Welcome to Episode #270 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing writer-director Mark Steven Johnson. He started his career as a writer and has now moved into directing, in fact, his latest effort he directed but wasn’t actually the original writer on it. He started his career by writing the spec script for Grumpy Old Men and then went on to write some great studio features like Simon Birch, Daredevil, Ghost Rider and a number of other big studio films. So stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode valuable please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving me a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook.
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I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide. I’ll teach you how to write a professional logline and query letter and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really is everything you need to know to sell your screenplay, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer-director Mark Steven Johnson. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Mark to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Mark: Thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here.
Ashley: So to start out maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Mark: I grew up in a small town called Hastings, Minnesota and it was about as far away from Hollywood as you can imagine [Laughs] but I always knew I wanted to do this. I always knew I wanted to be a screenwriter since I was a little kid. And back then there was, it’s funny, it was pre-internet and so it was very hard to get ahold of a screenplay. But I would do is that I would shape up my money and I would go to a place called Script City in Studio City and they would sell screenplays for $20 a part. I would give whatever I could get my hands on just to study the format and that’s all I would do all through high school. Then when I was old enough I drove out to LA and the first place I went was Studio City because I thought that was gonna be the sexiest place in the world because [Laughs] [Inaudible 00:02:53] and that was my first kinda harsh reality.
So I came out here and I started working as an assistant the [Inaudible 00:03:05] way like everyone does, trying to get people to read my stuff and I wrote Grumpy Old Men. I wrote about home. Ice fishing [Inaudible 00:03:12] all these things about my own life and people would read and say, “Yeah, this is really, this is really funny Mark, but it’s about old people falling in love and ice fishing. No one’s gonna make this movie.” And then someone read it, they gave it to someone, who gave it to someone and they bought it and that started everything.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. And so just track with that a little bit. What were… so what were you doing at this point in your career? How were you getting your scripts out there? And then maybe specifically with Grumpy Old Men, how did you get that initial read that kind of got the dominoes falling?
Mark: You know, it’s funny. I was working at Orion Pictures as an assistant and of course like every assistant I had my script and I was hoping that I would bring that in to get people to read it but nobody would read it [Laughs]. As I’m sure a lot of your followers would know. People pigeonhole you they’re like, “No you’re an assistant, we’re not gonna read your script.” So I was frustrated. I couldn’t to anybody and there was just, you know, that old saying about being prepared for luck. My connection was so small. My wife came home from work one day in a hospital, she worked in a hospital and said, “Hey. A guy I work with at the hospital, his cousin used to be an agent.” [Laughter]. So that was my big break. I called him, his name is Nick Barman, and I said, “Hi. My wife works with your cousin at the hospital. Would you please read my screenplay?” and he was like, “Oh God.”
You know, the last thing you wanna do is read someone’s screenplay. And so I sent him Grumpy Old Men and he took a look at it. It was on his desk, he was gonna throw it in the trash. Then he read a couple pages and he kinda laughed then he read a few more and kept reading a few more then he read the whole thing. Then he gave it to John Davis who’s a big producer, who gave it to Warner Brothers and they bought it. And it was of those crazy Hollywood stories that just changed everything. The best part was that Mark Platt who was the head of Orion at the time, he was walking down the hallway and they were having a going away party for me, there’s balloons and cake and he’s like, “What’s going on?” they’re like, “Oh, Mark Johnson sold a screenplay to Warner Brothers.”
And then Mark Platt said, “Why didn’t we read that screenplay [laughter]?” and I said, “I tried, nobody would read it.” So it became a joke for us. Whenever I’ll see him I would say I can’t… it was just like a mean laugh.
Ashley: Yep. Hindsight’s 20-20. He missed the boat.
Ashley: So let’s dig into Finding Steve McQueen. Maybe to start out you can give us just a quick pitch or logline. What is this film all about?
Mark: The film is about a group of bank burglars from Youngstown, Ohio who get a tip from Jimmy Hoffa that President Nixon is holding $30 million in a safe deposit box on Lagoona Beach. And they hate Nixon so much they decide to travel to California and try to rip off the President of the United States. And it’s a true story and it’s one I’d never heard before. It’s one of those really weird footnotes in American history and I kept… when I was reading it I kept googling it to say, “That can’t be real. That can’t be…” and it was real. So that’s what the story’s about. More specifically it’s about one member of that gang named Harry Barber who when the movie opens up and he sits down with his girlfriend who he’s been with for eight years and says, “I’m not who you think I am.” and he begins to tell her this whole story about what happened.
So it’s all done in flashback which is really interesting. I found that really fascinating because any Heist story the conflict always comes from, “Oh, will get away with it,” right? Well, they pull off the bank job. And this movie opens up eight years after so it’s like, ”Oh, they’ve already gotten away with it.” So what’s the movie about, what’s the conflict? It really becomes about this love story. Is this couple gonna make it? Is she gonna forgive him? Are they gonna run away together? So it was a very different was to tell a Heist story. It was very much of a romantic comedy, a screwball comedy along with drama. It really mixes a lot of talent.
