This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 024: An Interview With Writer / Director Chris Sparling.
Ashley Meyers: Welcome to episode 24 of selling your screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at sellingyourscreenplay.com. In this episode’s main segment, we’re going to be interviewing screenwriter Chris Sparling. In 2009 Chris sold a spec script called Buried. It was produced in 2010 starring Ryan Reynolds. It literally takes place entirely in a coffin as the main character tries to escape. This script is talked about a lot in Hollywood. You literally can’t get any more simple in terms of cast and locations. Chris and I talk extensively about Buried, how he wrote it and how he got it sold so stay tuned for that.
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A couple of quick notes. Any sites or web links that I mention in the podcast can be found in my blog and the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podecasts. Also, if you want my free guide “How to Sell a Screenplay in Five Weeks”, you can pick that up by going to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free. You just put in your email address, and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons. I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide, how to write a professional log line inquiry letter, how to find agents, managers, and producers who are looking for material. It really is everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
So now, let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing screenwriter, Chris Sparling. Here is the interview.
Ashley Meyers: Welcome, Chris, to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show.
Chris Sparling: Thanks for having me.
Ashley Meyers: I thought it might be interesting to start with Buried and try and work backwards from there. Can you tell us how Buried sort of came about? Really what was the genesis of that script and how did it make it into becoming the movie that it did?
Chris Sparling: So Buried was—it started off I wanted to make a feature that I wanted to direct, and I really didn’t have any money to make one. So—you know—just from things I had done in the past, other projects I had worked on, etc., I realized the importance of scale and knew at the time—I was working an enrollment, not making very much money doing it. I just said I could put aside about five grand comfortably and not just drop my whole life. I just said so what feature can I afford to make for five grand? So naturally it had to be a few locations, it had to be a few actors and everything else and I just scaled it down further and further until I was left with the guy buried alive for 90 minutes, one guy for the whole movie. That was all well and good—that’s one thing to say hey, that’s what I planned on doing. I don’t think it’s ever been done and you kind of go through this little victory dance for about ten minutes because you can get something you need. And I guess I did, but still you have to make the move; you had to write the script. I had to come up with a reason why. I had done some research on people taken hostage in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Naturally when these people were taken hostage, they weren’t kept in very good situations; they were just kept in very small rooms or whatever the case may be, and these were just contractors, not necessarily soldiers, just guys delivering machine parts, guys delivering kitchen supplies or truck drivers. And so I found out this is a very common business out there, the kidnapping and ransom business. I kind of married that piece of truth with my fiction and said all right, my guy’s going to be taken hostage and buried alive, and we’re going to meet him when he’s already buried alive. I don’t want to spoil the movie.
Ashley Meyers: Yes. One thing that occurs to me—and I totally think it was a very unique concept—and I mean, I’ve been in meetings with producers and it’s become sort of a baseline for—it gets mentioned because it’s sort of unique, and there’s literally nowhere to go from that—I mean, you can’t get any more contained literally.
Chris Sparling: You can get smaller version.
Ashley Meyers: When you had this idea were you somewhat worried that you would not be able to keep it entertaining for whatever 80, 85, or 90 minutes.
Chris Sparling: Naturally you know, I showed the script to several people, and they had concerns. They couldn’t really wrap their heads around how this would be entertaining for a whole movie. The page is compelling; you still are doing what you do with a novel. You fill in the blanks in your head, the mental images. The movie is there, and people are having a tough time understanding when you’re presented with that imagery how that was going to remain compelling. And the reality is—I mean, I’d like to think that had I directed the film, it would have been compelling; it would have been fun to watch and hopefully it would have been. But the fact is it turned out to be probably better what the director did.
Ashley Meyers: Were you ever tempted to just have cuts out of it. When I heard first about this premise, I was like—well, it couldn’t all be in the coffin; there have got to be some cuts. And then I watch and it’s like, no, it’s all in the coffin. Were you ever tempted just—because it wouldn’t have been that hard to cut to somebody’s phone conversations—you know, the bureaucrat in the office, the girlfriend in an apartment or a house. It wouldn’t have been expensive to do.
