living by working in the movies ever dawned on me. The whole world of filmmaking and “show business” always seemed rather far away. But I am living proof that you can literally grow up anywhere, with zero connections, and still have a shot at Hollywood. I didn’t go to film school, had no friends in the industry, no relatives working at a studio or production company, no former classmates at an agency or management firm. I knew absolutely no one.
You attended the University of Pennsylvania and graduated from the English Honors Program. The program only admits around a dozen or so students per selection period and is highly selective. Why this program? What was your focus at the time in terms of writing? Was it script writing? Writing novels?
I’ve always enjoyed writing. I was an English major initially with plans on going to law school, but decided that if I didn’t (which turned out to be the case – I ultimately just didn’t have the burning desire to be a lawyer), I’d better try to make this English degree of mine stand out somehow. So I applied to the Honors Program at Penn, which had a very good reputation, and was fortunately accepted. My focus was American literature. Writing novels at that point was maybe a distant pipe dream (I was a huge fan of authors like Irwin Shaw, John Updike and Stephen King). Screenwriting? At this point, I didn’t even know what a screenplay looked like. I just liked to write.
After graduating with an English degree, you actually joined the corporate world. What was your job like? What were the challenges?
I started working for a financial services company in the Philadelphia suburbs. The business was rather unique – locating missing heirs and lost shareholders for Fortune 500 companies. In essence, I was a detective who tracked people down and, when I finally found them, would give them a call saying—“Hey, good news. Your uncle left you 25 grand in GE stock you never knew about.” I’d like to get one of those calls myself someday (I’m still waiting). It was a good gig – solid pay, corner office, VP of a 30-person department. But it simply wasn’t my passion. I was constantly trying to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. I’ve since become a huge advocate of the motto: “Build a life you don’t need a vacation from.”
As I understand it, while working full time, you would write early in the morning before work and then study script writing at night and on the weekends along with reading a number of scripts, etc. Can you tell us a little more about exactly what you were writing, reading, studying? How did you keep yourself pushing ahead even after working a full week? Was it difficult being or feeling far away from “Hollywood”?
It all really started one summer when I received a brochure in the mail for summer courses being offered at my alma mater, Penn. One of the classes was in introductory screenwriting. It was one of those things where – hey, I love movies… I like to write… let’s see what this is all about. The class was taught by this exceptional screenwriting professor named Marc Lapadula (who still teaches at Johns Hopkins and Yale). I was instantly hooked. I mean, just completely and utterly engaged. I’d never felt that way before in any other class I’d ever taken in my life. It was suddenly so clear to me – this is what I wanted to do.
In short order, I was reading every screenwriting book I could find, devouring tons of scripts, taking seminars – just educating myself in every conceivable way I could. I began following Done Deal Pro every day and reading Wordplayer to get up to speed on the industry. Most importantly, I started carving out time from my “day job” to write. I began getting up at 4AM in the morning to write for a few hours before work, then at night I’d do research, study movies, or write some more. Plus weekends. Those were some long-ass days, but I didn’t mind. I was finally doing what I truly enjoyed. Hollywood was still very far away at this point, but for some crazy reason I was determined to make it.
Tell us about writing your first feature script? What was your approach? What was the story like? How long did it take you? Then what were some of your next scripts like? Did you find it easier with each one? Did you see yourself growing as a writer?
My very first script was a dark, contained, small-town thriller. It took me about six months to finish. When I was done, I put it away for a couple weeks – which is something I advise all new writers to do – then took it out again and read it with fresh eyes. I had to admit (and I’m my own toughest critic, by far) it was only so-so overall. But there actually was some decent stuff there. I thought I might possibly have a knack for this. So I wrote a second one. Then a third. And I noticed my writing kept improving a little more each time.
The most important thing I discovered during this period was that the key to becoming a better writer was rewriting. No matter how naturally talented you are, you will almost always benefit by going back, going over what you’ve already written, and honing your work some more. If you want to be a working writer, you absolutely cannot be lazy about this. This hard, time-consuming “grunt work” of rewriting is what I think a lot of new writers fail to appreciate. You need to keep improving and enhancing, then improving and enhancing some more, until your work really shines and pops on the page. Rewriting is your friend.
