Ashley: Welcome to Episode #303 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I am interviewing the writer and director duo Henry Jacobson and Avra Fox Lerner. They just did a film called Bloodline, starring Seann William Scott. We’ll dig into that film and how it all came together for them, 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. These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast so they’re very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes.
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So now, a quick few words about what I’m working on. Yesterday… I’m still putting together the horror- thriller mystery project that I’ve been talking about over the last few months. Yesterday we did a first day of casting and we found some really good people that I’m excited to work with, so I’ll have an announcement about that hopefully very soon. Just for people who have never done this before I’ll just run through sort of this process quickly. All I did was put up a notice on the Breakdown Service which is literally www.breakdownexpress.com. I just put a casting notice for four roles up there, three women roles and one male role. From that submission or from that notice we received about 4,000 submissions.
And then me and the other producer Tony, we sorted through those 4,000 submissions, picked probably I think about 500, who we then requested that they submit a taped audition, and there actually were sending them sides a few script pages from this project they do a taped audition. And it’s a little stilted and stuff, I mean, they’re just doing it in their apartment, typically on their iPhone or something and then sending in there. But you get a feel for them. So we did about 500, we requested 500 taped auditions. Probably about half of those actually submitted a taped audition, so there’s definitely your sort of a falling off process. But that’s good to know which actors are actually interested in the project that are committed and willing to do a taped audition.
So then from those, as I said, we probably requested 500 tape auditions, we got about half so let’s say about 250 people actually submitted a taped audition. Tony and I went through those and we actually went through all of the taped auditions separately and then made our notes and then we got together and sort of compared our notes. We really vetted these 250 taped auditions pretty rigorously and interestingly I would say 80% of the time me and Tony picked the same people where he liked somebody and I also liked somebody. So then obviously those were people that we called in from the auditions. There was a few that I really liked that he wasn’t crazy about that we called in and vice versa. There was a few that he really liked that I was sort of ho-hum on and we still called them in.
But for the most part 80% of the time we probably agreed. From that 250 taped auditions we then requested in-person audition, which is what we did yesterday for about 70 actors. From 250 down to 70 actors, and then I would say maybe 50 of those actors actually showed up and came into the audition. Maybe a little less than that, but it was a good day, we saw lots and lots of actors. So that’s kind of how that works and then the actors come in, we give them a few more pages, so we had… probably the original taped audition was like a three pages of sides, just three script pages for that character. And then what we did yesterday, we actually included those original sides plus another page or two.
So it was about five pages of sides. Two small scenes basically kind of cover the range of the actor or of the character rather, just basically trying to get a feel for these actors and how they sort of would perform as this character. It was fun. The casting process is always fun. You’re meeting new people, everyone’s super friendly, everyone’s super jazzed and hyped up and tells you how much they loved the script and how they’d love to be a part of the project. It’s a fun part of the process and so anyways, that’s what we did yesterday, going through these actors and as I said, we saw a lot of people that were really, really, really did a great job. And that’s a tough. It’s always tough because a lot of them did a great job, but they’re just, for whatever reason, they’re just not gonna be quite a good fit.
I always feel badly for that. But as an actor I guess you just gotta get used to that, because again, most of these people, and we’ve already vetted them pretty well. I mean, there’s been several rounds between the taped audition and stuff, we’ve seen these actor. So we really liked, everybody we called in, we liked. And then from that though, we’ve now got to pick the people that actually we actually wanna make offers to. That’s gonna probably take us another week to go back through. We taped all of the auditions, just had a little video camera. So you tape all the additions and then Tony and I, we’ll go back through everything and make some decisions. It impacts sort of how the movie is gonna be like if we cast one role a certain way, it’s gonna sort of have a ripple effect on some of the other roles.
For instance, our lead is… it’s the age and the ethnicity of that lead is gonna be kind of important because the family is also there. We see the lead’s father, mother and brother. So if we cast a certain age and a certain ethnicity for the lead, then obviously that’s gonna have an impact on who the father and the mother and what the brother and what they look like. And it all has to fit together. There’s also a lot of chemistry. You kinda wanna get people that would look good together. For instance, there’s three main women as sort of the main roles in this, and that was a lot of what we were casting. We we’re casting those three main female roles yesterday. And again, some of it is just, it’s so subjective and it’s not always just pure acting talent, but obviously we can’t have like three, blonde women for those three roles.
