This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 273: Screenwriter John Fusco Talks About His New Netflix Feature Film, The Highwaymen.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #273 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screen writer and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing screenwriter John Fusco. John has a film out on Netflix called The Highwaymen starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson. This is a script John wrote a while back and came close to getting it produced numerous times and he finally found a home for it on Netflix. John has written such studio films as Young Guns and Hidalgo and many many many others. He’s originally from Maine, so like many of us didn’t grow up around Hollywood and kinda had to figure things out on his own.
We talk about his journey, kinda how he got to where he was and how he got this film The Highwaymen ultimately produced over on Netflix. So stay tuned for that interview. If you think this episode is valuable please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes, or leaving a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast so they’re very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mentioned 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.com/podcast and then just look for Episode Number #273. If you want my free guide-How To Sell A Screenplay In Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to www.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. 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 screenwriter John Fusco. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome John to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
John: Hey Ashley. It’s great to be with you.
Ashley: So to start out maybe you can give us a quick overview of your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
John: Well, I grew up in a small blue-collar town in New England and my father was an auto salvage owner. So I was basically a junkyard kid. I could describe it as a junkyard dog [laughs] growing up. But my dream from a very early age was to write screenplays and make movies. It helped that in one of the junk cars in the trunk I found a Super 8 camera [laughs]. I always felt it was a message from the movie gods. But I started writing and shooting these Super 8 films at around 10, 11 years old and it was a real dream but I wasn’t met with a lot of support or encouragement because it was just so out there and so foreign to the community that I grew up in.
In my teenage years I pivoted toward songwriting as an outlet for the creativity, connected with different bands, garage bands and dropped out of high school, wound up on the road with these bands until I had this epiphany at one point out there that I never should have let go of that first dream. And I remember making this decision along South Carolina highway in this bus, this tour bus that I was going to go back at my GED and I was going to pursue screenwriting or die trying.
Ashley: And so what happened then? So you went back to school and then you got some sort of a degree, you stumbled into LA. What was that first break for you?
John: Well, after I got the GED, went back to high school, I got into a community college and just started… I had never stopped writing and that was the thing Ashley that… and I described this six years I spent on the road and hoboing and [inaudible 00:04:24] and the hard times. That was the best high school I could’ve had in preparation for character and storytelling. I used community college as a stepping stone and got into a small liberal arts college and then applied to NYU to Tisch School Of The Arts to the dramatic writing program and I got in and I hit the ground running there because I was just so hungry and ready for the opportunity and I had stories to tell from the road.
My first screenplay which I did in a screenwriting 101 class. I misunderstood the assignment, it was supposed to be a 10-page short by the end of the semester but I turned in a full screenplay.
John: And it was set in the South it was kind of… a road story and my professor encouraged me to enter it in a national screenwriting competition, which is no longer around, but it was called FOCUS, Films Of College and University Students. I ended up becoming a finalist and they flew me to LA and I ended up winning first place which was a big… first prize was a brand new Nissan automobile which was kinda profound meaning to me having come from the junkyard [laughs] and having driven a lot of junkers. Anyway, I signed with the William Morris’ agency. At the time I thought that script was going to sell because I was wined and dined and it was a big deal but it did not sell.
It got me an agent but I went back to tending bar and continuing schooling at NYU. I wrote my next screenplay in a masters class that was taught by Waldo Salt, Ring Lardner Junior and Ian McLellan Hunter, all three of the Hollywood blacklisted screenwriting giants teaching this one class. That script that I wrote was called Crossroads and it was semi-autobiographical, a blues story about a young white kid from the North East who’s obsessed with the blues and goes on the road looking for Robert Johnson’s lost song. Anyway, I entered it in the same FOCUS awards and it won first place again.
Ashley: Nice. Very good.
John: I had sold the first car so I could keep going to school. It’s now I have one I could keep and then I sold the script, sold to Columbia Pictures and it was in production before I graduated. So a lot of people said to me, “Wow, that was like an overnight success,” and I always say, “Well, you weren’t around during the six years when I was living in a doorway in New Orleans.”
Ashley: Yeah, okay [laughs]. Let’s dig into your latest film The Highwaymen starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson. Maybe to start out you can just give us a quick pitch or logline. What is that film all about?
John: In 1934 when the gangster legends Bonnie and Clyde were terrorizing America, J. Edgar Hoover and a 1000 men dragnet couldn’t catch them for two years and Texas turned to two retired Texas rangers, old time Texas rangers, who came out of retirement, took up the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde . They had to make the transition from Horsham Winchester to Ford V8 and machine rifles and track down modern-day gangsters in an era that had passed them by.
Ashley: I got you. And so how did you involved with this project? Something like this coming out of Netflix is that something that they have in their pipeline and then they bring out a writer? Is it something that you had an idea for and then brought to them? Maybe you can talk about sort of the flow of that a little bit.
John: Sure. Well, you know I always write what I’m passionate about and I’m a big believer in writing spec scripts and just not trying to crack the market and I’m cautious about development deals although there are some good ones that come along but I believe that we writers can create our own best projects. The Highwaymen is something I’ve wanted to do from an early age. The 1967 Arthur Penn film Bonnie and Clyde which there’s no disputing there’s a water shed cultural touchdown in a movie that influenced so many great filmmakers and create… opened the gate to a whole new era and reinvented cinema. Because I had a fascination with outlaws and gangsters I went to see that movie at the drive-in as a little kid with my parents and that really fired up my interest in Bonnie and Clyde. But when I dug into the true story I realized that they were not Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway…
John: …and that I was kinda taken aback by how they were glorified when I learned more about who they really were. But more than that I was just shocked that the representation of Texas Ranger Frank Hamer in that film was not only far off but was a total injustice, an abomination and character assassination. And the more I learned about Hamer, the more I felt like he was the real hero in that story. I grew up hoping someone would do that movie, it never happened, they never did it and at a certain point I decided it was time for me to do it. So I wrote that script 16 years ago. I made a pact with myself that I would not do it if I did not get the blessing of Frank Hamer Junior who is still alive and in his 90’s.
