Blake Herron -- Screenwriter, Director and Independent Film Producer
March 11th, 2004
Blake Herron -- Screenwriter, Director and Independent Film Producer -- He knows the business, so stay tuned to what he has to say.
By Kenna McHugh
Blake Herron is a NYC graduate who now lives in Hollywood as a screenwriter and independent film producer. He has produced an independent film, Skin Art. He has written for the former TV series Lazarus Man and a movie made for cable. Currently, as a screenwriter he is in Hollywood bouncing between the aerospace thriller for United Artists and the untitled Disney project. His independent film, A Texas Funeral (the one he gets to direct) is now financed with a start date in October. Right now, he is in that tense period where he has made formal offers to cast. For the next couple weeks he'll be biting his nails to see if anyone is going to show up for principal photography.
Kenna McHugh met Blake in Northern California pizza restaurant. They shared a couple of beers while Blake answered Kenna's questions about the screenwriting process, producing and directing. He also talked about his first independent film, Skin Art, which he produced, directed and scripted. Kenna found him to be a very warm, good-looking, charismatic and genuinely great guy.
1) How has being a graduate of NYU helped your career?
From an artistic sense, NYU offered an opportunity to shoot a lot of film for a fraction of what it would've cost to do it without university backing. The students were of a very high caliber, and the environment was definitely conducive to exploration and the pursuit of 'high art.' >From a practical standpoint, finishing a major film school gives you a wafer thin shred of legitimacy in the industry, which is a hell of a lot better than nothing. NYU, by virtue of its East Coast locale, doesn't offer the immediate alumnae networking advantages of the LA schools, but I'm finding now, in my thirties, many of my colleagues have finally risen to positions of modest power. And we have been able to grease a few wheels for each other...
2) You worked with literary agent Peter Miller. What was that like?
Pete was a wheeler-dealer who had 'agent speak' down to a science. The benefits of working with him were twofold. One, I got to see the mentality of representation, what the agent needs from the client, and what the agent truly does for the client. And two, I got to read a lot of scripts. Over three hundred, in fact, before I ever sat down to write one myself. And over two hundred and ninety of them were bad, which was great, because you learn more from the bad ones.
3) You started you film career in NY, but for 4 years you have been in LA. Does being in LA make it easier to advance your career?
Without a doubt, yes. If you're not in L.A. the perception is that you're an amateur. The process of landing a job requires multiple interviews; often the job you didn't get leads to a shot at another gig. You have to be in town for that. The psychology of dialing a long distance area code can be strong enough to keep you off the list.
4] What was it like writing for a TV series like Lazarus Man?
The great thing about TV is that it actually gets made, and it has to be made by a certain deadline. If you play it right, this allows you to protect a lot of your material merely by virtue of the fact that they don't have time to mess with it. Also, TV is a writer's medium, in that the creator is often the producer. Working for a producer/writer is light years easier because they know the craft and are often actually helpful.
5) Tell us a little bit about your Timber project with Disney and working with director Joe Dante.
The Timber/Joe Dante connection is actually a little abstract. Joe liked a script of mine called The Remarkable Fall and Rise of Emperor Norton, and sent it to his home studio, Disney, to see if they'd like to buy it for them. For some reason they loved it, but didn't want to write me a check. But, they did have everyone read it over the weekend. The animation department responded strongly to it, and called me in for a meeting regarding this idea they had to do King Lear with bears. A King Lear where fewer people died tragic deaths, of course. I pitched them a take and they gave me a contract. At this point the finished script is in limbo. Disney, thank God, was happy with my work, and offered another project, which I'm presently working on.
6) Tell us a little bit about the production Skin Art. What did you learn from that experience as a writer, director and producer?
Discussing Skin Art could fill a small, yet painful novella, but I'll spare you. The main lesson is that the art of filmmaking involves doing the best you can with what you have. As a screenwriter, it was a superb challenge, because I had to write the first draft in a week. When the movie came in short, I had to figure out a way to add twenty pages; twenty cheap pages that is, twenty pages that would take place in one room with two to three actors. As a director, I was forced to learn, due to our miniscule budget, how to make my master shots more interesting, and squeeze coverage out of thin air. As a producer, I gleaned how you sell a movie, how you massage the distributors to cull a bidding war, how a movie is marketed, and released. It was invaluable, and hellish.
7) You are very passionate about a semi-autobiographical screenplay you wrote called A Texas Funeral. You have signed quite a few big name stars: Greg Kinnear, Mary Louise Parker, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Diane Lane. Tell us a little bit about that project which you plan to direct. Why did you turn down an offer to have Rob Reiner buy it?
First off, to be precise, we haven't 'signed' the aforementioned talent. They've given us permission to use their names to raise money. The good news is that a major European company has offered to finance the entire project. Presently, the producer and I are in final negotiations to conclude contracts. Once we have a signed long form agreement, we'll make offers to the actors, and then we'll see who shows up to the party. Getting the money is only the first circle in the hell of independent filmmaking. Regarding Mr. Reiner, again I feel compelled to be ridiculously accurate. It was his agency that approached me, and asked me if I'd be willing to sell Texas for a mid six figure sum. I refused because I didn't get into filmmaking to make money. Texas is an intensely personal story for me, and I, quite arrogantly, feel I'm the only one on the planet to direct it. I've given my parents explicit instructions to shelve it should I die in some accident before principal photography.
8) Describe a typical day: When do you write? How important is the networking process in Hollywood?
Generally I wake up between eight and nine. If I don't have a meeting, and I'm still sleepy, I sleep. You just can't be creative if you're groggy. The phone calls start pretty soon. If they're any fires to put out, I'll try to handle them quickly then get to a coffee shop by ten. For the next two hours I write without break and with very little down timethat is, contemplative glances at the ceiling. I let my subconscious do that the rest of the day. At noon I go home and answer my messages. At lunch I screen something on video that is salient to whatever I'm writing. Generally, I have at least one afternoon meeting. Around five I return to the coffee shop for another hour. In the evening I read (often I'm up for re-writes or adaptations). On weekends I write in the mornings and catch up on the trades.
9) What has kept you going toward your goal of directing/screenwriting?
At first it was passion. Then, once I got too old to do anything else, it was passion and desperation.
10) From a writer perspective, which is easier to establish yourself as a writer, TV or film?
In theory, film is tougher. Prevailing wisdom is that more people are competing for the small pool of studio slots. TV offers rapid, disposable programs, therefore more work. Also, writing a sitcom sample is significantly easier than a polished feature. In practice, if you're going to battle the near impossible odds to get a TV gig, why not sweat a little more and go for features?... assuming that's where your true love lives, of course. If you prefer TV, count your blessings. The people are somewhat saner, and the hours are definitely more consistent.
11) Even though Hollywood operates in trends e.i. indie, high concepts, etc. Do you see a common thread in the stories they tell?
I really can't. That's why if you're writing a spec I think the best approach is to ignore the fads and write what's close to your heart. If it's good, eventually it will be in style, and this game's a marathon, anyway, so be patient.
12) And, how has your Russian studies helped you with the business of making movies? Or, has it?
It's been invaluable, but in a rather abstract way. Living in the former USSR taught me a radical strain of 'carpe diem.' (Latin: enjoy today; make the most of the present).Consequently, I think I've been less reticent than many in pursuing my dreams. In Hollywood, hesitation is death.
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