An Interview with Screenwriter Johnny Sullivan
April 28th, 2014
John Sullivan is from New York where he graduated from Northport High School and then Marist College in Poughkeepsie. His career began in 2001 when sold his first screenplay FEAR OF THE DARK to a small Canadian company, Wishbone Films. A year later he hooked up with Brooklyn Weaver’s Energy Entertainment with specs scripts landing deals at Columbia Pictures and Dimension Films. Sullivan is repped by Jake Wagner (Benderspink) now and has been for some time. His credits include RECOIL, THE PROPHECY: UPRISING, THE PROPHECY: FORSAKEN, and currently he has several projects in development. Sullivan’s path to success is an educational one for aspiring screenwriters and worth the time to learn about.
What was your career path to becoming a Hollywood Screenwriter?
I graduated from Northport High School and then I went to college for journalism. I wasn't planning on a career as a screenwriter; I didn't even know it was possible. After college I went to work for Tribeca and it was a good training ground. I read a lot of scripts -- learned a lot. But it really wasn't paying what I needed so I applied to a bunch of talent agencies in New York. I ended getting hired by the The Gersh Agency.
I started off at the bottom as a floater; which you pretty much do anything they asked you to do. I made sure that coffee was filled, made copies, change light bulbs, whatever. But I was able to do a lot of writing. I would sit and get paid to write and eat pizza. During that time I wrote a script called FEAR OF THE DARK. I was living in Long Island and commuting. So while on the train I wrote the script on my laptop and edited it at the office. I was able to use the resources at my disposal, free mail, and I just sent it out myself to every production company I could imagine and most, almost all of them turned it down. Then I got a call from a small Canadian company called Wishbone Films and they bought it. It was one of the strangest calls. I didn't have a cell phone it was early 2000s and they called the office. They picked it up for $5000 which wasn't a lot but it was a start. It was my first produced credit.
Working at The Gersh Agency and being in that environment was very useful as I learned a lot about the industry and what everyone's role was whether an agent or manager. I wasn't able to quit my job after selling my first script and actually didn't tell anyone that I sold a script as I didn't want to get fired -- they would look at me as someone with one foot out the door. Which I was but didn’t want them knowing that.
So you get your first sale and then things start happening?
Well at that point I started writing bigger movies. FEAR OF THE DARK was a small film with an indy budget. I wanted to write high concept material so I started writing more action oriented things. A script I wrote called JOHNNY BLACKOUT got the attention of Brooklyn Weaver of Energy Entertainment who at the time was just starting out; he's huge now. But I was one of his first clients I think. He called, well actually ended up calling my parents as I didn't have cell phone. He liked the writing but it didn't really get any traction. So I kept working at the agency, changing light bulbs and getting coffee. But again I was able to keep writing and learning.
I then wrote a script called RAPID which I originally had envisioned as a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. I had a connection through The Gersh Agency with Van Damme's people. I sent it to Brooklyn, who had a deal with Original Film which just had released FAST AND FURIOUS and XXX. Brooklyn showed it to them on a Thursday and I was like cool -- I didn't think anything of it, I went back to pouring coffee and getting copies. Anyway, I get a call a couple hours later that Sony had made an offer. I had no idea that it happens that fast. I had to get attorney and after some negotiation the deal was done. It was amazing and that launched my career. The movie never got made unfortunately.
Is getting a job in the industry, the mailroom or wherever, something you suggest to new writers?
Yeah I always suggest that. Be the mail guy or the light-bulb changer and learn how the industry works; maybe make some contacts or a connection. If you can’t move read the trade magazines like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Also, read as many scripts for produced movies you can get your hands on. I’ve always read a lot going back to high school. Kids would go out partying and I was home reading or watching movies.
How did you get in touch with Energy Entertainment?
Reaching out to Brooklyn (Weaver) at the time in 2001 companies and agencies were still open to unsolicited queries; it was the Wild Wild West with the Internet then. I got Brooklyn's name and reached out and he agree to read my script JOHNNY BLACKOUT. It's important to have a sample, a script that can get you in the door. That’s how it all started really.
Then you wrote RAPID (set during a hurricane and involves a bank heist), how did you come up with the idea for it?
I had gained a lot of confidence as a writer after selling FEAR OF THE DARK. I grew up on movies like SPEED and DIE HARD and I wanted to write something in the vein of those movies. RAPID is basically my love letter to those movies as well as TWISTER. It was a $100 million dollar action movie and it got the studio's attention. It was really a situation of having the right script, at the right place, and the right time. I don't know if that script could sell today. That was right at the end of the Spec market boom and I don't know if it was today if I get any traction with it -- a big and expensive type of movie from an unknown writer.