Chris Sparling: It would have. That’s exactly—it wouldn’t have been once the budget became what it became, but when the budget was five thousand dollars, there was no opportunity to do that stuff because then I would have to cast these actors, secure these locations—it just would take on a whole new life because he speaks with so many people. But the other side of it too is that I knew that it could stay there for the whole movie. It was going to be unique. I have never heard of a movie like that, and people prefer movies where you have people isolated or whatever the case may be even if it’s just one actor. There is still the world around them for them to look at. I had never heard of a one-guy buried alive by himself for a whole movie. So the urge to cut away was never mine. It was when the script found a new life, and I went out for that spec instead, then people who were interested and production companies that were interested, they were the ones that were suggesting how about if we cut here and cut this and change that, change this, and thankfully it landed with a producer that didn’t want to do that.
Ashley Meyers: So what was your plan if you had shot this thing for five thousand dollars, what was your plan with it? Take it to film festivals? Did you know distributors? What was your plan to do?
Chris Sparling: My thing is I started as an actor years ago, and I started writing to kind of support my acting. And then what happened was I moved back east—I was living in Los Angeles a while back, and when I moved back east, there really wasn’t much film or TV acting to be done so the closest thing I could do to stay part of this industry was to continue writing. And so the change for me—the focus became more writing and to become now is to also direct.
Ashley Meyers: I just was wondering what you were planning on doing with this five-thousand-dollar feature? Did you have a background—some sort of a background in distribution in the commercial aspects of selling film?
Chris Sparling: No, no. I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have the uncle in the business. You know, my dad was an ironworker; my mom was a schoolteacher. That’s my world. All my friends’ families, those were the sorts of jobs they had too. I was just going to do what I could do. I could just make my contacts, the ones I made over the years, reaching out to people with scripts I had written and everything else. The few doors that I managed to open were just going to blast us out with the movie, and that was the intention. I had no real direct road anywhere.
Ashley Meyers: I quickly glanced at IMDB, Uzi at the Alamo, and Balance, and at least looking at the synopses of those, they look like they were very weighty dramas. Did you have a sense that a contained thriller would be a more commercial script or it was what interested you at the time?
Chris Sparling: No. I mean, the contained thriller—I’ll back up—those two movies for me were basically my film school. I mean, I didn’t go to film school; I had my degrees in criminal justice. That’s kind of I thought my career goal where I might be heading if the film thing didn’t work out. The films that I made, those two movies were really just amateurs really. It was a learning thing for me. It was just kind of teaching myself how to do this and not using many professional on either side. So when it came to do this movie, I knew it was going to be a similar situation if I was going to make my $5,-000 version of it. It would be me and probably three other people on the production team and then my one actor. It wasn’t a matter of that stuff and forming this movie, the only way it did in a major way was I learned the lessons from those movies of what not to do and that was in terms of the size and scope of those films. I tried with the Uzi at the Alamo, in particular, that’s like a dark comedy. I had no idea what I was doing. I had so many actors and so many locations, and I had no money to make it with. I knew with Buried, it couldn’t be that.
Ashley Meyers: So did you have at this point with Buried—did you have like the technical chops to shoot it and edit it or were you getting friends to do that stuff?
Chris Sparling: I definitely didn’t have the chops to edit it—I still don’t. I don’t even know how to work Final Cut or Avid. I had the cinematic vision for it. I think as a writer, kind of what you do is create cinematic ideas in your head and put them to paper or commit them to your keyboard. So, to me, I was never daunted by that idea to direct something that I wrote in particular. It’s a take on that as a director. I wasn’t in any way intimidated by that challenge. But as far as who would have edited it, I would have had to find someone to do it.
Ashley Meyers: At this point, too, I think I read in another interview that you wrote, you figured seven, eight, or nine scripts came before this one. Had you started to write some other thrillers or were you just writing all over the board because, as I said, it didn’t seem like Uzi At the Alamo or Balance were at all thrillers. Had you written some thrillers when you wrote Buried?