Ashley: Yeah. So how did you get involved with this project? Did your agents send you the script? Maybe just talk through that. How you kind of got this script and got on as a director.
Mark: It was sent to me by the producer Anthony Mastromauro who I had met earlier on another project we decided not to do. But this one he said, “I wanna send this to you.” It was then called the Youngstown Boys. It was then a bit more of a straight ahead heist film. So he sent it to me and I read it and like I said, at first I was like, “No. I don’t wanna tell a heist story of this. There’s so many heist films and so many great ones. And I knew it was gonna be a really inexpensive low budget film. So you know, you can’t compete with Heat or The Town and all that kinda stuff so why would you even try? But then when I read it I was just taken aback by the story, the true story and also the love story and then I got excited. Then I was like, “Okay, that’s something that I can make something that’s really different.”
Ashley: And so then, was there some rewrites to making more about the love story than the traditional heist?
Mark: Yeah. I worked with… the original writer with Keith Sharon. Keith is journalist for the Orange County Register, and he wrote about stealing Nixon’s millions. So he wrote the original article in the series for the Orange County Register and then his story got optioned by the producer and then he wrote the first few drafts. And then Ken Hixon did rewrites after that making it much more about the love story. Then I worked with Ken on a bunch of drafts and then Ken got busy, a very successful, busy writer and so then I took it over with his blessing and did some many more revisions on the script.
Ashley: And so I was gonna ask about that. Since you have a background in writing, isn’t there always that desire to just get in there and put your own stamp on as a writer?
Mark: Yes. Always. I mean that’s… for me being a writer-director that’s the whole point. I’m a writer first, always. So directing is a way of kind of in a way protecting what I write [laughs] and so I’m always very aware of the fact. I know what it feels like to come in and have somebody else rewrite your script, so I try to keep the original writer involved as long as possible. I always tell them upfront that, “Just so you know, I have to put my hands on it, just I don’t really know any other way to do it, I gotta put up my own voice. But because I’m a writer and not just a meddling director, I think screenwriters appreciate that and they enjoy working with me because I live their life. I know what it’s like.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. For sure.
Mark: I’ll never be a director who says, “This scene doesn’t work, I don’t know why. It just doesn’t work, try something else.” I always have suggestions and be able to help and get my hands, roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty, you know?
Ashley: Yeah. So I wanna back up just one quick question. I always get emails from screenwriters saying, “Hey. How can I get in touch with this director or that director?” You just mentioned that this producer, Anthony was the one that got you this script. Is that very typical to have a number of producers that you work with and they send you material? Do agents send you material? How do people get material to directors, just sort of as a general question and then specifically [crosstalk]?
Mark: Yeah. Generally it comes to the agents. But I’ll be honest, most of the things that I’ve made in my life I’ve generated myself. So I think a good advice for a young writer is look for material, look for whether it’s an article or a book or a magazine article or whatever could be and generate it yourself. You’d be surprised. Look, we writers are a lonely bunch [laughs], we don’t know a lot of other writers. We don’t get contacted a lot. And sometimes you’ll find a little book that you love that other people probably have never heard of and there’s a way find [Inaudible 00:0:55] you know, with internet, there’s a way to find that writer and send them a personal letter and tell them how much you love it and why and ask them if you could chat with them as a fan, and then… You’d be surprised how often people say, “You know what, I wrote that book ten years ago, I haven’t even thought about it yet. Take a swing at it. Go ahead and take it out.”
There’s a lot of ways to generate your own stuff and that’s what I’ve done. Most of the things… I’ll think about a story I’ve heard a long time ago or a videogame I played as a kid or a graphic novel that I always liked but no one else has even heard of and then I’ll just go out and get the right stuff myself. You’ll be surprised. It’s not as hard as you would think sometimes.
Ashley: Yeah, good advice. I’m curious to just quickly… so this producer Anthony, maybe you can just tell us, how did you meet him? Just bring us back on that relationship. How did that relationship develop?
Mark: Yeah, sure. I mean, a lot of producers like Anthony they’ll just come to me because they know my work and they’ll wanna have a general meeting and talk about… they ask what I’m interested in that kinda thing and then they’ll pitch me an idea and whatnot and I’ll say, “Yes, hand me the script or the article or the book or what have you.” That’s generally the way it works. Sometimes I’ll pursue them. Again, like what are you passionate about? If I’m passionate about a certain book, or comic, or whatever, I’ll find out who the rights holder is and I’ll go after them. I’ll say, “I’d love to have a meeting with you and talk about the story,” and then I’ll pitch them my version. So it goes both ways. People pitch to me and I pitch to them as well.
Ashley: Yeah. So as you were talking about this screenplay for Finding Steve McQueen it seems like, and I’m just trying to sort of sum up and so correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you really liked the concept sort of the fact it was a true story. And you’re putting a lot of emphasis on that. You’re giving the advice go find an article, find a book and you haven’t necessarily mentioned any of the ins and outs, your screenwriting 101 structure of the screenplay or anything like that. Do you put the weight, do you put a lot of weight on the premise of the screenplay and then just figure you can work out those details of the execution later, or are there some specific things about this script that you really, really liked and just maybe haven’t mentioned?
