Ashley: Welcome to episode 74 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger, over at sellingyourscreenplay.com. In this episode’s main segment, I’m interviewing Kamal Ahmed. He is one of the original jerky boys and is now a screenwriter and director. He just did a movie called Laugh Killer Laugh starring William Forsyth. We’re going to dig into how he got this film produced so stay tuned for that.
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A couple of quick notes, any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in 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.comn/podcasts and then just look for episode 74. 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.
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So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing Kamal Ahmed. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome, Kamal, to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show.
Kamal: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me.
Ashley: I just want to touch briefly on your transition. This is the first thing that occurred to me as I watched the movie and learned about your recent movie on Laugh Killer Laugh. How did you make the transition from Jerky Boys to being a writer/director/producer? Was that something you always wanted to do? Maybe just give us a little brief history on kind of how you made the transition from really performer to writer/director/producer?
Kamal: I had a cousin who was maybe about five years older than me, and we would go to Times Square—now you’re talking about 1973-1974—then I was so little, we would go to Times Square before all the movie theatres were all porno—it had all the grind house stuff—and I was so little that when we’d go to the box office, the lady would say hey, he can’t come in here, he’s just a little kid. My cousin would say oh, I’m babysitting him, and they’d say oh, okay, you can come in. So I got to see all these great movies that are classics now. I saw all the Bruce Lee stuff. I saw all the Blacksploitation. I saw all the Mafia movies. I saw everything as a kid, and as I was growing up, I just always loved those kinds of movies and I was always thinking in those terms. I got into music; I got into all these things but filmmaking was always something I wanted to do. The Jerky Boy thing kind of happened as an accident. I only wanted to pursue a rented contract with the Jerky Boys only to push my music career, but when that didn’t really get me anywhere and the comedy got stale, I was really into directing, and what really got me into it more than anything else was right about the time the Jerky Boys got big, I moved to Hell’s Kitchen, and there was this building near my house which a lot of actors lived in, and I would be sitting with these guys that were about ten years older than me. These guys would always be talking about how I should have done this when I was younger, I could have done that, but they never did. I said in my head I’m young enough, let me get into this. Let me make a movie. This was before digital cameras were around the way digital cameras are around now where I can make a movie relatively cheap. I got into it; I wrote my first script God Has a Rap Sheet. Well actually I wrote a couple of others before that, but they never went anywhere. But God Has a Rap Sheet was the first serious script that I wrote that I felt really showed my style that I’m following right now. That’s where I found my voice.
Ashley: I think that’s actually a great set-up to your recent films so let’s dig into Laugh Killer Laugh starring William Forsyth. Maybe to start out you can give us a quick pitch or just a log line of the film for people who maybe haven’t seen the film or haven’t seen the trailer yet.
Kamal: Laugh Killer Laugh is the story about a very bizarre person who grew up being brutalized by a headmaster and doesn’t really seem to enjoy life obviously from his background, and just through a matter of events just has a new lease on life, an epiphany sort of, and he finally experiences life, all the good things that he never took the time to notice. That comes through meeting a young gal and then ultimately joining a creative writing class. It’s almost like therapeutic for him. Then something dramatic happens where he changes, not back to the first way he was, but more like a middle ground. So he’s a person who actually ends up having three personalities in the movie. He starts out kind of rough and gruff, very much introverted, and then he becomes a little bit too extroverted. In the third act he becomes sort of like the way most people are, somewhere in the middle.
Ashley: And I think it’s important to note that you say he’s an interesting character, he’s a hit man, and that’s kind of the conceit of this as sort of a character study of a hit man correct?
Kamal: He’s perceived as a hit man, but he really is a diamond thief but he comes across more like the type of hit man character. The true thing I was trying to get across, he was more like a diamond thief. Generally anyone who works for the mob is some kind of wacky.
Ashley: That’s what I mean. He’s a mobster. So tell me where did this sort of idea come from? Where did you get the kernel of it? It sounds like you kind of answered that, talking about all these movies in the early 70’s that you were watching.