That's a good point studios won't usually take a chance on an unknown writer with a $100 million dollar movie.
I think for unknown writers a $20 million dollar movie script is far more attractive than what I had with RAPID. Take for example SAFE HOUSE, a cool and contained thriller that did well and I think that is a good reference point for the new writer. You can point to it as, hey it did well, and my script is a contained action thriller. It was able to attract Denzel Washington and yet not break the bank. So yeah, don't write the sci-fi movie with a hundred space ships. Even someone on my level having been in the business for ten years, I couldn't setup a $100 million dollar movie. The movie that is in the $10 to 20$ million dollar range are far easier to get made.
Why did movies like SPEED, DIE HARD, and TWISTER inspire you to become a screenwriter?
I saw SPEED in high school and I was still kind of searching for what I wanted to do and I didn't know if I wanted to direct movies. I have to admit for a while I didn't know you could write movies. I wanted at first to be a novelist but I didn't have the attention span for that; I couldn't do that. So when SPEED came out and I noticed the writer's name Graham Yost, I realized I didn't have to direct a movie I could write one. I loved that movie… the mechanics of the plot were brilliant and so much fun and really that movie inspired me. So I do credit it with getting me into screenwriting. I always loved movies. But it was SPEED that inspired me. To be able to write something that cool was always the goal.
Let's focus on your writing. When you sit down to write a spec, what's your process from idea to first draft?
It varies from project to project. I have to preference my manager, Jake Wagner who I have been with for the majority of my career now. It depends on what my manager recommends or the producer wants. If I had it my way, I would just go straight to first draft and not outline. I like to use the first draft as the outline. Generally I sit down and do what I call a “vomit draft” that usually turns into a 150 page epic that I have to whittle down to 100 pages or so. Unusually a lot of Redbull and coffee is involved.
Do you start with a situation, a character, do you have an end in mind?
A lot of times it starts with a title or a phrase. I could be anywhere, see something or read something and take it from there. RAPID was born from the title. I wanted an evocative title like SPEED and I ended up with RAPID. Original, I know. But I hate reading something that is titled "Untitled Blah Blah" movie. I can't wrap my head around that. So my ideas come from a cool title. Sometimes it’s what I want to see on the script cover… and then basing the story around that I begin. My other movies RECOIL and SCIENCE FAIR all started with the title. I then try to figure out what that story is by coming up with the concept, the hook, which is really important for new writers to understand. You have to have a hook.
Once you have your story how long until you have a first draft?
The first draft is usually like three weeks. Then it’s a process of editing. For specs I might write a first draft and toss it if it gets no traction and my reps don't like it… I move on. If I get good feedback, then it's another two months or so of work and hopefully it gets picked up.
What was the hardest scene you ever had to write and how did you deal with it?
I'm doing a movie now called SECURITY for Millennium Films and though every script is the most difficult and every scene is the most difficult, with this current script I have to put a kid in jeopardy and that's hard for me. For the most part that kind of theme is not me and it's hard to put myself in the mindset for that kind of bad guy. But really, every day and every scene is the hardest.
What are you working on now?
I'm doing BOOGEYMEN and it's really kind of a cool MEN IN BLACK take on the Boogeyman mythology. It is very family friendly, PG-13. As a kid I really liked the GOONIES and the EXPLORERERS -- those Joe Dante and Spielberg type films from the 1980s; so I am trying to bring that type of tone to it. I am rewriting that now for the company and hopefully we will shoot next year. I am really excited about it because it is different than what I have been writing; which has been mainly action movies so this a nice change. SECURITY is moving along well; I actually have a meeting tomorrow at Millennium to discuss the latest revision and hopefully it will be shooting by July.
Do you ever see yourself directing someday?
I'd love to. I don't know if I'd be any good at it. But yeah at some point I'd love to direct. I am pretty sure it would be a onetime deal though… I am pretty neurotic and I don't know if I can handle a movie set.
About the Author
(Follow on Twitter) Christopher Wehner is an author and screenwriter. Currently his screenplay, EL CAMINO (Co-written with Ted Melfi) is in pre-preproduction with Netflix and Goldenlight Films which recently produced ST. VINCENT . His IMDB page. In 2001 he published the groundbreaking book Screenwriting on the Internet: Researching, Writing and Selling Your Script on the Web, and has been a leader in Internet marketing and promotion.
To contact Chris: chris -at- screenwritersutopia.com
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