Mark: Yeah. I mean, for me it was a heist story that was told in a different way. That to me was unique. If someone said, “This is a story about guys who are gonna try to rob a bank and then you follow them preparing the robbery, the robbery and then just see what happens afterwards and those were your three acts. This is very different. This is like here’s a guy… this is sort of about a guy sitting down with his girlfriend and saying, “I’m not who you think I am,” and starts talking about a bank robbery he did eight years ago. So I thought that was really unique and I think that’s good advice as well I think for screenwriters, is how do you come into it from a more interesting angle whatever your story is. There’s only so many stories in the world you know what I mean [laughs]. We’re all trying different versions of kind of the same stories. So in this one it was like, “Oh no, the bank robbery’s already happened. Oh yeah, he got away with it. Then where’s the drama? What’s the conflict?” That’s what’s fun. That’s what makes you… that’s what hooks you.
Again, it’s like those first 10 pages. You want those first 10 pages to be great because as a struggling screenwriter you’re lucky to get that shot if someone’s gonna read your script. They’re only gonna give you 10 pages and they’ll know immediately. So I’ve heard people before say, “You know, it starts slow but just wait, it gets really good.” I’m like, “No, you can’t wait. People are busy. You’ve got 10 pages.” So what’s your unique voice, what’s your unique take and why, why should somebody make this movie? That answers for that.
Ashley: Yeah, sure. So what’s your take on screenplay structure? There’s sort of the Sid Field paradigm, the clear delineated acts and act breaks. What’s your take on the beginning middle and end three-act structure?
Mark: It still holds true but there’s always exceptions. But in general the three-act structure still rules. And I find movies a lot of times that don’t follow the three-act structure and you’ll be watching it and the audience knows. They’re like, “The acting’s good and it’s shot well and it’s a cool idea. Why am I losing interest?” I believe that we’re built for that three-act structure, it’s ingrained in us. We wanna meet our characters, we wanna… we [Inaudible 00:15:32] happen around this thirty minute mark and then in our mid-point plot twist around the middle and the fifties and at the end of the second act break we have kind of that cliffhanger then we need resolution. I still believe in that structure and I find that when I stray from it I don’t got a hold of that, I get myself in trouble, you know?
Ashley: Yeah. So I always like to wrap up the interviews just by asking any guest what they’ve seen recently that they really like. I’m always looking for interesting things to watch. So just from a screenwriting perspective, is there anything on Hulu or Netflix or out in the theatres that you just think is really excellent and screenwriters to check out?
Mark: I think what I saw recently was Hereditary, like so that was fantastic. If you haven’t seen it, I think it’s an travesty that Toni Collette wasn’t nominated for Academy Award. I thought her performance was incredible. And it was a very interesting take on a Horror film. I thought that was great. I loved Eighth Grade, I thought Bo Burnham did a fantastic job. You always think you know where it’s gonna go, a typical high school story and then they always turn in the most heartbreaking fashion and I was on the edge of my seat like a thriller watching Eighth Grade. So I think those are two interesting choices. If you haven’t seen either give both of them a look. They’re very specific, unique voices.
Ashley: Yeah, good suggestions. Not sort of the main stream suggestions, so yeah, thank you for those. How can people see Finding Steve McQueen? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Mark: It’s gonna be out on March 15th. It’s gonna be in a handful of theatres and in VOD at the same time. So check and see if it’s playing near you and if not you can stream it. It’ll be on iTunes, it’ll be on all that stuff. It’s a fun little movie and people will have a god time with it.
Ashley: Yeah. Perfect. And I just like wrap up the interview by asking the guest to share how people can keep up with you and your career. Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing I will round up for the show notes.
Mark: I’m not on social media [laughs].
Ashley: Okay. No worries.
Mark: I’m sorry. I didn’t know when to keep up. Hopefully I’ll just keep making stuff and people will go, “Oh look, he made something. Let’s go watch it.”
Ashley: So yeah. You’re probably smart enough, social media in this day and age… so no worries.
Mark: Yeah. I’m actually on social media, but only to spy on my kids. So that’s my big secret.
Ashley: I got you. Yup.
Ashley: So, well, perfect Mark. I really appreciate you coming on and talking with me today. Good luck with this film and good luck with all your future projects.
Mark: Thanks man.
Ashley: Thank you. Well, talk to you later.
Mark: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
Ashley: And thank you.
Mark: Thank you. Buh bye.
Ashley: You too. Bye.
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On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing producer Tom Bhramayana and writer Stephen Hoover. They just did a film called Tinker, which is a family-friendly sci-fi drama. They both live in Louisiana and are making careers for themselves living far outside of Hollywood. So keep an eye out for this episode next week. That’s the show. Thank you for listening.