Chris Sparling: No. That was actually the first thriller. I was writing comedies before that. The piece that I had left out was the person who is now my manager. So when I made An Uzi ad the Alamo, I didn’t know anyone. I just started sending it out, just asking people if I could send you my stuff, working for representation, etc.
Ashley Meyers: Your creative letter is you’re looking for representation as a director and an actor and a writer?
Chris Sparling: It was more like—at that point I think I just didn’t blindly send these things out. I researched to many people where what kind of talent they represented, whether it be literary, directors, etc. I usually tailored it to whom I was sending it to. I did everything for that movie save making the food. So I was kind of saying if you see any shining moment in any facets of these things, maybe we can talk. I got a small response and I sent my amateurish movie that I’m not proud of and thankfully I did hear back from someone who said I like that; it made me laugh. What else are you working on? So that person, Aaron Kaplan, is someone who I made sure that I kept in touch with honestly, I think for three, four or five more years. Every time I would finish a new script, I would make sure I contacted him and say hey, man, I finished another script; I’d love for you to take a look at it if you don’t mind if you have time, and because he had already seen something of mine, he was willing to. That relationship went on that way for three or four years. Because of me—and honestly, because my stuff was at least good enough for him to not just say I’ve read one or two things, it’s just not for me. So it was like hey, I like this, not quite right for me right now; let’s keep in touch. And so that’s what I did, occasionally drip him emails once in a while checking in. So then when Buried came about, I was four of five months into figuring out how I was going to make my five thousand dollar version of Buried, and I didn’t send in that script. That is the only script of mine that I didn’t send him because at the time I was thinking I had this movie about a guy buried alive through the whole movie, and he’s this Hollywood manager and producer, why would he care about my little movie? I’m not going to ruin the relationship by sending him this script that he would have no interest in. I must have had like the Jerry McGuire moment where I just said to hell with it; I don’t care. I don’t know what’s going on with my career or my life, I’m just going to send it in and whatever happens happens. And I sent it to him and two days later I heard from him. He’s like “Oh, my God, what are you doing with this script? What is the plan?” And so we talked and he said look, I’d love to represent you. Would you be willing to go up with this as a spec script without you directing? I said of course I would. And really, it started from there. I got my agent after that, and the script went out. Honestly I think as crazy as it sounds, the script went out in March 2009, and the movie premiered at Sundance 2010.
Ashley Meyers: Yes. That’s pretty quick turnaround. So let’s take a step back to this approach that you have. You have your first film Uzi at the Alamo. You start sending out query letters, I’d like to dig into the nuts and bolts and give some people sort of an idea of scale. How many query letters do you think you sent out and from that query letters, how many videos did people actually request? Just ballpark.
Chris Sparling: I don’t even remember at this time, but I sent a lot.
Ashley Meyers: Are we talking a hundred? Are we talking twenty-five?
Chris Sparling: I would say closer to probably seventy-five if I remember correctly, and they were very targeted. It wasn’t just this random let me just send out letters to whom it may concern, none of that. I took the time to know who I was talking to or trying to talk to and learn the kind of stuff that they were developing or whatever the case may be or clients that they worked with and that’s where I targeted.
Ashley Meyers: And then so how many of these seventy-five letters, how many videos would you say actually you got a request from?
Chris Sparling: Not many. I would say maybe five.
Ashley Meyers: And then from that, it keeps filtering down, and so you had this relationship. Aaron Kaplan watched it, thought it was good enough to stay in touch. Were there any other people that also liked Uzi at the Alamo that you were staying in touch with as well?
Chris Sparling: There was one other management company that liked it well enough but it just never worked out. They at least responded and said we’d like to talk a little more. Their interest was not—it was real but it just wasn’t that hot.
Ashley Meyers: But it was the same relationship. You’d finish a script; you’d send it to them, and eventually they just stopped responding so it petered away. Were there other people like Aaron Kaplan that you had relationships with—and I think it would get to the heart of that—when you sent Aaron the script for Buried, how many other people did you send that if that were the same sort of relationship?
