Ten Questions with ENDANGERED Screenwriter Jack Reher
May 27th, 2014
Imagine you live in LA (that's the rub for 99% of you) and you have coffee at the same place every morning because your girlfriend works there. One day you met a guy who you start talking movies with. Day after day after day you two talk movies and Hollywood. Then it comes up you're a screenwriter, this guy asks you "where do you write?" The dumbfounded look fades and you say, "right here." And before you know it you've got an office on Universal's lot. Crazy right? Never. Ever. Could happen. Well it did for Jack Reher and that is only the half of it. The following interview will inspire a lot of screenwriters still fighting for a shot. Just remember that anything can happen, anywhere, anytime.
Jack Reher attended the University of Minnesota before moving to Los Angeles to attend the AFI Conservatory for an MFA in Screenwriting. Not too long ago he adapted into a screenplay the best selling comic book "Edge of the Unknown" created by Jon Vinson & Marco Roblin and written a new version of the cult classic 1988 film Pin. His first film Endangered is in post-production and another film Small Town is in pre-produciotn. Recently he was hired to adapt Jon Bassoff’s novel "Corrosion." [Source, IMDB.]
Additionally, J.R. is a published author (note that a lot of the top writers don't just write screenplays). His teen-fiction, paranormal-horror book REX’D: Welcome to Scholomance (co-writen with J.B. Skelter ) is due out this August by Curiosity Quills press. Click here for more details.
I’ve heard some people say that film school is a waste of time. Yet you attended the AFI Conservatory Screenwriting program, what was your experience like and would you recommend it to writers just starting out?
My experience at the AFI was pretty great. I looked at USC, NYU and UCLA but AFI was the most difficult to get into with their requirements and standards. From the overall submission process, to the nail-biting wait and see if I even got an interview, then the final selection. They only take so many for their disciplines... directing, screenwriting, producing... so out of the hundreds of applicants, it was like winning the lottery. My class had some truly exceptional people: Brad Buecker (American Horror Story), Gideon Raff (Homeland), Jawal Nga (The Clearing, Forty Shades of Blue), Scott Leberecht (Midnight Son). I was in pretty good company there. Great classmates. Everyone of them talented.
I don't think you can teach a person how to write a screenplay. You can provide them with the tools, show them the blueprint of how the script should look, but the gift must be inherent. Not everyone can write. Not everyone can paint or play music or write code, ect. It comes down to the will. The will to get better at something. I think that's the disconnect with film schools today and the frowning on them. Students seem to show up and expect their careers to be handed to them along with their diplomas. That's not how it works. It takes time. We'd get the BEST guests to lecture there, from David Lynch to John Dahl to David Fincher. I remember when Ed Zwick lectured and he said for us to look around because these are the people we'd grow old with in the industry.
I highly suggest film school. It's about building a solid community of filmmakers around you. Nurturing those relationships. Embracing the anecdotes of the professionals there that are giving back to the next generation of film auteurs. Networking is crucial. My ex-girlfriend worked at Aroma in Studio City. Every morning before school, I'd go in for a cup. She introduced me to a guy named Jim. He seemed like this mean guy that sat in the same seat day after day. But we'd always talk film. Then one day, he asked where I did my writing in between classes. I said 'Starbucks!' He said that was no good and that I should come up to Universal and he'd give me an office.
Turns out that Jim was James D. Brubaker. At the time, he was producing partner of Tom Shadyac at Shady Acres. The two of them were responsible for some massive hits for Universal. From Bruce Almighty to Liar Liar to The Nutty Professor. For a long time I'd drive-on to Universal, my own little office in the Ivan Reitman-designed building to write my scripts. I stayed out of everyone's way, but it was pretty cool to see the tram outside my window. That opportunity wouldn't have happened if I wasn't in film school.
How were you able to make the transition from a student to a professional screenwriter? What was the key moment for you?
It didn't happen overnight. Far from it. I just crawled into my apartment and kept writing for a couple years. Cranking out script after script. While at the AFI, I had taken a few meetings with producers. One of my very first was with Tony Ludwig, Alan Riche and Peter Riche (Starsky & Hutch, Deep Blue Sea, The Family Man). They were always my go-to producers after grad school. Even today. In fact, Peter R. introduced me to the Apple Pan my first couple weeks in LA. I still remember long lunches there.
I started hitting horror conventions. Meeting filmmakers. Talking films. Going to more screenings. Hitting up the New Beverly Cinema for double-features, seeing the same people and all of a sudden networking all over again like I was in film school.
As far as really breaking through, I randomly met Jonathan Hensleigh who has had some huge hits in days gone boy - from The Rock to Armageddon. He wanted to read something of mine and flipped for a script. A little thriller I wrote entitled Tissue. Based on a Washington Post article about an underground organ harvesting ring. Pretty timely. Hensleigh then had me collaborate on a project with him. That was a great experience.
After that, I ended up writing a family comedy for David Arquette and Courteney Cox. While still continuing to network without representation. But I felt that things were going to change eventually because my work was getting noticed.
How did you get an agent? What was that experience like?
