THE DRAMATIST: An Interview with DRACULA & THE WOLFMAN Screenwriter Daniel Knauf
Part One of a Two Part Series
February 10th, 2014
“I drive through the studio gates every time with a big shit-eating grin on my face. They actually pay me to do this, it’s like paying me to breathe,” said executive producer and screenwriter Daniel Knauf during my interview with him.
A former health insurance broker, Knauf started writing screenplays when he was twenty-seven years old and had his first sale when HBO bought and produced his spec script BLIND JUSTICE (1994). However, it wouldn’t be until the late 1990s when by chance his outline for CARNIVÀLE was discovered online by producers Robert Keyghobad and Scott Winant. From there his career took off. Knauf wrote an unheard-of 25 episodes of CARNIVÀLE. After its cancellation, he continued his TV career writing and producing, among others, STANDOFF, MY OWN WORST ENEMY, SPARTACUS: WAR OF THE DAMNED, BXX: HAUNTED, and of course, DRACULA. Knauf also just finished his script THE WOLFMAN for NBC (one of two projects he has setup) – a script Knauf says is the “best thing I've ever written.”
And recently when the “2013 Bram Stoker Awards" for superior achievement in screenwriting announced that his script for DRACULA: “A Whiff of Sulfur” was a finalist, Knauf, though not big on awards, admitted that it “really meant something, I’m very proud of that.” A career spanning three decades with some ups and downs, Daniel Knauf’s story is informative and inspirational. “I write like a guy who is being chased by a bunch of guys with machetes,” Knauf declared, “after twenty-eight years of being a dramatist, I think I’ve learned a lot.” Indeed.
Christopher Wehner: Daniel let’s go back to the late 1990s, about the time we first met, your career had stalled somewhat and you started a website [unmovies.com -- it’s no longer up]. It ended up being instrumental to your career.
Daniel Knauf: Well, I hit 40 or so and I was thinking about giving up (writing) and I decided, I'm going to take one last big run at this thing. Part of it was setting up my website with writing samples and firing my ineffective agent, getting an effective agent and a manager. I had never really seriously done any networking or anything before, I had been focused on my profession and it was always sidelined. So I said I'm really going to push this to see what happens.
Anyway, it was absolutely instrumental in my career; I was discovered on the internet. A guy Robert Keyghobad, his boss Scott Winant said, “I'm tired of reading the same shit, find me something else.”
Well he found Carnivàle and contacted me, I was shocked because I didn’t even remember putting it up. I wasn't thinking of myself as a TV guy back then, I always saw myself as a features guy. So I ended up meeting with Scott and they were kind of freaked out because I was a complete outsider.
They calmed down once they realized I wasn't foaming at the mouth or anything and I was eager to make the material work. I was also receptive to their notes, which were really refreshing because TV notes are very different from feature notes. It’s more of a conversation rather than a set of directives.
We went from there and ended up selling it and I was an executive producer on an HBO series which is pretty much the gold standard for TV gigs... and that was my first job. I broke in at the very top of my profession which is ridiculously unheard of. I'm the equivalent of the guy who’s at the basketball game, at the forum, and gets to go down and shoot from across the court and if he hits it, he gets a car.
The circumstances for me breaking in were extremely rare. However, I was doing a lot of other things, it's like you want to be at the right place and at the best possible time. So to be knocking on a whole bunch of different doors and it just happened the one door that opened to me was probably the least likely and most direct pathway into a very advantageous job. It was all very unusual. So much that I feel like my story about how I broke in is kind of useless to somebody who is trying to get in. The likelihood of that happening twice is not good.
Well maybe not because writers are using lots of resources online to be discovered. So I think it does relate. The Internet levels the playing field some for the unknown writer.
What I did do that does apply is I was ready, at that point in my life I had spent 18 years developing my craft. I was pretty much operating at the peak of what I was capable of and so when the opportunity opened up; number one, I recognized and seized it immediately. So I basically was in a position that I didn’t just want it, but I could do it. It is sort of like you always keep a round in the chamber, be ready at all times for the door to open and don't hesitate to jump through it and be ready to deliver your material.