Chris Sparling: Very, very few. He was one of only a few people. You could say I opened up the door for myself. He was kind of one of the few, and the other people I remember giving it to were kind of smaller local people. Again, I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have companies surrounding me. I didn’t have anything, just my ambition really. So I shared it with some people that might have been able to provide me with production services if they liked the project and stuff like that. That was really it.
Ashley Meyers: So let’s take a dive at Uzi at the Alamo. One of the things I get a lot of questions from people that have written a script, and they’re like hey, I want to produce it myself. And one of the things I always try and impress upon people is that precise as you story is, you’re probably going to make your first film or two and seemingly it’s not going to go anywhere, but it’s not a bad first step. You can learn a lot, and as you say, you were actually able to get a good contact even though in Uzi at the Alamo in and of itself was not on the surface of success. It did kind of get you started. So let’s talk a bit about that. You know, what was that movie about? How did you write that script, come up with that idea?
Chris Sparling: I’m just laughing because this is so far in my rearview mirror. This is like looking at your—I mean, this movie—and I don’t mean it in any negative way because I think a lot of people invested a lot of time so that they appreciated everything they did. But truth be told, you look back at it and you kind of just want to hide a little bit, but I don’t discount the purpose that it served. I mean, I needed to learn how to do this, and even as a writer, it wasn’t until I made that, that I actually started to learn that was writing or at least figure it out because you saw it go from the page to the screen what you wrote. And you started to understand how these things actually translate, how something you think is clever and cute that you wrote on the page and all of a sudden, it actually becomes something you shoot. It doesn’t come off that way; it comes across as very performance-based and very false. That was back about ten years ago at that point.
Ashley Meyers: I think on IMDB it listed the budget at $20,000. Is that even remotely accurate?
Chris Sparling: That was on the higher end of what it actually was.
Ashley Meyers: So how did you raise the twenty thousand dollars?
Chris Sparling: I had a friend of mine that was doing fairly well with his business. He believed in me and we grew up together, and I had a little bit of money from working and a little bit more from my parents. I mean, all told, we’re talking about eighteen grand. Even with the cast, there are so many people in the movie. There are so many locations. Again, if you don’t go to film school, you don’t know that. You’ve never made a film, and no one told you that before. And I did my best to do my due diligence to reading and everything else, but again, I didn’t have any mentors; I didn’t have anyone to tell me really any differently. I just had, like I said, my ambitions to do it come hell or high water. That’s why I say I’m proud of it because I did it. I mean, it is what it is, but I did it. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you now.
Ashley Meyers: So did you take it out to film festivals once you got done, submitted to film festivals, and can you give us some basic stats on that? How many film festivals did you submit it to? How many did you get into?
Chris Sparling: I remember submitting it to quite a few. Again, at the time I didn’t have really any money so submitting it was like fifty bucks a pop or 25 bucks a pop. After a while it was like a lot of money into doing it. It played a few; it played—I want to say four or five. Somehow some way it ended up on Netflix for a while, and then it was on like HBO Europe for a while. I don’t know how, but it was.
Ashley Meyers: You must have found someone to stream it.
Chris Sparling: I did get a distributor, and it was a lousy distributor. And it was like the kind of distributor that folks tell you about these predatory distributors, and it was one of those. Again, lesson learned hard, but again it was all those things you take your licks, get up again and you do it again. You see the hit coming this time.
Ashley Meyers: Just to define that a little bit. What you’re saying is you did get some distribution. It was on certain places, but you never saw any money from these distributors, that kind of a classic story.
Chris Sparling: Yes. The crazy thing was I saw accounting statements that showed profit. It was very little profit, but it was. It became trying to get the money after a while.
Ashley Meyers: So let’s just take a quick going over balance, you produced a feature, and then you went and produced this short balance, do you feel like again it was just maybe a stepping stone. Do you feel like that was worthwhile to do a short?