He would not take my phone call because he didn’t want anything to do with Hollywood after the defamation of his dad in that movie. In fact he and his mother sued Warner Brothers and won a large settlement. But I finally found a way into Frank and he invited me to Austin where I am at the moment coming full circle and I went down there to seek his blessing and when I told him how I felt, which was basically what I just told you, he shook my hand and said, “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time and I’ll help you any way I can.” That’s how it all started.
Ashley: Okay. Perfect. Let’s just talk quickly about your writing process as you’re going into a spec script like this. How much time do you spend? And it sounds like this is something you’ve been mulling over for many, many years, but how much time do you spend in that outlining index card stage versus how much time do you spend actually opening up final draft and actually writing script pages?
John: Really it varies from project to project for me, but because I tend to gravitate towards Historical Drama it starts with the research and what I love to do and what I feel is essential when you’re writing historical material. I just go so deep into the history and I go beyond the written material and do fieldwork and get on the ground. I came back to Austin repeatedly to meet with the Hamer family. I did a Bonnie and Clyde… I basically followed the Bonnie and Clyde trail with three of the foremost Bonnie and Clyde historians in the country and I researched to the point where it’s just I can’t hold back anymore. I made notes along the way and I know, “Okay. This is critical. This is an important scene,” and I put together signposts and I hang the story on signposts without boxing myself in by over outlining.
I like to write from one pivotal event. Basically I’ll know going in what my first act turning point is, what my mid-point is, my loose act structure which I hang on those historical beats that tell the story. But I like to give myself room to breathe and discover and to keep it exciting and alive, fluid.
Ashley: Sure. How can people see The Highwaymen? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
John: Yes. It’s going to open in select theaters on March 15th and then it’s going to have its worldwide launch on Netflix on March 29th. And so I’m very excited about it, it’s been a long journey for me. And something that I’d love to say to writers out there that just because you’ve had a script sitting on the shelf or in the drawer for many years, it’s money in the bank. It’s part of your portfolio, it’s like your real estate portfolio and don’t let it go. Don’t give up. I have to say I had a great producer and every writer should be that fortunate and try to find that person in your life, try to find that one producer who gets your work who loves it and will go fight battles for you.
Because Casey Silver, who I’ve done multiple movies with now… of course I went and did a lot of other stuff during those 16 years. He never stopped pushing, fighting. He would set up Universal with Redford and Newman. At one point had Tommy Lee Jones, Liam Neeson, he just kept pushing and finally all roads led to Netflix where we both had a relationship. As Kathy Bates character Ma Ferguson says in the movie ‘Never say die! Say damn but don’t say die’.
Ashley: Yeah, I got you. Well, congratulations getting this one done John. I really appreciate you taking some time out and coming on and talking with me today.
John: Thank you Ashley. I enjoy your podcast and I wanna wish the best to all writers out there and as Waldo Salt once said to me, ‘The writer is king’. So good luck to all.
Ashley: Thank you very much John. Well, talk to you later.
John: Thank you.
I just wanna talk quickly about SYS Select. It’s a service for screenwriters to help them sell their screenplays and get writing assignments. The first part of the service is the SYS Select Screenplay database. Screenwriters upload their screenplays along with a logline, synopsis and other pertinent information like budget and genre and then producers search for and hopefully find screenplays that they wanna produce. Dozens of producers are in the system looking for screenplays right now. I launched this service at the beginning of this year and we’ve already started to see some success stories. You can check out SYS podcast Episode #222 with Steve Deering. He was the first official success story to come out of the SYS Select database.
You can learn more about all of this by going to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com. When you join SYS Select, you get access to the screenplay database that I just mentioned along with all the other services that we’re providing to SYS Select members. Those services include the monthly newsletter that goes out to our list of 400 producers who are actively seeking writers and screenplays. Each SYS Select member can pitch one screenplay in this monthly newsletter. We also are have partnered with one of the premier paid screenwriting leads sites so I can syndicate their leads to SYS Select members. There are lots of great paid leads coming in each week from our partner.
Recently, we’ve been getting five to ten high quality paid leads per week. These leads run the gamut. There’s producers looking for a specific type of spec script to producers looking to hire a screenwriter to write up one of their ideas or properties. They’re looking for shorts, they’re looking for features, TV and web series, pilots all types of different projects. If you sign up for SYS Select you’ll get these leads emailed directly to you several times per week. Also you can get access to the SYS Select forum where we will help you with your logline and query letter and answer any screenwriting related questions that you might have. Also in the forum are all the recorded screenwriting classes that I’ve done over the years. So you’ll have access to all of those as well.
The classes cover every part of the writing process from concept to outlining to the first act, second act, the third act as well as other topics like writing short films and pitching your projects in person. Once again, if this sounds like something you would like to learn more about, please go to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com.
On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing Ben Edlund, the creator and current showrunner for the Amazon series The Tick. He has an incredible story. He started out in high school originally creating The Tick character for a comic book and slowly he had success with it. This has actually been produced as a TV show before both as a live action and as an animated series. We talk through his entire incredible journey with this character. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.