Kamal: I’ve always been a big fan of film noir, and I always wanted to write a film noir and do a film noir movie. But the problem is I work on such a low budget that to re-create that time period from the 40’s to the 50’s, that’s like let me keep it neo-noir. But I was always fascinated with a few articles I’ve read about this very rare phenomenon where people through head traumas change personalities so extreme that they’re not even recognizable to their own family. Someone could be real mean and wake up all friendly and nice or the opposite of that and even rare cases where people have woken up and spoke different languages and acted like a different nationality. So I said wouldn’t it be interesting if I could combine that kind of film noir sensibility with this really bizarre phenomenon I have been reading about, and that’s where Laugh Killer Laugh really comes from.
Ashley: Now take us through your writing process. How long does it take you to write a script and maybe even talk specifically about this one? From start to finish how long do you work on a script like this?
Kamal: Well, what I do first is in a notebook I basically write the story but not the dialog. I just kind of picture in my head how the scenes play out. Then I start writing the screenplay with the dialog. Where I’m a little bit different than a lot of people, I consider myself real New York guy from the streets and everything like that, and I grew up in very diverse neighborhoods in New York so I got to really hear colorful dialog of all types. So I write the dialog in that sense but the actual original screenplay [inaudible 0:11:14.2] was much longer and it involved the female character much greater, and when I got William Forsyth to come on board, he convinced me to bring the story down to more of a revenge story because Charles Bronson was the guy that I had in mind playing Frank Stone. I pictured Charles Bronson when I was writing the dialog and everything. Obviously he wasn’t available so when Forsyth came on board, he convinced me to bring the script down to make it more of a revenge story where once the female character gets killed; he goes on a revenge spree. When I write the scripts that I’ve done, they usually take about a month, maybe 90 days just to write it and maybe two more months to tweak things. Actually my process is very strange. When I’m lying down, when I’m looking up to my ceiling and I imagine my ceiling as a movie. I’m looking at the film like that, you know, like I see in my head. And also I use a lot of things that I see in real life because real life is the best storyteller.
Ashley: Tell me about just your process on a day-to-day basis. Do you have sessions where you write for three hours or six hours, or do you write when you get inspired? What’s sort of your daily process when you’re actually writing a script? What’s your daily process like?
Kamal: I tell you the toughest script I ever wrote where it took about a year, the first film I ever did, called God Has a Rap Sheet and what was so interesting was I had an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, and my window where the computer was was right level where the street light was. Sometimes I would start in the morning where you’d hear the hustle and bustle outside. You didn’t hear because you were so into the writing process that you don’t hear these things, but you’re aware they are somewhere in the background. The next thing you know it goes from cars honking. I’d be at the computer so long, then all of a sudden when I’d run out of an idea, I’m thinking I hear the hum of the light. It would make me go “do you realize I’ve been sitting at this computer for about 11 hours without even having a break or something like that. That’s how it would go, and sometimes that I’d completely run out of ideas, and I’m just staring at a screen and everything like that. So it comes in dribs and drabs. Sometimes you’re just so full of ideas for a couple of days. Now I’ve heard things like oh it’s good to start in the morning; we have more ideas then. I start just whenever from nighttime, afternoon or day. Sometimes I run out of ideas, I go out and just take a walk or go to a bar or go somewhere because just seeing light inspires you, just something. Maybe that’s why so many writers over the years have been known to dabble in drinking and all that kind of stuff thinking they get inspiration, who knows. I’m not recommending that to people. I’m just saying that’s how it works for me. I use real life; I use imagination. What I try to do is I always try to stay away from my work kind of reminding people of someone else’s work. I mean, when you write a gangster film, obviously most gangster films have the same kind of format, but I try to be more original and everything like that is the key for me.
Ashley: So now let’s move on. You’ve got the script written. What was your next step? I mean, you were a producer on this. Obviously you directed it too. So I assume you were probably involved in raising the money. So maybe take us through that process of having the finished script, what do you do next to actually make this thing happen?