Chris Sparling: Yes it was. I think what Balance was is that I took a lesson directly from this wanting to make a very spare movie, not much dialog, very few people, and really, really stripped down, and that’s what that movie was. That movie taught me a lot in terms of the importance of silence in a film—I don’t mean boring silence. I mean how you can build mystery out of silence where people are doing things, that they are clearly doing something with purpose, and you’re not telling the audience exactly what it is or where it’s leading to. I learned that lesson from making that movie how important that was in any film. So to me, what had happened is one day as I did some reshoots on Uzi at the Alamo, I said to myself, why don’t I do the whole movie? It didn’t look any different than the other scenes. That’s what it was for Balance. I thought well, I’ll just make it short. Let’s just get like two or three people and make a short for like eight hundred bucks. Mind you, this is the other thing was these movies—I’m talking about ten years ago or so, this was when twenty thousand dollars now or eighteen thousand dollars goes a lot further now because the technology supports that. Back then it wasn’t as easy. Things cost more to make them look better. These days I mean, you can do stuff on your IPhone that do that.
Ashley Meyers: Did you send out Balance? Did you do the same sort of approach. Obviously you sent it to Aaron Kaplan. Did you do another query blast with it?
Chris Sparling: I think so. Yes. I submitted it to some festivals and played it at a few festivals, won a small award, one or two small festivals, but again, it was a learning thing for me and I knew that. And that’s why when I set out to make Buried, between—I think you come to a point in your career or your life where you look and say where am I? How does this work? I knew I was kind of nearing a point in my life too where I was—like—I need something fresh. I need to be at least at this point soon, and that’s what it was for me. I was saying I don’t want to just make another movie that plays another small festivals and people will clap and then that’s the end of it. I would need something that was going to make a splash. That’s kind of that imperative. It was the imperative that drove me.
Ashley Meyers: So let’s take a step back even further in your rearview mirror. Am I understanding this at some point you moved to LA because you said you moved back to the east coast. When were you in LA and when did you finally first arrive in LA?
Chris Sparling: I was in LA for a total of two years. I moved there; I lived there for a total of a year and eight months. Moved home to finish my undergraduate degree, finished that, the following summer after that drove back to LA, arrived in LA on September 10, 2001, and it was just crazy. The world was crazy, but LA was also crazy. The thing was it was right after that—I don’t know why a lot of [people forget about the anthrax scare also happened. So for four months there wasn’t anything happening acting-wise. The number of auditions I went on was—I could count them on one hand I think because no one was opening mail because of the anthrax scare. At the time—this was before digital—everything really so you still sent out hardcopy head shots. I just said to myself what are you doing? I just graduated college. I went through all that, and now I’m here again. It’s actually worse for me than when I left; it’s tougher than when I left. And I just resolved that I was going to do this my own way, and I’m going to make a movie.
Ashley Meyers: So then you moved—where is back home?
Chris Sparling: Rhode Island.
Ashley Meyers: Okay. So you moved back to Rhode Island, and that’s actually where you made Uzi at the Alamo and Balance?
Chris Sparling: I made Uzi at the Alamo there, then I did my graduate studies with that, and then I did Balance. And then after that I met the woman who is now my wife, and we were together. I was deciding what I was going to do, and I wanted to do another r feature, but life was kind of moving at a different pace now and there was just no way. It was like I said, I just felt this really strong need to finally get my career really going.
Ashley Meyers: So you moved back to LA at that point?
Chris Sparling: No, I didn’t. I stayed on the east coast.
Ashley Meyers: So this relationship then with Aaron Kaplan was purely through email and perhaps telephone, but you actually never met him until you had—
Chris Sparling: I met him once. I’d gone off to LA. It might have actually been related to a meeting with a distributor when I did Uzi at the Alamo. And while I was there, I had been in touch with Aaron a few times by this point, and we had a pretty decent rapport by email. I think we spoke on the phone once or twice, and I just reflected it to a general meeting if he’d be willing to do that. He was nice enough to do it and so we sat down. I actually did meet him once before we ended up signing years later.