We’ve got to like mix it up. We want a little variety. So again, if we cast one role a certain way and some of the actors that come in, they’re really right for one role so we’re leaning that way, but it was actually one of, I would say, the most right person or the person we felt like it was the most right for a role was actually probably of the three women was the least important role. But again, if we go in that direction and cast it, that person, it has to match up with the other people we cast. So it’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. You gotta put the pieces together and kinda make the best decisions that you can, just based on sort of what you have. Anyways, that was what we did yesterday with the casting process.
So that’s where I am with that project, and again, hopefully I’ll have some more announcements here in the coming weeks about how that’s all going. So stay tuned for that.
So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m gonna be interviewing the writer- director duo, Henry Jacobson and Avra Fox Lerner. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Henry and Avra to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you guys coming on the show with me today.
Henry: Oh, we’re thrilled to be here. Thanks.
Avra: Thank you so much for having us.
Ashley: 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? And Ava, why don’t you go first and then we’ll jump to Henry after you.
Avra: Well, Henry and I actually both grew up in… well, we went to high school in Los Angeles and that’s how we met each other. We actually… in the high school that we went to, we had these kind of amazing pair of teachers who taught film, film studies really and that was definitely a major, major influence on me and my interest. I also had the good luck to grow up with a writer as a father. And so although I was like 100% sure that I didn’t wanna work in film and I didn’t wanna be a writer at a certain point, I just had to recognize that it was actually what I most wanted to do.
Ashley: Huh, that’s great. And I noticed Avra on your IMDb page, you’ve done a lot of grip and electric work. I’m just curious, how do you think that’s helped you prepare for a career as a screenwriter?
Avra: Well, I actually am still a member of local 52 Yahtzee, which is the, like stage workers union in New York city, and I’ve been working below the line for about 15 years now. I find that it’s kind of the best day job because you can pick it up and put it down. So when I wanna take a break to write something, I have both the time and the financial like security to be able to do that, which I don’t know a lot of other jobs that would give me that. But I will also say that working on productions from the $500,000 range for the like $200 million range, like you really do see how a movie comes together. What’s needed, who is needed to make it, and so when you begin to think of the story that you wanna tell, understanding how it can be realized in these different budget levels I think is actually incredibly helpful.
I know it’s sort of like against the like, “Write as if there’s no budget” thing that a lot of writers are taught and I do believe in that for when you’re really trying to find your own voice and figure out what kind of stories you wanna tell, but I think knowing the difference between a 20 person crew and a 200 person crew definitely informs the way I write and what I write, and then presents challenges that are really exciting and interesting, right? Like if you can only tell a story with four people in one room, what’s the story that you’re gonna be able to tell?
Ashley: Yeah. And I noticed you mentioned $500,000 to $200,000,000. What about those productions that are less than 500,000 why do you kind of exclude those?
Avra: Less than $500,000… Okay, so I worked on some productions that were less than 500,000 thousand and it is… I think now, wait, so I’ve been working for 15 years, and 15 years ago, we only shot on film and digital was not even… it really wasn’t even in the equation and so it was just really hard for kind of anyone to make a movie. The majority of those really low budget movies that I worked on at the beginning of my technician career were made a lot of the time by financiers who wanted to make a movie, and so they put in half a million to a million dollars to make their own vanity projects. I think now it’s really changed, but because I have advanced in my career in that sphere, now that I am in the union, we don’t really work on movies at that budget.
But I do have friends who shoot movies of that budget, and who are making $10,000, $20,000 movies and I think the thing that’s the most amazing is that now you can do that. You can make a fully realized feature film for $10,000 or $20,000. It is really hard, but it is totally within the realm of possibility. It’s just that I personally never worked on those.
Ashely: I got you. So Henry, let’s do the same thing, maybe you can just give us a quick over view of your background kind of where you grew up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Henry: Yeah, sure. As Avra said, I actually grew up in New York until I was just around 10 or 11 and we moved to LA, and like Avra my parents are in the arts. My mother is an actress and my father is a photographer and photojournalist. I had done a lot of theatre as a kid and then in high school where Avra and I met, I did have these very, very influential film teachers that kind of opened, one in particular [inaudible 00:12:03], who opened us up to European films and sort of the history of film that I don’t think I ever would have gotten to know at that age. And that along with my father’s love of movies definitely opened things up for me. Then ultimately, I went saying that I also would never act or try to work in the entertainment business. I ended up going to grad school for theatre.