Kamal: I tell you the toughest thing to do is get money off of somebody because the question everyone asks is will I get my money back and all this kind of stuff. The funny thing about film is there’s no formula. You could have a movie with the greatest actors on earth, and it doesn’t mean the movie’s going to be a hit. And you could make a movie with absolutely no names in it, and it could be a big success. So it’s so hit and miss and it’s so tough to get the money, and it really is a very long process. It’s meetings after meetings with people who are semi-interested in getting involved in the movie to people who own production companies that are totally interested in making a film. It’s really just a matter of luck and timing unless you are such a big name that you’re bankable just by your name. Like if Quentin Terantino wants money to make his wish, he’ll get it because they know he’s bankable, but when you’re an under-the-radar guy like me, it’s much tougher to get the money. I was fortunate on this one and the last one where I got it relatively quick. But I look at that as more like luck.
Ashley: Let me just dig into that a little bit. So you said going to these meetings with people who are only halfway interested, again, I’m sure there are going to be a lot of screenwriters who are listening to this who are just thinking well, gee, maybe this is the path for me to get my script made. Maybe you can give us just a little bit of advice and practical information about how to get some of those meetings. How do you even set up meetings with potential investors?
Kamal: My advice is the first movie I made, God Has a Rap Sheet was more like an art house type of movie. It was something from the heart. It was a story which was kind of tough to sell today’s standards, but I made it. This was before you had these digital cameras which you could shoot a lot cheaper. But as I got into the business longer I realized it is called film business, and you have to kind of until you get more of a name or whatever like that, there are certain movies that people are more interested in investing in and taking a risk in. And you just have to find something in yourself to want to make a story like that when a writer’s story is more popular with people to invest money with which is anything from action to horror, some kind of drama that affects people’s sensibilities. So you’ve got to kind of stick with that idea if you want to get people to take you seriously and seriously think about investing in you. Now where you go to get the meetings and everything like that, I mean, meetings could happen anywhere. You could go to a party where you’re just talking about hey, I’m a screenwriter and I’m trying to make a film. There’s always someone at a party that oh really I have an uncle who owns a factory, and he always wanted to make a movie, you know what I’m saying, something like that that happens just by going to certain events, you’ll get a card from somebody who says something production and everything like that. If you just network, eventually you’ll get a meeting with someone who may want to invest with you. That’s all I could offer. I’m not on one of these levels yet where I could drive into the lot of Warner Brothers and speak with these real big shots. I’m really true independent filmmaker. I’ll talk to a guy who owns Pizzeria. The big time guy won’t do that. They deal with the true studio heads.
Ashley: So the bottom line is it’s just about beating the street, I mean, just anybody you can talk to you just talk it up.
Kamal: Exactly. You’ve got to be a salesman. It’s a little bit of snake oil salesman; it’s a little bit of beach, but I’m very truthful with people. I tell them if this is all the money you have, do not invest because it has to be something you’re willing to gamble with like if you went to Vegas. How much money would you be willing to spend in Vegas? Why don’t you spend it with this movie? Why don’t you look at this as the crap table or the roulette table? You see what I’m saying? That’s the best way I do it. It works for me like that.
Ashley: Let’s talk a little bit about getting William Forsyth attached to the movie. I’m curious which came first with a film like this? Did you get him attached to the movie and that helped you get the funds which would impress potential investors or did you get the money and then go to William Forsyth and make an offer?
Kamal: What I did was when I wrote the script, I was picturing Charles Bronson as the lead so I wrote the dialog. When that was finished I said who the hell can I get to play this? And then I thought of William Forsyth so when he agreed to do it if I got the financing, that’s when I would tell people if you give me the money, William Forsyth said he would do this Frank Stone character. So that’s what really helped that he liked the script.