Ashley Meyers: So what were you doing just as a normal job back in Rhode Island?
Chris Sparling: A variety of different things over the years between working construction with my dad. I was an insurance adjustor for a while. I worked for the YMCA as a program director for a while. I told you my background in criminal justice so I did investigations for a while. That was actually the last job I did working in investigations. Thankfully I haven’t gone back to any of that.
Ashley Meyers: Okay. Let’s go ahead and jump more to the present. You just directed a feature film, the Atticus Institute. Let’s talk a little bit about that. One of the things I think you did that was really smart was by directing even some of these very low budget films, Uzi at the Alamo and Balance, I think you set yourself up at people saying well, he’s a writer and director, and as you said, you probably wouldn’t want to show any of these people those movies, but at least they are credentials and so I’m sure it was easier. Can you kind of speak to that—you know—forming your career and how did you get in to be the director of a big feature when you hadn’t directed a big feature before.
Chris Sparling: This is the thing. It’s a big feature in terms of what I took on, but in terms of budget, that’s still a small budget film. It’s just light years apart from what I’d done previously with Uzi at the Alamo and Balance. In a way they didn’t help me; if anything, I kind of preferred that people didn’t even consider them. And it’s only because—like I said—with those films, it was me and a lot of just local people who thought it would be fun to kind of do this mixed in with a few people who had a little bit of professional experience vs. now with the Atticus Institute, I was surrounded by professional people with so much more experience than I ever had on the set. So that’s what the major difference was, and how that happened was that I mean, it’s just like anything else, if you can prove yourself which, to this point, I think I had as a writer, if it’s something you want to explore and if it’s something that you can prove you have the ability to do just by virtue of how you’re able to express your vision for something, those opportunities present themselves. It’s all about the contacts you make. I didn’t have any contacts. Now I have tons of contacts because once I made that break, and now to me it’s like why would I not try to take advantage of the fact I met all of these people and all of these people I either worked with or might work with or want to work with or who want to work with me, to me, I’m just looking at it as it took forever just to crack the door open to get into the party. Now no way I’m leaving. You’re never kicking me out. That’s a big part of it is that you have to be–I hear writers a lot of times (not that I hang around a lot of writers because I’m on Rhode Island, I’m probably one of the few screenwriters who does this professionally anyway. What happens if you write something and it’s bad? It’s not like you’re operating on patience. Why would you do anything but what you want to do? And so I think having had that mentality all these years and writing for basically no immediate reason, just to write a script and show it to the handful of people like Aaron and maybe two other people and go well, that’s that. I’ll put that one on the shelf and just sit down and start writing the next one. I think having done that, it has taught me at least the discipline of well, now that I do have opportunities, I’m just going to keep with that. That’s how I’m going to operate now. Only now my scripts will always be read.
Ashley Meyers: So give us the quick pitch of the Atticus Institute. What’s it about, and when can we see it?
Chris Sparling: The Atticus Institute is about—it takes place in present-day where people were reflecting on what took place in 1976. And in this small parapsychology lab that tested people for things like telekinesis and ESP, there is a test subject who came in. This woman tested off the charts with everything, and what these people came to realize it was above their pin grades to be able to try to understand her. They came to understand her that there was something darker going on here. So the military was essentially called in to help with this Department of Defense is called in to help out and they determine this woman is possessed. So now we see that the government is taking control of the situation and taking control of this woman and in effect, attempting to weaponize this female.
Ashley Meyers: I see. And when is it going to be finished, and when will we get to see it?
Chris Sparling: It’s done. The movie’s done. It just finished about a month or month-and-a-half ago, and we have our international distributions lined up. That’s just being finalized now, and then we’re screening for distributors right after Cannes.
Ashley Meyers: Perfect. So give us a little run-down on Sea of Trees with Gus Van Sandt. He’s obviously a film-making legend.