I did theatre for both acting and directing theatre for a couple of years before taking up photography and cinematography which is where I started to really work in film and primarily in documentaries for the first I guess 10 years of my career working as a cinematographer and then ultimately as a producer largely because in documentaries, you know you are working on budgets that are really low in a lot of cases and with really small crews, and if you are even remotely competent you end up doing production work. You end up sort of arranging things [laughs] and figuring out how to shoot it. So I got more and more interested in that, and then about five years ago, started my own company with my producing partner Emma Tammi who is also a filmmaker, also a producer director as well.
We had worked together for years in docs and essentially, we just started the company to kinda move more into scripted and television and so on and so forth.
Ashley: Yeah. Perfect. Let’s dig into your latest film Bloodline starring Sean William Scott, maybe to start out you can give us a quick pitch or a logline, what is this film about?
Henry: Serial Killer has a baby and hilarity ensues. No. Basically the way we’ve talked about it is a serial killer who’s on serial killing hiatus, has a baby and the stress of fatherhood sends him back out on a killing spree.
Ashley: I got you. And so where did this idea come from, what was the genesis of it?
Henry: There was actually an original script, by Will Honley that Blumhouse had and I had done a documentary with Emma for Blumhouse about the election that came out early 2017 and had been talking about directing something, we’d actually pitched them a movie that Avra had written but they were like, “This is great. It’s too weird for us, but look at this.” And they sent us Bloodline, which had that core idea of serial killer has a baby, which we were really attracted to and wanted to take in a very different direction and make it much more about family and that’s where we came on. And Seann, Seann was already attached to that. So then we started, we kinda pitched them a very different take on it and they were like, “Great, write the script.”
Avra: Yeah. And Henry had to pitch it to Seann, we pitched it to Blumhouse and they approved it and then yes, we got to write our version of it.
Ashley: Okay. And so maybe walk through that process just a little bit. So you’re doing a documentary for Blumhouse and you become friendly with them and at some point, do they just talk about some of these projects that are stuck in development, you say, “Let me have a look at that one.” How do you actually make that jump from, “Hey, I’m a documentary filmmaker,” to “Hey, I am also a fictional filmmaker and could I take a look at some of your projects and development?”
Henry: Yeah. So Emma and I had actually, that was… the doc that we did on election day, was actually the second project that we did with Blumhouse, that both unscripted and both with the TV department, the first being before they really had a TV department which was really was with Jason and he brought in somebody else to work with us. But then the election project was after they had launched their Blumhouse studio TV studio. And yeah, basically I was just talking to Jason one day and told him about this script that I had been developing with Avra that she had written and we’d done some work on together and with the idea for me to direct and told him that I was really looking to direct a scripted feature, a narrative feature and we sent him that one.
And like I said he was like, “This is really interesting but its not commercial enough essentially for us, it’s a little too out there.” He put me in touch with one of his feature people Ryan Turek to ask them if there was anything else that they kind of had lying around, so to speak, and to send our way and they sent us this.
Ashley: I got you, I got you.
Avra: And then, you know, they sent it to us and then they said, “Take a look and then come back to us and tell us what you think and what you would want to do with this script.”
Ashley: I got you. Okay so let’s dig into the actual writing process, maybe you guys could kind of just scribe this process for this movie. So then you get the option on the script or the rights to the script, you start going into it, do you guys sit in the same room and spitball ideas, come up with a new court board of index cards… maybe walk through that process of sort of developing this project into what you actually shot.
Avra: Well, Henry and I actually live in different cities. I live in New York and he lives in Los Angeles. So the beginning of our process for this movie was a lot of very long film conversation, where we would kind of meander through all of these different influences that we wanted to bring into what we were thinking about creating in this story. And then after, I don’t know, two or three, two to three hour long phone conversation then we started kind of just getting down to the nuts and bolts of what we wanted to happen. After talking that through, we sat down and wrote an outline. Alright, I think it was I sat down, took all of the stuff that we had talked about and put it down in a google doc as an outline and then Henry went in and changed stuff and then we sent it to Blumhouse.
