How WARM BEER turned into an EL CAMINO CHRISTMAS and got Christopher Wehner his first Movie Deal
A twenty-two year in the making success story
May 8th, 2017
by Harry Caul
Twenty-two years ago Christopher Wehner wrote his first screenplay. Like most writers he dreamed of seeing his work make it to the big screen. After many struggles, rejections, and disappointments he is on the verge of his dream. When you go to his IMDB page it shows EL CAMINO CHRISTMAS as his sole writing credit. From that perspective you might considered him an overnight success; only its been a twenty-two year in the making one. And like almost all of these kinds of success stories it took chance encounters, some luck, and a lot of perseverance.
EL CAMINO CHRISTMAS is currently filming in the Los Angeles area and will premiere as a Netflix original film this December. The story follows the narrative of a young man (Eric) in search of his father to a small desert town in Nevada called El Camino. After a series of unfortunate events he ends up barricaded in a convenience/ liquor store on Christmas eve with five hostages. Not your typical Christmas holiday story. I can't wait to see it. The movie is co-written by Ted Melfi (HIDDEN FIGURES, ST. VINCENT, GOING IN STYLE), directed by David E. Talbert (ALMOST CHRISTMAS, BAGGAGE CLAIM), and stars Vincent D'Onofrio, Tim Allen, Dax Shepard, Jessica Alba, Luke Grimes and others.
So how did it all happen? What can other screenwriters learn from Wehner's experiences? Let's find out.
Chris, for twenty-two years you were at it struggling to make it in this business; so ah, why did you never give up like any sane person would do and become a bartender? [laughs] Right, if you asked my family they'd say I was just too stubborn or simply refused to accept reality. But first and foremost, without Ted Melfi [co-writer, producer] and his wife Kimberly Quinn [producer, actor] there is no movie. Done. End of story. Ted was the driving force behind the movie as the producer. He's also a phenomenal writer.
Tell me about Ted, how did you two meet and write EL CAMINO CHRISTMAS (ECC)? Have to go back fifteen years ago when I met Phil Melfi, Ted's brother. Phil was a producer and he read my screenplay FULL OF FEAR (now ECC). Sadly Phil passed away about 10 years ago; the film is being dedicated to him I believe. Phil liked it and optioned it. Eventually he showed it to Ted, he liked it, and he purchased it. Then the current journey began. The project was in and out of development with various companies, but always fell through. Looking back at all those failures, they were really a blessing in disguise. Ted eventually became an Academy nominated writer and director, wildly successful, and he never gave up and eventually got Netflix involved. Just a crazy journey to this point really.
So tell me about those early years with the script? Well, ECC was actually only the second screenplay I had ever written, back then (twenty years ago or so) it was called WARM BEER. I had taken a sociology class in college and interviewed Vietnam veterans for a class paper, and one of them was Larry. Those interviews inspired the character of Larry. Larry and I hung out for months, even going out and drinking beer together, grocery shopping, just hanging out. He told me a lot of crazy stories about the war. I remember one time at the grocery store I'm pushing the cart and something happens a loud noise and when I look back over at Larry, he's gone. I look around and he stands up from the floor where he was prone on the ground from the loud noise. He said "sorry, occupational hazard" and then continued on like nothing happened. [laughs] He had a witty personality... and he was a heavy drinker. Both come through in the movie. At least one of the stories his character tells in the movie is true about the war and what happened with him. So anyway, I started with the Vietnam vet character and Eric, and wrote a simple story about a liquor store hold-up; because Larry goes into the liquor store with every intention of robbing it and a crazy situation happens. It was kind of a DIE HARD in a liquor store thing. But it had a lot of crazy characters and it was kinda off the hook. I was into movies like PULP FICTION, DIE HARD, SPEED, LOVE AND A .45, ect. those were the movies that inspired me at the time. I like dark stories, for me life is about struggle and the dark times. That's what molds us, makes us who we are. The good times, those don't shape us.
So how did it go from WARM BEER to ECC? Long story. So eventually after having some writer friends read WARM BEER I kept rewriting it and the title eventually became FULL OF FEAR and Eric's story become more prominent along with a character named Kate. I have all these old drafts, the evolution of the story is very interesting looking back through them. By 1997 or so the Internet was becoming a thing for the writing community and you could start to email queries to producers and agents. I sent FULL OF FEAR to an L.A. agent and she signed me; I want to say 1998 or so. She said the script was unlike anything she had ever read, but that she wanted me to work on it and do some rewrites with her assistant who was a fairly accomplished writer. I jumped at the chance and did rewrites for them for like a month or so and when they thought it was ready they sent it out. Well, it got some reaction but ultimately fell flat and within a few months I never heard back from her, one producer did like the script, was going to option it, and I shit you not, he died shortly thereafter [laughs]. At least that's what I was told. I don't even remember his name. That was enough to make me put the script away and moved on until I met Phil, he asked to read something of mine and I dug it out. He loved it. The rest is as they say history.