And that is a matter of just preparation. If I had gone to Scott's office and come off like some sort of dolt it wouldn't have gone anywhere. And if we had pitched it to HBO and I hadn’t known how to pitch a story, it would have been dead. If I had delivered the writing in any other way than how I had delivered it, it wouldn't have happened. So getting your foot in the door is just one thing, the biggest thing is having the chops to actually impress people at a very high level.
Remember you're stepping onto the field in a large stadium and you better be bringing your A-Game. If you don't have your A-Game you better practice until you do, because it won't go anywhere if you don’t.
Earlier in your career you had an opportunity (a Western) that you couldn't quite seize the day with. What allowed you to get to that point where you were ready?
I had the Western not go well and then I was kind of floating around, I still was getting paid and then that kind of tapered off to almost nothing. I made so many mistakes early on and I wrote about them on the website. I was writing what I called rants but they were blogs. The thrust of every one of those blogs was how to not be a successful screenwriter. Here is how not to pitch, here is how not to take notes, here are all the stupid mistakes I made and I'm sharing them with you so you don’t make them. I really kind of made every mistake I could make as far as my profession, and so I just wrote about it.
You just have to keep hustling constantly and I didn't do that. That was one mistake I made.
Your blogs on unmovies.com were therapeutic in a way then, you were working through your craft?
Well, yeah and it was fun, I have always been kind of self-deprecating, like when you do something so stupid, when you make a mistake that is so titanic, you can do two things. You can sit around and go poor me or you can just look back and kind of laugh at it; and this was my way of looking at it and kind of laughing a little bit on how badly I blew it.
I was sort of celebrating in my failure and I think that is emotionally healthy, to own them, you're not putting them in dark places trying to forget about them. You saw that you blew it, and you figure out what to do next time. You also just make sure you don't blow it the same way again. I think it was good for me and I always thought it was helpful for aspiring screenwriters too and they’d look at that and go “oh men he fucked up, boy I better not do that."
You mentioned that one of your mistakes was when you had an agent and thought, I made it!
Well, it’s like ergo he is only 10% interested in you making it. You should be one hundred percent interested in you, so if you get an agent and then say, “oh good I'm done, I don't have to hustle anymore,” well that is not how it works. Once you get an agent it just means now I have an agent hustling for me, but you should be hustling nine times more than that agent because you have nine times more skin in the game than he does. He is just a retailer and just because he’s a retailer for you doesn’t mean he is going to put your stuff out in the display window, they might just stock it in the back with all the other crap that they have.
You wrote a blog titled, “Write or die,” and I know your background as a salesman was unfulfilling, at one point you suffered through severe depression. What if you were never able to write again?
Well, I would be a very unhappy guy. I feel better when I'm writing and it is not just necessarily writing, I think any creative person, whether it is writing, painting, composing, playing an instrument, whatever their outlet is they are born – they are not made. When somebody approaches me and they go, “you know I've always wanted to be a writer.” When I hear those words, they might as well walk up to me and say, “you know I've always wanted to be a unicorn. I've always wanted to be a bird. I've always wanted to be a monkey.”
You don't become a writer, you don't become an artist, you are an artist; the only question is are you practicing, are you doing your art? It's hard wired into the way your brain works, and writers write. That’s what they do. When I hear somebody say they want to start writing, what that tells me is they are probably not a writer because wanting has nothing to do with it. It's like if I don't have an outlet then, I'm not saying I'm going to die or kill myself or anything as dramatic as that, but I definitely know that it's something that I'm compelled to do.
It's like breathing or eating or sleeping or anything like that, that's the way I'm wired… Period.
You said once that writers should take up poetry because it teaches them to create evocative and economical prose.