The fourth script I completed was a coming-of-age period drama called Learning to Fly. This was the first one I really liked. So I entered it in the Script Magazine Alliance-Atlantis screenwriting competition, and out of over three thousand entries it was named the grand prize winner. I won something like $3,000, which was the first money I’d ever made from my writing. I was pretty pumped. More importantly, I signed with my first manager out in LA off this win. It was a small management company, but it was a big first step and psychological boost to finally have someone officially representing me out in Hollywood.
You also took another screenwriting class in Philadelphia around 2000 where you met your wife and future writing partner, Katrin Benedikt. What was the class like? How did it help you? What did you learn from it? And what was the screenwriting community like in Philly overall?
That screenwriting class in 2000 was an introductory level one. I already knew pretty much everything that was being taught in it, but I took it specifically because I wanted to meet the writing instructor (who lived in the Philly area and had some produced credits). The instructor connection turned out to be pretty much a bust, but I did meet my amazing wife and future writing partner Katrin Benedikt in this class, so I think it’s safe to say I came out ahead on that deal. The screenwriting community in Philadelphia is how I imagine it to be in a lot of places around the country – passionate, hopeful, creative people daring to dream.
A couple of years later in 2002, you were awarded the prestigious Academy Nicholl Fellowship. You won the competition with “The Chosin,” which was described as a big budget Korean War epic. Can you tell us a little bit about why you chose to write this particular story? Where did the idea come from? How long did it take you to write? And was this your first time entering the contest? Also, how did your life change after the announcement?
I’d realized pretty early on in this whole process that, since I didn’t know anyone in Hollywood, one of the few legitimate means I had of getting noticed in the industry was by entering (and hopefully winning) the more reputable screenwriting competitions. I’d already won one with Learning to Fly, but that still hadn’t gotten me “in”. So I set my sights on the biggest and most prestigious competition of them all – the Academy Nicholl Fellowships.
I’ve always been a big fan of military history. And the incident at the Chosin Reservoir with the 1st Marine Division during the Korean War is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest untold war stories of all time. What easily could have been the worst military disaster in American history (we’re talking the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, and the Little Bighorn – all rolled into one) instead is one of the most astonishing tales of bravery and survival against impossible odds I’ve ever come across. Just an amazing, incredible true story. I thought it would make a fantastic movie (and still do). So I wrote the script.
It probably took me a good 8-9 months to finish, including all the time spent researching (remember, I was still working full-time at this point). Getting my arms around such a big, sprawling epic was tough. But once I cracked it, I was pretty sure I had something special. I had entered the Nicholl once or twice before, and had actually advanced to the semifinal round with another script. But becoming one of the ten finalists, and then actually winning (out of over 6,000 entries worldwide), that definitely changed things. Not the least of which was finally giving me the confidence to quit the corporate world for good and devote myself to writing full time.
And did you find agent representation at this time? If so, what was that relationship like?
Yes, I signed with my first agents (at one of the bigger agencies) after winning the Academy Nicholl. I thought I was off to the races. The very first script I wrote for them was Olympus Has Fallen. My agents really liked it, took it out wide in the summer of 2003… and it didn’t sell. Lots of people “loved the writing,” etc. – but the bottom line was that no one bought it. In retrospect, it probably didn’t help that 9/11 had happened less than two years before, and a project in which the White House is taken over by terrorists was a tough sell at that point. I was disappointed, for sure. But hey, I had lots of other ideas, right? I didn’t know it at the time, but I wouldn’t sell my first script in Hollywood for another nine years.
Between winning the Academy Nicholl Fellowship and eventually coming to L.A., what was your working and writing life like? What kind of scripts were you writing? How many? Were you writing together with Katrin yet?
After the Nicholl win, I was writing full time. I finished another 4-5 specs during this period, mostly in the action/thriller genre. I optioned one of those scripts for a little money. Was hired by an independent producer to write a football movie up in Washington state. Another indie producer hired me to write a TV pilot. I should probably point out that all these jobs were ones I obtained solely on my own, through my own hustle. My agents still hadn’t booked me a single gig. It was all Guild minimum stuff (or less – I wasn’t in the WGA yet), but it was work. Just enough to keep that carrot dangling, giving me hope. Katrin was still putting in 60 hours a week at her corporate job. From the time we met in 2000, we were writing our own scripts separately, but also started to work on some others together. One of Katrin’s scripts actually won the Creative Screenwriting Expo grand prize in 2005. We eventually spent so much time reading, critiquing, and giving each other notes and feedback – and enjoying the process so much – that it was a no-brainer we ultimately started collaborating full time together.