And Blumhouse had a lot of notes actually on that particular first outline. They were like, “This is way to big, this is way to long, you need to really cut half on the location, the speaking parts and you need to compress everything that’s happening pretty seriously.” And so then we had a couple…
Henry: Because they knew this was a million-dollar budget, that’s the other thing is their knowing exactly sort of where we have to land budget wise.
Ashley: And so it sounds like… but it sounds like the notes are more production notes than any kind of story notes. Is that a fair assessment?
Henry: I think the first stage was more production notes than story notes. I mean, I think they did have a couple of sort of story thoughts and concerns going into it, but it was really more once we started talking to Seann, who had already been attached to the original project that we got more into the story development with Blumhouse. That first stage it was really much more sort of those big picture notes.
Avra: And then we outlined it again with all of those notes in mind. We had to talk through a bunch of that stuff actually to kind of figure out exactly where we were trying to go. I think that’s honestly like inbetween the first outline and the second outline. In my opinion, that’s really when the movie started to totally take shape and figuring out what kind of movie we wanted it to be got really crystalized. Then we outlined it again and then sent it back to Blumhouse and they approved it.
Henry: Yeah, and had a meeting after they had approved it we sort of… Avra was still in New York, but I had to go on in and sit with Seann and kinda pitch him this new version and he had to read it and he loved it and then as we continued to develop once they sort of gave us the greenlight to write, he became very involved. He read every draft and we would have conversations with him as well as with the Blumhouse execs who were overseeing the project. One of the great things about, well, two great things about working with Seann, one is knowing who is gonna play your lead allows you as writers to kind of make some decisions based on what you know the audience is going to bring to him as an actor, particularly, somebody like Seann who’s so well known for his goofy comedic roles.
So we got to play with that expectation a lot and then also knowing where he wanted to go and it turns out he’s a super horror buff. He just wanted to go darker and darker and darker. So every time we’d write something that would be like, “There’s no way they’re gonna let us do this, this is too fucked up, this is too dark,” he would be like, “I love this, can we make it darker? Can there be more blood?” So yeah.
Ashley: Is there ever a point where Blumhouse wants to pull you back and say, “Yeah, Seann wants to make it darker, but we don’t wanna go any darker?” Was there ever any friction with that or it’s basically Seann is the one at the head of the movie so he gets to make those sorts of creative decisions?
Henry: You know, we were really surprised by how far they let us go
Avra: Like so incredibly surprised. From the get go, I was waiting for them to tell us that they would not let us do some of those things that we wanted to do. I think because… and this is the benefit. There’re are lot of things that are challenging about working at a very low budget level, but one of the benefits of working at a very low budget level is that the investment risk is fairly low. And that’s sort of the Blumhouse thing also, is that they really believe in creative freedom for the people that they bring on to make movies for them, especially if the kind of first time filmmakers are people who are working at the lower budget level. So there wasn’t a lot of push back from them actually.
There were a couple of things where they said, “You’ve got to really earn this,” and that was a much more hopeful note than, “This is too dark and we need to scale it back.”
Ashley: I got you. Okay, so then you have this outline that’s been approved, you guys are writing. Maybe talk about the writing process a little bit. Avra, do you go and start writing scenes and then you send them to Henry and then you guys bat them back and forth? Maybe talk about does Henry write some scenes and the you edit them? Maybe talk about that process of sort of actually putting the script into final draft.
Avra: Well, we hashed it all out together so extensively that generally after the outline stage I go in and write the first draft and then hand it off to Henry. And then we pass the drafts back and forth. And after… I would say there’s a big jump in-between… from a first to a second draft there’s a big jump and then from a second… after we finish the second draft that’s usually when we… that’s me writing and then him writing and then me writing and then him writing like the second draft. And then we usually open it up to get notes from our kind of most trusted first readers. We get notes and then we go back in, and then usually there’s a pretty big jump from the second draft to the third draft, and that again is a… one of us will do a part and then hand it off to the other one.
But after the third draft stage, generally it really just becomes tweaking scenes and we talk about that and then see who has the most time to do it more than anything else. At that point it stops being quite as, I don’t know, like my turn and your turn. When we’re down to the brass tacks.