I was sitting in Pan Pacific Park, my phone rings and it was APA calling. I had no idea how they got my material. But they were requesting a meeting for that afternoon at 3:45. By 4:30 I had signed with them. Pretty out of the blue. I still have no idea how they got a hold of my script. They read Tissue, the same one that Hensleigh loved, and signed me off of that.
You recently were hired to adapt Jon Bassoff’s novel CORROSION. A Psycho-Noir.
I first read about that book when it was featured in New York Magazine and knew that it had potential as a film based on the premise. Psycho-noir is a very COOL genre. Corrosion defines the genre of "Psycho-Noir". Basically, it's an offshoot of the old Film Noirs--Double Indemnity, Detour, Nightmare Alley.
Psycho-Noir takes it up a step. Not only is the narrator doomed like in film noir, but his perceptions are faulty, owing to psychopathic or insanity, and these faulty perceptions usually lead to terrible violence and/or self destruction. Sometimes our narrator (especially the psychopath) hides his faults from the community, but often he hides the "truth" from himself. Basically, our protagonist is out of touch with reality.
The original master of these types of stories is Jim Thompson. Books like Hell of a Woman, Savage Night, The Killer Inside Me, and Pop. Al of them do an incredible job of expressing the warped mind within a first-person narrative. Due to the somewhat charming nature of these narrators, we find ourselves rooting for them--even when they start on their path of destruction. And obviously, in Corrosion we have an incredibly deranged individual in Benton Faulk who goes so far as to transform into a completely different person to hide his violent and deranged soul. But even in his new persona, those instincts manifest themselves.
As far as recent movies: Memento, Session 9, The Machinist, and The Killer Inside Me come to mind as great representations of Psycho Noir. Hell, I might even throw Taxi Driver in there as well.
What’s your process when you approach an adaptation?
My process with the book was to repurpose the structure a little. By keeping the twists and turns, but making them seamless and more cinematic. With the novel, you get to live & breathe the words as you read each page. That doesn't work as a film. To capture that beautiful quality that was so vivid and dark, I had to really paint the characters dark within the script. The stark imagery pops and the violence are intense. What has emerged is a cross between No Country for Old Men, Seven, and Primal Fear. Whoever ends up taking on the role of Joseph Downs will surely garner attention and accolades. It's a career defining performance.
Your film Endangered is due out later this year?. How did you come up with that story and what was that process like from idea to final draft?
As of right now, they've renamed it Grizzly. But originally, it took me 3 days to write. I had a ruptured tibial posterior and was watching Jaws on TNT. Thinking “they never make films like that anymore.” I polished it then sent it off to Jere Douglass because she was also a fan of Tissue and a couple days later she called and said that her client (Adrien Brody) wanted to star and produce. Fast forward to when it actually got going into production and the producers didn't think Adrienfit the role. After testing a bunch of actors, from Chad Michael Murray and on, they finally cast James Marsden in that role.
I wrote around six drafts with all their notes, going back and forth. I learned from that project. That's why I'm also a producer on Corrosion this time around. A little bit more creative control.
What was the development experience like, from the sale to the actual production?
A lot of notes. They flew me to Toronto a couple times to do rewrites with the director, David Hackl. That was a good experience. The dude's a mensch with an awesome family.
What’s your process when you sit down to write a spec script?
It starts with a seed of an idea. Then I try to talk myself out of it. If I can't do that, then I know there might be something there. The final straw is if it's a good enough idea that OTHERS would be willing to PAY to go and see. If I can sell that.... then I will do a bare-bones outline. I keep it loose. Writing should be an evolving process. If you're locked into something, what fun is that? I know where it's going but what if we went this way instead of that way? As I write, I rewrite. Constantly. I do not believe in cranking out a first draft. That's BS. Why shit out something? Why not TRY and make it as GREAT as you can the first time around? Tweak, polish and move. Repeat. Tweak, polish and move. Lay the tracks, clean it up. My first drafts are always more like a fourth draft.
Thus far, what has been the most difficult scene you have had to write and how did you overcome the challenge/ obstacle?
I wrote a script called New York’s Finest based on the life of Lieutenant Charles Becker, the first cop ever to be tried and executed for murder. 30,000 New Yorkers showed up at his funeral in protest. The guy was innocent. I think THAT script in general was my most difficult to write. It's my baby. The Departed meets Touch of Evil.
Any regrets so far? Has there ever a moment when you had to do a bit of soul searching with regard to your career?
I search my soul every day.
What advice would you give the struggling unrepresented screenwriter out there
Remember the ABC's of screenwriting. Always Be Creating. Don't lose sight of telling a great story and make sure to put your audience first.
What’s your goal/hope for the future?
I have always dreamt of writing a Halloween film.
About the Author
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(Follow on Twitter) Christopher Wehner is a published author and produced screenwriter, EL CAMINO CHRISTMAS @Netflix and AMERICAN DREAMER (later this year); visit his IMDB page for future projects. Christopher has been a leading member of the online screenwriter's community going back to the 1990s. In 2001 he published the groundbreaking book Screenwriting on the Internet: Researching, Writing and Selling Your Script on the Web,.
To contact Chris visit his website: Warm Beer Productions.