In 2007, the two of you moved to Los Angeles. Did you do so with the idea and intention of writing full time? Had you financially prepared yourself for the move? What groundwork had been laid with writing before you got out here?
Up until now, I’d been trying to do the whole bicoastal thing from Pennsylvania, but still hadn’t turned the corner. Katrin and I looked at each other and said, “When we’re sixty years old, if we still haven’t made it as screenwriters, will we honestly be able to say we did absolutely everything possible to achieve our goal?” Lots of people talk about going after their dreams in life, but how many actually do it? So Katrin quit her job, we sold our house, and we moved out to Los Angeles. A lot of our friends thought we were nuts, and admitted to us they’d never take such a risk. But we literally just went all in.
It’s important to mention here that Katrin and I both come from very modest, middle-class backgrounds. We were each the first in our families to graduate college, and even then it took us both years to pay off our student loans. So we had no safety net to fall back on whatsoever. No trust funds or family money to help “finance” our dream. We had whatever money we had managed to save from our corporate jobs, and that was it. So the clock was ticking. We needed to make it before the money ran out.
Did you solely focus on writing once here? How did you two write together? What were the challenges? Benefits? What were your writing days like? Did you keep a solid routine at all? And what, if anything, else were you doing to get your screenwriting career going out here besides the writing itself?
Yes, Katrin and I both wrote full time once we were out in LA. We’d each experienced writing “part time” before, and Hollywood is such an insanely competitive place, that we decided we needed to devote 100% of our time/energy to our goal if we were going to make it happen.
Regarding our writing partnership, I think we both realized early on that we just naturally meshed extremely well together. Our strengths really complement each other. It was (and continues to be) a true 50/50 partnership. The greatest challenge for us was that now that we were both focused exclusively on screenwriting, all our eggs were in one (financial) basket, so to speak. And there was no guarantee that in the end it would pay off. It was just an incredibly huge risk for us to take. But it’s what we both wanted to do with our lives. We knew it was a big gamble, but we just really enjoyed working together at something we both loved.
We’re both pretty disciplined people, and we kept to a solid writing routine each day. Even though we weren’t getting paid yet, we treated our writing like a real job. You have to put in the hours. You have to put in the “ass-in-chair” time. Everyone knows Malcolm Gladwell’s whole 10,000 Hour Rule. Well, from personal experience I absolutely believe that.
As to what we were doing besides the actual writing itself, we definitely started going on more meetings with production company and studio execs now that we were physically out in Los Angeles. Kept trying to build more fans of our work, whoever they may be (this will pay off later, as you’ll soon see). An interesting aside – since the writers’ strike hit soon after we moved to LA, in order to extend our savings we took a blind house-sitting gig in the Hollywood Hills for about a year. One of those free-rent deals, in exchange for our time. It turned out to be Kirstie Alley’s house. Bottom line – no, house-sitting for Kirstie Alley did not help our screenwriting career in any way. But yes, Rebecca Howe in person is incredibly nice, and we still miss the friends we made there (including her 26 animals).
In 2011, you wrote “Cali.” Can you tell us about the script? The story inspiration for it? Around this time, you signed with Gersh and also manager Alex Lerner at Kaplan/Perrone. How did you find your reps? This was also another change of reps as well? Yes? Why?
Cali is a suspense thriller that’s loosely based on this rather bizarre, real-life fender bender incident that actually happened to Katrin in a Los Feliz parking lot. In real life, everything worked out fine and Katrin was totally okay. But in our imaginations, we had the inspiration for the opening of what we thought would make a very cool, elevated thriller – an urban Breakdown.