Ashley: I got you.
Henry: And that’s also when we’re getting notes in from producers too, that also influences the last [crosstalk].
Ashley: Okay, that was gonna be my next question was, at what point… okay so you’ve got this third draft and you’re getting notes from your respected peers, but does that include Blumhouse and Seann at this point or is that more of the fourth or fifth draft that the get to look at?
Avra: No, the second draft is when we really send it out for notes from our peers and the third draft is the one that we handed off to Blumhouse and Seann to get their notes.
Ashley: And how long was your outline? You said you really did extensive outlining. How many pages does your outline end up being before you start actually writing scenes?
Henry: I think that was about 15 pages. We literally are writing out scene numbers. It’s pretty detailed our outline.
Avra: And we talk it through. I was just actually listening to this amazing interview with Paul Schrader and he was talking about how he talks through the story and so when he starts outlining and he has an idea in his head about what the page count is gonna be, even as he’s putting down… We put down the slugline for every scene and then do a brief description of what’s gonna happen in the scene. I don’t think we go that extensive, but I did realize actually while I was listening to that interview, and again like there’s nobody better to talk about or think about rewriting than Paul Schrader. But I realize that we talk it through really extensively, so by the time we get to the outline stage our outlines are pretty, pretty extensive in that way, and they usually tend to be 12 to 15 pages.
Ashley: I got you. So Blumhouse is well versed in this horror genre and I’m curious, did they have any special request? Like how do you guys approach genre requirements and is there some specific ones that Blumhouse has verses maybe horror as a whole? But maybe you can just talk about that a little bit. How did you guys go into this just in terms of the canon of horror movies that have come before?
Avra: I don’t think Blumhouse necessarily had specific guidelines for us. I think they… because we pitched our take on it and because we sent them our outline they knew what we were kind of working with. So I guess whatever we were bringing to the table they felt fit into their idea of what they wanted put together type of thriller or horror- thriller to be like.
Henry: Yeah, I think Blumhouse, again on this budget level, they do typically give a lot more leeway. I think what we… a lot of the sort of genre and sub-genre we’re working with in horror are actually kind of [inaudible 00:27:11] this movie into more sort of neo-noir thriller, particularly in the third act of the film. And I think that move was the one place where we really had to kinda justify it for Blumhouse because that’s where it’s clearly kind of not as… doesn’t fit as clearly into their genre, their version of horror. But again like I was saying, as long as we could kind of justify it in the motivations of the character then they were along for the ride, they were down to do it. So I think in terms of like our influences, obviously there’s the slasher films and all of that that of course we love, but a lot of the stuff we were thinking about was that thrillery, more mystery kind of things like Manhunter and [inaudible 00:28:11] De Palma and some of the 50s sort of [inaudible 00:28:14] noir that we were drawing from in particularly again the third act of the script.
Ashley: I got you. How can people see Bloodline? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Henry: Yeah, it opens on Friday in limited theatrical and On Demand. I don’t have the cities in front of me, I’m sure David could get that for you where they are. But yeah, in theaters and On Demand on Friday the 20th.
Ashley: Perfect. What’ the best way to keep up with what you guys are doing, Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing I’ll round up for the show notes?
Henry: [laughs] Let’s see, Instagram for sure. I’m on Instagram postcard’s home, Avra’s on Instagram.
Avra: [inaudible 00:29:05].
Henry: [inaudible 00:29:07] is where we’ll post some things. Not super social networky.
Avra: Yeah. We’re not really social networky.
Henry: I am on Facebook, so by all means you can follow me there. I am just Henry Jacobson on Facebook.
Avra: I’m not on Facebook.
Ashley: Perfect. Yeah, no problem at all. I’ll see if I can track down your Instagram accounts and just link to that, people can check that out. Well, I really appreciate you guys coming on and talking with me today. Good luck with this film and good luck with all your future films.
Henry: Thank you so much, so good to talk to you.
Avra: Thank you so much. So nice to talk to you thank you for taking the time.
Ashley: You too. We’ll talk to you guys later.
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On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing Heather and Jason DeVan, who just did a film called Along Came The Devil 2, which is a sequel to their earlier film. We talk through the original film and then also we talk through this sequel and how the sequel came to be. Keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s the show, thank you for listening.