Chris Sparling: So that is another big project that I’m excited about. It’s a spec script that I wrote two years ago at this point. It was one of those scripts that my agent wasn’t necessarily thrilled when I told him about what I wanted to write on spec. He says well, look, if you’ve got to get it out of your system, go ahead, and I did. It was just one of those things that I really felt truly strongly about, and so I wrote it. Thankfully the response has been really strong.
Ashley Meyers: What’s sort of the pitch on that one?
Chris Sparling: So the pitch is it’s about a guy who, after his wife dies, he goes to this place in Japan called the sea of trees which is a really strange forest in Japan where there are about a hundred or so suicides every year. This is a very strange thing. People go mostly from Japan but all over the world to kill themselves in this forest and are compelled to do so for whatever reason. So he goes there to do that and while he’s about to do that, he ends up encountering this Japanese man who is there for that same reason. He’s attempting to kill himself, but he changes his mind. And now he’s in this forest and he can’t find his way out he’s dying previous to that. It is the journey of the two of them trying to help this man out of the forest. Naturally he undergoes his own spiritual journey in the process.
Ashley Meyers: Interesting. Is there some basis of truth to this like the Sea of Trees actually exists and you fictionalize sort of a story around this truth.
Chris Sparling: Exactly. That’s the only seed of it all.
Ashley Meyers: Sure.
Chris Sparling: That’s a real place.
Ashley Meyers: So I’m curious, now that you’re kind of established as a screenwriter, what do you find your percentage of work is. I am actually surprised to hear that Sea of Trees was a spec. Do you find that you’re working still mostly on specs or are you getting a lot of re-writing work and working on studio stuff.
Chris Sparling: To me I’ll always write specs because especially as I will be continuing to direct with new projects, most likely will continue to direct my own stuff so I’ll be writing that stuff whether or not I do that for a development deal for a studio or not is a different story, but to me, I have another spec I want to start writing. But it is tougher now where it kind of gets pushed back a little bit because of the assignment work and everything else. It’s much easier to just work on stuff you need to work on than stuff you’re not. So that is the case but we’ll see if that ultimately changes where I can just say I have an idea and it’s great. We’ll just take it right off the bat to develop it. So there are never really spec situations. But I’m fine to continue writing for at least for myself to direct at this point.
Ashley Meyers: So have you moved back to Los Angeles?
Chris Sparling: No.
Ashley Meyers: So you’re still in Rhode Island?
Chris Sparling: I’ve been able to do that even with the TV stuff I’ve been involved in and everything else. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to travel as needed and do Skype calls as needed and phone calls.
Ashley Meyers: I get a lot of questions from people do I really have to move to Los Angeles, and my advice is always yes, you should move to Los Angeles, but you’re a good example of somebody who’s made it work by not being there.
Chris Sparling: It depends. I think it depends more on where you are in life kind of like I was saying before. If you are just out of college and you want to get in this industry, you don’t have any real attachments. You could do whatever you want. You don’t have a wife or husband; you don’t have kids. You don’t have a mortgage, any of those things, you should move to Los Angeles. You should go and you should try to get a job either interning or working at a studio or company because that’s the way you make contacts. That just gives you access. That’s what people like me didn’t have for years because that’s not the route that I took. I think being far away has its advantages too because you’re not wrapped up in that world all the time. My life is a very normal regular world. It allows me to stay separate from when I’m in LA, it’s just like barely get any writing done when I’m in LA because there is so much going on between meetings and everything else. There is a good head space being out of that bubble.
Ashley Meyers: How often do you have to come into LA? What percentage of your time are you in LA?
Chris Sparling: More than usual lately. I mean, I shot my movie in LA so I was there last summer pretty much the whole summer. I usually go out there maybe four or five times a year or six times a year regularly and then whatever may pop up.
Ashley Meyers: Good. Is there anything you wished you knew. This is kind of as we wrap things up, is there anything that you wished you knew when you started out that you know now—some sort of wisdom you could impart on people who are listening to this?