As we were finishing the Cali script, we came very close to having another of our specs sell after a year of development (but ultimately it didn’t). In the wake of this, out of the blue, our manager at the time abruptly dropped us. As I had already previously parted ways with my first agent (who basically told me he no longer had time for me), Katrin and I now suddenly found ourselves without any industry representation whatsoever. Talk about a “dark night of the soul” moment. After all these years working our asses off, we were at a completely new low. Savings dwindling, hopes teetering, no reps. Katrin and I realized the only people who were going to help us – was us. So we immediately got to work, directly contacted a number of those development execs who had become fans of our work, and let them know we were seeking new representation. We gave them Cali as our latest writing sample. In a few short weeks, we had our new agents at Gersh and our new manager, Alex Lerner at Kaplan/Perrone. Things were finally about to turn the corner.
You’ve noted that Alex Lerner looked through the various scripts you had at that time and chose “Olympus Has Fallen” as the script to really work with first. What were the other scripts like? How many had you written at this point? Was it something like 20?
When we signed with Alex, he asked to see everything we’d written. At this point, yes, we probably had about twenty scripts total. Alex went through them all, and told us he wanted to go out with Olympus Has Fallen first. This was absolute music to our ears. You have to understand, Katrin and I had been pitching this script to anyone who would listen for the past ten years. Conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that once a script goes out and doesn’t sell (for whatever reason), it’s dead. As in, never to be resurrected, d-e-a-d. Olympus Has Fallen fell into this category because it had gone out wide, but hadn’t sold, back in 2003. But we refused to believe this was true. We felt the concept was still strong, and that the buying market had changed. You hear these stories all the time, about how everyone in Hollywood passed on The Terminator when it first made the rounds, how 39 people said no to The Bucket List before the 40th finally said yes. You just have to keep pushing, keep believing. I personally was absolutely convinced in my gut that Olympus Has Fallen could be a $100M hit. Yet no one else (except Katrin) seemed to believe this as well. Alex Lerner was the first person who did.
In March 2012, you sold “Olympus Has Fallen” to Millennium Films. What were the meetings like? Did the negotiations take a long time before the deal truly closed? What changes did they want to see in the script? What were Gerard Butler’s notes like? The producers? How did you deal with all the various perspectives and opinions? And how many rewrites did it take to make everyone happy?
After we did a final rewrite on the script for our new reps, Olympus Has Fallen went out wide in February 2012. Millennium’s offer came in pretty quickly, and our reps told us that if they bought the script, the odds were high they’d make the movie. This was incredibly important. Katrin and I had seen enough splashy spec sales over the years, only for the script to then get stuck in development hell, never to be heard from again. We wanted to avoid this if at all possible. We strongly felt the most important thing at this point was to get a movie produced, to get our first credit. So we went with Millennium.
Important life lesson here: Never. Give. Up. When Olympus Has Fallen sold, Katrin and I were honestly down to something like our last $5,000 in the bank. We were literally hanging on by our fingernails. The spec sale and movie going straight into preproduction couldn’t have come at a better time. In our case, it actually was darkest just before the dawn.
Gerard Butler and director Antoine Fuqua both attached themselves to the project fairly quickly. They both had excellent notes and were great creative partners. Some notes were story and character-based, others more budget-related. After several meetings here in Los Angeles, Katrin and I flew down to Shreveport, Louisiana where they filmed the movie and built a replica of the White House for exterior shots. For one solid week, we sat around this big conference table with everyone involved in preproduction and went over the script in great detail, literally page by page. Getting the various perspectives and opinions from all the filmmaking departments was a terrific education. And finally seeing the storyboards, effects modules, etc. that were all being created for something that, up until that moment, had existed solely in our heads was undeniably cool. After gathering all our notes, Katrin and I flew back home and continued rewriting. We probably turned in another 7-8 drafts total from the time the spec sold until the movie actually started shooting.
How did that announcement change things for you?
Well, after so much time wandering the screenwriting wilderness, it felt great to finally get that first spec sale under our belt. But there was no time to sit back and relax, because a crazy curveball came out of nowhere when a competing project with a nearly identical premise called White House Down sold about six weeks after our sale was announced. All of a sudden, we now found ourselves in the middle of a race to see which White House action movie would hit theaters first. If things hadn’t been moving fast enough before, they sure were now.
What happened after the film’s release? Were many assignments offered? Did you two take a lot of meetings?