Ashley: And did you have a previous relationship with them? Maybe walk us through that process. Did just cold call his agent and say hey, I’ve got a great project for him. Would you guys take a look at it or did you have some sort of previous relationship or connection?
Kamal: Believe it or not, the last movie I made, a thousand times more brutal, I wanted him in that movie and a friend of mine actually ended up using [inaudible 0:22:44.4] in a small part. James Lorenz, who was the lead in Frankenhooker, was at one of those autograph shows where all these celebrities were signing autographs, William Forsyth was sitting right next to him, and he’s the one who got William to give me a call. He couldn’t do the last movie I made, A Thousand Times More Brutal, so I approached him about this one, the same thing with Tom Sizemore. He was supposed to be in the last movie too but he couldn’t do it. So I ended up using the two of them in this movie. It always helps when you tell an investor you have some kind of name in the film.
Ashley: Okay, so let’s talk a little bit just briefly about getting a distributor. Did you take this film to film festivals? How did you ultimately find the distributor?
Kamal: No, I didn’t go the film festival route. ITN Distribution has worked with me for the last couple of films and I really loved the work that they do. They’ve been working with me. Anything I put out, I’m in a relationship with them where they take my film out and everything like that. So I work with ITN. I’m lucky in that sense. A lot of people are always on the lookout for somebody to take their project, but we have a great working relationship and I’m happy with what has come about with them.
Ashley: And I’d be curious. Do you, since you have a working relationship with them, do you go to them with this package, Okay, I’ve got William Forsyth. Here’s the screenplay. It’s kind of a mob character-driven mob action script. Do you go to that beforehand, and they can say yeah, we can sell this or no we cannot sell this. Do you get a little bit of feedback before you actually made this movie from the distributor?
Kamal: That only really works–right now the film business has changed so much because of so many movies are made now because of the digital camera where you could make a film much cheaper now than when I first got into the business where I shot on 35-millimeter. Not very many people could make a film shot like this so there are so many films now that the only movies that get bankable money before you make it, which is I believe they call it presales is if you use the one or two percent stars out there that really are like blockbuster-type names like Tom Cruse or somebody like that. You really don’t get money like that anymore unless it’s like one of those things that just the name right there you could get the money.
Ashley: I think one of the things I think you said earlier in this interview which I think is so important for people to understand, you were talking about just about when writing a script, you have to understand that there are certain genres that are going to sell more and that investors are going to be more interested in investing it, so I guess what I’m getting at is kind of where did you get that knowledge? It seems like it would be a logical place, a relationship with a distributor where there’s a distributor telling you no, we’re not going to give you maybe any money, but we can tell you that action movies with William Forsyth that we can sell. So I’m just curious where you kind of got that knowledge of what genres to actually do?
Kamal: You know it’s very simple. It’s through trial and error. The first movie I made was an art house type of film, and it was really tough to sell plus I had no names in it. Over time you realize you see other movies that other filmmakers, your contemporaries are making that get quick sales, and I started realizing horror, action, gangster, crime, like those kinds of movies have historically always sold and the Art House movies don’t really sell but they’re more from the heart, things to do as more of a heartfelt project. You know you learn those things as you move along. I’m not telling anyone not to make the film you want to make; I’m just saying that it’s just tougher to get deals for films that are more like the art house type of films. I try to stick with the types of movies that I watch now. My favorite movie of all time is The Godfather. My second favorite movie is Midnight Cowboy. I guess if Midnight Cowboy came out today, it would be more like an art house type of film, but I say do what you want to do but realize that it also is a business and the expectations should come thinking of where the business is going. The distributors tell me all the time like what’s selling? What’s selling this year could be martial arts movies, but they weren’t selling two years ago. There are certain types of movies, different genres that usually historically sell. So if you’re in a weird position, you’ve got to write what you love to write about, but you also have to know the expectations of what you do and how far it will get. But I say write what you want to write.
Ashley: Sound advice for sure. So maybe you can tell us how people can can see Laugh Killer Laugh. Is it going to be available on video on demand, Netflix, ITunes—maybe you can just give us the release date on that if people want to check it out.