Those are the two adjectives I use, yeah, I think it's a good idea to at least read poetry and I mean good poetry. Bukowski for one I would recommend; just good contemporary poets who are writing edgy stuff. It is probably more helpful than reading Poe; although I like reading Poe for pleasure.
I think it's a good idea to read 20th Century poems and pick up ideas on how to write something very economically, evocative. A good poet can in just a few words totally draw a picture. So when you're getting into a narrative you want to be clean, fast, and economical. You don't want to describe the walls, every piece of furniture in the room, or what color of the carpet is; nobody gives a fuck! Your job is to make it fun to read, quick to read, and just paint the picture within that narrative. When it comes to your characters, I think this is more critical because at the end of the day it's a screenplay, it is not a literal form.
The literal form is just helpful to convey the idea to the people who are actually responsible for building, painting, creating, shooting. I think the more important thing from the standpoint of being a dramatist is there's a reason why Shakespeare used to be an actor. I would recommend absolutely the best thing I ever did, what really pushed me to be a facile writer who could create character, somebody who really had an inside handle on character, is when I studied acting for four years with a coach.
I thought I wanted to be a director and I thought if I want to be a director I want to learn what the process is for acting. Now I was a terrible actor, but what acting classes did for me was make me a competent dramatist. So number one you learn how hard it is to do bad exposition crap, unmotivated crap, crap where everybody has the same voice. You find out how to write lines that actors really want to say, one’s they can really sink their teeth into. But more importantly in acting, it is more about being in the moment. And the moment is defined as you memorize the lines to the point you could forget the lines and only pay attention to the other actor who's in the scene and you are responding to them emotionally. When you're acting you’re filling the lines with emotion, which is what dialogue really is – just empty vessels that actors filled up with emotional content and every once in a while when onstage I would find the moment.
When I'm in my room working, I'm always writing from the moment. I'm never thinking, “what would he say?” And then “what would she say” to that and what would they do? I take the techniques that I learned in acting which is: what do the characters want or need? What are they going to do to get it because every scene is kind of a balance and that is the whole conflict thing. It is two people who either want different things or they want the same thing, but they have different ideas on how to get it and how they go about getting it. When I'm writing a scene and there are four or five people around me having a conversation, I'm not watching it unfold. I'm in the scene. I'm really in a state of complete delusion. And I'm surrounded by these characters and they are having a conversation and I'm just trying my best to transcribe what they're saying.
That is the place you really have get to, I think, to do compelling scene work; you have to be constantly surprised by what your characters say. I wrote a scene yesterday, it was in a psychiatrist office and my character said something that, it was like whoa! That's pretty heavy dude, Jesus Christ dude! And so your characters, once you get your characters, every once in a while they can come out of left field and say something unexpected. Then you are cooking with grease.
Writers talk about how characters speak to them; how that’s when they know they've tapped into something. It’s organic, a kind of evolutionary process with writing, you know when you're there, you are in the zone.
Yeah absolutely and that's the key, that's the way I found it. You're a dramatist, you're not a novelist. You write comedy, drama, horror, whatever, but you are writing dialogue between people, you are a dramatist. If you want to be a competent dramatist it is probably a good idea to spend a good long time studying acting because it also gives you tremendous respect for actors and how much they bring to the party.
Sometimes I have been with writers and they talk about the actors like they are a bunch of clowns. They don't respect them and they don't understand them. If I write a stupid line or an unmotivated line or if I write something that is not convincing, they won't watch that movie and say wow, what a crappy writer. They look at that movie and go wow, what a crappy actor.
They are the guys that are on the front line; we are safely tucked away in the back. I have a love for what they do and I try my best to make their job as fun and fulfilling as possible. I make sure to have consistent motives and everything that that person does makes some kind of emotional sense.
When you sit down and develop a story or even a scene do you have a process?
For television the process is spelt out to you by the way you're paid in a step deal; you adapt yourself to the process the network or the studio uses to get the material move through the pipe. So their process is you give them a short nine page step outline of each year or a treatment or whatever you want to call it, and then they green-light that. Then you go to the first draft and that goes through, and then you go to the set of revisions.