When Olympus Has Fallen finally hit theaters in March 2013, it fortunately did well (earning $30M opening weekend and more than $160M worldwide) and audiences seemed to like it, giving it an “A-” CinemaScore. Katrin and I took a lot of meetings, the proverbial “bottled water tour,” and were offered several assignments. After all those years when no one had listened – yet we’d known in our hearts that the movie would be successful – people were finally listening. It was all very validating. Suddenly overnight, everyone now seemed to want the next Olympus Has Fallen.
You and Katrin were hired to write “The Expendables 3.” How did that job come about? What was it like writing the third installment/sequel in a series? What was your working relationship like with Stallone?
Even before Olympus Has Fallen hit theaters, our reps asked if we wanted to put our hat in the ring for The Expendables 3. Katrin and I looked at each other and said – the chance to work with Sylvester Stallone? That’s a no-brainer. So we came up with our take, pitched it to the studio and Stallone, and they ultimately went with us. Although our take was not the movie that was eventually made, we had the very cool experience of working side-by-side with Sly on the script over several weeks at his house, in his office, and later on set in Bulgaria (where we spent two solid months during filming). Writing during production requires an entirely different skill set than writing at home on spec or assignment, and we learned a tremendous amount. Plus, how often do you get the chance to work with Rocky, the Terminator, Han Solo, Blade, the Transporter, and Braveheart – all on the same movie? Just an amazing experience.
A little over a year and a half later, you were hired to write “London Has Fallen,” the sequel to “Olympus Has Fallen.” What research did you two do? What were the mandates for the film? What pressures did you feel? Gerard Butler came on as a producer. How did that affect the writing and development process?
After Olympus Has Fallen came out and was successful, we were thrilled when Millennium told us they wanted to do a sequel (I’d always personally believed that a Secret Service agent in his prime, protecting the President, would make a pretty cool platform for an action movie franchise). Katrin and I pitched three ideas, and the studio selected the biggest one, which became London Has Fallen . We did a ton of research, like we always do before we start a new project. I think our only mandate was to try to make this one bigger and better than the first. The only pressure I personally feel when working on a movie like this is hoping we deliver a great ride for the audience. Yes, Gerard Butler again was a producer on the movie, and his creative insights and personal involvement were a huge plus in all aspects of development and production.
In September 2014, you were hired by Radar Pictures to write an adaptation of an iOS game called “The Drowning.” The story is about a deep-sea oil-drilling accident which causes ancient micro-organisms to be released into the water supply of an island town off the Seattle coast. Ted Field, Mike Weber & Michael Napoliello are producing. How did this assignment come about? What were the challenges you faced in adapting a game to a more structured story?
Our reps initially put us together with Radar to discuss the project. Mike Weber shared with us the iOS game and artwork, and we immediately responded to the world and the materials. Katrin and I went off to brainstorm what we thought would be the really cool movie version of all this. There was very little “story” per se – just the basic game elements – so we put together what we believed would be an interesting thematic hook, plus a unique “way in” for our main characters. We also envisioned this as the first movie in a potential action/horror trilogy, and pitched that concept to the company. Radar liked our take and hired us to write the script.
You have also changed agents and agencies in the last year. You are now with Charles Ferraro, Ramses Ishak and Michael Sheresky at UTA. Why the change? What was making the change like?
Long story short, our much-loved agent at Gersh (Devra Lieb) unexpectedly retired. We met with Charlie, Ramses and Michael at UTA, really liked them, and decided that was the direction we wanted to go. Over the years, we’ve had reps leave us, and we’ve left reps. Hopefully (usually) it’s all very amicable. This is just another part of the business. It’s certainly not a fun part, but it’s one that everyone eventually has to deal with.
In May 2015, you and Katrin were hired by EuropaCorp to write the action thriller “Twice,” with Luc Besson producing. Where did this story idea come from? How long did it take you to write? How are things moving along with it currently? And what is Luc Besson’s involvement in terms of notes, suggestions and guidance on the script?
Twice is Luc Besson’s original idea, and we’ve had a blast working with him on it. It all started when Lisa Ellzey, president of EuropaCorp, had us come in for a meeting after reading our script Cali (as you can see, this spec has really opened a lot of doors for us). Lisa said they wanted to hire us to write something for them. As soon as we heard the idea for Twice , we were immediately on board. Luc’s been intimately involved throughout the entire process, and it’s been awesome collaborating with him. What we’ve learned from him (and continue to learn) has been invaluable. The script is currently set up with Jean-François Richet attached to direct.