So how did Ted get involved? Well as I said he optioned and then bought it. We did some work on it together, Ted at the time wanted to direct it and asked if he could work on the script. I said yes, I had taken the story as far as I could. I had nothing left to give it. At that point it was going on 5 years or so of me working and working on it. Ted then worked on it and did some wonderful things. He removed a couple of subplots that were distracting. Enhanced the main narrative thrust of the story, soften some of the characters darkness, enhanced the humor, and he's great; I mean he's an Oscar nominated writer. What else is there to say. Thank God I met Phil who introduced me to Ted.
Sounds like you were indeed lucky to know Ted and Phil. Yes. Absolutely, Ted has been great and is a friend. As I said none of this happens without him. And Phil, he was a good friend and we did a lot of stuff together. Wish he was here to see all this, he'd be pretty excited.
So all these years while Ted was trying to get the movie made what were you doing career wise? I continued to work with Phil on a couple projects. I was hired to adapt a Civil War novel. I am historian I have my master's degree in history and have published books and taught classes. I sold a manuscript to a publisher, published several books on the Civil War. So working on that project was one of the most enjoyable experiences up until the Netflix deal. I was also hired by a small company to re-write a horror script. Did a couple other small projects. Optioned another script THREESOME to a company for a time. Worked on a project with Ted, we were co-writing something years ago for Peter Dinklage. I also worked as a writer and editor for a screenwriting magazine. Spent years traveling to film festivals and just studied film. And of course my work here on ScreenwritersUtopia.com. But ultimately, like a lot of writers, I had to get a day job teaching history and screenwriting to pay the bills. I had a family to support, and they have been there for me.
Take me through your writing process. How do you approach writing a story? I always start with two things: Character and circumstance. I like to try and place interesting characters in difficult or unusual circumstances. Then once I know that situation, I have to know the ending before I write. I have to know where the story ends, what it resolves and why, and then I begin. I usually also know certain beats and events, different scenes I have visualized. But once I know the ending I'm usually ready to go. At that point during the writing process I allow the characters to take me in new and unexpected directions if that happens. As long as I know where I'm going (ending) I am good.
Do you outline, use note cards? Not always. Though I have started to do that more and more. But the key is always, know your ending and why it is thematically important. How does the narrative evolve until the ending. I don't like the rigid nature of beat sheets or outlines, but when you are hired to work on a project the producer(s) will demand it usually. At least that's been my experience.
What advice do you have for screenwriters out there struggling right now? I mean you worked at it for twenty plus years! I don't know. To be honest I did give up in a way, for a time. I spent 3 or 4 years not writing a single screenplay, I wrote history books and had four of them published. Once a writer always a writer, I just changed genres for a time. Then I got back into it again about five years ago. I am also writing short films and short stories. I'd like to direct one of my short films. Outlining a novel, a western actually. Really excited about it, it's based on a true story. Like every writer I have lots of ideas. But the bottom line, A.B.C. -- Always Be Creating (writing). If you're truly a writer it doesn't matter how much you are or aren't making. How much success you are or are not having. You have to write, it's inside of you; a burning.
You also wrote one of the first guidebooks for screenwriters (Screenwriting on the Internet: Researching, Writing and Selling Your Script on the Web, 2001) on how to use the Internet to be successful. Yes Michael Wiese Productions bought my manuscript about how writers could use the Internet to sell their screenplays. It was a very popular book and I did a speaking tour at various screenwriting conferences and helped some writers make in Hollywood. But ironically I never did.
Not until now. Well, yes, not until now.
So you never moved to Los Angeles, did you do the right thing? I mean in your book you say it wasn't necessary and your story would seem to prove that. Upon reflection, looking back, I wish I could have moved to L.A. and try it from there. But my circumstances didn't allow it. I had a family to support. I got married and had kids fairly young. I couldn't ask them to do that. That's really the geniuses of the book, for those who simply couldn't move to L.A., they could possibly make it in Hollywood. But at the end of the day, yes you can do it, but by not living there and making those personal connections you are at a great, great disadvantage to those who are doing just that.
Chris thank you for your time and congratulations. Thank you.
About the Author
I am a professional screenwriter with some years of experience, but I'm gonna say some shit on here that might piss some people off so I am the Mystery Screenwriter.