Personally what I like to do is think about the story and then tell the story to friends. I've kept my brain wrapped around it and just tell the story like I'm describing a movie I saw last night. Then at some point I sit down ready to write. I like to just do it flat out and watch it unfold; sort of an organic quality and watch it open up like a flower versus working off of an outline –which I think sometimes is restricting and tends to make things a little bit artificial.
Besides when I have outlined I don't stick to them because usually my characters are taking me in another direction. I had a scene recently in my The Wolfman script where the character starts to describe something that happened to him. I realized oh, that's a scene; no I'm not going to have them tell that story, I'm just going to write it. I'm going to have it happen.
I've been seriously writing since I was 27 and I'm 55 now, I've got 28 years of craft under my belt. You get to a point where you don't know everything but you know an awful lot and you see an opportunity like that and you go. So okay it's not on the outline but screw them (the suits). They are not going to read the outline they are going to read the script. So you just give yourself enough room to take a side trip if you need to.
I also don't get writers block. Sometimes it's harder than it is other times. For example, a pilot I'm developing is a night time soap opera. I thought this would be cool because it is so light, silly in a way, and it is deliberately outrageous and miles over the top. But writing it was a bitch because there were so many moving parts, I had something like eight characters and five different narratives moving through a fifty page script. Taking all that and moving it forward was a goddamn mess and from a technical, purely craft standpoint, it really pushed me to my limit.
So it was a very difficult script to write and yet now I’m doing The Wolfman and it deals with so much more substantial themes and ones I think that are central to society right now. That script is much easier to write because there are not as many moving parts and not as many main characters. There's an A, B and C plot, and so that’s an easier script for me to write.
How dominant are themes in your writing? Are you ever conscious of theme?
Well on The Wolfman you had the theme upfront because I knew how I would be approaching the material and in a very different way than lycanthropic stories have been approached ever before. I wanted to do something with The Wolfman that was sort of the equivalent of what Anne Rice did with Interview with the Vampire. I wanted to burst open the whole sub-genre and turn it completely on its head because it's gotten tired and it needs that kind of an attack.
My The Wolfman script is not really, I mean you watch the wolfman, and say “oh yeah there he is, let's see him turn into the wolfman. I want to see a wolf man, hurry up full moon.” You know what I mean?
But my story is more about what changes in the man, what changes we see in Lawrence Talbot between the full moons. And so I had that theme and it was sort of the themes of gender roles, the themes of what defines masculinity? How is it that society is now demonized in a certain way in this day and age? What is the difference between Beta and Alpha in a human society? So I asked, what would happen if you were a Beta and you became an Alpha, how would that shape your life? A lot of things like that I never wanted to deal with it before.
So really what I do is come at it and write a ripping yarn; I don't think about theme at all. And sometimes it will be a year later before I realize what I was really writing about, what I want to do is to tell a balls out story man! And I think that is the better way to approach it for the most part. I don’t think you need to be aware of your theme or when it is going to bubble up. Because it is inside you somewhere and it is going to come through in the writing; I don't know if it's apocryphal but the story is that Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn and he thought, hey I am just doing a sequel to the my kids book Tom Sawyer. Well Huckleberry Finn happened to feature the first African American character that was written as a fully formed human being and it caused immense controversy. And so Twain goes, what is everybody so upset about? He was just flabbergasted. It wasn't until years later that he said, “oh now I know what pissed them all off.”
Theme is so internalized, it is usually just bottled up. Because we don't live our lives by our themes, we live our lives by what happens next, not I’m going to live my theme. It is only in memory where we look back and we go, “oh I understand why I had these troubles then.”
NEXT WEEK PART II
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 Goldenlight Films which recently produced ST. VINCENT . His IMDB page. He is also an accomplished Civil War historian with two published books and numerous articles. For more on his expertise as a historian click here. 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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