Chris Sparling: Yes. And that is to realize that even though it’s kind of like behind the hurray for Hollywood cool, almost like seemingly unreachable thing that’s there, it’s just a business, and it’s a business comprised of human beings. And I say that because there is kind of like this thing we have about Hollywood. It’s almost like it seems different. It seems so different than what we’re used to in everyday life. But it’s not. It’s still people just going to their jobs, and they still have the same day-to-day sort of things going on that you have. Instead of going to their small marketing or advertising agency in Iowa and talking about the new account above the local grocery store, the line that they are developing for them, they’re going and they’re discussing the promotion of a big Hollywood movie, but it’s still the same process of people going to work and dropping their kids off at daycare and doing this. It’s the same. You say well, what’s the point of mentioning that, it’s because you don’t feel intimidated by it all. You don’t approach it any differently than you would any job you’ve ever gone out with. You don’t think it requires any less attention or any less sort of—you have to be understanding of people’s time in the same way. You wouldn’t be overbearing with people were you going for a job at the bank, you wouldn’t follow up on your resume every day with a call saying hey, I sent my resume. Did you get it? But for some reason I think some people sometimes get that way with this industry not thinking and not realizing that these other people on the other end of the phone also have not just their job, but they have lives. It’s an abstract sort of thing. At the same time I think it’s hugely important because it will help you be a little bit more at ease, even making those difficult phone calls and everything else in the past. You’re so nervous because you think it’s almost like reaching out to a different dimension but you’re not. This was the big eye-opening thing for me the first time I had ever had meetings where you’re sitting across from people and they’re about your age. You’re like wow, I thought it was going to be like all these people in suits and these women in suits, all those notepads and they’re all staring at me. It’s not really that especially at the earlier stages of it.
Ashley Meyers: Well, thank you, Chris. You’ve been very generous with your time. I really do appreciate your coming on the show. Is there a good way for people to just follow you? Do you have a blog or Twitter account maybe people can hook up with?
Chris Sparling: I have a Twitter account. It’s at chrissparling.
Ashley Meyers: I will link to that in the show notes so people can go directly there. So Chris, once again, I really do appreciate it. It’s been great having you on. Thank you so much.
Chris Sparling: Yeah, my pleasure.
Ashley Meyers: If you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of your screenplay by an industry professional, I work with several consultants. Check out sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants. All the consultants listed on that page have years of experience actually working in the entertainment industry. Right now we have a real working producer who will give you notes on your script and two screenwriters with actual screenwriting credits. These guys are real pros; they’re not gurus or professional consultants. These are guys who actually work in the business. So if you’re looking for some high-quality notes on your current screenplay, check out sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants.
Once again, I want to thank screencraft for sponsoring this episode. They’re currently accepting submissions for their comedy screenplay contest. They have a great line-up of judges for the comedy contest, some of the best comedy producers in the business. The deadline for entry is August 1. Check out screencraft.org if you have a comedy screenplay that you’d like to enter.
In the next episode of the selling your screenplay podcast, I’m going to be interviewing Babs Batella. She is an agent at the Silver Batella Agency. She offers some great tips for writers who are looking for an agent. So keep an eye out for that episode.
In today’s writing words segment, I want to reflect a bit on Chris’ story. I get a lot of emails from people asking if they have to move to Los Angeles to be a successful screenwriter. Chris is living proof that you don’t have to. I still maintain that you increase your chances of success by moving to Los Angeles, but it’s clearly possible to succeed even from the other side of the country. But I would like to point out that even though Chris wasn’t living in LA, he was constantly working on stuff. He was writing scripts; he was sending them out to the few contacts he had, and ultimately he was preparing to shoot that second feature film. So it might be debatable how much living in LA helps you or not, but what’s not debatable—and this goes for everyone whether you live in LA or not—is that you’ve got to constantly be working on stuff and getting stuff out there at whatever level you’re at. Nothing is going to slow your career down like inactivity. Good things can happen if you constantly put yourself out there. And for screenwriters, that means writing new screenplays and perhaps even shooting your own feature film. Whatever you do, just keep plugging away.
Anyway, hope you found this episode inspiring and have gotten some value out of it.