Then in July 2015, it was announced you and Katrin were hired to work on “The Sentence” at EuropaCorp. The story is set in a future in which a victim is granted 24 hours to take revenge against someone who murders their loved one. After killing a criminal while protecting his son during a home invasion, a father must then take up arms against a horde of the victim's deadly cohorts as they descend upon him and his family. What inspired this story? What was the outlining and brainstorming process like in fleshing it all out?
The Sentence was actually a rewrite assignment. The original idea came from another writer, who sold it as a pitch to EuropaCorp and wrote the first drafts of the script for them. EuropaCorp then decided they wanted to take the project in a different direction. Since they were pleased with our earlier work on Twice, they brought us in to take a look at the script and asked us what we thought. Katrin and I read the material, loved the central concept, and came up with the new direction we thought the script should go. We pitched our take to EuropaCorp and they hired us in the room. Shortly after we finished the rewrite, director Neil Marshall read our draft and attached himself to the project.
Our outlining and brainstorming process is pretty simple. Katrin and I sit down and go over every possible variation of the movie we can imagine in our heads, and if the version we like best is one we’d actually pay to see in a theater, we know we might have something. Invariably, it all comes down to just trusting your storytelling instincts. You need to figure out the “take” that has the best chance of becoming a successful movie, and go with that.
And then most recently in August 2015, you and Katrin were hired to adapt the Japanese thriller "Wara No Tate" (“Shield of Straw”). How did this assignment come to you two? What were the meetings like with Depth of Field? Did you have to pitch a take? Also what challenges are you looking at, if any, in adapting the film for US audiences? And in a technical sense what is really involved in translating/adapting a Japanese film for two English speaking Americans? Are you given a translated copy of the script and/or a DVD with subtitles? Or will you even focus much on the original dialogue and really start from scratch working with the basic set up?
Our reps set up the initial meeting with Depth of Field to discuss the Shield of Straw remake. Katrin and I watched the original movie (we were given the DVD with subtitles, no script) and were immediately intrigued by the concept. We thought this was the rare action movie which actually had something to say, a rather fascinating reflection on the nature of justice and the value of vengeance. So we pitched our take, the company liked it, and they hired us to write the script. The main challenge in adapting a foreign film like this is making sure you honor and respect the original movie and filmmakers, while at the same time making the necessary changes so that it appeals to the widest possible audience (American + international). But it always helps when you have such a terrific starting template to work with.
Do you do much research when preparing to write a script? Do you travel? Take tours? Visit libraries? Buy books?
We’ve done all of the above. I personally really enjoy researching. The detail and specificity that in-depth research provides is crucial (I believe) to good writing. Quick story: When the former Secret Service agents consulting on Olympus Has Fallen first met us during preproduction, they were convinced that Katrin and I had to have known someone on the inside at the White House or in the Secret Service when writing the script. The agents said that so many of the things we’d written really existed in real life, they were sure we had inside information. We told them no, everything we put in the script came either solely from our general research or our imaginations. For example, we knew from researching that in the 1950s, Truman had built the “new” White House over the framework of the old one, and we had simply surmised (correctly, it turns out) that there was probably some space between the walls – possibly passable – that would create a whole “house-within-the-house” dynamic. The agents told us that not only do such passageways actually exist, but Amy Carter used to get lost in them all the time.
What’s a typical writing day like for you when you are writing on your own and/or working with Katrin?
Well, we tend to write pretty much together most of the time now. We’ve found it’s most efficient that way. Two heads are (usually) better than one. Most days we start around 9am, and write nonstop into the late afternoon (with a short break for lunch). Five or six solid hours when we’re creating from scratch is a good, productive day. Then we’ll often spend another 2-3 hours screening movies, doing research, etc. at night. If we’re rewriting, we might easily work 12-14 hours at a pop. We write almost every day, including weekends, though one of the advantages of this job is that if we want to take “Wednesday” off, and just go do something fun, unless we’re under deadline we have the freedom to do that.
Do you outline all your stories first? Write treatments? How do you prepare first before you begin a script?