Kamal: This April 24, you can get it on video on demand. I will be playing in a limited theatre release, two theatres in New York and one in Los Angeles. You should be able to get it on just about all of the available ways to download a movie or rent a movie.
Ashley: I always like to wrap up. Just maybe if you’re on Twitter or Facebook or have a blog or anything, maybe you could just tell us your Twitter handle or Facebook page or blog if people kind of want to follow along.
Kamal: Yes, on Facebook we have a Laugh Killer Laugh page and also there is laughkillerlaugh.com. I didn’t do the Twitter thing. I’m more of a Facebook guy.
Ashley: Okay, sounds good. I will link to those in the show notes. I’ll find those, and I’ll link all that to the show notes so people can find those easily. Well, you’ve been very generous with your time. This has been a great interview. I’ve really learned a lot. I wish you the best of luck with this film.
Kamal: Thank you so much, and I really appreciate it since making movies is really tough but anyone who makes movies obviously does it because they love to do it. With me it’s just about the love of making a film. As long as someone likes it, I’m happy. I accomplished what I set out to do.
Ashley: I really enjoyed it. As I said, I watched it a few days ago and I really enjoyed it. So mission accomplished.
Kamal: Thank you so much.
Ashley: Thank you. We’ll catch you later.
Kamal: Okay, take care.
Ashley: Take care. Bye-bye.
A quick plug for my email and fax blast service. I’m running a special right now where you can purchase one-third of the blast for a little more than 50 dollars. The total list is around six thousand contacts. So this first one-third is about two thousand contacts. So it’s still a pretty sizeable list. I’ve done this just to lower the barrier to entry so that people can check out the blast without having to invest a whole lot of money up front. Hopefully the blast will work for them, and then, of course, you can buy the last two-thirds of the blast if you find that it is successful.
The one thing that hasn’t changed, I still require that you join Sys Select which at the time of this recording is just $24.99 per month. The reason I require this as part of the process is that I’m going to personally look at your log line inquiry letter and help you make them as good as possible. This is really for everyone’s benefit. I want to make sure that the query letters and log lines are well-written before I send them out to my list. The people receiving these emails and queries, they can unsubscribe from the list at any time. So these blasts need to be halfway decent. I don’t want a bunch of half-baked query letters going out as that will just burn up the list for everybody who wants to use the service in the future. Also by getting my feedback on your log line inquiry letter, it means your response rate is going to be much higher. I’ve been doing this for awhile and have had a lot of success from cold query letters. So I think I can help you make your query letter and log line better. So the first third of the blast plus one month of Sys Select is just 78 dollars, and that’s a blast to more than two thousand industry producers. It’s really never going to get any cheaper than this. So if you’d like to try it out, check out www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/blast.
In the next episode of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast, I’m going to be interviewing Julius Onah and Myron Chalavam—I know I’ve butchered those names, and I do apologize to those filmmakers—they just wrote a film called The Girl Is In Trouble starring Columbus Short and Wilmer Vladirama. The film was executive-produced by Spike Lee, and we talk a bit about how they got Spike Lee involved in the project. So keep an eye out for that next week.
To wrap things up, I just want to touch on something from today’s interview with Kamal. I think writing films with a clear market is so important that he touched on that just talking about his early film was more of an art house film, something that was much harder to sell, and he started to see some of other people in the industry. They were creating more genre films, and they were having an easier time selling it. So that’s the kind of work he gravitated to. So really listen to what he says, action, horror, mob movies, these seem to have a clear market, and the people making these films seem to sell them. And what that translates to a screenwriter is that because these movies are selling in the marketplace and they’re recouping their investment, it means that there are more producers and directors looking for these types of screenplays.
One thing I’m noticing from running the Sys script analysis service is that I’m seeing a disproportionately high number of dramas, not that you can’t sell a drama, dramas do sometimes get made, the interview I did in last week’s podcast was a movie, a filmmaker who did a movie called See You in Valhalla, that was a drama. In a few weeks I’m interviewing the director of a movie called Echo of Wars. That’s a post-Civil War drama so these films can sell. You can make them and you can write the script. You can potentially find producers who want to make them and get them financed. But it’s just a much, much more uphill battle. It’s going to be harder to sell these scripts. Because there isn’t much of a market for these drama scripts, there is not going to be a lot of people looking to buy them, but even more importantly, there are more writers writing these types of scripts. So there are fewer of these movies getting made, and there are more of these scripts getting written. That’s just a supply and demand thing. So if you’re going to write one of these scripts, it’s got to be much better than a lot of the other ones just because it’s got to stand out. There are many more of these scripts getting made than are ever going to be produced, whereas if you go down the food chain a little bit, at least maybe like screenwriting or artistic credibility, if you go down that to more of these genre films, as I said, the action, the horror, the mob movies, there are fewer of these movies getting written. There are fewer writers writing these movies, but there are more of these movies getting made. So just look at the math in that. What does that say about the chances of you selling your drama vs. the chances of you selling your limited location mob movie? Hopefully I’m practicing what I’m preaching. I have mentioned this on the podcast many times. I’m currently writing a limited location mob thriller so we’ll see if I’m able to sell that over the next couple of years, and we’ll see if that gets made. I’m not just sitting here spouting off and telling you to do that. I am actually doing that myself. So we’ll see if that works out for me. Really just listen to what Kamal said and think about what I’m saying in terms of the odds. Everything in life is kind of a numbers game. It’s about improving your numbers. I really believe that writing some of these lower budget genre movies with a clear market is going to help you create better odds for yourself and getting some of those first credits, getting something optioned. If you’re just a screenwriter out there in the middle of nowhere working on your scripts yourself, just getting something optioned, starting to talk to some producers, that’s just going to help make you feel like you’re actually doing something. It’s going to make you feel like you’re actually moving in the right direction as opposed to just writing some of these more artistic movies, some of these dramas, constantly sending them in, getting nowhere, and just feeling like you’re sort of alone in the box and not really moving forward, taking a step back, writing some of these genre movies that have a clearer market and getting sort of in the fray and option some stuff and getting on the phone with some producers, all of a sudden it’s just going to make you feel like you’re not just wasting your time, and that’s going to help you improve as a writer. That’s going to help you persevere. This is a long long slog. It may take you several years or more. It may take you numerous years to actually get your career off the ground. Then if you have some small successes along the way, that’s going to be the fuel that just propels you along and makes you feel like maybe I’m not kidding myself. Maybe I actually can do this. That’s kind of one of the things to wrap up today. That’s one of the things that I hope people are getting out of this podcast is that they’re seeing the sorts of independent films that are getting produced. Many of the filmmakers whom I talk to and many of the films that I’m talking about on the podcast, they’re probably not films that most of you ever would have even heard about, but yet these films are getting made. They’re finding audiences and so I just really hope that you go and watch these films and study these films and figure out, go on IMDB Pro and click through some of these films. Find them on IMDB Pro; click through some of the executive producers, some of the companies and start to look at some of these movies, maybe start to target some of those companies with your marketing. Look at some of the companies that are distributing these things. Some of them will also be production companies. Look at some of the other movies that they’re producing. If they don’t produce movies, just drill down in IMDB Pro and start to look at some of these companies who are making these movies. These companies are very, very open to receiving scripts from outside sources. They’re not like the studio system where they’re getting high-level agent submissions. Some of these production companies are not getting that many submissions. They’re not getting the high studio level writers submitting to them. So they are more open to hearing from screenwriters and especially if you’re really versed in what they’re doing and you understand these genre movies. You’re watching these movies. You understand what they can do in terms of budget, what they can do in terms of cast. That can help your pitch. You can get these people on the phone. You can meet them at film festivals. You can meet them at film noir. You can just start to build relationships with these sorts of people.
Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.