We definitely like to outline first, often going to treatment stage (10-20 pages) before starting on the actual script itself. We’ve found this to be a huge time-saver in the long run. If you’ve properly brainstormed and thought through everything beforehand, you (hopefully) won’t find you’ve written yourself into an intractable corner midway through the second act. During the actual writing of the script, however, the characters will begin speaking to you and may start taking you in new (and better) directions, and you need to stay open to that. But if you’ve smartly locked down your basic structure from the jump, and it all genuinely works, the odds of you delivering a solid draft are much higher than if you just wing it.
What about feedback on your work? How do you handle that? Do you rely much on feedback from friends? Fellow writers?
We always try to be completely collaborative and keep an open mind when receiving feedback. If more than one person voices the same problem with something, even if they express it in an entirely different way, it’s probably valid. Many times you’ll need to really drill down to get to the heart of a note. The person with the note may not even be able to exactly pinpoint what they think is wrong; they’ll just know that something is. It’s your job – as the writer – to figure it out and fix it.
While of course we “talk shop” and swap stories with our writer friends all the time, when working on a project we tend to generally only share that work with our employer and our reps, basically just keeping everything in-house.
How do you approach rewrites? Any method or path that you typically follow?
We try to follow one simple rule: Keep the best and fix/replace the rest. Always with the end goal of making the finished material as strong as possible. Sometimes most of the hard grunt work of creating something from nothing has already been done for you, and you just have to punch things up. Other times the original material simply isn’t working, and you literally have to start from scratch and rebuild everything from the ground up. One thing no honorable writer should ever do, however, is unnecessarily change absolutely everything they can in a script in a transparent attempt to unjustly “poach” credit on a project. This is very uncool. Don’t be a writer who does this.
What things do you believe more writers need to know or recognize about the industry when trying to break in? Any dos and don’ts you would suggest?
Do stay positive and optimistic, no matter what. Don’t ever lose the courage of your ideas (even if it takes you ten years, like it did us). You’re going to face a ton of rejection in this business. You need to get over that, right from the jump. You can’t ever let that defeat you. Someone says no, so what? It only takes one “yes” to change everything.
Do make sure you write every day. Do surround yourself with supportive people who encourage your dream, and eliminate from your life those who don’t. Do be a person of honor and integrity. Don’t back down from anyone who treats you dishonestly or unethically. Do stay humble. Do be a good collaborator. Do meet your deadlines. Do be someone who can be relied on in the crunch.
And do also recognize going in that being able to handle the actual writing on the page is just one part of being a working screenwriter. You also have to be an idea generator. You have to be collaborative and easy to work with. You have to be able to analyze and crack story problems. You have to be able to pitch in a room. You have to possess the temperament to handle the extreme highs and lows that come with this industry. This is an incredibly fun, fascinating, unpredictable, exciting, lucrative, cool-as-shit business. But it’s not for everyone. Still think you have what it takes? Honestly, truly? Then by all means, keep pushing ahead. And when you hit a rough patch – and you inevitably will – don’t panic. Part of what makes the journey so rewarding is overcoming adversity. Sometimes what you think is the worst thing that could happen to you actually turns out to be the best thing for you and your future. Just stay positive and steadfast in your integrity. Let karma take care of the rest. Because make no mistake about it, this industry is one giant roller coaster ride. You just need to stay calm, tune out the noise, and focus on the work.
I’ll leave you with one final piece of advice. When trying to get your foot in the door, I strongly believe the most important thing you as an aspiring screenwriter can do – before even writing the first word of your screenplay – is make sure that your central idea, your big concept, is one that’s so compelling that when a potential producer/studio hears it, they are going to love it so much they’re going to want to invest 10, 50 or even 100 million dollars to make it – because they think that investment is going to make them even more money. If you want the absolute best chance of selling your script and actually having your movie be made, choosing your central concept is EVERYTHING. When the script is done, and all that hard work you put into your plot, characters and dialogue is finally ready to be shared with the world, you’re going to face a much less uphill battle if you have the essential element of an irresistible concept from the jump. As someone once said – “If you write a good script with a great premise, you'll have a big hit. If you write a bad script with a great premise, you'll still make money. But if you write a great script with a bad premise, success is not likely.” So give yourself every possible chance, and first make sure your central idea is gold. Then proceed.